Saturday, March 31, 2007

Jester On The Go: Olive & Ivy, Scottsdale AZ.

Today, I did a common thing when I'm scheduled to go in to work later than usual... I went in at the normal time. I suddenly found I had 45 minutes to kill, and felt like grabbing a small nibble of some sort. I almost went to the Nordstrom Cafe, but the mall was absolutely jammed. It was a nice day, what were all of you people doing going to an air conditioned building? I went out and looked for another option, then remembered about the new Fox restaurant, Olive & Ivy, on the other side of the Nordstrom parking garage.

Olive and Ivy is a very pretty place, with soaring ceilings, dark woods, sleek surfaces, and nice partitioning so it doesn't feel like a warehouse. It is split into several sections; the standard bar and restaurant areas, plus a to-go counter that features coffeehouse offerings (espresso drinks and baked goods) plus several flavors of (Oh God, Not Again!) gelato. The split layout means they can be open all day long without feeling like half of the place is closed: The counter is open for breakfast and lunch; the restaurant is open for brunch, lunch, and dinner; and the bar is open at lunch, dinner, and for late-night nibbles. I spent a few minutes perusing the cold case in the counter area, stocked with overpriced beer, mini bottles of wine, and soft drinks. They had an excellent selection of exotic and familiar offerings. But two bucks for Vitamin Water that costs two thirds that at a run of the mill convenience store? Aie.

I stood eyeing the gelato case for a minute or so; the two people behind the expansive counter preferred chatting with each other and straightening the adjacent espresso machine area to other activities such as... oh, I don't know, how about greeting the puzzled looking guest in front of you?! They may have made eye contact once or twice. I don't remember. It was certainly not the first impression I wanted. I doubt I'm going to try them again.

Olive & Ivy
7135 E Camelback Rd Ste 195 (Scottsdale Waterfront complex)
Scottsdale AZ 85251

Open for: Breakfast, Weekend Brunch, Lunch, Dinner, Late Night
Atmosphere: 5 (Absolutely gorgeous)
Service: 0 (there was none, not even a hello. Inexcusable.)
Food: Not Reviewed
Value 2 (items in cold case were overpriced)
Kid Friendly: 2 (upscale, no hint of kids menu; upscale kids will be pleased with the small plates)
Overall: No Rating due to no food tasting. Overall impression is that it's the archetype downtown Scottsdale restaurant- very pretty, costs more than it should, and the customers serve as an interruption to the employees' social hour. I see no reason to return.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

What IS Mack Daddy's, anyway?

My commute takes me along Indian School Road from central Phoenix to Scottsdale on an almost daily basis. As such, I'm always on the lookout for new things to eat in between here and there. One that I've noticed (and noticed that they're taking their sweet time to get up and running) is Mack Daddy's 3-2 Gourmet To Go, over on 32nd Street and Indian School. I looked around for it online, and found their website to be almost impossible to find. Eventually, I found out that the eatery is run by the same guy who owns Newton Fitness next door, Mack Newton. Further poking on the website revealed that the 3-2 in the name is the name of Mack's diet plan. The 3 is for the three things you can eat (lean meats, vegetables, and fresh fruit), the 2 for the two things you can drink (water and fruit juice). That's right, it's a low-carb diet restaurant! If they opened this seven years ago they would have lines out the door. These days, I'm not so sure. And yes, Mack, it IS a diet, despite what your website claims.

