Gainfully Employed

I  have some great news to share! A few weeks ago, The Arizona Republic offered me a full-time position. I am now officially gainfully employed. I had no idea what was coming when I met both my editor Stacy Sullivan and Executive Editor Nicole Carrol at Arizona Center for coffee and a chat back in March. I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped to the floor when they told me what they had in mind. Like Sally Fields, I nearly blurted out a shocked “You like me!” As a freelancer, you’re never quite sure.

When Howie called to congratulate me, he said, “You’ve gotten the last journalism job of the 21st Century.” And he may be right. Within that same week, Raymond Sokolov left The Wall Street Journal (uninterested in accepting their offer for a food trends beat) and here in town, dining critic and reporter Jess Harter was laid off at the East Valley Tribune, a move Harter says he knew was coming. At this moment, I feel lucky, lucky, lucky. Grateful too.

So here’s the scoop. The Valley will now be divided into territories or beats. Howie will have Phoenix and Scottsdale, Barbara Yost will cover the West Valley and I will cover the Southeast Valley, meaning Tempe, Chandler, Ahwatukee, Mesa, Gilbert and Queen Creek. I hope (no, plan) to become the SEV expert, the person who keeps abreast of everything happening there in a restaurant and food-related way and reports it to you, dear readizzle.

The cool thing about my beat is how quickly it’s growing and how ethnically diverse it seems to be. In recent months, I discovered a Venezuelan gem called My Arepa, a sweet Caribbean outpost called Hot Pot Caribbean Cuisine and terrific dim sum at Phoenix Palace.  I look forward to finding more small, sincere independents such as these three.

So if you all learn of great Southeast Valley spots or juicy news I should know about, please contact me here at Wild Lavender or at the paper. I don’t have an email set up there yet, but it should be in place in the next few days.

Question is: With so much good food in my future, how in the world am I going to shed 15 pounds (heck, I’d settle for 10) by summer?

Multi-Faceted Diamond

Matt Diamond is a wine wonk through and through, a cork dork who’s worked with three of the most well-known wine guys in the Valley — namely, Craig DeMarco, Peter Kasperski and Tom Kaufman at Postino, Cowboy Ciao/Kazimierz and Humble Pie respectively.

So it seems odd that he and his wife Courtney would decide to open an ale house (think cozy neighborhood hangout minus sloppy-drunk college crowd) and not some la-ti-da wine bar with bruschetta on the menu. Not that I don’t love bruschetta, just sayin’ . . .

But they did, and now that I’ve seen it, I’m thinking they’re pretty damned smart. The place is called The Main Ingredient Ale House & Café, and it’s housed in the former Lisa G. location — a charming red brick bungalow they’ve furnished comfortably and decorated with vintage music posters plus cool pix of the surrounding Coronado neighborhood. The upgraded back bar looks great (check out the Schlitz lamp), as does the front porch vignette I intend to inhabit soon — a couple of comfy chairs with a table between: just perfect for a lazy afternoon.

Diamond told me that he and Courtney had decided the wine bar theme had been done to death (so true). They knew they wanted to have a fun, cool, inexpensive place that had a relaxed wine bar vibe but seemed a bit more “off the beaten path.”  A beer bar, specializing in craft beers, seemed just the ticket.

Of course, you can get wine if you want to. The California-heavy list has 14 offerings by the glass or bottle, seven other selections sold by the bottle only. As you might imagine, it’s hardly mainstream.

But beer is the big thing. The menu features some 20 of them in can or bottle, including Sam Adams, Bud, Miller High Life and Schlitz because nobody around here plans to be a beer snob. Diamond says other local places (The Parlor and The Roosevelt, for example) are carrying Pabst Blue Ribbon, so he figured they’d go with Schlitz. After all, they’ve got the lamp!

Four of the eight draft beers are Arizona-made: Four Peaks The Main Ale (a pale gold and refreshing Kölsch made specifically for The Main Ingredient), Four Peaks Hop Knot, Four Peaks Hefeweizen and Oak Creek Nut Brown. Stone Imperial Russian Stout and Oskar Blues Gordon are also on tap, which, I’m told, is very rare. With few exceptions, most of the beers here are revered regional favorites.

My pal and I nibbled around on a few things, but our visit was just for fun, not full-fledged reviewing.

