Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mesa Grill - Bobby Loses the Vegas Foodie Throwdown...

Vegas can be a foodie mecca, which is one of the reasons I enjoy going there. I have eaten some amazing meals in Sin City, but had never yet gone to Bobby Flay's restaurant, Mesa Grill. My good friend was with me who is a big fan of Mr. Flay and asked that we dine there. Mesa Grill is located inside Caesar's Palace on the Las Vegas Strip. I'll admit to watching some of Bobby Flay's shows on Food Network, so I was looking forward to the meal.


Mesa Grill has an upbeat, modern vibe to it. Lots of glass, light woods, and metal. The bar is off to the side as you enter and has a warm and inviting look about it. Of course you have Bobby Flay swag for sale right in your face as you approach the hostess stand. I get why it's there, but it upped the tacky level more than I'd usually like (even in Vegas). There were a fair number of people waiting, but we had reservations and our wait was less than 10 minutes. Seating is a mix of tables and booths. We had a party of seven and were given a booth with a couple of chairs added.

Our server was fairly prompt to the table to take appetizer orders, but I had to tell him we needed a drink menu and the wine list first (sorry, this is something that should be noticed by a server). The wine list was decent, but nothing exceptional. Prices ranged from 2.0x - 3.0x retail. The Sommelier stopped by the table to offer advice and she was very pleasant to deal with. I usually like to pick my own wines, but I still appreciate a sommelier's advice at times. We opted to do two bottles: one was a Joel Gott Zinfandel and the other was a central coast Syrah that carries the restaurant's private label. Both were about $60 each. The Zin was lovely, with a deep color, soft tannins, and all the mouthfeel you'd expect from a nice zinfandel. The syrah had nice flavor, but was a tad tight on its own. I figured it would shine with some of the meat dishes and it did pair very well with the entrees.

Noise levels in the dining area were pretty loud, but it was also a Friday night in Vegas and the place was busy. As for the service after we ordered, well it can be summed up with one word: s-l-o-w. Our apps took a while to appear and the entrees took even longer after that. Close to 30 mins between app plates being removed and entree plates being brought. Seemed way too long for everyone involved. The server really wasn't checking in very often either and was pretty much invisible after our entrees came.

The menu is all about showcasing Bobby's flair for all things southwestern and you won't find much that doesn't have at least some corn, chile, salsa, and/or spice. Appetizers were all in the $10 - 16 range and entrees started at about $30 with most meat dishes over $40. Sides are separate (of course) and they're $8 a pop. We ordered a lot of food for seven people, so I will only get into the highlights and lowlights of the dinner:

Menu Highlights
  • Spanish Chorizo Quesadilla - This was by far the best thing on the appetizer menu (and arguably on the whole menu). It is served up with grilled green onions, artichokes and a smoky salsa. A fried egg adorns the top of the totrilla to complete the package. This was awesome. The flavors all work together and the chorizo had nice bite without overpowering the dish.
  • Coffee Rubbed Filet Mignon - This was a nice sized filet, cooked perfectly to the requested medium rare. It came with a mushroom reduction sauced spiked with ancho chile. It was very tasty and the coffee rub added a nice nuance to the dish. The person eating it was kind enough to share some of it with us. I knew by the size of the smile on his face that it was a winner before I even tried any of it.
  • Roasted Corn - Yes, this is a side dish, but it ranks as one of the better options on the menu. The corn kernels were crisp-tender and then tossed with cactus & lime. Some cotija cheese is sprinkled on top for good measure, too. Very tasty and worth the $8 for a bowl. 
Menu Lowlights
  • Tiger Shrimp & Roasted Garlic Tamale - I figured this dish was a no-brainer in this restaurant, maybe that's why it was such a huge disappointment. The shrimp were a nice size, but overcooked and the textured of the tamale itself seemed way too dry. This went mostly uneaten. 
  • Green Chile Ciopinno - Flay is known for award winning ciopinno, but let's say that this was not the finest example. Most of the seafood was overcooked, which was such a downer because the green chile broth was amazing (I'd order a bowl of the broth by itself if I could).
  • Salmon with Ancho-Honey Glaze - This was a nice sized piece of salmon and fairly thick and, as opposed to the other seafood dishes, it was cooked perfectly. It was served with a spicy black bean sauce and a jalapeno crema. It all sounded like it would go well together, but it really amounted to just too much going on. On top of that, it was extremely salty. It all added up to a dish I wanted to forget about after a few bites. 
Final Take 

Mesa Grill was kind of a mixed bag for us. It did some things really well, but there were a lot of things that were 'meh', too. When you're talking about a place that was easily $100+ per person, I expect a bit more in the food and service department. If I had to do it over, I'd probably stick with having a drink and an app at the bar, then go get dinner elsewhere. My apologies to Bobby, but this is one throwdown that he lost because this foodie feels you can do far better on the Strip at this price point.