The mentions of the food on the website leave me utterly cold. There's no mention of using truly high-quality ingredients, except that they call higher qu
ality food "that which is served closer to the natural state in which it occurs." When one is working with a simpler ingredient set such as this, everything has to be absolutely the best it can, preferably something locally produced, or at least in season. Add to this a complete lack of salt in the kitchen. Yes, that's right, no salt at all. While this is good news to people with high blood pressure, for everyone else it means the food is going to be utterly bland. According to the website, salt is a "powerful flavorizer" with a "sharp, acidic taste". Flavorizer? Why must they make up words? And salt is not acidic, it is neutral. A little bit of salt can heighten the flavor of just about any food; if you have ever tasted baked goods that someone forgot to add the salt to, surely you noticed it just didn't taste right, that the flavor of the food just fell flat. More worrisome is their testimonial section, which has several mentions of weight lost, but not a word about what the food is like. I have a feeling that about the only people who will frequent Mack Daddy's are the ones already on Newton's program; the rest of us don't have much to hope for there.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Cooking: Red Curry

I have a friend who is, when left to her own devices, entirely un-Chowhoundish. I invited her and her beau over to my place for dinner one night, and they turned down the invitation in favor of a trip to Olive Garden. They could have at least been a little diplomatic and said they weren't sure where they were going yet! She lived in a house with three college age guys at one point. The default meal was Hamburger Helper. She figured it was one of the few things that everyone could devour without putting her in the poor house. Something about the idea of dinner from a box scares me. Maybe it's the list of ingredients that look like they belong in a science lab, or the tendency for different flavors to taste less like the real items they're trying to emulate, and more just like each other. I'm utterly tired of mass-produced, processed junk masquerading as a wholesome meal. I want my food to resemble FOOD, darn it!

Fear not, good citizens. Your friendly local Asian grocery store is to the rescue! There's all kinds of wonderful things inside, but this time I'm focusing on curry, specifically Thai style red curry. Three styles of Thai curry are known by colorful names- Green curry, with green chilis and shallots; yellow curry, with plenty of turmeric and usually potatoes and onions as ingredients for the curry; and red curry, with red chilis. This time, I'm making red curry. There's a lot of ingredients in the curry that are pretty hard to find outside of specialty grocery stores, including galangal, lemongrass, and kaffir lime. Thankfully, red (and green and yellow) curry pastes are available with all of the herbs and spices already mixed together for you. All you need to add is some coconut milk, meat, and vegetables, and tah-dah! It's dinner!

If you can make any of those dinners in a box, you can certainly make Thai red curry. Take 3.5 ounces of curry paste (for a less spicy curry, use less curry paste, down to half as much), and moosh it around in a 12 inch skillet over medium-high heat. Then, add two cans of coconut milk one at a time, mixing thoroughly before adding the next ingredient. Add 8 ounces of any meat you like (we've been doing chicken a lot here just because I always have some frozen chicken breasts from Trader Joe's at hand), and let the mixture simmer until the meat is as done as you like. Add 4 to 8 ounces of your choice of chopped vegetables (we like carrots, onion, and snow peas quite a bit, but let your imagination go wild), let that simmer until the vegetables are done (just a couple of minutes), and serve. Yes, it's that easy, and there's only one pot to clean up afterward. Well, two pots... steamed rice on the side is essential.

Speaking of rice, here's how I do rice for any Asian meals. Mix 3 cups of water with 2 cups of rice (I use jasmine rice) and about half a teaspoon of salt. Let that boil over medium high heat until the water level drops below the surface of the rice, about 10 minutes. Cover the pot, turn the heat down to low, and let it cook for another 15 minutes. Take it off the heat, give it a quick stir/fluff to stop the cooking, and serve.

Friday, March 09, 2007

What The Jester Had For Dessert: Melt Gelato, Phoenix AZ

I have been to a godawful lot of gelaterias in the Phoenix area. They certainly are prolific. I can think of seven different companies, and close to a dozen total locations of said companies. There is now yet another player in this hot market, namely a Southern California based franchise operation called Melt (no relation to the bath and body product company of the same name). Their first location is open in Paradise Valley Mall, with a second location set to open soon in Superstition Springs Mall in Mesa.

