Mark Tarbell's The Tavern in Phoenix Offers a Taste of the Past, In a Good Way

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Slow-cooked Scotch beef from Tarbell's The Tavern
Those of us of a certain age remember fondly Sportsman's Fine Wines, a longtime landmark on the southeast corner of Camelback Road and 32nd Street and one of very few decent wine shops in town. And some of us who love a good Caesar salad and a nice escargot have been whining ever since Barmouche, much-decorated restaurateur, chef, and wine expert Mark Tarbell's popular European bistro, closed more than a decade ago.


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Tomaso Maggiore's Vivo! Ristorante Offers Refined Italian Dining in Scottsdale

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Antipasto-Tagliere-Charcuterie Board from Vivo! in Scottsdale
Few are surprised that, in less than half a year, Vivo! Ristorante has established itself as one of the more refined dining spots in town. Its pedigree helps: Vivo! is the latest offering from Phoenix restaurateur Tomaso Maggiore, creator of Tomaso's and a long list of other local restaurants. After decades of managing popular Italian eateries, Maggiore, who opened Vivo! last fall at Lincoln Drive and Scottsdale Road, knows a thing or two about modern Italian cuisine, and has established himself as one of the best chefs in the Valley. His menus are intelligent, authentic, and light, his creativity built around tradition and tempered by good taste.

Maggiore's latest restaurant specializes in seafood, pastas, and wood-­fired pizzas. Its more original conceits include a mozzarella bar and a handful of daring entrées (like eggplant torte, slices of eggplant baked with cheese fondue, and squid­ink "black" pasta with seafood). Upscale yet inviting, patterned after old­-time, uptown supper clubs, Vivo! features a wraparound bar that separates booths from tables in a single large, open room. I like that Maggiore keeps his restaurant open during the no man's man's land between lunch and dinner, and that his wait staff has just enough attitude to suggest they know their stuff.

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Mika's Greek in Downtown Phoenix Serves Surprisingly Authentic Greek Fare

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
A Gyro Platter from Mika's Green in Phoenix.
You want authentic souvlaki, or a decent gyro, and you want it now. Usually, fast food and Greek aren't a great mix; falafel doesn't do well under heat lamps, and whoever heard of made-ahead lamb skewers? If you're craving excellent Greek fare, you're likely headed to someplace with faux Athenian décor, a lounge, and a live belly dancer.

Mika's Greek is neither a supper club nor one of those depressing, prefab fast food joints. Having recently expanded its small chain of two East Valley locations to downtown Phoenix, locally owned Mika's is a spotless diner that serves fresh-made, almost entirely authentic Greek fare. There are next to no surprises on Mika's menu, just customary Greek cuisine -- flavors and textures that send you briefly to Amphipolis, even when some of the traditional dishes fall short.

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Second Story Liquor Bar in Scottsdale Struggles to Achieve Success

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Samosa Lobster Pie from Second Story Liquor Bar in Scottsdale.
I'm a fan of nouvelle cuisine and never balk at paying premium prices for fine food. But while Second Story Liquor Bar offers both the teeny portions of fussy food and the prices one expects from a four-star restaurant, it does so without benefit of fine cuisine or distinction. Uneventful entrées and one-note sides can't be cloaked by the nearly endless gimmickry offered here.

Located on the corner of Third Avenue and Scottsdale Road, this glamorous culinary disappointment is the brainchild of restaurateur Tommy Plato, who also owns the downstairs Gelato Spot Caffe. Second Story's stunning décor features dark leather booths and a dramatic chandelier; its main dining room is flanked by an outdoor eating patio and built around a floor-level window that gazes into the downstairs cafe. Its billing as "the restaurant in the sky" -- it's located on the top floor of a two-story building -- is as outlandish as its menu.

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Hodori in Mesa Offers Korean Eats for Adventurous Diners

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Haemul jungol, a Korean seafood stew from Hodori in Mesa.
Growing up near the Pacific Ocean, I've eaten my fair share of seafood. But I was a little unnerved when I unearthed an unidentifiable withered, round mystery from my bowl of haemul jungol - a bubbling seafood stew served piping hot at Hodori, a Korean restaurant in Mesa. The giant silver bowl of soup, called a "casserole" on the restaurant's menu, included a medley of familiar ocean creatures - everything from head-on shrimps, whole crabs, and clams to one large squid the server cut into pieces with scissors before plopping them into the crimson broth.

