Category Archives: Restaurant Journal

Mac & Cheese – Ultimate Comfort Food

Comfort food. It means different things to different people.

I have a friend who thinks of fried chicken as comfort food. To be completely honest, she thinks of fried chicken, period. In her world, fried chicken is its own food group on the pyramid.

For me, macaroni and cheese is the ultimate comfort food. Like most people, I grew up on the blue box of Kraft mac and cheese.

I’m all grown up now, and I want a better mac and cheese.

I found one at ZOOM in Park City, Utah.

It isn’t so gourmet that it loses the homey comfort of pasta bathed in cheese, but it’s gussied up enough to make the Kraft mac and cheese seem like child’s play.

I love the fat, ribbed shells, the gooey, herb-flecked cheese sauce, and the crunch from toasted bread crumbs.

I even found the recipe in a cookbook I bought. The book is called Park City Cooks: An Eclectic Collection of Park City Recipes.

All the proceeds from the cookbook go to The Peace House, a non-profit organization that provides education, shelter and support services to women who are victims of domestic violence.

The recipes are from members of the Park City community, and in the back of the book, there are a few recipes from the local restaurants, including this recipe from ZOOM.

ZOOM is owned by The Sundance Resort (Robert Redford’s remarkable property about 35 miles from Park City).

As I licked the plate clean, I thought to myself “I’d love to have that recipe.” And lo and behold, it appeared. I love when that happens.

Now you can have it, too.

ZOOM White Cheddar Mac & Cheese

from Park City Cooks

12 Servings

1-1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs from crustless French bread
3/4 cup freshly grated Asiago cheese
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
8 tablespoons butter, divided
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
6 cups whole milk
1-1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
4 cups grated white cheddar cheese (about 1 pound)
1-1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 pound macaroni

Mix the breadcrumbs, Asiago and paprika in a medium bowl.

Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and stir for three minutes. Gradually whisk in the milk, then the mustard and pepper.

Cook until thickened, stirring often, about 1o minutes. Stir in the cheddar and parsley.

(The topping and the sauce can be made 1 day ahead, stored separately. Cool the sauce slightly, then cover and refrigerate. Refrigerate the topping, too. Re-warm the sauce, stirring frequently and thinning with more milk if necessary before proceeding.)

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter a 15″ X 10″ X 2″ glass baking dish.

Cook the macaroni in a pot of boiling salted water until just tender, but firm to the bite, stirring occasionally. Drain the macaroni well.

Return the macaroni to the drained pot; stir in the sauce. Season to taste with salt.

Spread the mixture in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with the bread crumb topping. Dot with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.

Bake until the cheese is bubbling and the crumbs are brown, about 40-45 minutes. Cool slightly before serving.

ZOOM
Park City, Utah

Where to buy the Park City Cooks cookbook:
La Niche
(435) 649-2372

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When in Venice, Eat Here

No, no, not here. Although, it is fetching, isn’t it? At least from the outside. But sometimes, appearances aren’t what they seem.

The fabulous restaurant I’m about to share with you doesn’t look anything like the idyllic Venice trattoria pictured above.

From the outside, Il Ridotto is rather nondescript. I’d even call it plain.

The adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” — even though we all do — should have run through my head. I almost skipped it because it didn’t look like the charming restaurant above.

Il Ridotto is near one of Venice’s main attractions, Piazza San Marco, but it’s not easy to find. (Frankly, nothing is easy to find — Venice is an exacerbating maze with more twists and turns than a Diane Mott Davidson novel.)

I wouldn’t have given Il Ridotto a second thought if not for my Twitter friend, Sharon Miro (@nicklemoon), who’d just been to Venice a couple of days before we arrived.

Sharon insisted we not miss Il Ridotto. I scribbled down the address and set off to have a look. I must have walked past it three times before I finally noticed it.

In hindsight, it was one of the best (of many great) meals across our 21-day Italian Affair.

What Il Ridotto lacks in “curb” appeal, it makes up for ten-fold by the charming interior and the exquisite food.

Il Ridotto is fine dining in a sleek, modern setting. (It reminded me of noca, one of the best restaurants in Phoenix and Frasca, one of the best restaurants in Boulder, Colorado.)

Thoroughly Italian — yet it bears no resemblance to the old-school traditional Italian ristorante — Il Ridotto is nuovo Italian.

The  small, 14-seat restaurant positively glows at night.

Il Ridotto doesn’t open until 7:30 p.m., but the chef graciously opened at 7 p.m. for a couple of hungry Americans, and for half an hour, we had the whole place to ourselves.

By the time we left, every seat was full, while a flock of foodies waited patiently outside.

When faced with a choice between navigating a several-pages menu versus a chef’s tasting menu, go with the latter. Especially at Il Ridotto.

The tasting menu reads “menu of land and of sea / light, beautiful, good / four plates / 50 Euro.

That’s it. No course descriptions. That’s because the chef, Gianni Bonaccorsi, a tall, thin, bespectacled man, comes to the table to discuss the menu. His halting English is charming, and he surprised me with his gracious manner. He apologized profusely for not being fluent. I assure you, that is not the norm in most Italian eateries, fine dining or otherwise.