Overall Grade = C+ (Average)

The EV Foodie

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Caduceus Cellars Tasting Room - Awesome Music, OK Wine

I found myself escaping the summer heat in Phoenix by taking a trek up north for the weekend. One of my stops was in Jerome, AZ. I figured I'd hit the Caduceus Cellars tasting room on Main St and then grab some lunch.

I'll admit that I'm a huge fan of Maynard Keenan's music and I feel most of his work is brilliant. I was really hoping that same brilliance translated to an amazing wine tasting experience. And well, let's say it there were some glimmers of greatness, but not enough to have me sold on the whole package quite yet.

The tasting room itself is very nice. It's a got a classic look, with a modern feel. There were a few servers working the Saturday I was there. Wines came in three different tasting flights:

$5.50 bought you 4 tastes of Merkin Vineyards offerings. $10 bought you 4 different Caduceus wines and then there was another flight of 4 Caduceus wines for $13.

I opted for the $10 tasting. Let me stress that they take the word 'taste' very literally there. The pours are almost laughable; maybe 1 oz at most. You'd think they were serving holy water blessed by Jesus himself.

My tasting consisted of the following wines (sorry I forget some of the actual label names):
  • 2008 Chardonnay blend: It's a 70%/ 30% blend of Chardonnay and Malvasia Bianca. The wine had a bitter finish. I thought maybe I had some residual food or something on my palette, so I drank some of the reds and came back to it. Still bitter. I couldn't even drink 1 oz of it, so I'd take a pass on this one. Some people said "The Diddler" by Merkin Vineyards was a better white wine to have. 
  • 2007 Sangiovese: This was a nice wine. Great bouquet and had good structured tannins. It would rock with some lamb chops.
  • 2006 Primer Paso: This was a wine that I expected to better than it was. The bouquet was way funky, and not in a good way. Kind of like dark chocolate mixed with a hint of ashtray. There was almost too much going on with the wine and I think it just ended up tasting a bit dull. Honestly, it reminded me of a bottle that had been left open too long.
  • 2007 Anubis: Here is the star of the show for me. It's mainly a Cab Franc/Cab Sav blend. It's a big wine with firm tannins that still need a bit of age to round them out. The quality of the wine is very apparent. It has a great mouthfeel with nice fruit, but also some hints of smoke and maybe licorice. Hard to judge completely when you don't get much to taste. But it was good enough for me to want a bottle.
  • Bonus taste - Merkin Vineyards Chupacabra: I asked for a taste of this and was granted a 1 oz allotment. It's a very dark wine, mainly Cab Sav and Syrah I was told. It was pretty tannic and had sort of a dank, musty essence to it. Maybe it needed some decanting or food to pair with it, or both. Either way, I felt it was decent, but not worth $25. 
Which brings me to the prices. Caduceus is pretty proud of their wines as $30 is pretty much the entry point. Most reds were $40 and up. The Merkin wines were a little less expensive, in the $20 - $25 range. My bottle of Anubis was $40.

*** FYI, if you buy a bottle, they still charge you for your tasting. I've had wine in dozens of tasting rooms and NEVER paid for a tasting when making a purchase. When I asked about this, my server said "well, I didn't charge you for the Chupacabra taste." Wow, how could I have overlooked that gracious act of wine philanthropy???

Final Take 

$50 got me a good bottle of red and a taste of some wines Caduceus makes. I'd really like to see them pour a decent sized taste (go crazy and make it 1.5 oz) and if people buy wine, comp them the tasting fee. I'd say they show promise and I love that AZ is starting to make some good vino, but I think Arizona Stronghold does a better job across the board with their wines as they seem a bit more consistent. Half the wine I tried at Caduceus was very forgettable, but then I realized that every Tool album always has a couple "throwaway" songs. Like 2 minutes of static, or some dude mumbling in German. I know it's artistic, but after one listen you tend to skip them. Maybe Caduceus wines are like that, too. There are a few that should be tried, then skipped, so you can really savor the ones that rock your inner wino.

I do look forward to seeing how this winery develops and matures over the next few years as I really want them to do well. Plus, I'd like to revise their grade to something better at some point...

Overall Grade = C (Average)

The EV Foodie

Monday, June 28, 2010

City Hall - Forget the mayor, where's the Butter Cake?

Summertime in Phoenix means one good thing: No Crowds. This is especially true at the many excellent restaurants and nighttime hot spots peppered throughout Scottsdale and Biltmore. One such place is City Hall which is often packed during tourist season. It's proper name is Mastro's City Hall Steakhouse located in Scottsdale on the corner of Goldwater Blvd and Camelback Rd in the prime Scottsdale Fashion Square corridor. Mastro's establishments are known for their food and service (and prices, let's be honest), so the bar was already set. I was in the mood for a serious steak dinner and I had high hopes that City Hall would deliver.


