Sometimes the best ventures are slow to start. Former Mary Elaine’s chef Walter Sterling purchased a land parcel at Third and Flower streets in Central Phoenix more than three years ago with the idea of building a multi-restaurant site from scratch. It took a multitude of investors, architects and culinary minds to bring Sterling’s vision to fruition, but Ocotillo finally opened in late September 2015.
Ocotillo isn’t just an eatery: It’s a multiplex. Satellite spaces around the main kitchen house a beer garden, coffee bar and second-story office with a bird’s eye view of the cozy couches and fire pits below. With their rusted, corrugated metal walls and boxy profiles, the buildings make the compound resemble a fortress of some sort – if it weren’t for postmodern giveaways like caged rock walls and floor-to-ceiling glass, one could imagine servers repelling zombies in a Walking Dead episode.
In lieu of a global zombie apocalypse, general manager David Johnson, Sterling and co-chef Sacha Levine (FnB, Rancho Pinot) simply offer “global.” Ocotillo’s extensive seasonal brunch, lunch and newly added dinner menus comprise a seemingly endless variety of influences. There are enough options to make dining here feel as daunting as online dating. From quiches and blue corn pancakes to seafood, pasta and Peking duck, inspirations span the globe.
Thankfully, much of Sterling and Levine’s grub is bright and palate-pleasing. Seasonal flavors are well-curated and careful attention is paid to sides and starters. Roasted cauliflower ($8), for example, is beautifully browned and fragrant. It’s like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting on a plate. A light chile dusting intensifies the veggie’s nutty base, with bitter kale and uplifting mint and basil to balance its flavor profile. Miso-soaked Persian cucumbers are crisp and eye-opening, while silky ricotta, salty pistachios and honey intensify the earthiness of pecan-smoked beets ($8 each).
Organic king trumpet mushrooms ($13) prove rigid and woody in comparison, their thin brown stems so tough to chew that I felt like a clarinetist biting down on a new reed. Smoked chicken wings ($9) are similarly disappointing due to pungent fish sauce that drowns out the meat’s mild flavor. More palatable small plates include shaved Brussels sprout and kale salad with hearty butternut squash chunks ($13), or sheep’s milk ricotta sweetened with local honey and chewy sun-dried strawberries ($9).
Ocotillo’s sturdy pastas are made in-house using an extruder machine. Named for its unusual “rooster comb” shape, creste de gallo tossed with stewed tomatoes and fall greens ($17) succeeds thanks to fork-tender pork chunks soaking in the tangy yellow sauce. Tubular bucatini in tomato sauce is a simpler take that satisfies with a hint of heat ($15). However, the best of the lot is an addictively rich and comforting seashell-shaped lumache ($17), baked with goat cheese and butternut squash for a homey dish that embodies the spirit of fall. My fellow diners scavenged this tasty rib tickler for the last remnants of al dente noodle and sauce stuck to the sides.
Pasta is AWOL in Asian chicken dumplings, which resemble a Chinese five-spice version of matzo ball soup. (Oy vey, the horror!) Its flavorful shiitake broth and citrusy ginger undertone are appealing, but I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the idea of a wonton without a wrapper ($16). Wood-fired beef ribs are equally perplexing. Though massive enough to feed Fred Flintstone, the meaty bones are slathered in “espresso mole” sauce without the slightest hint of coffee or chocolate. “Is this KC Masterpiece?” quipped one of my dinner companions. For $29, one would expect a barbecue sauce that delivers what it promises.
Ocotillo’s brunch is innovative and reliable. Blue corn pancakes ($10) boast a beauteous balance of savory and sweet, the recognizable tortilla chip taste meshing unexpectedly well with sugary agave syrup. Fresh tomatoes and thick steak chunks revive tired beef hash ($10), truffle oil makes for extra buttery potato-Gruyère quiche ($8), and creamy goat cheese drizzled with tangy port wine reduction elevates the simplicity of a vanilla-poached pear ($9).
Craving a Mexican morning? Skip the healthful but bland egg white burrito ($11) and burrow into a breakfast chimichanga ($10) with mild green chile and queso fresco – filled with chicken, steamed broccoli and cheese sauce, it tastes like chicken Divan tucked in an eggy, lightly fried shell. More dessert than breakfast, the dried strawberry scone ($6) and warm bread pudding bowl with roasted apples ($8) are sturdy and satisfying. The latter could benefit from a heavier dose of cream before baking to lend it that delightfully gooey texture common to rum-soaked Irish bread puddings.
For real dessert, Ocotillo’s elegant baked apple falls apart on the fork – with its crumble topping, toasted pecans and tender texture, it’s like an Americana mom’s-kitchen fantasy come to life. Pound cake with berries and lemon zest is a dutiful rendition of the classic, and Ocotillo’s peanut butter and jelly dessert is a dead ringer for the popular Do-si-dos Girl Scout cookie. Served in a rocks glass, the pint-size parfait is so velvety and thick that it’s hard to down more than a few spoonfuls without milk or coffee (desserts $8 each).
Walter Sterling isn’t the first local chef to resurface years after going MIA – in recent years, Kam Yaun came out of longtime retirement to run Phoenix’s Silver Dragon, and after a four-year hiatus Chef Patrick Boll (Spotted Donkey Cantina II, Roaring Fork) was named executive chef of the Sheraton Mesa Hotel. But if Sterling’s near-five-year furlough teaches us anything, it’s that such a chef can re-emerge with his skills as keen as ever. Beautifully roasted vegetables, bright flavor profiles and more seasonal choices than you can shake a cinnamon stick at make Ocotillo a midtown dining destination worth revisiting.
Contact: 3243 N. Third St., Phoenix, 602-687-9080
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. M-F; happy hour 4-6 p.m. M-F; dinner 5:30-10 p.m. M-Th, 5:30-11 p.m. F-Sa;
brunch 10 a.m-4 p.m. Sa-Su
Highlights: Roasted cauliflower ($8); sheep’s milk ricotta with local honey and sun-dried strawberries ($9); Persian cucumbers ($8); creste de gallo ($17); baked lumache pasta ($17); Asian chicken dumplings ($16); blue corn pancakes ($10); beef hash ($10); breakfast chimichanga ($10); baked apple ($8); peanut butter parfait ($8)
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