Using English peppered with Italian and lots of hand gestures, he said that he’d received some beautiful frutti di mare that morning, and would we be happy if he just sent out dishes? Who are we to argue with such a kind, stately chef?

We both started with an amuse: two succulent shrimp on top of a sweet-sour caponata.

The chef and one server manage all 14 seats. I’m not used to plates personally delivered by the chef, but I think I could get used to it, especially if the chef is as engaging as Bonaccorsi.

Bonaccorsi had two cooks in the tiny galley kitchen tucked behind a mirrored wall, but every course we had was personally delivered by the chef, with a dissertation on the composition of the dish. (He had no idea I am a food writer, and throughout the evening he delivered most courses to the other diners as well.)

Because there were two of us, the chef made sure that we sampled different dishes with each course.

The first course was a white asparagus puree surrounding a mound of burrata and garnished with sauteed green asparagus, crisp croutons and a drizzle of olive oil and aged balsamic.

And the other, an eye-popping vision of the sea with lobster, mussels, clams, cuttlefish and canocce, swimming in a pool of silky potato puree.

Canocce is an interesting sea creature. It has very little meat — it’s mostly exoskeleton. I saw the finger-shaped crustacean in several seafood markets, and first tasted it in a trattoria in Bologna, where it was chopped it into pieces and cooked in a Marsala cream sauce. But it was difficult to eat with the shell on. When I inquired how to eat it, the server mimicked Tom Hanks in the movie Big, gnawing on baby corn.

At Il Ridotto, Bonaccorsi shelled it whole (a difficult, time-consuming thing to do), leaving the head and tail intact. The taste and texture was a cross between lobster and crawfish.

Moving to the second course, we tasted a lobster stock risotto studded with cuttlefish and garnished with squid ink powder. The dish, like most dishes in Italy, was finished with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. It’s a trick I’ve since incorporated into my own cooking.

We also tasted handmade ravioli, stuffed with wild herbs and ricotta and garnished with clams and mussels. The three fat pillows would have been a substantial meal on their own.

Our third courses were equally filling, although a mushroom topped sea bass was lighter than the other third course.

Two baby squids stuffed with potato and zucchini, with a salsa of sweet red peppers and green peppers, were garnished with tiny clams. The squid was a pleasant chewy counter point to the soft potato filling.

At this point, I didn’t think I could eat another bite but that’s before I saw the desserts. First up was a deconstructed tiramisu, served in a glass with a heavy dusting of rich, dark cocoa. The Marsala flavored mascarpone cream must have contained a dozen egg yolks, it was so rich and golden.

But it was the last dessert that wowed me. Maybe because it was so simple or maybe because I’m crazy about pistachios. The pistachio cake, obviously baked in a mold, was crunchy on the outside, and dense, moist and rich on the inside. The batter probably contained both ground pistachios and chopped pistachios — it was the very essence of the pistachio nut. The gelato tasted of rich vanilla — egg-rich French vanilla — and had plenty of texture from the chopped, roasted pistachios.

With the exception of the storefront, nothing about Il Ridotto was understated, yet nothing was over-the-top flashy, either. No molecular gastronomy, no bells and whistles, just beautifully crafted dishes with ingredients that tasted fresh-plucked from the ground and sea, served by a humble chef in a chic, elegant setting. In a word? Squisito.

Il Ridotto
Campo San Filippo e Giacomo 4509
Venice, Italy

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Strategies for Arizona Restaurant Week 2010

Put on your eatin’ pants. It looks like 114 Phoenix restaurants and 43 Tucson restaurants are participating in Arizona Restaurant Week, September 18-26.

The participating restaurants have put together three or four-course prix fixe menus, some with extras thrown in, priced at $29 or $39, excluding tax, tip and beverages (unless noted otherwise). If you’re headed to Tucson, eight of the 43 restaurants are offering $19++ menus.

Given that Restaurant Week is dinner-only, you have nine dining opportunities. How will you spend them?

We’ve scanned through the Phoenix list and have come up with a few strategies:

(click on the restaurant name to look at the Arizona Restaurant Week menu)

History Buffs

Photo © ericeatsout.com

Let’s say you’re in the mood for a side of Arizona history thrown in with your meal. You’ll want to check out Durant’s, the venerable old-school, clubby restaurant that opened in 1950. Even older than Durant’s, Stockyards (opened in 1947) is “Arizona’s Original Steakhouse.” Or you might try Avanti if classic Italian sounds more your style. Opened in 1974, Avanti is still owned by the two original partners from Sorrento, Italy. Even though El Chorro Lodge is sporting new owners and a $$$$ makeover, El Chorro grandly takes its place in Arizona history — it first opened as a lodge and dining room in 1937. And yes, the older-than-old-school relish tray and famous sticky buns are part of their prix fixe menu. (All $29++)

