The Salt Cellar
550 N. Hayden Rd., Scottsdale
Veteran restaurants change with the times or not at all. The Salt Cellar is solidly in the second category. An architectural oddity, the underground eatery was built in 1971 after the then-owner – who also had a two-story restaurant in Scottsdale – joked that all he was missing was a basement. Ta da! The subterranean theme didn’t seem so odd at the time. Remember, this was an era when folks dined in re-purposed railroad cars and clamored for cocktails served in rotating rooftops.
The name, by the way, is a pun on both the proximity of the newly dug cellar to the nearby Salt River, and its stock of pre-shaker-era salt servers (guess you had to be there).
Current owners Rich and Cindy Huie bought the pseudo-structure in 1981 and decided to keep the name because it had become so well-known in town. After 10 years working at one-time Valley hotspot Nantucket Lobster Trap, Huie had earned his piscine bona fides, building relationships with suppliers all over the world, so The Salt Cellar – which started as a steakhouse – became a seafood destination. To this day, he air-ships fresh product directly from the source and is acutely attuned to seasonality.
There is a core menu – lobsters are a Maine-stay – but it’s specialties like Nantucket scallops in November and soft-shelled crabs in the spring that keep aficionados checking the website or signing up for the mailing list.
Though more than 20 years have passed, my last visit feels like only yesterday as I descend the familiar wooden stairs into the dim, lodge-like environs. There is a clubby, narrow bar and two sedate dining areas with big booths and soothing seascapes on the wall. The staff is enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Got questions? They have answers.
If Salt Cellar has a signature, it would be the über-rich Shrimp San Remo: tender, sweet crustaceans in a garlicky butter sauce with sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes and portobello mushrooms ($14; also available on pasta as an entrée, $31). Turtle soup fans will embrace the dark, dusky brew served with a shot of sherry ($8). For pure seafood simplicity, a shared bucket of steamed clams ($20) is definitely the ticket. I wish I loved the sponge-like skewered calamari steak strips ($10), but I’m a rings-and-tentacles kinda girl.
I was thrilled to have silky, succulent Alaskan halibut cheeks again; the down-east delicacy ($36) is soft and rich, perfectly paired with tart capers and lemon butter. (At $39, the halibut filet is more conventional and equally delicious.) Served with a spunky sweet chile sauce, the Florida grouper ($39) reminded me of monkfish; it was firm and meaty, but a little of that chile sauce brushed on during the cooking process would have amplified the flavor of the fish. Robust seared ahi ($38) is the filet mignon of the deep (and wow, that wasabi makes a statement).
The rest of the meal was pretty much the same as my previous visit, a direct blast from the ’80s past: cool and crunchy, old-fashioned iceberg salad dressed with a blue cheese-studded vinaigrette; bright green, optimally prepared broccoli; and choice of decent rice pilaf or loaded baked potato. (Desserts are outsourced and marginal; a couple satisfyingly gooey, all-American sundaes would be welcome.)
I suspect the next time I descend those stairs, everything will still be the same, and that’s just fine. - Elin Jeffords
• • • •
2728 E. Thomas Rd., Phoenix
I own a book titled 100 Best Restaurants in the Valley of the Sun – 1983. Avanti is listed at the highest rating of three stars, holding that distinction nearly a decade after its opening in 1974. When I was in my 20s, I loved Avanti’s glamorous black-and-white-and-chrome colors, mirrored walls and cave lighting. The striking decor has been toned down a bit, but not much else has changed about the Sinatra-era style and menu.
Translation: Avanti has long been off the radar for most younger diners. But there’s still a solid core of fans among baby boomers, and it’s worth a visit just for the fun of the piano bar.
Seeing the staff inspires a powerful sense of déjà vu – the restaurant manager who has been there 30-plus years, the kitchen staffer who’s handcrafted the pasta for 20 years, and, of course, the Italian-born owners, Angelo Livi and Benito Mellino. Decades ago, they showed us that pasta was much more than spaghetti, excited us with esoterica like octopus, and were some of the first restaurateurs to fly in fresh East Coast seafood daily.
Settling back now amid mustard walls, zebra fabrics and candlelight, with Livi greeting longtime customers around me, I get the sense of visiting an old friend more than embarking on an exciting culinary adventure. In the era of fast-paced, Iron Chef antics and molecular gastronomy, Avanti encourages diners to linger from aperitif to cappuccino, and there isn’t a single thing on the menu so cutting edge that servers need to explain it.
