Two Wash Ranch chicken at TRATTO; photography by David B. Moore

Reviews, V.2

Written by Leah LeMoine & Craig Outhier Category: Food Reviews Issue: January 2019
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Enterprising diners sometimes live in a new-or-nothing bubble: Who has time to visit the old standbys with so many new restaurant experiences yet to be tapped? But restaurants change. Chefs change. Sometimes even the names change. For 10 such well-known Valley eateries, we took a second pass.

Photography by David B. Moore

 

Smoked port bucatiniLIBERTY STATION AMERICAN TAVERN & SMOKEHOUSE
Originally visited
: August 2016

Why the re-review? We loved chef Michael Hunn’s refined comfort food at Market Street Kitchen. But Hunn is gone, and the DC Ranch restaurant was reconceived and rebranded in 2018.

More of a good thing is a great thing, right? That’s what Keeler Hospitality Group is betting on with the recent transformation of its flagship Market Street Kitchen into a second location of its popular Liberty Station American Tavern & Smokehouse (the first one opened in 2017 in the tony North Scottsdale community Terravita). Back in the day, Chicago transplant Hunn populated the menu with succulent rotisserie chickens, pasta Bolognese, fried chicken, inventive cheesecakes and a Sunday “roast beast” special. After his departure in 2017, father-son owners Paul and Matt Keeler brought chef Anthony Apolinar on board to transition MSK to LS Part Deux, doubling down on the barbecue concept with a 500-gallon custom smoker from Camelback Smokers, the brainchild of Little Miss BBQ’s Scott Holmes. Apolinar’s ’cue isn’t up to snuff with LMB’s yet, but we can’t help but delight in his interesting applications of it, from the smoked pork bucatini (a homey dish that bridges the gap between MSK and LS, $18) to The Big Poppy, a sandwich loaded with brisket, cheddar, pickles, bacon, romaine, tomato, aioli and Carolina barbecue sauce ($16). The brisket grilled cheese with tomato soup ($13) is superb. A third location is slated for Anthem later this year.

brisket grilled cheese with tomato soup20825 N. Pima Rd., Scottsdale
480-278-7044, libertystationtavern.com
Other location: Terravita

What we said then
Praise for Hunn’s “Taj Mahal of grilled cheeses – big and flashy, full of treasures.”

What we say now
The barbecue is solid, but we miss Hunn’s comfort-food classics. Luckily, you can still get a few old favorites, like the deviled eggs.

 

 

Chef James KingEVO
Originally visited
: October 2015

Why the re-review? Rock star chef Peter DeRuvo bailed not three months after our glowing assessment of the Old Town restaurant.

It’s a dilemma restaurateurs have been grappling with in the “celebrity chef” era: How much should you tout a chef and his contributions to your menu when he’s likely to bolt in a year or two? It’s something EVO owner Nick Neuman, a hospitality industry vet and financial adviser turned restaurateur, knows all about. He’s seen a handful of chefs come and go since opening EVO in 2013, most notably superstar DeRuvo, whose raviolo carbonara we called “better than sex” in our 2016 75 Best Dishes in the Valley feature. These days, the menu boasts a lobster carbonara (from erstwhile chef Steven Fowler, $32) that isn’t quite as sensually satisfying, but wins points for creativity: Lobster and gnocchi are tossed with Parmigiano-Reggiano, egg and chunks of pancetta and stuffed back into the lobster shell for an eye-popping presentation. New chef James King had yet to make his mark when we dined at EVO just a few weeks after he started, but his chicken scallopini Milanese with burrata, arugula and pomodorini fresco ($22) was promising. Going forward, Neuman says EVO will be more about the brand, less about the chef. Regulars can continue to order signature dishes including chile shrimp tagliatelle ($22), pappardelle Bolognese ($18), and the brown butter baby cake (which is better than sex, if you love butter, and is worth the 25-minute wait, $10) long into the night – EVO is open daily until 2 a.m.

calamari4175 N. Goldwater Blvd., Scottsdale
480-265-9814, evoscottsdale.com

What we said then
“Footloose culinary genius [DeRuvo] elevates this once-ordinary... eatery with handcrafted pastas and perfectly offal meat dishes.”

What we say now
Not as chef-driven, but EVO is still a fine spot for Italian dining.

 

 

Chef John BossmannAMUSE BOUCHE
Originally visited
: June 2009

Why the re-review? The West Valley fine dining destination changed ownership early last year.