Fun & Funky

You think old-school is old news and you want high energy! Fun! Buzz, baby! Head to Cowboy Ciao, because even with wacky menu names like “pig & puddin,” the chow is seriously delicious. Eye-candy hangout Culinary Dropout is another option, and the slackers are even throwing in a wine cooler. Or try tapas new comer Iruña (from a been-around chef) for a little Spanish olé flavor in a hip setting — at least the menu isn’t the predictable steak/chicken/veg. (All $29++)

Stealth Health


Photo © FRC

Restaurant Week can wreck havoc on your good diet intentions, but it won’t if you hit up these restaurants. Calistro California Bistro ($29++) even has some gluten-free options as does True Food Kitchen ($29++), and TFK is tossing in a hummus starter, too. Ko’sin ($29++) at Wild Horse Pass has the local veggies down pat, and we’re even putting Roka Akor ($39++) in this stealth health group because they’ve got butterfish tataki and grilled salmon on the menu.

Chef Groupie

It’s no secret we have rock-star chefs in this valley, and three of the hottest chefs are serving up foodie dream menus for restaurant week: Josh Hebert at Posh Restaurant (the ORIGINAL improvisational chef; $39++); inked Chris Curtiss at noca Restaurant ($29++), and Aaron Chamberlin at St. Francis ($29++). We’re including the original *hot* chef — Mark Tarbell — on this list, too. (If you don’t remember when Tarbell was the hottest chef in town, perhaps you should stick to the Fun & Funky category.)  Tarbell’s ($29++) simple menu only includes one choice for each course, but his butterscotch tart with caramelized pancetta might be worth the trip alone.

Final Thoughts

We would have recommended FnB, Renegade Canteen or Christopher’s Crush, but all three are conspicuously absent this year. Maybe that’s a statement in and of itself.

Also, if you’re hoping to snag a glass of wine included with the price of the meal, you might want to consider 5th & Wine ($29++) or recent “Best Comfort Food” winner Cafe ZuZu ($29++), but, oddly, Cheuvront’s Wine Bar doesn’t include vino. Really? Go figure. In all, 27 of the 114 Phoenix restaurants are throwing in a glass of vino with the deal.

Lastly, if you’re seeking value above and beyond the great deals all of these restaurants are putting forth, you might want to consider one of the resort restaurants on the list, like Bourbon Steak (Fairmont Scottsdale), BLT Steak (Camelback Inn), Deseo (Westin Kierland), Lon’s (Hermosa Inn), Prado (Intercontinental Montelucia) or Talevera (Four Seasons). It’s near impossible to eat at these resorts for less than $40 on a regular night with just two courses. (All $39++ with the exception of Deseo, $29++)

Regardless of your ultimate strategy, you’ll want to make a reservation as the ones we’ve listed are likely to fill up fast.

And remember to be a good diner, too. Don’t ask for substitutions (you can do it, just this once) and tip well.

So, put some elastic in your eatin’ pants and let the feasting begin.

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Tipping

When the bill arrived after lunch in a casual, sit-down Mexican restaurant, I noticed the “tip amount” help printed at the bottom of the receipt.

I’d never seen it before, so I tweeted out “Terrific or Tacky?” The responses that flurried back were roughly split 50/50.

Some thought it was helpful, acknowledging a lack of math skills or as a reminder of more important things, like paying attention to you guests.

@RellaBellaK I like it, but then, I’m terrible at math

@ericeatsout I actually like it. A tactful reminder that 15% isn’t acceptable these days, and that most servers deserve a healthy tip

@jwillensky I like it. Convenient, and nice to focus on dining companions instead of math.

Others thought it tactless — even offensive.

@Dinnersforayear tacky. very tacky

@ttolmachoff tacky

@TheLargWhiteMan I’ve always found it unnecessary. #ijustusemynoggin

And still others were ambivalent — and funny.

@andrewkfromaz tacky but kinda handy at the same time. I guess it’s like a fanny pack.

It struck me as funny, too. How many people go to the trouble to calculate the tip to an exact amount, with no rounding?

On the same trip, I encountered another restaurant, this time a brewpub, that printed the “convenience” math.

What is the right amount to tip, anyway?

Everyone has their own idea of how much to tip, so I’m not going to tell you how to tip. That’s your decision, based on your experience.

I once got a $100 tip on a $50 tab from a couple oil men celebrating a strike over burgers and brews.

Another time I got one penny from a group of snooty women, one of whom I “accidentally” spilled a drink down her back. (Ladies, please don’t insult your server until after you’ve been served.)

In the end, it’s up to the server to give good service. It’s up to management to schedule appropriately so that servers can give good service.

And finally, it’s up to the diner to grade the service in the form of a tip.

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A Temporary Vegetarian

I’m doing something I’ve never done before.

I’m eschewing meat. On purpose.

There is no ulterior motive, and no need to get alarmed — it’s only temporary. How hard can it be?

Blame it on my working vacation in a mountain town filled with fit granola heads, and restaurants with plenty of menu space dedicated to veg-heads.

