Not so long ago, the Phoenix metropolitan area was not only situated in the Sonoran Desert, it was a food desert as well. Nowadays, happily, it is a foodie’s oasis, with a myriad of new restaurants and bistros, acclaimed chefs, swank cocktail bars, one of the nation’s few olive mills, and organic farms providing true farm and garden-to-table produce to consumers and the restaurant industry.
Take Rico’s American Grill, as just one outstanding example of the delightful gastronomic offerings I visited recently in this sprawling, lushly landscaped city. Hawaiian native Ken Arneson presides over his October-February “Garden Lunch Series” (reservations required,) showcased in the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak. Chef Arneson is downright boyish, sitting on the wall next to his organic chef’s raised-bed garden, and exuding enthusiasm about fresh vegetables. “I literally just go out in the morning and pace the garden,” he says. “The garden tells me what to do.”
Suddenly, he grabs hold of some leaves and voila, a bright orange carrot is yanked from the compost-rich soil. As I exclaimed in delighted surprise, he laughed, his brown eyes sparkling. “That’s what everyone does! Now look at your salad – I picked that lettuce myself, right before you came.”
The lunch was sublime – and so was the setting, in a Mediterranean-like courtyard, with birds chirping, herbal and floral aromas emanating from the garden, and palm trees swishing in the breeze. I began with tomato and artichoke carpaccio topped with a delicate, locally-produced goat cheese and a tantalizing vinaigrette; moved onto pork belly brined in pineapple juice and sea salt for 48 hours and then grilled, over a fresh lettuce and cucumber slaw. Next came a pleasingly gooey havarti and brie “grilled cheese” alongside a silky tomato bisque and last, Arneson’s “play” on apple pie – Chardonnay-poached Granny Smiths cored and filled with white chocolate mousse, drizzled with Fireball Liqueur and homemade graham cracker crumbs. Arneson calls his cuisine “simple comfort food with a twist.” I call it divine.
Cooking Schools Too
While there are countless restaurants serving fine farm-to-table cuisine, there are numerous cooking schools in the area, some with renowned chefs teaching. One of the most pleasurable might be the cooking series at the Desert Botanical Garden, one of only a few botanical gardens in the nation accredited by the American Association of Museums. The Garden features five thematic trails and displays the world’s finest collection of arid-land plants, along with fantastic Dale Chihuly glass sculptures. While there, visitors can take part in hands-on cooking classes and demonstrations, such as The Edible Desert –Healthy Gems from the Southwest class I took with Chef Denise Clayton.
Clayton presented her recipes in a playful way, urging us to be creative with the Southwestern-focused recipes. A hummingbird tapped incessantly on the window as our classroom of nine students brunched on splendid corn crepes filled with goat cheese, corn, nopales (cactus), golden raisins, pine nuts and green chilies, topped with a rich, exotic red mole sauce that was whipped up in just minutes. Sides included a “Tepary” Bean Salad with Cumin Vinaigrette and we finished off the feast with Prickly Pear Sorbet served in the hollowed-out prickly pear halves. Classes range from $62-94 for the general public, less for garden members.
Thanks, perhaps, to the acclaimed “Mad Men” series, cocktails are back in style, in a big way. The gorgeous, exclusive Sanctuary on Camelback just finished enlarging and renovated its Jade Bar, beloved for its custom cocktails and its “Mixology 101” cocktail experience.
If you want a taste of Phoenix, check out Arizona Restaurant week, held May 17-26, with an anticipated 150 restaurants. In its 9th season, founded by the Arizona Restaurant Association, Arizona Restaurant Week is considered one of the most successful events of its kind in the nation, helping introduce the state’s brightest and best culinary talent—not to mention delectable dishes—to foodie fans in the metro Phoenix area. — Story and photos by Irene Middleman Thomas, RFT Contributor