Spoiler alert: Branden Levine got to round two on the Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay earlier this year. His “crispy-skin striped sea bass, warm oyster mushroom fennel salad with a vanilla bean beurre blanc” was enough to send his round one opponent packing. As to whether his “Shepherd’s pie with butternut squash and potato purée and creamed corn edamame” was enough to slay the maddening Flay, I’ll leave to your DVR.
Neither of those creations is, at this writing, on the menu of Sel, Levine’s newish Old Town Scottsdale restaurant. But who knows, they might be in the future. Levine, a Florida native who has worked in kitchens from Virginia to Vegas to Tanzania to Scottsdale’s Café Monarch, isn’t one to let himself, or his guests, get into a routine. Within the framework of a four-course prix fixe meal, Sel’s menu shifts every couple of weeks, giving a sense of the improvisational or experimental both to the exceptional dishes and the details of their presentation.
Like a summer stock stage director, Levine has a repertory mindset, moving his favorite ingredients and styles – purées, broccolini, halibut, heirloom tomatoes and the beloved squash he used against Flay, for examples – in and out of the menu, changing them from stars to supporting players from week to week. Thus more than one visit to Sel (“Salt,” in French) offers a remarkable sense of variety with continuity.
The small dining room – a dozen or so tables, by my count, with some patio seating when the seasons allow – favors an uncluttered contemporary décor and a soft gray and blue color scheme. It’s relaxingly quiet and chic, with recovered wood around the front of the prominent bar for a subtle nod to the rustic and provincial. From this counter is served a selection of elegant, unpretentious cocktails designed by Young’s Market hired gun Casey Wallin, with names like the Harry Nilsson or the Barbara Jean.
The décor’s thoroughly modern yet hospitable sensibility is reflected in the fare. While menu items are available à la carte, the four-course option is the fullest (and most filling) way to experience them. The second and third courses – soup and salad – are fixed, but the first and fourth courses offer options. On my first visit, I selected a first course of squash blossom filled with mesquite smoked lobster meat over a mellow, sweet squash purée, with a cherry alongside for a tart note. On a later visit, I chose a summer polenta lasagna of beet and goat cheese with an elephant garlic chip, this time with the squash blossom, here lobster-less but stuffed with formaggio, on top – a light but earthy treat, even for a beet-phobic diner like me.
One of my companions opted, as his appetizer course, for the ahi tuna sashimi in shaved-fennel lemon slaw with black garlic aioli, soy white truffle vinaigrette togarashi and plantain. Raves all around.
The second course was yellow tomato gazpacho, a truly lovely and complex dish in which the chilled tomato acidity is counterpointed with hints of richness from an avocado-lime jelly and granular, frosty peach granité. (I would happily accept the latter as a snow cone if they offered it.) The soup course on a later visit was no less divine – creamy corn broth with battered okra and more of that mesquite-smoked lobster, fleetingly smoked, by the way, through ice. Try that at home.
The third course consisted of cured salmon gravlax under greens with a couple of pieces of candied bacon, and a thin, peppery cracker. The bacon was absent on my second visit in favor of juicy heirloom tomatoes, and the greens were reconfigured, but the salmon and crisp bread remained. If one had to reluctantly choose a least sublime course from the four, I think it would be this salad. Every ingredient in it is arrestingly tasty, but the combination seemed the most random, the least seamlessly integrated.
Though Levine has said he regards filet as an overrated cut, I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted it done better than his Angus filet mignon entrée. Over a gravy of porcini mushroom risotto, chimichurri sauce, Banyuls Bordelaise and beef tendon chicharrrónes, it felt surprisingly like comfort food – a haute pot roast.
Later, I had the duck breast in a broccolini-garlic confit purée, with baby spinach and fig sauce in a Pinot Noir duck stock. The flavors were superb, even if the duck was a bit chewy, as is duck’s wont.
For a non-terra-firma entrée, I partook of the hazelnut-crusted Alaskan halibut in cioppino broth with Chinese long beans and a sea urchin butter crostini. The fish was splendidly firm and robust – flat only in the anatomical sense – yet mild, with the broth providing some additional oceanic brio.
The filet and the duck are both regulars among the entrées, though of course the supporting ingredients vary. Other offerings have included jumbo lump-crab sweet potato gnocchi in an ensemble including braised green garlic-Champagne sauce, baby spinach and red quinoa, or soft-shell crabs with fiddleheads, beluga lentils, pickled cherries and shallots in a lemon beurre blanc. All four courses can also be done vegetarian, for a savings of $10 off the typical $70 degustation fee.
Along with these formal courses, Sel’s menu typically offers an add-on or two. On one visit, my friends and I sprang for the seared foie gras over peaches, simultaneously sanguinary and sweet, and just as good as anyone has a right to expect.
On another evening, I opted for dessert: strawberry marzipan shortcake with Chantilly cream and vanilla bean gelato. As with Levine’s other concoctions, the key is the contrasts. It’s surrounded by a swirl of salted caramel and a few drops of balsamic vinegar, just to keep the sweetness from getting cocky.
On balance, Sel offers some of the finest cuisine you’ll find in the Valley – ambitious but accessible cooking, never heavy but entirely satisfying. It would be fair to say it’s the best new restaurant I’ve been to this year.
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