And I don’t have to review a single one of them, so I can order what I want, like a bowl of yellow curry with tofu and mushrooms at Squatters Brew Pub.

Blame it on my temporary housing, in the home of a lovely vegetarian, who has a pantry stocked with grains, beans, and nuts, and shelves stuffed with vegetarian cookbooks. (That’s her own cookbook in the middle, the blue Chocolate Snowball.)

The surprising thing about eating strictly vegetarian, to me anyway, is that it’s just not that hard. A piece of cake.

Breakfast has always been an easy meal to drop the meat, what with all the oatmeal and egg options, including one of my favorites, huevos rancheros from Loco Lizard — not to mention the smoothie kick I’ve been on lately.

Lunch and dinner, on the other hand, always seemed like meat meals to me.

But I’m finding I don’t have to struggle find something appealing without meat, like a juicy avocado, tomato and sprout sandwich with smoked Gouda from The Back Door Deli.

Of course, this — like all fairy tales — will come to an end.

Because at the end of the day, I’m a bacon-loving, steak-eating girl. Life without meat just doesn’t sit right in the saddle for me.

Maybe that’s why my temporarily vegetarian mouth and my permanent carnivorous brain had a failure to communicate just two weeks into this little experiment.

You see, I ordered a bowl of French Onion Soup at The Foundry Grill at Sundance Resort without blinking an eye. Delicious, caramelized onion soup with a toasted crostini and melted Gruyere — vegetarian, right? Wrong.

I had reached a turning point:

I could drop the charade and return to my flesh-eating ways, or I could dust myself off, wiped the sherry-drenched, rich veal stock off my chin, and climb back on the vegetarian horse.

In the end, I chose the latter (right after I drained the soup bowl) and, for now, I’m back on the veg-train with another week to go.

But I was wrong about one thing.

Giving up meat is lot harder than I thought, after all. It’s not a piece of cake (and I probably couldn’t give up cake for very long, either.)

How about you? Have you ever given up meat? Did you stick with it, or revert back to your old ways?

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Trend Spotter: Black Garlic

The first time I heard about Korean black garlic was back in October of 2008, in a NYT story by Florence Fabricant, but avant garde chefs, like Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, had already started playing with it in early 2008.

It didn’t make any trend lists that year, but by the end of 2009, it was on several “hot new food trend” lists.

The fermented garlic started turning up on more restaurant menus like Blackbird in Chicago, David Paul’s in Lahaina (Maui), wd~50 in New York throughout 2009.

And in January 2010, it landed at Crudo, in Phoenix.

Now, home cooks can buy black garlic at Whole Foods ($12.99, 5.47 oz.), from a company called — straightforward enough — Black Garlic.

What exactly is black garlic? It’s real garlic that’s been through a 3-week fermentation process, and 1-week drying process, using a variety of temperatures and humidity levels.

Is it really safe to eat? I assume so, since I’ve been snacking on the tasty orbs for the past few months.

The sticky, black cloves taste sweet, almost raisiny, with the faintest hint of garlic flavor.

You can slice or chop them to use as a garnish on any number of dishes from pasta to risotto to bruschetta.

The Black Garlic website has a handful of recipes, but if you google “black garlic recipes,” you’ll find more and more chefs and bloggers experimenting with this new “toy.”

You can make a paste by mashing the cloves with some olive oil in a mortal and pestle, and use the paste to boost the flavor of soups and sauces.

I used the paste as a spread on a turkey and brie sandwich, with thinly sliced Granny Smith apples.

So, go ahead. Splurge. A little goes a long way, and since it’s fermented, once opened, it will keep in the refrigerator for months.

Have you used black garlic in your kitchen?

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Phoenix Files – The Cafe at MIM

Culturally speaking, Phoenix became much richer on April 24, with the opening of MIM, the world’s first global musical museum, a 190,000 square-foot, two-story complex featuring more than 10,000 instruments and associated objects.

Perhaps the best kept secret of the barely 3-month old museum is the bright and airy café located off the main wing.

And here’s another secret: you don’t have to purchase an admission ticket to eat in the café.

All you have to do is stop at the admissions desk and ask for a pass for the café.

Café might be a misnomer, as the set up is cafeteria-style, although this isn’t your run-of-the-mill cafeteria — or typical museum café for that matter.

The café is operated by Bon Appétit Management company, and the kitchen is run by Edward Farrow, a chef with serious credentials including the River Café in New York, The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, and Kai, Arizona’s only 5-Diamond restaurant.

While the setting seems like a cafeteria — shuffling through a food line, paying at a register at the end, and eventually, placing your tray on a conveyor belt headed for the dishwasher — the cuisine tells a different story.

The menu is driven by Bon Appetit’s “Circle of Responsibility” philosophy. Crafted — and subsequently labeled — with identifiers like “Organic,” “Vegetarian,” “Gluten Free,” Low Fat,” and “Farm to Fork.”

The Farm to Fork label means the ingredients are locally sourced, and Chef Farrow is on speed dial with local producers like Queen Creek Olive Mill, The Meat Shop, Fossil Creek Creamery, and Seacat Gardens.

