With a new-ish chef and sharper service, the legendary farm-to-table restaurant remains a Phoenix date-night classic.
Call me a Valentine’s Day Grinch, but nothing in the world could induce me to dine out on February 14, sitting cheek-by-jowl with a flock of other lovebirds and eating from the same banal prix fixe menu. However, when I do heed the siren call of romance on less hyperbolic days of the year, the first place that comes to mind is Quiessence.
Tucked away on The Farm at South Mountain – a 10-acre food lovers’ oasis in South Phoenix – the Q has exuded romance since it opened 20 years ago. A farm-to-table restaurant with its own garden just steps from the kitchen, it’s peaceful and pastoral, the kind of place where a couple might take a pre-dinner stroll through the pecan grove, mosey over to the garden to check out the vegetables, herbs and flowers, sip herb-laced craft cocktails on the patio or have a lovers’ tête-á-tête under the flagstone-floored arbor, where a single table, positioned next to a wood-burning brick oven, is easily the most romantic table in town.
No doubt, Quiessence is transportive and magical. It also underwent a modest refurbishment recently, and changed chefs a few years back, so a revisit – and reassessment – feels apt.
The restaurant achieved its greatest notoriety, arguably, in the late 2000s under star chefs Greg LaPrad (who left to open the late Overland Trout in Sonoita) and Tony Andiario (who later served as Chris Bianco’s right hand at Tratto). The duo decamped in 2013, part of a general makeover by owner Pat Christofolo, who – after years of catering weddings at The Farm and operating its other restaurants (Farmhouse Kitchen, Morning Glory Café) – bought the property in toto. Under her dominion, the shaggy-at-the-edges old farm is lovelier than ever, but it’s at Quiessence that her fine-tuning is most acutely felt. Her son, co-owner Dustin Christofolo, now runs the kitchen as executive chef, and the restaurant presents a warmer, more welcoming mien. It also boasts sharper, better-informed service and a stronger, more sophisticated wine list, courtesy of Alison Sponberg, a Level 2 sommelier whose Old World-heavy book offers a great selection of Burgundies.
In other words, it has the polish and refinement you’d expect from a do-it-up destination restaurant charging more than 40 bucks per entree.
Christofolo the younger has made the menu his own since taking over the kitchen, but his focus bears the same DNA as his predecessors: house-made breads and pastas, charcuterie, Arizona meats and just-picked produce, all given a light Italian accent.
Customers may order à la carte or select one of two seasonal tasting menus: the five-course ($45; $85 with wine pairing) or the six-course ($55; $95 with wine pairing). Just as with Japanese omakase, courses for each tasting menu are the chef’s choice.
The first thing to arrive at our table, beautifully set with white linens, heavy silver, glowing votive candles and flowers from the garden, is a diminutive bread tin containing crunchy, house-baked ciabatta and light, spongy focaccia, the latter topped with a tangle of caramelized onions. A compound butter made of parsley, shallots and calendula flowers – striated in shades of pale orange and yellow – is served alongside. I love it. Good bread is never a bad omen.
Sure enough, the first course – a meat-and-cheese platter called Chef’s Spread – is absolutely stunning, anchored by fatty, mouthwatering Tuscan salami sharpened with black peppercorns and fennel, each slice topped with a tiny, tart cherry. The rest of the arrangement is intoxicating, too: creamy turkey-guinea hen mousse, smeared on lavosh and sparked with pickled grapes; fat rounds of savory, herb-flecked guinea rillettes strewn with fried sage leaves; pale-pink slivers of salty-sweet lonza (cured pork loin), arranged like flower petals with pistachios and ruby dots of cranberry purée at their centers; sharp white Idaho cheddar with briny sea beans; a dollop of tangy chèvre mousse poked with crisp-chewy rose apple chips; and finally a tidy salad of pickled vegetables, mascarpone-dabbed membrillo (tart-sweet quince paste) and cured strawberries. Christofolo has definitely upped his charcuterie game in recent years.
The second course is velvety pistachio soup, the bottom of the bowl offering up crispy squares of salty pork belly, sweet poached figs, the sting of Calabrian chile paste and chèvre mousse, which lends its own subtly saline creaminess to this nutty winter mélange.
The two gorgeous salads that follow – the first composed of roasted kohlrabi with caramelized apples, mizuna (Japanese mustard greens), pistachios and blue cheese dressing; the second a medley of faintly bitter radishes with pesto and compound butter – invite us to enjoy the unadorned simplicity of vegetables straight from the garden, providing a clean-tasting palate-cleanser for the carnivorous delights that follow.
Round four is 30- to 60-day aged Arizona beef carpaccio tucked in brittle bread spoons with drizzles of blue cheese aioli, Parmesan sprinkles and a tart, sweet top-note of pickled shallot. The beef is so tender it practically melts on the tongue. Even better is a sticky, charred-at-the-edges brick of pork belly, embellished with tart cherries, candied peanuts and edible flowers, set atop ribbons of honey gastrique with a scoop of mascarpone for supplementary sweetness and lightness.
Pasta has long been a Quiessence signature, and Christofolo’s soppressini, an intricately shaped pasta he describes as “genie lamps,” explains why. The cup-shaped pasta becomes an elegant vehicle for light but satisfying beef Bolognese, enriched with ricotta, given a crunchy breadcrumb sprinkle and a lacy mantle of fennel frond. Pretty to look at, magical to eat.
The menu offers just three crowd-pleasing entrées – steak, chicken and fish – but the aged New York strip has been given a South American slant. Placed atop a pinkish puddle of red onion purée, the tender, perfectly cooked steak arrives with a lime wedge and a spoonful of tangy, herbaceous chimichurri on top. Placed alongside are two baked fingerling potatoes, loaded with butter, bacon and chives, and fried curly corn on the cob (a riff on Max Ng’s version at Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York) and chile powder-spiked shishitos. The second entrée – crispy, buttermilk-brined, chicken-fried Cornish hen (juicy thigh and drumstick), served with sous vide turnips, carrots and choy sum greens in a rich herb aioli – puts a fine-dining twist on a down-home favorite.
Like the chicken, an impossibly rich dessert of brioche bread pudding with vanilla ice cream, Razz cherries, almonds and dulce de leche has an irresistibly rustic, cozy quality. Meanwhile, a carefully composed confection called “Night in Meringue City” brings together dainty dabs of fresh meringue with brittle baked meringue, prickly pear and blackberry sorbets enriched with Italian meringue and bright strawberry coulis. It’s finished with a crunchy almond tuile for a light, sweet denouement that’s big on texture.
It was a memorable and mostly well-paced meal, my only complaint being that some ingredients (pistachios, for example) appear in too many dishes, a food cost issue that shouldn’t be obvious to the diner. Ultimately, however, dinner at this charming farmhouse is about the total experience, and on that score, Quiessence delivers in spades all year long – not just on Valentine’s Day.
Cuisine: New American
Contact: 6106 S. 32nd St., Phoenix, 602-276-0601, qatthefarm.com
Hours: Tu-Sa 5-8:30 p.m.
Highlights: Chef’s spread ($13 per person); pork belly ($16); beef carpaccio ($16); soppressini ($28); chicken-fried Cornish hen ($43); bread pudding ($10)