Hush maestro Dom Ruggiero reloads with this sexy and stylish gastropub on the Phoenix/Scottsdale border.
Dom Ruggiero is leaving nothing in the chamber, idiomatically speaking. As the chef-owner of Hush Public House, Vanilla Gorilla Tap Room and now Fire at Will – which debuted off Tatum Boulevard this past November – he’s now opened three restaurants in four years. That’s scorching growth by any standard.
Just as impressive: He and his crack team are doing it gracefully, delivering high-caliber food and service to an ever-increasing flood of customers who keep the place buzzy and deafening night after night.
“Neighborhood restaurant” or no – that’s the way Ruggiero describes it – Fire at Will exudes classiness. In fact, with its dramatically lit brick interior and greenery-threaded light fixture overhead, the restaurant makes Hush look a bit homespun by comparison. There’s a concrete bar with comfortable bar chairs as well as an exciting cocktail program created by cocktail savants Libby Lingua and Mitch Lyons of Two Hands Consulting. I’m in love with Mama’s Medicine, an orange-y riff on the Penicillin, and almost as happy with Lady of the Night, a light, elegant starter effervescent with Prosecco.
If you’ve been to Hush, you probably already know that Ruggiero’s strengths are small plates of elevated comfort food. That tradition holds at FAW, where he offers a distinct and original menu of small-format delicacies. I could graze on these little beauties all night, slurping fresh, sweet oysters anointed with Champagne mignonette; dredging crispy Ibérico ham croquettes through harissa aioli; and smearing smoked fish dip, creamy with everything bagel-flavored mascarpone, across crunchy grilled Noble Bread, then embellishing each slice with fuchsia-tinted loops of dill-pickled onion.
Although I’d gladly eat any of the above again, there were a few other snacky dishes that really enchanted me, including the Scotch egg, a rustic dish generally relegated to pub grub territory. Here, the garlicky, sage-scented sausage that envelops the egg is ultra-flavorful, its exterior coated in panko and fried to a serious crunch. Inside, the medium-boiled egg yolk is soft and jammy, the whole shebang sharpened by a swipe of Dijon mustard.
Steak tartare is back in a big way, but Ruggiero makes his gorgeously crimson version with mild, sweet lamb, binding the supple meat with raw egg and amping it up with horseradish and mustard, then going off script in his use of salsa verde, which lends freshness and a touch of heat. Piled on a slab of grilled Noble bread, it’s a beautiful thing.
Ruggiero’s macaroni au gratin – creamy and molten beneath a burnished, faintly crusty top – is possibly the best mac and cheese I’ve ever eaten. Made with aged Gouda, Manchego, Gruyère, Parmesan and American cheese, it’s rich and nuanced. Offered as an occasional special at Hush, it’s perfect for FAW’s more traditional menu.
And while I’m handing out superlatives, crispy Brussels sprouts are also in a league of their own. No bacon, balsamic or mustard here – but rather Asian pear, roasted peanuts, sesame seeds and an intensifying bath of Vietnamese nuoc mam, which brings sugar, lime and a boatload of umami to the party.
Everybody puts a burger on the menu, but few of them approach the moist, meaty Hush Burger, mounted on a Noble brioche bun slathered with “fancy sauce” (mustard, ketchup, Worcestershire and the like), given a melting coat of American cheese, then stacked with caramelized onions and pickles. Simple but sublime, it’s a Wednesdays-only item at Hush that Ruggiero reluctantly offered as a concession to customers who begged for one. It will be at FAW forever.
I didn’t expect to love the Maine lobster roll as much as I did, either. Imagine chunks of sweet, celery- and chive-studded lobster meat, piquant with Old Bay and mustard, spilling out of a buttery griddled split-top brioche bun. Served with charred lemon, the sandwich is light but zingy.
Bologna sandwich purists may quibble about Ruggiero’s tricked-out Fripper’s smoked bologna sandwich – thickly sliced and lightly griddled – but the Franco-Germanic combo of Gruyère, sauerkraut and Dijonnaise (think mustard, mayo, lemon), all neatly tucked inside a tender brioche bun, feels elevated yet grounded to me.
There are a few minor misses as well. Despite a sprinkle of panko, clams Casino fall surprisingly flat in both taste and texture, while anchovy toast, composed of mild boquerones, fresh stracciatella cheese and peperonata (sweet bell peppers in olive oil) is pleasant but unexciting. On one occasion, both ultra-creamy tiramisu and blackberry cobbler are too sweet to finish.
On my final visit, I planned to splurge on whole grilled branzino and côte de boeuf (thick-cut, bone-in ribeye, market-priced at around $150) only to learn that the branzino had been replaced by less expensive, more masses-friendly swordfish and that the côte de boeuf was soon to be 86-ed, replaced by a steak and baker.
I get it. At FAW, Ruggiero is playing to a different crowd than he does at Hush. Still, I long for sexier pastas (Bolognese and aglio e olio just don’t excite me), a dish akin to Hush’s fantastic duck-fried rice and a more affordable meat entrée.
Guess I’ll just head to Hush when I’ve got my foodie freak on and to Fire at Will when it’s straight-up comfort I crave. Either way, I’ll eat well.
Fire at Will
Cuisine: Modern American
Contact: 4912 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale, 480-207-1819, eatfireatwill.com
Hours: Su-Th 5-9 p.m., F-Sa 5-10 p.m.
Highlights: Lamb tartare ($18); Scotch egg ($15); Hush burger ($18); macaroni au gratin ($16); Brussels sprouts ($15); lobster roll ($24)