I’ve been visiting Scottsdale, Arizona, for four decades and seen its gastronomic diversity grow to include some of the region’s best restaurants. My first dining experience in Scottsdale was back in 1977 at a very good French restaurant called Étienne’s, with a very large wine cellar, that I would enthusiastically write about for Travel & Leisure later that year. Since then French restaurants have given way to all kinds of others and on my most recent visit I found some excellent new places I am eager to tell you about here.
6316 North Scottsdale Road
Chef Matt Carter, Phoenix born, trained in French cuisine at La Chaumière, moved to France to learn more and returned to Arizona to chef at The Mission, Zinc Bistro and The House Brasserie. Now, with partners Brian Raab and Mark Drinkwater, he is doing a kind of southwestern take on an Italian steakhouse, and the flavors are big and intense and delicious. It’s food to share and to tell people about after your first or tenth visit. Named after Italy’s Blue Grasso cattle, Fat OX is a big, sprawling handsome restaurant that is very popular in town, but with so many hard surfaces, that popularity can make it very loud up front, so ask for a table in the far more appealing rear of the dining room.
Italian pastas are always a focus of Italian restaurants, but there is a fine antipasti selection here, too, including juicy veal meatballs ($10) with tomato, parmigiano and basil; a lavish selection of charcuterie ($18) like Prosciutto di San Daniele, finocchiona, coppa, aged Calabrian pecorino,gorgonzola, crescenza cheeses and marinated olives. There are also two kinds of ricotta ($12).
I found no fault with any of the pastas I did try—well, maybe the 25-later lasagna is a bit over the top—from one with a cured pork sugo, broccolini, tomato, ricotta salata, basil pesto ($18) and well-wrought tajarin cacio e pepe ($16) to malloreddus with a lamb ragù, rosemary, almond, shishito peppers, and a formidable, table-sagging bistecca all fiorentina ($120.) But I wouldn’t pass up the beautifully roasted chicken either.
For dessert by all means share the lemon tart ($9) or the giandujahocolate tart with fennel brittle ($9).
Open daily for dinner.
Mountain Shadows Resort
5445 East Lincoln Drive
I’ve known Charles “Chuck” Wiley for a long time and have always considered him in the very top rank of the area’s chefs. A New Jersey boy, he came west in 1973, starting out as a dishwasher in Lake Tahoe, Utah, followed by stints in Alaska and Salt Lake City. I met him at that time when he moved to Arizona in 1989 to become chef at The Boulders, then at Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort. He is now executive chef at Mountain Shadows Resort in Scottsdale, where his style of cuisine is as imaginative as it is firmly based on classic French cuisine. (His hero was Jacques Pépin, who wrote La Technique.)
Architectural Digest pronounced the bar at the Resort “The Most Beautifully Designed Bar in Arizona,” and the dining room is done in surfaces and shapes that combine the look of the 1960s with the lighting of 2020, in cool blues and grays.
I let Chuck cook for me from all around his lunch and dinner menus, beginning with a superb lobster bisque with leeks and a lemon crème fraîche. An arugula and avocado salad with citrus, mint, radish, cashews and ginger honey vinaigrette might have been mundane had it not been for the absolute freshness of the ingredients, as was the case with lustrous ahi tuna tartare with Persian cucumber, a dash of shishito peppers, shaved turnips and puffed rice to add further texture ($16).
There is a spot on the menu for smoky, crisp flatbreads, and I thoroughly enjoyed a pasta dish of sweet shrimp and hot chorizo cavatelli with oven-dried tomatoes, broccolini, chili flakes and roasted garlic cream ($12) as one of the best Italian dishes I’ve had in Scottsdale.
Wiley buys his seafood from Chula (see below), based on what’s best at the moment. When I dined there this summer, line-caught swordfish took on all sorts of flavor levels from hot green harissa, pickled red onion, roasted mushrooms and blistered radish ($32). Niman Ranch tenderloin of beef showed off Wiley’s way with a red wine demi-glace and bleu cheese fondue.
For dessert, you can miss with carrot cake with toffee ice cream and rum.
The view of the Paradise Valley landscape makes you linger at Hearth ’61, while the food will bring you back again and again.
Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
8015 East Roosevelt Street
You may have noticed that Arizona is landlocked, so seafood is not,
perhaps, what leaps to mind when thinking of eating out in Scottsdale. But thanks to the Heflin family that runs Chula Seafood, which began in San
Diego ten years ago, the best seafood out of the Pacific comes east to Arizona. The Heflins’s boat, Chula, out of Point Loma, CA, specializes in harpoon-caught and deep-sea buoy fishing and they have been selling retail sine 2015. Jon Heflin heads the Arizona stores in Scottsdale and Phoenix for a year now and made Chula the foremost supplier of seafood to the region.
At the Scottsdale store there are several tables, a counter displaying the day’s catch and a blackboard menu along with a printed one. When you can’t smell anything fishy in a seafood store, you know the product is as fresh as can be found.
It’s a sweet little spot that looks as if it was uncrated from a port town in Cape Cod, with drawings of fish species, many of which will be on the menu. They sell smoked fish and poke by the pound. They do bring in salmon from Faroe Island, Denmark, and scallops from New Bedford, Massachusetts, but the Pacific offerings are the most interesting, from California halibut and swordfish to albacore tuna.
Order from the counter, sit down and enjoy a Thai peanut noodle bowl with tuna ($14-$18) or sweet + sour poke with salmon ($14-$ 18), or perhaps a ceviche bowl of white fish ($14-$18) or a confit of tuna sandwich ($14). Everyday two-dollar shucked oysters are available.
Open Tues.- Sat. till 7 PM.
7044 East Main Street
Sel looks smaller than it really is for a 100-seat Old Town restaurant, and its intimacy is a large part of its charm and character, in a colorfully lighted. Romamtic dining room where Chef Branden Levine serves a highly personalized four-course prix fixe $90 dinner. In cooler weather, which for Arizonans seems to be anything under 85 degrees, there are outdoor tables. (Tonight it will be a chilly 64.)
The menu can change, not on a whim but on what Levine finds in the market, so the first course might be spiced smoked beef and or king salmon tartare with a sous-vide egg and tangerine vinaigrette ($21 à la carte), then move on to porcini stuffed ravioli with pine nuts and a sunchoke-fennel puree ($19). Third course might include roasted matsutake mushroom ramen ($18), or a sea urchin bisque with crispy prawn ($25). Fourth course offers a cioppino of scallops, langoustine, crispy–skin barramundi, lobster foam and tomato broth ($55) or grilled octopus with merguez-stuided Bolognese ($55). Desserts are rich and quite unusual, like the foie gras ice cream sandwich with Armagnac soaked dates, and hazelnut praline ($18). along with a more traditional tiramisu with dulce de leche gelato ($18).
Open Tues.-Sat. for dinner.