The menu features a weekly soup and another that changes every two days ($2.95 cup/$3.95 bowl), just like the global special ($8.25), a personal-size pizza ($7.25), an AZ local special ($8.25), and a grill special ($8.25).

The global dish might be a braised rabbit panni, with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and havarti, served with a bowl of Mediterranean olives. (pictured above)

There are weekly deli sandwiches and burgers — beef, turkey and veggie — and even a hot dog.

House made potato chips ($1.75) with sea salt are made fresh daily.

Theoretically, you could eat here every day and never have the same dish twice.

The grill special could be a fine piece of halibut, rubbed with a sweet chile glaze, seared to just done, and served with a tomatillo-avocado salsa, and black, forbidden rice topped with pine nuts and sunflower seeds. (pictured below)

Did I mention it was only $8.25?

The Café at MIM makes all their desserts in-house, and they change frequently, too, like a cherry chocolate cream tart, a marble cake parfait and a Sonoran lemon cake, all $4.50.

For $6, there’s a local cheese plate, with cheese, flat bread, fig and date cake, and honey.

Could this little gem be one of the best lunch spots in the Valley? Maybe. It certainly exceeds the quality vs. price ratio.

And it couldn’t be easier to get to, located just one block south of the 101 off Tatum Boulevard.

On second thought, maybe we should just keep this little secret between us.

Café at the MIM
4725 East Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix
480-478-6000
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily

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Pizza in Italy

I always thought pizza was an American invention, even though I knew it had roots in Italy, like the hamburger had roots in Germany, and chop suey had roots in…well, maybe that last one truly is an American invention, with apologies to the Chinese.

Researching the origins of pizza, it’s likely the Italians learned the technique from the Greeks, who may have learned from their arch-enemy, the Etruscans.

Early versions of pizza had neither cheese nor tomatoes. Kind of makes you wonder why they even bothered, but every culture has some type of flatbread that’s topped with available ingredients. Fortunately for us, the Italian version evolved into something splendid.

After the tomato was discovered in the New World, it still took a couple hundred years before the Italians decided that the fruit wasn’t poisonous and that it tasted pretty good on top of their pizza.

Two hundred years after that, cheese was added to the tomato and basil pie, to replicate the colors of the Italian flag in honor of Queen Margherita, hence the most famous pizza of all, the Margherita, was born.

I live in a town proclaimed to have THE best pizza in the countryPizzeria Bianco.

It’s true, until I traveled to Italy recently, I had not tasted a finer pie than the Wiseguy at Bianco’s.

But pizza-hopping through Italy, I realized that the reason Bianco’s pizza is so worthy of its accolades is because it embodies its Italian predecessor — simple ingredients and artisan dough.

That’s not to say that all pizzas in Italy are created equal. They’re not.

I tasted plank pizzas with thin, cracker-like crusts in Rome.

And round, wood-fired pies in Florence, Bologna and Venice.

I ate pizzas topped with eggs and spinach.

And thin crusted pizzas baked in deck ovens, with only a smear of tomato and onions.

And pizzas topped with fresh mozzarella only after leaving flame-licked ovens.

The thing that struck me the most — and this is true of all my dining adventures in Italy — is that I never ran across a bad pizza.

Not even a mediocre one.

It’s far too easy to get a bad pizza in the States.

I can think of a number of franchised chains that turn out a pie they should be ashamed to serve. Why is that?

Of course we do have great pizza here, too, and Bianco’s certainly tops that list.

If you stop and think about where the best pizza in the States comes from, I bet you’ll find that it’s from a small, independent pizzeria, with some sort of Italian connection.

Favorite Italian Pizzerias

Florence: Yellow Bar, Via Del Proconsolo N 39R

Bologna: Nicola’s Pizzeria Ristorante, 9 Piazza San Martino

Venice: Aciugheta, Campo San Filippo, 4357 E Giacomo Castello

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Behind the Line at Binkley’s Restaurant

Ever wonder what it would be like to be behind the scenes in your favorite restaurant? I had the opportunity to spend a day with award-winning Chef Kevin Binkley of Binkley’s restaurant in Cave Creek, Arizona. Here’s what happened:

(Note: My article first appeared in Edible Phoenix)

Perched on a barstool in the most talked about restaurant in the valley, I can only see a fraction of the kitchen through the tiny window behind the bar. I am certain that there is more going on than meets the eye, but all I see is a tall man with a neatly trimmed goatee and Zen-like movements. Plate after plate is placed in the window before it disappears into the hands of a stealth-moving server.  What is going on back there that I can’t see? The curiosity is killing me.

Kevin and Amy Binkley opened Binkley’s Restaurant in the unlikely northern valley cowboy outpost of Cave Creek in May, 2004 to much fanfare. The local media persistently drool over Binkley’s edible art. It takes weeks to secure a reservation. Kevin’s champion culinary pedigree includes serious stints at two of the countries most renowned restaurants: Virginia’s The Inn at Little Washington, and The French Laundry in Napa Valley.