I was okay with that. And the soup was delicious, overflowing with triangles of soft tofu, thick udon-style noodles, and fresh vegetables and herbs, an entrée for two that simmered on a tabletop convection burner until the piquant smells could no longer be resisted. Each spoonful delivered a delicate balance of briny ocean flavor and a pleasing level of spice.

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Swishing Well: Shabu Fondue in Phoenix Offers Healthy and Messy Japanese Cuisine

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Shabu-shabu means "swish-swish."
If the crummy part of eating healthy is all the prep work involved, local restaurateur Johnny Chu has swooped in to save health-conscious diners (and anyone who likes fresh food and a nice bowl of soup). At Shabu Fondue, Chu does the chopping and washing and we, at long last, have an estimable shabu-shabu restaurant in Central Phoenix.

In Japanese, shabu-shabu means "swish-swish," because one swishes slices of meat and hunks of fresh vegetables through pots of hot broth that cook them. The windup involves a tasty soup of reduced broth full of bits of what you've been dipping -- easily the best part of an already pleasant meal.

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SumoMaya in Scottsdale Expertly Blends Mexican and Asian Cuisines

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Arroz Con Pato from SumoMaya
In the '70s, my friends and I ate at La Rosa, a Glendale diner that served both Mexican and Chinese food -- not only because we liked both chow mein and chimichangas, but because we thought it was hilarious that a restaurant would offer two such diverse cuisines. Although fusion cuisine was just starting to catch on at the time, it hadn't yet arrived in the desert, and La Rosa kept the sopapillas and the sizzling rice on separate platters.

Fusion dining's often pretentious customs are neatly celebrated at SumoMaya, whose glamorous locale is home to a menu that, with some exceptions, expertly blends Asian and Mexican cuisines in eccentric and more often delicious ways.

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Franco's Italian Cafe in Scottsdale: Classic, Sophisticated, and Delicious

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Seafood risotto at Franco's Italian Cafe.
I rarely eat in Italian restaurants. Raised on basic Italian fare, I'm put off by menus featuring chicken parmigiani and "gourmet" versions of pasta fagioli (peasant food, made with white beans and macaroni in a watery tomato broth, but invariably Italian-­Americanized with veal and a half­-dozen vegetables in the pretentious "Italian" diners that serve it).

Franco's Italian Café is an exception I am always happy to make. Offering a sophisticated cuisine both rustic and refined, this posh Scottsdale restaurant's tired décor (exposed ductwork; big black-­and-­white framed photos of Italian movie stars) is less kitsch or bad planning than an homage to our recent culinary past, when Franco's was a mainstay of fine Italian dining.

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At Southern Rail in Phoenix, Chef Justin Beckett Does Southern Fare with Finesse

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
Crispy duck, cornbread salad and casserole, and bread pudding at Southern Rail.
At first glance, there's plenty about Justin Beckett's Southern Rail to suggest it's going to be just another pileup of overworked dining trends. There's the rustic­-meets­-Steampunk décor, the open kitchen, the communal table set with mismatched flatware, Homer Laughlin diner ware, and dishtowel as serviette.

It's the neatly rehabbed comfort food from Beckett, of popular Arcadia eatery Beckett's Table fame, that sets this deluxe dinner house apart. Housed in part of The Newton, former home of The Beef Eaters, Southern Rail takes the trend in mashing up fine dining with Mason­Dixon cuisine a step further. The tidy, not­-overwhelming menu features dishes tarted up with sausage gravy and sides of cornbread, to be sure, but Beckett has finessed classic American dishes with some more subtle Southern influences, as well.

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Barbecue at Astor House in Coronado: Hit and Miss -- and Hold the Sauce

Categories: Cafe Review

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Jackie Mercandetti
A year into smoking meats Astor House emerges as a better barbecue joint.
I rave so often and so loudly about Tuck Shop, my friends believe I'm an investor in the popular restaurant. And I dine so frequently at Vovomeena, the staff and I are on a first­-name basis. But I admit to having abandoned Astor House, a smallish eatery in the Coronado neighborhood that's operated by the same folks who own Tuck Shop and Vovomeena, after only one visit. The diner's New Orleans-­themed snack food menu bored me, and I never returned. But word that this tiny diner, which shares a building with Tuck Shop, had traded in shared plates for a pair of hickory­-wood smokers piqued my interest and, eventually, filled my belly with some delicious (and, admittedly, a couple of ho­hum) smoked meats.

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