The Valley’s lone Michelin-starred chef turns over a new, healthy-eats leaf.
It looks like Alex Stratta has finally found his forever home. Or at least a place where he can cook what’s in his heart.
The celebrity chef – who won a James Beard Award at seminal Valley fine-dining restaurant Mary Elaine’s in the 1990s, and later earned two Michelin stars as a headliner in Las Vegas – has bounced around a bit as a hired gun (Omni Montelucia, FOUND:RE Phoenix, Wright’s at the Biltmore) since returning to the Valley four years ago. His menus at those restaurants typically hewed close to his earlier work: rich, French-influenced fare, like his signature beef short ribs, shellacked in a sticky ambrosia of wine and honey. Delicious, if not necessarily great for your cholesterol panels.
Enter Stratta Kitchen, a bright, airy restaurant in Scottsdale that constitutes the virtuoso chef’s first wholly original concept since his Vegas days – and one that also happens to be a Mediterranean-inspired fast-casual operation devoted to light, healthy eats. It might seem counterintuitive for a talent like Stratta to open this kind of restaurant, but it’s not. During his living-large Vegas years, Stratta was diagnosed with colon cancer, which he beat back by changing his eating habits and eventually dropping 100 pounds.
So you won’t find the short ribs here, but you will find Stratta expressing his “eat to live” gospel the best way he knows how: preparing beautiful, elevated food that smacks of indulgence, not deprivation. His affordable menu – which includes starters, grilled toasts, salads, wraps, grain bowls and grilled skewers – seems tailor-made for grazers, with a half-dozen creamy dips designed for dunking with grill-blackened Noble bread. Sicilian caponata, a vibrant, chunky mix of San Marzano tomatoes, roasted eggplant, charred onions, capers, currants and olives, strewn with pine nuts, is one of my favorites, offering up sweetness, salt and smoke. But then, I can’t get enough of the rich, addictive baked artichoke, spinach and goat cheese dip either, jazzed up with black olives, arugula and oven-dried tomatoes.
Also first-rate: lime-spritzed, cotija-sprinkled avocado (read: guac), which provides a subtle mouth glow thanks to poblano and Aleppo chiles. Meanwhile, fresh ricotta, drizzled with orange blossom honey, dappled with nutty Romesco and strewn with microgreens, is the dish most likely to be found on a fancy plate in a restaurant far more expensive than this one, its creamy freshness punctuated by tart-sweet pomegranate seeds.
I can’t think when I’ve seen salads this pretty or chock-full of ingredients for 10 bucks. One contains earthy roasted beets, caramelized apple, bitter lettuces and a “goat cheese cracker,” which is actually a creamy glob of goat cheese sandwiched between two crispy Parmesan tuiles, a luxurious amenity you surely won’t find at Panera. Asparagus and shishitos, both grilled, play nicely with mini potatoes, oven-dried tomatoes and Little Gem lettuce, while the Chop Chop combines crispy hearts of romaine with crunchy toasted quinoa, grilled veggies, cucumber, aged ricotta, loads of avocado, sunflower seeds and an oozy six-minute egg.
The colored dots placed alongside the salads, wraps and grain bowls on the menu correlate to the sauces, listed with descriptions, that best accompany them. Diners select among creamy chimichurri, sweet-ish Moroccan apricot tahini, spicy harissa, elderberry vinaigrette, green goddess and Caesar dressing, all of them a tad anemic in flavor. It’s a fun idea, but this is the section that most needs tweaking. The harissa packs very little heat, while green goddess lacks the anchovy punch that makes it so distinctive. Then again, maybe Stratta understands his audience far better than I do.
From the grain-bowl section comes the Moroccan, a somewhat fruity tango of toasted bulghur wheat, roasted sweet potato, golden raisins, pistachio and orange zest. Great if you love sweeter stuff, but I preferred the earthier Rizi Bizi, a wonderfully textural assemblage of black forbidden rice, lentils, cannellini beans, raw Brussels sprout leaves, capers, green olives, preserved citrus and fresh turmeric. I could eat this – and feel good about it – every day.
Think of the grilled skewers as appetizer-size bites, not entrees, and you’ll come to appreciate Stratta’s less-is-more approach, especially when you consider the prices ($4-$9). I liked everything I tried – tender strip steak; juicy turkey sausage, flecked with cranberry and sage; and grilled halloumi, a tangy Middle Eastern cheese that doesn’t melt when cooked but rather develops a soft, dreamy center. I wonder why Stratta puts them in to-go boxes completely unadorned? It’s odd, given his predilection for making feasts for the eyes.
From my perspective, wraps are one of the most boring food items on planet Earth – but Stratta’s grilled chicken Mistral is the lone exception. Packed with Tuscan kale, grilled eggplant, spicy chickpeas, Turkish apricots, Marcona almonds and pickled onion, this florid thing is ridiculously good. Ditto for an equally complicated green chile pork belly burrito (listed in the Test Kitchen section) so yummy that I shan’t quibble about its Mexican origins.
All three desserts are exceptional for being beautiful, sophisticated and dirt cheap. There’s goat cheese panna cotta with local honey, cardamom, ginger and fresh berries; warm, cake-like walnut-date pudding, sticky with quark bourbon caramel; and a chocolate bomb of a cake larded with rich ganache.
Opening a new restaurant is risky business these days, but Stratta has created a niche that precious few can share with him: the most elegant healthy food in the Valley. Still, sometimes I just miss the short ribs.
Contact: 8260 N. Hayden Rd., Scottsdale, 480-597-9195, strattakitchen.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily
Highlights: Baked artichoke, spinach and goat cheese dip ($9); tasting of three dips ($12); Rizi Bizi grain bowl ($10); Chop Chop salad ($10); grilled chicken Mistral wrap ($11); turkey sausage skewers ($4); halloumi skewers ($5); pork belly burrito ($12); any dessert ($6)