“To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly,” French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote. It’s a maxim chef John Bossmann is taking to heart at Amuse Bouche, the French bistro in Surprise he purchased from original chef-owners Snir and Kiersten Mor. The classically trained Bossmann grew up watching Julia Child and handily fleshed out his new menu with French staples including supple beef Bourguignon ($22) and tender steak frites ($24). Two repeats from the previous menu: meatloaf and lamb panini (each $14; available at lunch). But Bossmann and his sous chef, Blake Miller, aren’t content to solely cook à la française. Each week, Bossmann extensively researches a cuisine and the duo develops a four-course special menu dedicated to its idiosyncratic flavors. Recent menus have paid tribute to Catalonia, Brazil, Northern Italy, New Orleans and the foods of the Renaissance. It’s a culinary maturation his regulars – especially the European expatriates – have come to love, and it’s fun to taste so many cuisines in one bistro. French fromage fort (melted cheeses on baguette rounds with fig jam, olives and mustard, $7) followed by Brazilian feijoada (black bean stew, prix fixe menu pricing)? Oui, obrigado.

seared halibut17058 W. Bell Rd., Surprise
623-322-8881, amuseboucheaz.com

What we said then
“Don’t go to Amuse Bouche looking for an amuse-bouche. That hallmark of chef-driven dining isn’t here [but] the cuisine in this humble bistro far outshines most places in town.”

What we say now
Amuse Bouche is still charmingly unfussy, but new owner Bossmann has added plenty of chef-y touches – including the restaurant’s titular amuse-bouche.

 

 

PokeHULA’S MODERN TIKI
Originally visited
: March 2015

Why the re-review: Last year, the daiquiri-slinging hot spot left its home on Central Avenue for Seventh Street. What else has changed?
   
After nearly a decade at its original spot, Hula’s was forced to migrate when its landlord wanted to build apartments on the lot. Owner M. Dana Mule and partners Chris and Craig Delaney scooped up the old Ticoz Latin Kitchen space less than a mile away on Seventh Street and did a wall-to-wall renovation. The results are winning: a bigger, better bar (more than twice the length of the original); a beachy, midcentury modern patio with a firepit and first-rate people-watching; Hula’s first-ever private dining space, The Tiki Room; and a clandestine bonus bar called the Captain’s Cabin, which evokes a 1940s Tahitian sailing ship. The menu remains the same, with classic tiki drinks including Mai Tais, Painkillers and Scorpion Bowls holding court with island-inflected coconut shrimp rolls ($8), kalua pork sliders ($8), macadamia nut-crusted fresh mahi ($17) and ahi tacos ($15). Come on Wednesdays for all-day happy hour and make a meal of appetizers and signature tropical cocktails, each $6 during that magical island time.

patio dining at the new location5114 N. Seventh St., Phoenix
602-265-8454, hulasmoderntiki.com
Other location: Scottsdale

What we said then
“Chiles and coconut milk give the ceviche the aromatic profile of Asian cuisine.”

What we say now
The ceviche is still scintillating and adds a welcome punch of acidity to cut the sweetness in much of the menu. And the new digs are groovy.

 

 

Chef Brynda FelixST. FRANCIS
Originally visited
: January 2010

Why the re-review? Founding chef-owner Aaron Chamberlin (Phoenix Public Market) has moved on to other projects. Is the Uptown favorite and farm-to-table pioneer still all that?

The transaction of St. Francis between hometown boy Chamberlin and new owner Linh Tran was quiet – so quiet, in fact, that many foodies were shocked to hear of the ownership change months after it occurred. Chalk it up to the mostly consistent menu, which still leans heavily on seasonal ingredients kissed by the flames of St. Francis’ centerpiece wood-burning oven. Old-school favorites including the Pig Dip ($16) and flatbreads ($14-$16) are still there, along with great wine and cocktail lists. Of the handful of new dishes, the Parmesan shrimp risotto ($25) is tasty (and a properly creamy, nutty, al dente risotto), but there’s something missing – a spark of acid, maybe, or something to provide a ballast for the richness. The dry rub wings ($11), coated in a slightly spicy brown sugar and rosemary mixture, feel like they’ve wandered in from a gourmet game day spread instead of a chef-driven restaurant, but they’re so addictive we’re glad they made the trek. Perhaps they are a foretaste of a more casual, snack-y menu to come?

swordfish111 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix
602-200-8111, stfrancisaz.com

What we said then
“With an offbeat menu and moderate prices, the hip St. Francis falls somewhere between ‘high-end’ and ‘hangout.’”

What we say now
Pretty much the same – though with Chamberlin’s departure, it’s swinging more toward the “hangout” side of the continuum.

