The venerable Cave Creek steakhouse gets an unconvincing and ill-executed modern-cuisine makeover.
Foodies have been buzzing about Cartwright’s in Cave Creek ever since restaurateur Eric Flatt of Tonto Bar & Grill fame sold the place in 2017 to his former general manager Cody Heller and former executive chef Brett Vibber, two young guns determined to shake up this famously conservative cowboy town. (Note the “Modern Cuisine” trailer they added to the name.) However, their way of going about it seems overly self-conscious and – I’ll just say it – silly to me. Mediocre sushi? No thanks. Deconstructed dishes? No thanks again. This isn’t 2008.
Vibber has also launched an ambitious foraging program, and while I admire both the philosophy and effort of plucking wild mushrooms, mesquite pods and other treasures from the desert, the results are neither successful nor worthy of a schlep to Cave Creek. The chef’s “Arizona cuisine” starts with a basket of limp, barely warm mesquite flatbread. Dark and faintly sweet, it makes a dismal first impression – more conceptually interesting than actually tasty. A first course of yellowtail avocado roll, marred by sushi rice that’s both undercooked and over-seasoned with rice vinegar, is further degraded by an overpowering smoked serrano yuzu dipping sauce. Similarly, shrimp ceviche (made with local Desert Sweet Shrimp) is ultra-tart and one-dimensional, served with earthy mesquite corn crackers that don’t jibe with the fish at all.
Granular venison meatballs are decent enough, with bacon, smoked apricot jam, foraged watercress and sorrel teaming up to impart sweetness, smoke, tang and a touch of bitterness. Better still are the ultra-tender Humboldt squid, enveloped in crispy mesquite cornmeal and sprinkled with candied sweet peppers; and Dungeness crabcakes, drizzled with chile-sparked remoulade. Nothing groundbreaking about either of them, but they work.
Except for a cooked-to-temperature New York strip, entrees are a huge and expensive disappointment. Venison and bison stroganoff boasts all the local bells and whistles (Sonoran wheat pasta, Rhiba Farms oyster mushrooms, Crow’s Dairy crema), but it’s an anemic, prissy version of a dish that should be rich and luscious. Wild-caught Haida Gwaii salmon arrives overcooked and strewn with wizened, pathetic-looking salmon roe, sided with more ho-hum renderings of native ingredients. Braised pork shoulder, sweetened with molasses and local apples, satisfyingly captures the cowboy spirit of the original Cartwright’s, and the deconstructed wild berry pie is sweet and crunchy, but I’d still prefer a real pie.
At the end of the day, I just don’t get what all the fuss is about. The sushi is way below par; deconstructed food is passé, not modern; and Vibber’s take on Arizona cuisine – hardly a new idea, and one performed more capably by Tamara Stanger at Cotton & Copper, among others – feels forced and amateurish. Some people love this reimagined Cartwright’s. I’m just not one of them.
Cartwright’s Modern Cuisine
Cuisine: Southwestern, Steakhouse
Contact: 6710 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek, 480-488-8031, cartwrightsmoderncuisine.com
Hours: 4-9 p.m. daily
Highlights: Dungeness crabcakes ($22); calamari ($12); New York strip ($40); wild berry pie ($11).