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10 restaurants to sample in Phoenix and Scottsdale

The desert cities are serving up far more than steak and potatoes. Five-star Kai, on the Gila River Reservation, is leading the way.

February 15, 2009|Rosemary McClure

PHOENIX — The stark landscape looms large here: miles of open land pockmarked by desert scrub; jumbled rocks heaped upon one another to create wild mountains; cantankerous cactuses ready to hurl daggers if you come too close.

Landscapes don't come much more ruggedly Western than this.

So it's not surprising to find restaurants that feature an Old West menu. More than a dozen years ago -- the first time I visited -- I dined on fried rattlesnake (chewy), cattle-drive stew (greasy) and Cactus Sam's enchiladas (with Velveeta in a starring role).

But much has happened on the food scene in the intervening years. Phoenix and Scottsdale chefs have worked hard to downplay the chuck wagon-chow image.

Last month, the effort paid off for the restaurant Kai, which received the nation's top dining accolade -- five stars -- from the Mobil Travel Guide. Only 20 restaurants in North America were similarly honored. It was the second major award for Kai, the fine-dining spot at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa; it received AAA's highest rating, five diamonds, last October.

Kai, on the Gila River Reservation, is a phenomenal restaurant with a unique menu and outstanding service. It is the only five-star here, but it's not the only restaurant that tries great things and succeeds.

"Phoenix isn't a first-tier restaurant city yet," says veteran restaurant critic Howard Seftel. "It's not New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco. But it's not Cleveland either. It used to be a 10th-tier restaurant city. Now it's pushing second tier."

Seftel has kept tabs on the ebb and flow of the city's restaurant scene for nearly 20 years for the Arizona Republic newspaper.

"We don't have the depth or breadth of restaurants you'd find in L.A., but if you visit for two weeks, we have a wealth of sophisticated restaurants to keep you happy during that time frame," Seftel says.

We asked area chefs and food experts to help us develop a list of some of the top restaurants. Here are 10 you should try:

Kai: This five-star prize winner should top everyone's list. The management describes the cuisine as "Native American with global accents." And, indeed, the cultures of the Pima and Maricopa tribes are celebrated at every chance: in the hand-painted menus, in the salad greens grown and collected by students at a Gila River Indian Community school, in the non-traditional dishes that feature traditional ingredients. Kudos to executive chef Michael O'Dowd and Native American chef de cuisine Jack Strong. Favorites: wood-grilled squash puree ($14), grilled tenderloin of buffalo ($47) and Chippewa walleye ($58). Tasting menus: $140 and $200. Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, 5594 W. Wild Horse Pass Blvd., Chandler; (520) 796-8281, www.wildhorsepassresort.com.

Sea Saw: This tiny restaurant in downtown Scottsdale is another local champion. Its chef, Nobuo Fukuda, is a James Beard Foundation award-winner who delights in giving a modern twist to Japanese food. You won't find traditional dishes such as rice or sushi here, but you will find masterful tapas-style courses dramatically prepared by Fukuda. Favorites: white fish carpaccio ($16); eight-course omakase tasting menu ($95, $125 with wine pairings). 7133 E. Stetson Drive, Scottsdale; (480) 481-9463. www.seasaw.net.

Binkley's: You'll need to hit the road to reach Binkley's, which is in Cave Creek, a 30- to 45-minute drive north of Scottsdale. Chef Kevin Binkley won his stripes working at the five-star Inn at Little Washington in Virginia and the French Laundry in Napa. He describes his cuisine as "French-informed, modern American fare." Favorites: rib-eye cap ($40) and Oregon black truffle chicken ($44). 6920 E. Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek; (480) 437-1072, www.binkleysrestaurant.com.

Quiessence: You'll probably think you took a wrong turn when you approach Quiessence. This romantic restaurant is in a rural part of Phoenix, just down the road from a warehouse zone. But that's part of the charm: It has taken up residence in an old farmhouse on the grounds of a one-time pecan ranch. Dine in front of a 15-foot stone fireplace or in a glassed-in patio. The menu changes daily as executive chef Gregory LaPrad selects ingredients from local growers and farmers. Entrees, $24 to $31; a six-course sampler menu is $75, with wine pairings an additional $45. 6106 S. 32nd St., Phoenix; (602) 276-0601, www.quiessencerestaurant.com.

Pizzeria Bianco: If you long for something less expensive but still want to sample the work of a culinary superstar, visit Pizzeria Bianco. Chris Bianco has won a James Beard Foundation award; his pizzas are thin-crusted, New York-style wonders that he cooks in a wood-fired brick oven. But the restaurant is so busy you may wait two or three hours. A wine bar next door, Bar Bianco, may take the edge off. Favorite: wise guy pizza, with mozzarella, onion and fennel sausage ($14). 623 E. Adams St., Phoenix; (602) 258-8300, www.pizzeriabianco.com.

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