What would it be like to walk in his shoes for a day? I recently found out when Kevin agreed to let me shadow him for a day, from the moment he arrived, until he locked the doors at the end of the evening. Would I still be blinded by the glamour of Phoenix’s hottest new restaurant?

Just after noon on a Tuesday, Kevin leads me through the swinging doors to the kitchen.  I am transported from a quiet 52-seat dining room into another world; blinding lights, clanging pots, and muted chatter from a half dozen cooks milling about cramped quarters. Kevin introduces me to his crew, snuggled between a line of stoves on one side, and a slim countertop on the other. “I hire future chefs, not cooks,” he says. “They will leave here ready to open their own places.”

1:00 p.m. Kevin found out before he arrived that two of his key suppliers would be late. We squeeze our way through the line and he answers a handful of questions from his young cooks. We pause briefly at the 2 foot by 3 foot window that peers into the dining room, the stage from which he will conduct his band of artisans in a few hours.

He cleans a tray of Alfonsino, snapper-like red fish from New Zealand, which less than 48 hours ago were swimming in the ocean.  After scaling the fish, Kevin methodically fillets them with a long, sharp slicing knife, his favorite.

1:45 p.m. The stovetops are blazing, covered with a half dozen pots. More fresh fish arrives at the back door. A four foot Ono in a Styrofoam container is perched on ice. Kevin points out a chunk missing near the tail. “They removed that to check the quality. I only want sushi grade,” he says.

A pan of roasted chestnuts emerges from the oven and a cook with asbestos hands painstakingly peels them for tonight’s soup. Kevin finishes filleting the Alfonsino, showing me the white flecks in the flesh. “That’s fat content – it’s just buttery, and melts in your mouth,” he gushes.

2:15 p.m. A cook is wedged in the teeny pantry in the back working under a spotlight. He hollows an indentation in baked fingerling potatoes, scoops the flesh into a bowl, and mashes butter, crème fraîche, and herbs into the potato remnants. He carefully pipes the filling into the hollowed fingerlings, creating miniature twice-baked potatoes with perfectly coiffed tops. Before he makes the whole batch, he bakes off two to check the consistency of the filling.

2:45 p.m. Kevin turns his attention to a cook who is boiling hand-cut French fries. He says he learned the key to perfectly crunchy French fries while vacationing in London last summer. The secret is a triple cooking process. He first boils the potatoes, and then blanches them in 325 degree oil, before a final fry at 350 degrees when ordered.

3:00 p.m. Four cooks break away from their tasks to check in the late produce. Kevin is on the phone with his rep, complaining about the late delivery as his cooks scramble to dole out the supplies.

He tackles the Ono, slicing down one side of the backbone, taking steps as it is too long to cut in one fell swoop, even with his lengthy arm span. He turns the fish and cuts the other side and frowns. The flesh is not smooth. Bad handling he says, and instead of the 20 portions he was counting on, he only manages 13. The scraps are given to a cook to prepare for the staff meal.

3:25 p.m. More chestnuts are stripped from their roasted shells, as Kevin checks on the progress. Quietly disappointed, he instructs another cook to start a celery root soup, and makes a notation on the menu. Chestnuts are now slated as a garnish instead of the main attraction.

4:00 p.m. The mood in the kitchen switches gears – less talking and a quickened pace. Kevin scales Barramundi, farm-raised fish with mottled gray skin glinting pink and blue that will be roasted whole. Scales fly everywhere; one lands on my shoe that I find later, a badge of honor. He shows me the bright crimson gills. “It’s fresh as can be, but it’s also a function of how they kill it. They slowly decrease the water temperature, eventually freezing the fish to death,” he says. Cruel, I ask? He nods slowly and then shrugs, as if to say it is all part of the food chain.

He stops to sweep the floor around his station. No one bats an eye.

4:30 p.m. Kevin has his eye on everything and everyone, gently prodding some cooks. He chats with the pastry cook about a new dessert. She suggests bread pudding but he counters with panna cotta, with olive oil.  “Maybe add a vanilla bean in addition to extra virgin olive oil,” he says. He instructs a cook to puree the celery root soup after the staff meal.

5:10 p.m. The cooks adjourn to the dining room to review the menu with the servers, who ask questions about the origins of the evening’s entrées. Once they return to the kitchen, the cooks review prep lists, and gather all the ingredients they’ll need once the orders start rolling in.  Kevin’s hands are still for the first time all day. He slides on a crisp, clean chef’s coat. The party is about to start.

5:30 p.m. The first guests arrive, and Kevin chats with them through his window. The cooks are stacking piles of dishes and sauté pans near their stations. Kevin shows me three menus for the evening. “We don’t ‘86’ anything. We just print new menus and switch gears,” he says.

Only a few pots sit bubbling on the stove, a far cry from the height of thirteen I counted two hours ago. I’ve only seen a fraction of what really transpired these past five hours. Now it’s show time. I squeeze into a corner hoping to stay out of the fray.