I can’t wait to come back. This is my kind of hangout — especially when I can drink beer on the patio or belly up to the cozy bar.

The Main Ingredient

2337 N. Seventh Street, Phoenix, 602-THE-MAIN, 602-843-6246.

Buh-Bye!

A funny conversation with FnB grrrrrl Charleen “Bad to the Bone” Badman (aka Bad Ass to some of her acolytes) about what she called “squirty bottles” led to this little list of things that: 1) have gone away and I’m glad or 2) need to go away once and for all.

Read it and let me know what you agree or disagree with and tell me what I’ve left out. There must be tons of stuff I’ve forgotten.

1) Pan-Asian Cuisine

2) Wasabi mashed potatoes

3) Edible flowers used as garnish for entrees

4) Candied walnuts/pecans on salad

5) Elaborate dessert plate designs made with crème Anglaise and raspberry coulis

6) Dessert plates dusted with cocoa or confectioner’s sugar

7) Chefs swanning around their dining rooms instead of working in the kitchen

8) Servers who begin by saying “My name is ____ and I’ll be your server tonight.”

9) Perrier water (so unbelievably over-rated)

10) Lego Food—Elaborately stacked and impossible to eat

11) Dishes with too many ingredients

12) Dishes with crazy, forced combinations of ingredients

13) Super-architectural desserts

14) Bizarrely shaped serving pieces that upstage the food served in or on them

15) Lame vegetable sides, particularly the ubiquitous zucchini, yellow squash and onion combo

16) Portobello mushrooms—I still like them; they were simply overused for a while there.

17) Tiramisu—Ditto.

18) Molten chocolate cakes, lava cakes—Ditto again.

19) Menus that list every single ingredient in the dish (Beef stock? Really? And Thyme?)

20) Menus with over-the-top descriptions

21) Menus with misspellings

22) The phrase “baked to perfection”

23) Wraps of any sort

24) Chefs wearing those stupid toques

25) Servers who say, “How are we doing?” WE?

26) Ranch dressing

27) Dirty menus (makes you wonder what the kitchen looks like)

28) White napkins that shed on black clothes

Whizzing down West Bell Road yesterday, I saw something that nearly made my heart stop. The sign over one of my favorite Latin American restaurants said Mi Comida instead of Mi Cocina Mi Pais.

I whipped the car around and pulled in to take a look. A taped note on the door said something about “we’re under the same ownership, blah blah blah.” Inside, I could see the same fellow waiting on tables I’ve seen a hundred times before — Michael, it turns out — chef owner Rosa Rosas’s son.

When I asked him what was going on, he said that in January, some corporate outfit from Texas sent them legal papers saying they had a trademark on the name Mi Cocina and that Rosa would have to change her restaurant’s name or risk legal action. Rosa took the matter to her own lawyer, who pointed out that although her name is registered with the Arizona Corporation Commission, the Texas big shots have lots more money than she does and the battle would be costly. Naturally, she changed the name. And now Mi Cocina Mi Pais — established in 2003 — is no more. Mi Comida (a name that also seems ripe for the corporate plucking) means, basically, “my food.”

This isn’t the first time Big Money has muscled out the little guy. Just ask Steve Friedkin who’d been operating as Lone Star Steaks at 16th Street and Bethany Home for years before another Texas group (are they just a little meaner there?) forced him to change his restaurant’s name. Lone Star became Texaz Grill.

The good news for diners (regarding Mi Comida) is that the turmoil shook Rosa up so much that she got busy and added new dishes to her already terrific menu. Now, in addition to all the old favorites, she’s offering white corn and green plantain empanadas, arepas, ajiaco Don Miguel (creamy potato and chicken soup), seco de chivo (goat stew), aji de gallina (chicken stew in spicy cream sauce) and encebollado de pescado (Ecudadorian fish soup). Oh yeah, she’s got an exotic tropical ice cream on there too. I didn’t ask, but surely it’s lucuma.

Let’s all try to get in there soon and show Rosa some support. Her food is yummy and she’s a sweet, sweet lady.