 

 

chef Cassie ShortinoTRATTO
Originally visited
: August 2016

Why the Re-Review? Talented chef de cuisine Anthony Andiario left Arizona early in 2017. Is his replacement holding the line at our 2016 Restaurant of the Year?

In a word, yes – which we probably knew intuitively, given owner Chris Bianco’s universe-beating pedigree. Still, a strategically unnecessary return visit to Tratto was just too enticing to turn down, and it proved edifying enough. Following Andiario’s departure, Bianco pegged Cassie Shortino – all of 24 years old – to lead the kitchen, with specific orders not to reinvent Tratto’s rustic Italian wheel. So, the challenge for Shortino: maintaining Bianco’s vision of season- and farm-driven cuisine by taking the small-batch produce that comes through her door and interpreting it for the perennial pillars of the Tratto menu. For example, the Two Wash Ranch grilled half-chicken ($38), which is plated with a simple but mind-bendingly delicious grape-and-wine pan jus, or a tarter lemon treatment, depending on the season. On this trip, we start with the seared chicken liver pate ($16), served with the same heirloom crostini we had back in 2016, but this time with plum jam instead of the original sour cherry mostarda. It’s delicious and bound to trigger a table fight. Shortino has also been plating the much-admired pork ragu rigatoni (née garganelli) with summery blasts of fennel pollen ($22). But for a true Shortino original, look for the whole roasted branzino ($55), sourced from go-to Valley meat shop Nelson’s Meat + Fish and deboned at the table. Paired with fava beans and roasted leeks, the firm, pure flesh achieves comfort-coma blastoff with a squeeze of lemon and gulp of Les Setilles Burgundy from the peculiar wine list, and is proof Tratto isn’t vacating its throne anytime soon.

Branzino4743 N. 20th St., Phoenix
602-296-7761, trattophx.com

What we said then
“it has that spark of presence and ambition that longtime fans might remember from the earliest days of Pizzeria Bianco.”

What we say now
Same as it ever was.

 

 

Fried green tomato saladTHE MACINTOSH
Originally visited
: 2015

Why the re-review? It was Grassroots until early this past fall. Has anything changed besides the name at Chris Collins’ Town & Country tavern?

It was the summer of 2014. Donald Trump was hosting his final season of The Apprentice. America swayed to the earnest, chart-topping stylings of Ed Sheeran. And pork belly was taking Valley restaurants by storm – including a succulent, faintly candied version we remember at Grassroots in Phoenix. Following a rebrand last year, the belly is off the menu (no great tragedy… who else is sick of them?) but Grassroots-cum-The Macintosh is still the stylish (but not too stylish) middlebrow people-pleaser chef-owner Christopher Collins always intended, name-change notwithstanding. What is new: a smattering of Creole classics, including brick roux gumbo with tasso ham and andouille sausage ($18), and a revved-up happy hour menu, bejeweled with generous deals like tangy fried green tomatoes with Crow’s Dairy goat cheese ($6) and meal-in-itself Creole nachos bathed in oozy, pungent pecorino ($6). But the star of The Macintosh’s twilight dining program (2-6 p.m. daily; all-day Monday) might be the crispy cod chalupa smothered in a creamy remoulade slaw ($7). Paired with a crazy-cheap $5 barrel-aged Negroni, it’s one of the Valley’s great bargains. The mealy Macintosh is still our least favorite apple – couldn’t Collins have called it The Honeycrisp? – but we’ll gladly bite into this one.

2119 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix
602-368-8766, themacintoshaz.com

 

 

Braised octopusTOP OF THE ROCK
Originally Visited
: 1989

Why the Re-Review? The menu has turned over a few times over the past three decades. Besides, the views.

We were on the cusp of re-reviewing this longtime resort favorite – a cavernous, conch-like structure hewn into the rock atop Tempe’s Double Butte Mountain – back in late 2016. But then ownership of the Tempe Buttes resort flipped to Marriott, head chef Gregory Wiener left for Buck &Rider, and the timing didn’t feel right. No great worry: Several of the Wiener dishes that helped TOR flare up on the greater Phoenix foodie radar screen remain – or at least adulterated versions of them – including TOR’s notorious chicken and doughnuts appetizer ($13), now with a sweeter miso-caramel glaze and modest cutlets of Fresno chile in lieu of jalapeño cream cheese. Like the lovechild of Krispy Kreme and Ajo Al’s, it’s delicious and obnoxious and easily the loosest thing on a slightly stuffy and overpriced menu. In keeping with the times, chef de cuisine Jacob Ellis also offers braised octopus as a starter ($15) – a single, fork-tender tendril served with a swipe of Aleppo pepper aioli, a footstool of fried potato and a small puff of what we interpreted to be cilantro foam. It’s good, but hardly elite in our current, octo-inflated moment. Also new relative to 2016: Sauternes-glazed foie gras with freeze-dried raspberry ($24), a charcuterie board with house-made pickles ($22) and several of the entrées on TOR’s austere, seven-item “composed dinner” menu, including a seared duck ($34) that could have used a little more sear, but otherwise performed nicely alongside curry-kissed chickpeas and cherry jam. When TOR opened, it was a must-visit, but the Valley’s elevated food game now neatly consigns it to “special occasion” status… if that occasion happens to lead you to Tempe, and it puts you in the mood for an exalting view.