6:00 p.m. The ticket machine spews its first order. Kevin calls out the courses by name, to no one in particular it seems, but the appropriate cook repeats the order and sets to work. Soon more orders rattle through the machine, and now four tickets hang under his window. Kevin is moving through the line, tasting everything, adjusting seasonings. He calls out for a VIP plate, a baby octopus salad, and then tells the customer at the bar “just because you’ve retired doesn’t mean you can get away with only two courses.”

6:30 p.m. The line is hopping. Kevin inspects a foie gras trio appetizer plate and gently chides the cook to “broaden her horizons, do something different,” with the balsamic reduction drizzle design. She asks if he’ll show her how he would do it. “You want me to do a plate for you,” he kids in his best mafia voice. “No,” she says, “I can handle it.” The ticket machine is spitting more orders. “One lamb, medium rare, one Ono, well done – what a shame,” he says. He believes this fish is best at medium, if not medium-rare.

7:00 p.m. A few minutes of calm preside over the kitchen and everyone takes the brief respite to clean their stations. The ticket machine cranks up again. Two cooks are huddled in the back, still peeling chestnuts. A cook puts an octopus salad in the window. Kevin pulls it down, and gently whispers something in the cook’s ear. The plate is rearranged and passes inspection. He hasn’t raised his voice once today, nor thrown any fits, nor made anyone feel inferior.

7:30 p.m. The appetizer station is behind. Kevin calls up two cooks from the back, both ecstatic to leave the chestnuts behind and join the front line. More tickets are flying out of the machine; he now has five in front of him. Plates are put in front of him with rapid succession, and he deftly addresses each one, fussing with the components. He marks his tickets as each plate leaves the kitchen. At any given time, he knows which table is on which course.

7:45 p.m. The line is bump and grind; a flurry of choreographed bounces. All that’s missing is a little Lambada music. The orders are whizzing through the ticket machine. Kevin calls them out; his cooks repeat the words, in zombie-like monotones, toggling between constructing plates and searing proteins. The appetizer station is in the weeds again and reinforcements reappear from the back. Arms reach over bodies, grabbing squeeze bottles and plates. The sound of sizzling meat drowns out the clattering ticket machine.

8:00 p.m. Kevin leans toward the window to shoot the breeze with guests; meanwhile the kitchen is in a chaotic modern dance, a furious pace. He calls for another VIP plate, this time seared duck breast with quinoa and candied mint. He returns another octopus plate to the cook and gently says, “Remember?”  The cook nods and tries again. Kevin inspects a salad with a crisp prosciutto garnish, and adds another one. “We’re cheap on the prosciutto tonight, are we?” chiding the cook. She has to fry more to make up for her boss’s generosity. He finishes assembling a half dozen other dishes and grabs more tickets, now multiplying like rabbits.

8:30 p.m. The cooks are moving at warp speed, their faces intent. Kevin checks with his expediter on the other side of the window for a pulse on the dining room. She tells him to slow down on table 22, they’re not progressing, but table 9 is ahead of schedule. The ticket machine coughs up two more orders. Kevin fillets a roasted fish, “I love roasting fish on the bone, it’s so juicy,” he says, handing me a piece that fell off the fillet. He softly tells the octopus plate-challenged cook to re-plate a duck appetizer, with a better mango design.

9:00 p.m. Only 2 tickets hang in front of Kevin as the machine cranks up again, and more guests arrive at the door. The cooks fill the lull in action with chestnut peeling. Kevin calls out more orders, and the line takes off again. He marks the tickets, now numbering five, keeping track of who’s on first. Tete de Moines is gathered in a ribbon by the girolle cutter, one of six cheeses for another VIP plate. He doles out a dozen VIP plates through the course of the evening.

9:30 p.m. Kevin fillets another whole fish, and tells me how his cooks can read him like a book. “Sometimes I just look at them, and they know what I want.” A guest returns a medium-cooked Ono for more cooking. Kevin asks if the guest knew it was supposed to be served medium. He rolls his eyes, but returns the fish to the line for a hot oil bath, requesting fresh garnishes and sides for the doomed fish. Three tickets are working and the machine spits out another order.

10:00 p.m. The hot line begins to break down as a friend of Kevin’s, another local chef, pops in to say hi. Kevin treats him to a thrice-cooked French fry, asking the chef if he’s ever tasted a more perfect fry. No, the chef says, savoring the crunch. The kitchen is slowing down. Cooks pull inventory from the refrigerators to count what’s left over. Kevin plates two last dishes, and then begins to put away his garnishes. He washes the counter and walls with a bucket of hot, soapy water. His stage gleams.

10:30 p.m. Kevin leaves the kitchen to circle the dining room, stopping at the handful of lingering tables. He sits at the bar to chat with his chef friend, and jots notes down on a piece of paper. The cooks are cleaning the kitchen, putting leftover inventory away and making their own notes.

10:50 p.m. Two tables are hanging on. Kevin orders a glass of zinfandel. The last guests leave and he stands to bid them goodnight. They stop and admire the framed Bon Appétit page proclaiming Binkley’s Restaurant one of the top “Hot 50: Where to Eat Now.”  He tells me after the guests leave that this was a good night. He jokes that he would have preferred a little more chaos. He is still two hours away from locking the door.