Mi Comida Restaurante Latino
4221 W. Bell Road, Phoenix
602-548-7900

I went to Estate House yesterday afternoon to meet with Gio about our first Wild Lavender cooking class, coming up next Saturday, February 27th. We went back in the kitchen, and while Gio (it’s pronounced “Joe,” not “Gee-Oh”) prepared a bunch of peppers for roasting for the next day’s Simple Sunday Dinner, we loosely mapped out what he’ll demonstrate and what we’ll talk about next week. I learned at least a half dozen cool tips about cooking in the course of that conversation, and then it hit me why I’m so excited about these classes. Gio is a generous, funny, knowledgeable guy (in short, the perfect teacher) and I am a perpetual student. I’m going to learn a ton of stuff right along with everybody else, and frankly, I can’t wait. People always assume that because I’m a restaurant critic, I cook a lot, but here’s a picture of my fridge’s interior — aka International House of Leftovers.

I do not cook. But I’m guessing all that’s about to change. I’m going to want to practice what Gio preaches. And I can tell you, this is a man who isn’t going to just stand there and do a boring old demo. He’s going to teach us the general principles of cooking so that we can apply the techniques we’ve learned and not just try to duplicate a single recipe. It’s like the old Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish, you have fed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” So, yeah, we’ll all learn to fish.

We’re going to have so much fun! I’ll be there without the ratty-looking wig (unveiled, as it were), and ready to answer any questions you might have about good restaurants and what a life of perpetual eating is like. We’ll kick off every class with a special Wild Lavender cocktail (don’t worry, teetotalers; day-drinking is not required), and we’ll also learn about wines, cocktails and other appropriate beverages to pair with the foods Gio and other visiting chefs make each week.

So here are the goals Gio and I have for the class:

1) Get to know each other
2) Learn a lot
3) Eat well
4) Have fun

If you have any questions about the class, ask them in the Comments below. See you soon!

Wild Lavender Cooking Classes
Every Saturday (Starting 2/27)
11am-1:30pm
Includes multi-course lunch and wine pairings
RSVP at 480-970-4099
> View the class schedule online

Knot a Problem

Double Knot with Spicy Buffalo Wings

When it comes to beer, I’m seldom adventurous. Most of the time, I gravitate toward the clean, crisp stuff you drink ice cold in a frosty glass. Anything much heavier, and I feel like I’m drinking bread.

As for IPAs, I’ve never been a fan — until a week or so ago when I tasted Hop Knot brewed by Four Peaks Brewing Company in Tempe. It’s classified as American-style strong pale ale, and it took the bronze at both the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival in 2006. So it’s been around. I just didn’t know it.

I took a sip of my buddy’s and was surprised to find that I liked it. Then I saw it on tap when I dropped by The Main Ingredient with a girlfriend last week. You know how that happens? You’ve never heard of a thing and suddenly, it’s everywhere you look?

According to the Four Peaks website, Hop Knot is made from American malt and four different kinds of American hops, each added at four separate times in the brewing process. I like it because it’s both hoppy and a little citrusy without tasting bitter.

Last week, I stopped at Four Peaks to have a Hop Knot and something spicy to go with it. Wings, I was thinking. But when I started telling my awakening consciousness story to my server – a darling girl who was kind enough to take interest — she suggested I try the Double Knot instead, a seasonal double IPA (which means, twice the amount of hops) that just came out the week before and only lasts about a month. She said she loved it.

And boy, do I get that. Served in a snifter, it’s a pale copper color with almost no head ($5). The nose is amazing — citrusy and pretty, almost floral to me. I absolutely love this beer for being clean tasting and well balanced. And it’s delish with the hot and vinegar-y Buffalo wings($8).

Apparently, it’s very expensive to produce, requiring 11 pounds of hops per keg. Oh yeah, and the alcohol content is 9.2, very high. So hey, let’s be careful out there.

Double Knot will be gone soon, so get over to Four Peaks while the gettin’s good. This is beer-drinking weather.

Four Peaks Brewing Company
1340 E. Eighth Street, Tempe, 480-303-9967, www.fourpeaks.com.

Croissant Savant

Raspberry Macaron

If you’re a true food-lover with a serious sweet tooth, you’ve probably already tried Essence Bakery Café’s elegant Parisian sandwich cookies called macarons (one “o” and NOT a coconut-y American macaroon). Right? Tell me you have.

As you can see here, they look a bit like cute little hamburgers, only in this case, the dome-like “buns” are made with almonds, egg whites and powdered sugar, and the “meat” in the middle is usually a thick, rich schmear of buttercream, jam or ganache.