I went over there to try it today, and was vastly underwhelmed. I was impressed by their selection, with what looked like about 32 different flavors. They offer three sizes of gelato; a one-flavor small, a two-flavor large, and the Bambino, a selection of eight mini-scoops. They do also offer espresso drinks and a variety of sweet and savory crepes; these were not tasted on this trip. Since I wanted to get as big of a taste of their product line as possible, my friend Bellana and I naturally split the Bambino. We got the double dark chocolate, strawberry cheesecake, burgundy cherry, açai mixed berry sorbet, raspberry sorbet, butter pecan, cookies & cream, and Tropical (piña colada). I also tried samples of the tequila lime gelato and pomegranate sorbet. The best of them was the açai mixed berry, but it was plagued with an iciness that often comes from the product being taken in and out of a hard freeze. Many of the gelati had a very gummy, almost gluey texture that just didn't give the right mouthfeel. On top of this, the flavors just weren't deep enough. I could barely notice a difference between the cookies & cream and the burgundy cherry if it wasn't for the telltale bits of cherry in the latter. It is one of the slicker looking gelaterias in town, coming close to rivaling the cheerful colors of Arlecchino, and the service is personable and friendly, but those will only get you so far when the product itself is lacking so much. In retrospect, I shouldn't be all that surprised. I looked at their website, and most of it is about franchis opportunities. This is definitely a Chowhound's red flag; the company shows this way that they care more about opening new locations than about creating a great product.

Melt Gelato
4568 E Cactus Road
Phoenix, AZ
Paradise Valley Mall Food Court

Open For: Lunch, Dinner
Food: 2 (textures were off, flavors need to be stronger)
Service: 3 (Nice people, and they didn't mind us sampling several flavors while we made up our minds)
Atmosphere: 4 (Clean, modern, and metallic)
Value: 3 (Right around what everyone else is charging)
Kid Friendly? 4 (Come on, it's ice cream!)
Price: 1 (inexpensive)
Overall: 3 (It was OK, certainly nothing to go out of one's way for)

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Two Great Pieces of Sushi News

I went to college down in Tucson. While there, friends introduced me to a terrific Japanese restaurant called Sushi Ten. The food was top-notch, and the prices were an outstanding value. Indeed, Sushi Ten was one of the things I really missed about Tucson; there's plenty of Japanese restaurants around town, but none that came quite close to the charm of Sushi Ten. Then, a few months ago I found out the owners of Sushi Ten were planning to sell the restaurant and move up here. A month or two ago, they landed here and opened their new restaurant, Sushi Ken, over on Chandler Boulevard a little east of 40th Street, in the same shopping centre as CK's Tavern. I am very pleased to report that the menu is every bit as expansive as the one at Sushi Ten, and the food is every bit as terrific as it was down in Tucson. My friend and I got a 12-piece sashimi sampler plate, pork katsu donburi (a rice bowl topped with fried pork cutlet, sauteed onion, and egg), and sukiyaki chicken. All of it was top-notch, and the bill came to less than 30 dollars.

Now, on to even better news. A few years ago, there was an unbelievable sushi restaurant in Chandler not far from where Sushi Ken is now, called Shinbay. Shinbay was by far the best sushi restaurant I had been to, and indeed one of the best restaurants I have dined at in my life. I can still vividly remember the flavors of the meal including oysters in black bean sauce, and mussels in a very complex broth. Then, just over a year ago, Shinbay closed up shop. There was a note on the webpage saying to email them to find out where chef Shinji Kurita was now. I tried that route, to no avail, and eventually forgot all but the Shin of his name. Then, some discussion on Chowhound revealed the rest of his name to me. I then realized that the marquee for one of my favorite Chinese restaurants, Autumn Court over on 38th Street and Indian School, has been advertising for weeks that none other than Shinji Kurita is doing sushi there! Fellow sushi lovers, you owe it to yourself to get over to Autumn Court and try Kurita-san's sushi. If it's even half as good as what he made at Shinbay it will still be some of the very best sushi in town. Go. Now. Trust me on this.