11:00 p.m. His friend takes off, and Kevin turns back to his notes. He wants to order some candy-stripe beets to add color to the roasted beet appetizer. He notes that the herb garden just off the kitchen side door needs watering, and he takes me into the back to check on his microgreens– radish, mustard greens, and amaranth, among others – suspiciously hidden high atop a shelf in the back pantry, nurtured by grow lights.  The cooks are almost finished cleaning, and he tells them to meet him in the dining room for the postmortem.

11:30 p.m. The cooks straggle to the front, chatting about who sold more food, how disasters were averted. Some grab a beer from the bar before settling down to business. Kevin announces he has shrimp coming in from Florida later in the week. He asks if there are enough roasted beets for tomorrow. He switches gears faster than a Maserati. “Duck breast, how many do we have? We’re good on soup?” he kids. Laughter erupts as everyone took a turn peeling chestnuts throughout the day.

12:00 a.m. Each cook has his or her prep list in front of them. Kevin has a copy of the menu. The pheasant will be replaced with veal. Do they want to do veal squared, he asks? Yes, cheek and sweetbread. He wants to bring in Red Oak lettuce from a local farm to add color to the salad greens. “Do we still have gooseberries?” he asks. Yes. “I say we do duck confit perogies, with gooseberries.” Kevin and his band of cooks speak like they move in the kitchen, a dance done a hundred times before. At the end of an hour, they have re-written more than half of the menu for tomorrow, and an order list is put together.

12:30 a.m. The cooks begin to disperse. Kevin sits alone at the table, reviewing the newly minted menu and assembling his order list. He calls in the orders, leaving detailed messages for a handful of suppliers. He smiles at me, not showing even a hint of exhaustion. In fact, he seems eerily peaceful. The last task is to turn off the lights, set the alarm and lock the door, but not before one last stroll through the kitchen, checking equipment, and pausing a moment to reflect on another day on the books. The party is over. At least until tomorrow.

Binkley’s Restaurant

6920 E. Cave Creek Road

Cave Creek, AZ 85331

(480) 437-1072

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Portland Eats – Ned Ludd

It would be easy to label this restaurant “farm-to-table” and call it a day. But that term is seriously overworked.

(Full disclosure: I’m guilty of sowing that term just as much as the next writer.)

In reality, I don’t know Ned Ludd well enough to put it in a corner.

If it wasn’t for a local Phoenix writer, Justin Lee, I might not have known about it at all. I already had a full dining dance card for my recent trip to Portland, and then Justin dropped this one in my lap.

So I did what any self-respecting, food-loving girl would do:

I doubled up, and hit two restaurants in one evening.

Open since December of 2008, Ned Ludd appears to be a quintessential Portland restaurant, taking full advantage of the seemingly bottomless local farm scene, passing every dish through a wood-fired oven.

Ned Ludd is a fictional character, a name made up in the early 1800’s by frustrated British textile workers who destroyed machinery they felt was replacing them. Ergo, Luddites eschew modern technology.

So this Portland restaurant is premised on back-to-basics: a wood-fired oven, simple dishes and minimalist decor.

It’s quaint in a trendy sort of way.

How? Let’s start with the house pickle plate ($5). Canning and preserving made a huge comeback last year, perhaps due to the recession, or perhaps due to the fact that what’s old is new again.

Either way, Ned Ludd’s chartreuse pickled celery is crunchy, sweet, and could be habit forming.

Another trend that emerged last year in a BIG way is the fried egg-topped fill-in-the-blank.

In this case, Ned Ludd’s miso braised mustard greens ($8) are the lucky beneficiary of the sunny side up, golden goodness.

It’s a great idea, although for me, the greens could have used a longer braise — or some stem stripping at the very least — no modern technology required.

I wouldn’t change a thing about the roasted potatoes with sweet chile paste, basil and melted, tangy cheese ($7).

In fact, I’d put them back on the menu.

Because Ned Ludd is a farm-to-table farm-inspired restaurant, the menu ebbs and flows with what’s available, and it changes frequently.

A simple, old-fashioned s’more ($4) is still on the menu, though.

The toasted marshmallows don’t appear to be house made, but maybe they are. They do have a lovely smoky aroma, thanks to the magical wood oven.

In light of the impending dinner at Pok Pok (a fabulous Southeast Asian restaurant on the other side of Portland) later that evening, I didn’t have time to dive into Ned Ludd’s full plates.

But that didn’t stop me from fantasizing all the way across town about the pastured pork chop with porky smothered kale and cracklin’s ($17) and the lamb chop with broccoli rabe, olives and lemon ($18).

With only a fleeting encounter, I won’t cavalierly slap a trendy label on Ned Ludd.

I think it deserves another slot on the dance card… and next time, it’ll get my full and undivided attention.

Ned Ludd
3925 NE Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard
Portland, OR
(502) 288-6900

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