Stuffed shrimp is a retro, heavy appetizer with crabmeat scallops, spinach and mozzarella in brandy sauce ($14.50), but I prefer the lighter involtini of eggplant rolled with mozzarella and fontina, then moistened with tomato basil sauce ($11.50).
I adore the old-fashioned deliciousness of chicken parmigiana alongside a mound of spaghetti marinara ($24.50). It makes me feel like a kid, pulling the gooey strings of cheese with my fork, and winding slippery pasta around the tines. Orecchiette is pure comfort, too: The ear-shaped pasta is tumbled with an uncomplicated but oh-so-pleasing mix of sausage, rapini, olive oil and garlic ($19.50).
Years ago, odes were written to Avanti’s filet alla Benito. Compared to today’s more complex recipe standards, there’s not much to it – just a slab of tender beef smothered with mushrooms and a dark wine sauce ($33.95) – but diners who loved it then will appreciate it just as much now.
Will Avanti make its way back into my regular dining rotation? I don’t think so, since there are just too many other worthy, more stirring Italian experiences to be had around town these days. But for a superb chicken parm, or for a soothing dip into nostalgia, you bet I’d stop in again. - Carey Sweet
• • • •
The Persian Room
17040 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale
My husband fell in love with Iranian cuisine while stationed in Tehran as a U.S. Army serviceman. Back in the States, he rhapsodized about Persian delicacies like turmeric-kissed koresh bademjan stew and tah dig, the wicked-addictive crust that forms at the bottom of a pot of traditional basmati rice. His tah dig-filled dreams were finally answered when we discovered Shish Kebab House in Glendale, which opened in 1985 as the Valley’s first Persian restaurant. This launched my own love affair with the exotic yet deeply homey food. In 2001, when owner Nasser Nikkhahmanesh packed up and opened the Persian Room in Scottsdale, we followed.
The decor is exuberantly over-the-top. From the Gone With the Wind-esque staircase to the elaborate bead-trimmed draperies, the tinkling fountain and fairy lights festooning the walls, the restaurant is grandiose yet not really upscale. The carpet is a bit threadbare, the tables lack napery and the plastic menus featuring color photos of the various dishes are well-worn. But service is comfortable and efficient.
Iranian cuisine is hearty and healthful, similar to Mediterranean but amped up with a rainbow of complex seasonings. Meals begin with either pita bread or flatbread, accompanied by butter, fresh basil and raw onions. The eggplant hummus appetizer is a winner, melding pureed garbanzos and sesame paste with silky, roasted eggplant ($7.95). Torshi ($4.95), an aggressive pickled vegetable mix, is probably an acquired taste, but the yogurt and cucumber dip flecked with mint ($5.95) goes down like cool heaven. Shirazi salad ($4.95), composed of minute cubes of tomato, cuke and onion in a spunky lime dressing, resembles a salsa with a Persian palate.
That much-coveted tah dig is subject to availability, so cross your fingers. Fans of food porn could call it an X-rated rice cake – sturdy, seriously crunchy, buttery and altogether wonderful. There’s a choice of toppings: gheimeh, a beef and lentil stew goosed with smoky, citric dried lime, or ghormeh, beef with kidney beans ($8.95).
Fragrant, nutty-flavored and dappled with golden saffron, basmati rice is an artful canvas for the succulent grilled meats anchoring the menu. You’ll find various rice combos with sour cherries, barberries, fava beans, raisins and dates, or garlic and green herbs ($3.95 to $6.99 à la carte; substitutions with entrées, $3).
By some magical combination of marinades and artful broiling, the poultry and meats are uniformly magnificent. Moist, flavorful kabobs include ground chicken or beef ($13.95 each) and lamb ($16.95). Morsels of Cornish game ($17.95) melt off the bone. Barg, a juicy filet mignon kabob ($21.95), can be cut with a fork. But lamb, from the stewed shanks ($18.95) to the loin chunks skewered with bell peppers, onions and tomatoes ($19.95), reigns. Mild-spice marinades and a smoky, savory scent enrich the umami mouthfeel and meaty flavor.
Portions are extremely generous, but save a little room because the rich, custard-like Persian ice cream ($5.95) – made with saffron, rose water and pistachio – is unforgettable.