Oh my, they’re exquisite. One bite and you’ll know that Eugenia Theodosopoulos, the École Lenôtre-trained chef who creates them, is a perfectionist . . . which leads me to the croissants she’s recently started making. Another yummy, yummy example of the care she takes in everything she does.

Here, they are: butter croissants, raisin croissants, pan au chocolat (chocolate-filled croissants) and croissants aux amandes (almond croissants).

Before she was ready to roll them out, so to speak, she invited Jean Louis Clement to visit Arizona and offer her his best advice — once he’d analyzed the flour, water, butter, Arizona climate, her oven and kitchen temperature, you name it. Eugenia met him when she was a student and a French-English translator at Lenôtre (Clement was one of her instructors there), and he soon became her mentor and friend.

This talented but humble guy consults for people like Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse, charging them thousands of bucks for his genius. For Eugenia, the advice was free. She and her husband Gilles took him to the Grand Canyon. And get this: he canceled his visit to the king of Morocco to come help her. Now, that’s a friend — or a guy who really, really wants to see the Grand Canyon.

Clement has a title — Meilleur Ouvrier de France — that roughly translates as “one of the best craftsmen of France.” The French hold a competition every three years for craftsmen competing in various fields, everything from chocolate making and patisserie to window making and cabinetry. Some years, as many as 150 people enter the competition and NO ONE wins the title. Clement is one of 32 living people who have it.

Anyway, he spent a week with Eugenia, who said the man “oozes passion” and has a gift for teaching. Eugenia translated everything he said to her staff (some of whom are Hispanic, so there’s a double language barrier) but sometimes, Clement would simply grab their hands and have them feel the laminated dough as he explained what they needed to understand about the arduous process of making it.

For the croissants, Eugenia imports a special butter from Normandy, which contains 84% fat (most premium butters we see top out at 82%). But of course, these are just statistics. You’ll want to taste the croissants for yourself. They’re amazingly buttery and super-flakey, just little layers of butter and crunch and air. The powdered sugar-sprinkled almond croissant is my favorite, a textural wonder that’s nutty but not too sweet.

Most of the time, Eugenia’s gorgeous pastries, cakes and cookies sell out by the end of the day. This week will be more crazy than usual, so get in there early for something as adorable as these mini-gift boxes.

Essence Bakery Café
825 W. University Drive, Tempe, 480-966-2745
http://www.essencebakery.com

Voila! Travis serves a whiskey sour

Travis Nass is the new bartender at Rancho Pinot, and already this sweet, self-effacing guy is shaking things up . . . in a manner of speaking. He makes a fresh sweet and sour mix so bright and delicious it’s otherworldly. Seriously, I think it may well be the elixir of life and I could easily drink his coral-colored nectar straight (okay, maybe with a little ice and a splash of soda) and by the gallon.

“What could possibly be so extraordinary about one component of a cocktail,” you might well ask, “especially when it’s just going to get all mixed up with a bunch of other stuff?” Members of the Cocktail Culture Club already know the answer to this one:  cocktails have gone the way of food in recent years. The quality of the finished product depends entirely on the quality of the ingredients with which it’s made. Any bartender worth his or her margarita salt is using fresh juices — not fake tasting bottled swill — these days.

Winter Citrus Negroni

Travis was itching to make a good mix last summer, but citrus either wasn’t available or wasn’t of good quality, so his potion-making was put on hold until winter. Now he’s got bushels of in-season citrus to play with — lemons, Meyer lemons, pink lemons, limes, Key limes, navel oranges, Valencias, Sevilles, Clementines, blood oranges, tangelos, white grapefruit, pink grapefruit, red grapefruit — and he’s using them all, creating layers of sweet, tart complexity by combining varieties.

He tastes every fruit before he juices it, explaining that sometimes a particular citrus might be too watery, thereby diluting his concoction, which is boosted with a little simple syrup.

Because he believes an electric juicer adds a slightly bitter taste, Travis juices by hand, making a fresh batch every single day. I was in Rancho last night, and he gave me a taste of the sweet and sour mix he’d made the day before for the sake of comparison. It tasted good, I thought. Then he gave me a taste of the batch he’d made that day. The difference was unbelievable! The fresh juice was much more vibrant.

