To say that Matt Carter’s Fat OX is gorgeous is to belabor the obvious. The space, former home to both Davanti and the old Quilted Bear at Lincoln Drive and Scottsdale Road, is easily the best-looking restaurant in Scottsdale: mid-century sleek and undeniably sexy. A cool expanse of mullioned windows, gleaming wood columns, a marble-topped, brass-lined bar and the soft glow of good lighting all add up to a luxe, sophisticated backdrop for Carter’s spin on modern Italian food.
If style trumped substance, I’d be over the moon for this latest addition to the Valley’s growing modern Italian scene. But it doesn’t, and I’m not. Fat Ox is a breath-taking but bungling newbie with a handful of food and service issues to resolve before it can actually be as good as it looks.
Carter, the chef who has so successfully presided over Zinc Bistro, The Mission and The House Brasserie for lo, these many years, has partnered with local restaurateurs Brian Raab and Mark Drinkwater on this venture, his most ambitious to date. One-time Zinc apprentice Rochelle Daniel – back from a short stint helming the award-winning Cress on Oak Creek at L’Auberge in Sedona – steps in as his executive chef, while the beverage program is manned by mixologist Conor Cook (a whiz with amaro, the bittersweet Italian digestif and “it” liqueur of the moment) and certified advanced sommelier (a dodo-like rarity in restaurants these days) Stephen Johnson, who oversees an impressive Italian wine list.
Given its glamorous design and Carter’s street cred, it’s no wonder the place has been packed since day one, and herein lies the problem – a crush of people the restaurant seems unable to handle. Soon after my friend and I have been seated, our server informs us that because the kitchen is slammed, we are limited to ordering from the bar menu for the next 20 minutes. Shouldn’t logistical issues such as this one have been resolved long before the restaurant opened?
We can’t complain, however, about excellent and complimentary fettunta, crunchy cubes of garlicky bread (akin to bruschetta) that leave a lick-able residue of olive oil on the fingers. As for ordering, we settle for a handful of readily available options, including the chef’s selection of cured meats, a rather ho-hum collection of Creminelli brand ham, salami and pepperoni as well as a spicy, spreadable pork salumi called ’nduja (our favorite), offered with a bit of bread, some Calabrian butter and three said-to-be-warm-but-not olives. At $15 per person, it feels like a rip-off; nor does it compare to infinitely better and less expensive versions around town. (Scott Conant’s recently-opened Mora comes to mind.)
The tableside Caesar is also available pronto. Unfortunately, it can’t be made tableside in the lounge for lack of space. Oh, well. It’s only passable, anyway – not as bright or garlicky as I’d like – yet astonishingly pricy at $17. Burrata di bufala, served with arugula basil pesto, winter lettuces and prosciutto, also falls into the “been there, had better” category. It needs salt, for starters.
And alas, an antipasti of pork cotechino, often served on New Year’s Eve in Italy, is a downright disaster. Imagine a thick sausage patty surrounded by lentils that don’t resemble lentils at all – just hard, dry clumps of something-or-other. How did this thing ever make it out of the kitchen?
Warm fingerling potato, another antipasti, is basically a salad of potato coins, wilted radicchio, rosemary, preserved lemon, celery and celery root, served with toasted Noble bread. Shame about the radicchio, but the combo is fantastic – earthy, bitter and tart at once. Also excellent: a fluffy orb of Bellwether Farms ricotta, drizzled with honey, dusted with hazelnuts, topped with lightly pickled trumpet mushrooms and sided with good prosciutto and more bread.
Pasta turns out to be the strongest section of the menu on both my visits. I love candy wrapper-shaped casoncelli, filled with sweet butternut squash and dotted with jewel-like pomegranate seeds, the plate sprinkled with crushed amaretti cookies. Green tortellini, reminiscent of tiny bells, are every bit as adorable, filled with ricotta, drizzled with honey, strewn with pea tendrils and accented with fermented cranberry. On the second visit, my buddy takes a shine to linguine clams, amped up with ’nduja and bottarga (dried, cured fish roe), so I happily hog ultra-rich tubes of garganelli, enriched with speck, truffle butter and Parmesan.
Entrée offerings include three different cuts of steak, which prompts the question: Shouldn’t a restaurant that alludes to the cattle country of Italy actually know how to cook a steak properly? I pay $45 for a seven-ounce filet from prestigious Creekstone Farms that bears the hash marks of the grill but offers no char and no sizzle. In fact, it’s barely warm, probably owing to our server’s slow pick-up. Its accompaniments (which include sunchoke and porcini cream) are great, but that’s cold comfort – literally.
On the other hand, Hokkaido scallops are insanely good: ethereally silky, ultra-sweet and worth every penny. Served with clams, Brussels sprouts, sunchokes, pancetta and trumpet mushrooms, they’re now the standard by which all future scallops will be judged.
Desserts are consistently pretty and palatable. Best of the lot is affogato – a soda shop sundae of espresso, hazelnut soft serve gelato and whipped cream served with a straw. Meyer lemon tart, cradled in a buttery crust, is basically lemon meringue pie, which suits me fine, while amaretto gelato with amaretti cookie is agreeably sweet and uncomplicated. To my mind, gorgeously textured amaro olive oil cake would be better with a splash of something other than amaro, but maybe that’s eternally uncool me.
Admittedly, I enjoyed at least a half-dozen great dishes at Fat Ox, but I’m not exactly panting to go back. I wonder: Who among the hungry hordes is actually paying attention here? Don’t they notice or care that the same six to eight ingredients show up over and over again for the sake of food cost? Don’t they resist, as I do, paying nosebleed prices for food that is poorly executed or minutely portioned far too often? And would they resent, as I certainly did one late afternoon, that my friend could not be seated until I arrived – even though the restaurant was completely empty? This is the hospitality industry, right?
Yep, the place sure does look good. In Scottsdale, maybe that’s all that matters.
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