chicken and doughnuts2000 W. Westcourt Way, Tempe
602-431-2370, marriott.com

 

 

 

 

Owner, Grace UngerTUCK SHOP
Originally Visited
: 2008

Why the Re-Review? Architect-restaurateur DJ Fernandes sold his beloved Coronado hideout to the Unger family in January 2016. Is the upscale comfort fare still on point?

We’ll be heroic here and cop to something: When food novice Grace Unger swept in with her British expat family and snapped up this comfy eatery in the Coronado Historical District three years ago, our first thought was, “Dang carpetbaggers. Nice while it lasted.” Oh ye of little faith. Turns out, the Ungers – including sister Georgia, who cooks a bit – are terrifically competent restaurateurs, sustaining everything we loved about the old Tuck while giving it gentle kicks of inspiration. The seminal orange-brined chicken and waffles entrée ($21) is still on the menu, and it’s still OK. (The brining dries out the meat a bit, so it was never our favorite.) Small plates, however, have stepped up in a big way. Everybody in town does roasted Brussels sprouts, but not everyone serves them on honeyed goat cheese polenta with slabs of Manchego and salted almonds ($12). It’s a little merry-go-round of bitter/sweet/salt/crunch and one of the best Brussels dishes in town. Also great and perfect for intense nibbling: the Chinese-inspired salt and pepper ribs, dry rubbed and punctuated with tiny medallions of jalapeño and wisps of watercress ($16). A craft cocktail innovator that was brewing its own tonic and ginger ale when that kind of thing was uncommon, Tuck excels more than ever on the drinks front: the seasonally rotating gimlet (currently: passionfruit, dill and lime) pairs well with those short ribs. All in all, Tuck doesn’t suck. Now we’re really looking forward to the Ungers’ in-the-works French lounge and bakery.

brussels sprouts2245 N. 12th St., Phoenix
602-354-2980, tuckinphx.com

 

 

 

 

Sushi chef Miguel MartinezWOK ‘N ROLL
Originally Visited
: January 2018

Why the Re-Review? Just a few weeks after J’s Kaiyo appeared in our Best New Restaurants 2017 issue, founding chef Jason McGrath departed. A few months after that, the Scottsdale izakaya changed names altogether. What gives?

Philosophically speaking, we’re never upset when a new high-end Chinese restaurant opens in the Valley – we have too few of them as a rule. But we were decidedly not jazzed when 2017 Best New Restaurants honoree J’s Kaiyo – an “edgy but utterly grounded Asian-fusion restaurant,” according to critic Nikki Buchanan – underwent genre-reassignment surgery and emerged as this more conventional Chinese-sushi concept, with many of the same maki rolls and appetizers but none of the old fusion entrées. (The name change we can forgive – J’s Kaiyo/Wok ‘N Roll is located 100 feet from another Japanese restaurant called Sushi J, which must have been a dreadfully confusing experience for consonant-driven diners.) So, out with the pork belly with smoked seaweed salad and kimchi; in with the General Tso’s chicken ($11). Giving credit where it’s due, this Tso is a very fine rendition of the Chinese-American classic, with more dark, spicy depth than usual and fresh vegetal accents of carrot and scallion, but it’s still a pig in lipstick, culinarily speaking. Exact same assessment of the orange chicken: tasty but pretty orthodox, a half-step below P.F. Chang’s. Thankfully, the sushi’s still outstanding, with great-the-first-time winners like the Kaiyo roll (blue shell crab and tempura asparagus topped with big eye tuna, yuzu and other goodies) renamed but otherwise unsullied. Loved the wok-ed eggplant starter, too. Nothing bad here, just not BNR-caliber.

kung pao beef4412 N. Miller Rd., Scottsdale
480-427-2526, woknrollaz.com

What we said then
“[A] creative, well-executed Asian menu that reaches far beyond the norms of neighborhood sushi.”

What we say now
The sushi’s still great, and the Chinese-American additions are tasty enough, but there’s less reaching these days.

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