According to Nikkhahmanesh, at least 75 percent of his clientele are regulars. Not surprising. After all, it’s the best place to get a tah dig fix without being deployed. - Elin Jeffords
• • • •
3225 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix
When Tomaso’s opened in 1977, it became a sort of one-stop Italian food tour, introducing Phoenicians to such exotica as carpaccio and mozzarella di bufala.
It was Tomaso’s that opened my eyes to the joys of perfect Caprese salad, and though it was two decades ago, I remember the simple but gorgeous dish clearly: that hand-pulled mozzarella, pristine heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil leaves and a drizzle of excellent olive oil. Nearly every restaurant in town has Caprese these days, but Tomaso’s version ($13) is still one of the best.
The first time I ever ate linguine in real clam sauce, it was also at Tomaso’s, and I remember being thrilled with the clean, meaty seafood (until then I’m sure I’d only had canned clams). The dish is more elaborate now – and a bit sweeter than I like – with the clams, roasted garlic, white wine and fresh herb sauce tumbled with pear, ricotta and peppered pecorino cheese ($27).
Tomaso’s is no longer the Valley’s bellwether of bufala, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t adapted with the times. Walls once decorated with gaudy Raphael cherubs have morphed into sleek stone and hardwood, and a marble top bar now dominates the entry. Warm, earthy tones soften crisp, white tablecloths, and servers are more chatty than formal.
The menu’s been jazzed up in recent years with delicacies like tart, house-marinated white anchovies interlaced with roasted bell peppers ($12); an antipasto of creamy burrata, caponata, prosciutto, olives and mushrooms ($14); and my favorite, an elegant presentation of homemade black and white linguine tossed with langoustines and scallops ($27), all bathed in a roasted tomato-almond pesto sauce that’s both earthy and bright.
Other dishes are powerhouses of rich flavor, such as “Lorenzo’s” stuffed veal chop filled with prosciutto and gruyere in truffled mushroom sauce ($39). Meanwhile, pollo alla salvia ($22) elevates basic sautéed chicken breast to the realm of sublime in a savory sauce of lemon, mascarpone and sharply-punctuating sage.
Some old favorites are still on the menu, like that erstwhile exotic carpaccio – tenderloin pounded so thin it’s practically translucent, showered with capers and shaved parmesan, and accented with arugula and caper-citrus aioli sauce ($10).
The friendly vibe hasn’t changed, either. Owner Tomaso Maggiore built his restaurant’s reputation not only on his authentic Sicilian and northern Italian food but on his larger-than-life personality and near-parody of Italian charm (ladies are “bella” and often receive a kiss). He’s still frequently in the house and as gregarious as ever.
Gone is the cutting-edge ambiance that made this restaurant such a hotspot for Valley movers and shakers in its heyday, but what remains is certainly admirable enough. Such first-rate cooking never goes out of style. - Carey Sweet
• • • •
2611 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
You open the back door, walk through the kitchen, receive cheerful greetings from the cooks, and emerge into a dim, windowless interior made dimmer by dark wood and flocked red wallpaper. You wisely have a reservation, and the hostess promptly turns you over to an affable pro of a server. He delivers a chilled, crystalline gin martini, followed by a massive, glistening hunk of bone-in rib-eye paired with a sea salt-speckled baked potato lavished with butter, sour cream and chives. To finish: satiny crème brûlée and strong, steaming coffee.
It could be 1950; it could be 2013. And this is the reason Durant’s – the archetypal Valley steakhouse – has thrived for 60-plus years.
Founder Jack Durant was a hustler, a man about many towns – including Las Vegas – who brought his Rat Pack version of a swank steakhouse to Phoenix. From the day it opened in 1950, the squat pink building on Central Avenue with the yellow sign on the roof became a nexus for Phoenix power-dealers and workaday carnivores.
One of the great charms of Durant’s is the way it functions both as a hotspot and a public house. There are no airs, no attitudes and, for the most part, few surprises. Changes made over the years have been incremental and organic.
The menu has mutated out of necessity – honestly, who’d order a stuffed celery or cottage cheese starter today? – but the spirit remains intact (witness the complimentary pre-dinner relish dish). The kitchen still delivers oysters on the half shell (half dozen, $14.95; dozen, $27.45) and the horseradish still kicks like a wild mustang. Chubby, well-crusted crab cakes ($17.45, appetizer; $36.95, entrée) are loaded with crustacean meat, and the wisp of binder doesn’t detract from the briny flavor.