Now it was time to try the sweet and sour in some cocktails. We started with a margarita, pictured here: Oops! Forgot. Drank this one right down! It was made with Patron tequila, Cointreau, Clement Creole Shrubb (an orange brandy), the sweet and sour and orange bitters.

Pisco Sour

Then we tried  a Winter Citrus Negroni. Travis made it with Hendricks gin, Aperol (an orange-flavored Italian aperitif),  Carpano Antica (a premium sweet vermouth) and sweet and sour.

And then to my favorite — the Pisco Sour, a Peruvian-born cocktail made with pisco (a brandy distilled from the muscat grape), sweet and sour (usually lime juice) and  a top layer of creamy egg white dashed with Angostura bitters. Yum!

But now I’m worried. Once we’re hooked on this stuff, how will we get through a summer without it?

I got my voice back. I wish I could tell you precisely what this blog is going to be about, but the fact is, it’s going to evolve as I write it. Naturally, my focus will be food and restaurants, a little newsy stuff thrown in for good measure. I suspect there’ll be more of the philosophical rambling found in my first post (not to mention the occasional rant), and I plan to shine a light on chefs, ingredients, techniques, beverages and dishes that knock me out. I think, more than anything, Wild Lavender will be an informal platform that allows me to interact with fellow food-lovers and to say as much or as little as I want to about topics for which there’s often no room in print.

Star-Craving Mad

Although I enjoy everything else about my free-lance gig at The Republic, I’ll admit, I dither unto insanity when it comes to assigning stars to restaurants. I reviewed restaurants for 21 years (give or take) without ever bestowing a single star. I just wrote my little reviews and somehow, my readers divined whether I thought the place I was talking about was crappy or fantastic or somewhere in between. And do you know why they were able to do this? They could read, God bless ‘em. They could read and they did read and they discerned what I was saying.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the requirement. People are in a hurry and they want a bottom line, everything summed up neatly, no real reading comprehension required. I can appreciate the whole need-for-speed thing, but I’m an English major, a word person, and I’ve never liked math. Stars represent quantification, and numbers are something I naturally resist. How do you assign a number to so many disparate factors?

Seriously, it drives me crazy. First of all, my stars and Howie’s stars are two completely different things. Given my beat (Everyday Dining), I’m often reviewing inexpensive, family-run operations that have put very little money into their décor.

Does my four-star review of an ethnic hole-in-the-wall equate with his four-star review of a high-end restaurant owned by a celebrity chef? Of course not, and I realize that most readers are smart enough to know the difference. Still, it makes for big discrepancies.

When I first started my current job, my editor suggested that I consider the restaurant’s décor and service when I assigned the stars, but in many ways, that has served to confuse the issue for me even further. If I’m in a barbecue joint, eating a yummy rack of ribs, do I care if the décor is nonexistent, and should I let that become a factor when I’m passing out the stars? Couldn’t there be a five-star rib restaurant based on food alone? The best rib joint in town, and who gives a hoot what it looks like?

Then again, what if I’m in a sweet, sincere little restaurant where the owners have poured time and money into making the ambiance lovely but the food isn’t stellar? Let’s say the food is just average but the setting is adorable? Do I adjust for that—because the place is likeable, even if the food is just so-so?

And what do three stars mean anyway? Our key says that five stars=excellent, four=very good and three=good. Well, I’m a former school teacher, and when I had five grades to work with (A,B,C,D,F), a C (which is roughly equivalent to three stars) meant an absolutely average job. Not horrible, not wonderful, just average. Does “good” mean the same as “average” to you? Do you see how stars are devoid of nuance?

And what about prices? Should I be comparing week to week? If I’ve had something exceptionally good for $15, should all other $15 entrees that fall short of THAT $15 entrée suffer for the comparison?

And then there’s the whole history of stars I’ve already given out. I say to myself, “Wait a minute. I gave such-and-such-a-place three and a half stars. Isn’t this place as good as that one?” Then I worry about “grade inflation.” Sigh.

I’ll tell you straight up, I can think of about a dozen restaurants to whom I was probably either too generous or too stingy with stars. I’m human, subject to moods and anything but infallible. So here’s my suggestion: just read the danged review from first to last and decide if the restaurant in question is one you’d like to visit based on my words, mmmkay?