Other favorite appetizers are the crunchy-soft chicken livers ($8.75, appetizer; $19.95, entrée) and the Durant’s Debris ($11.25). If your idea of “debris” is the crunchy end pieces of roast beef bound with gravy found in New Orleans restaurants, forget it. Durant’s kitchen skewers and broils succulent trimmings of various cuts of meat and serves them with assertive horseradish sauce. It’s classic steakhouse fare. Pass, though, on the too-greasy, dusty calamari ($8.75).
Some newfangled changes in the entrée section indicate we’re not in the ’50s anymore. Jack Durant must be spinning in his spats over the inclusion of effete mesclun mix in the salad; sturdy chopped romaine and iceberg would be more true to the genre. (And what happened to the Caesar at $4.95 extra? Garlic and anchovy has been sadly tamped down.) Soups, however, are great.
There are worthy options like beautifully handled calf’s liver with bacon and onions ($22.50) and the hard-to-find pan-fried trout ($24.95), but it’s the juicy prime rib (8-ounce, $23.50; 12-ounce, $29.50; 16-ounce, $35.75), the melting filet mignon (8-ounce, $44.50; 12-ounce, $54.95) and the massive, grill-burnished bone-in rib-eye (22 ounces, $51.50) that are Jack Durant’s legacy. The baked potato is perfect, and don’t dwell on how much butter it takes to make those mashed potatoes so creamy-rich – Don Draper wouldn’t give it a first thought.
Only a true epicure could handle dessert on top of all this, and Durant’s will happily oblige with hearty all-American options like cheesecake, Key lime pie and seasonal fruit crisp à la mode (all $9.50). The aforementioned crème brûlée trio – vanilla, berry and a different liqueur flavor nightly – is relatively light, and sharing is always an option.
Congratulations, you’re now a full-fledged (and fully fed) Phoenician. - Elin Jeffords
• • • •
8340 E. McDonald Dr., Scottsdale
Let’s be honest. From the outside, Voltaire French Restaurant looks like it’s been trapped in a time capsule from that aesthetic abyss: the 1970s.
The sign seems not have been painted since the property opened during the Nixon Administration. The front yard (yes, yard – the stucco building was once a farmhouse) is scattered with weeds, and the heavy wood doors creak as they swing open. There’s a sign at the entrance that spells out coupon policies. Hardly what we look for in fine dining.
Yet for those who adore atavistic Gallic classics like delicate sanddab sautéed in lemon butter with white grapes ($28), tender roast duckling in orange sauce ($27), or sweetbreads dotted with capers ($30), there are few better places in town to get them. The Antonelli family of Martin, Lydia, David and Joseph purchased the property 12 years ago and have remained true to its roots, offering signatures like imported Dover sole deboned tableside ($40) and dramatically-flamed crêpes Suzette ($14, serves two). The food is excellent, and the dining experience is all it used to be – charming, quiet and imbued with the feeling of a special evening out.
Ah, but the times have changed, and many modern diners don’t embrace Old World style anymore. So, this is the last season for Voltaire as we know it. It’s not going away, but after the Antonellis shutter the space for their annual summer vacation June 22, they will revamp. When the restaurant reopens in September, it will
debut a more casual format, keeping some menu favorites but
adding contemporary selections.
I must admit, I’ll miss some of the pomp. When my waiter – clad in a white button-down shirt, black vest and bow tie – wheeled his cart to my table to prepare a spinach salad ($7), it whetted my appetite watching him sizzle bacon in a pan, splash in a touch of red wine vinegar, then toss it with spinach leaves and mushrooms. The personal attention complements the ambiance: Art on the walls is painted by maître d’ Martin Antonelli, who also shares snippets of poetry on request.
David Antonelli is the chef, and it’s clear he knows his niche. Soupe à l’oignon Parisienne ($8) is the stuff of dreams, brimming with silky caramelized onions in rich veal stock and capped with gooey gruyere. Coquilles St. Jacques ($34) are big, meaty scallops moistened with truffled Calvados, while escargots de Bourgogne are nicely chewy nubbins bathed in garlic and shallot butter ($12).
One of the best dishes is le poulet en croûte ($25), a juicy chicken breast stuffed with tangy creamed spinach and tucked in crackly, golden puff pastry. Add a dessert of peach Melba ($7), and I have to say, there’s still something to love about this long-dated dining style. The treat of French vanilla ice cream, peaches, raspberry sauce and toasted almonds may be old school, but just like Voltaire, it’s comforting to the core. - Carey Sweet
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