From a distance, City Hall kind of blends in with the surrounding office buildings. However, once you get closer you are greeted by two massive, opaque glass doors. They also have complimentary valet parking, which is a rarity in Scottsdale. The interior has a nice feel to it: classy, modern, yet understated enough so you know you're in a special restaurant.

When you walk in, the bar and lounge is on your left and is a very nice size. The area above the bar is lit up with red LED inset lighting. I took a picture, but it's tough to do it justice. Trust me when I say it works and I could easily see myself sitting at that bar enjoying a nice drink and some chilled oysters. The lounge also has plenty of seating and live music was being played as well.

The main dining area is separated by several glass panels from the lounge. There are also other dining sections further back in the restaurant. It's a big place, but my guess that summertime would be slower was correct as there was no issue getting seated. Our server, Alicia, was promptly at the table and when she saw we had darker pants on, she swapped out the white napkins for black ones to avoid white lint on us. I truly appreciate things like that. Noise levels in the dining area seemed pretty subdued as we could easily carry on a conversation. Granted it was not very crowded, but I'm guessing it's probably never extremely noisy based upon how it is set up.

We all wanted some wine to get us ready for steak. The wine list is decent size and overall quality is solid. Prices were pretty consistent at 2.0 - 2.5x retail. We started with a bottle of Robert Craig 'Affinity' Cabernet Sauvignon ($85). What a stellar wine. Robert Craig always delivers and this was just a great mix of dark fruit, cocoa, and mild tobacco all rolled into one. Luscious mouthfeel, mellow tannins, and a long finish. We enjoyed it so much that we needed more wine before our entrees arrived. We agreed on a Franciscan Cab Sav ($54) based upon a recommendation from the manager. It was a nice wine, but a little tight on its own. It needed food to really shine and shine it did when paired with red meat.

The menu has the meats front and center, which is what I expected. Most of the serving sizes are very large with 16 - 24oz cuts comprising most of the choices and are priced from $25 - $45 (a couple are Fred Flintstone sized if you're really hungry). The seafood selection is also very nice with lots of appetizer and entree choices. There are plenty of salads as well, which they'll do as half portions if you request it (nice touch). Only one soup, which was kind of a bummer as I do enjoy a chef's creativity with this starter, but it is onion soup which is a good one to have. The entrees are a la carte, so you have to purchase sides separately. They're big portions, though, and easily feed a few people. Here's a rundown of what was ordered at our table that I actually tried:
  • Chilled Seafood Tower - Mastro's owns Ocean Club, so I knew the seafood would rock here and I was not disappointed. The Fannie Bay oysters on the halfshell were crazy good. Creamy, meaty, and succulent - I could have eaten 12 of them. The shrimp were huge and easily 3 bites each. We also got a few snow crab claws, which were very sweet and tasty. The horseradish they serve on the side has great kick, too.
  •  Bone-in Filet Mignon -  OK, I had never seen a 'bone-in' filet, so I had to order it. I got the 12oz cut. It was served on a plate hot enough to melt lead that's coated with an herbed butter. I think my cholesterol count jumped 10 points just by being in proximity to it. When side dishes are put on your plate, it sizzles from the hot butter. Nice effect. The steak was so tender and juicy, I was loving every bite until I got full. The only negative I could find was that the steak was actually a tad bland. Not sure if it was too much butter or if the seasonings put on it just were a little dull (or both). I got Potatoes Lyonaisse on the side and they were very good. The onions in them were done perfectly.
  • Rack of Lamb -This is a serious rack at 22oz and was easily shared. I counted about 8 ribs on the plate and it was presented nicely. The lamb was very tender, well seasoned overall, but a tad on the salty side for my taste. It paired very well with the Franciscan Cab. Side dish was sauteed asparagus and it was perfect crisp-tender. 
  • Warm Butter Cake - The dessert menu is large and has many appealing choices. The manager said that if you have one dessert, it must be the Butter Cake. All I could think of was "great, more butter....", but this is so not what I expected. Think of the best pound cake you've ever had crossed with a fresh shortcake, served warm, with killer good vanilla bean ice cream and fresh berries. After the first bite, I knew why it is their signature dessert. I wasn't alone in my thinking because we destroyed it. No questions when you go, just order it...

Final Take 

'Wow!' to the service and attention to detail. The manager, Justin, personally checked on us twice and gave us solid ordering advice as well as chatting for a bit. Our server also was top notch and professional. I always appreciate service that is there when you need it, but not in your face. City Hall delivers very well in that regard. Add in some amazing food along with great wine and bar choices and you have the makings for a very special evening. And it should be viewed as something special because it is a high end restaurant and has the prices to warrant it. We get spoiled in Scottsdale because good restaurants are so plentiful, but I feel you are getting value for your restaurant dollar at City Hall, especially when compared to other eateries of this caliber in the area. Next time you need to celebrate, consider doing it here. Just be sure to order the Butter Cake first...

Overall Grade = A- (Excellent)

The EV Foodie

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Il Vinaio - Real food in downtown Mesa

I had dinner last week at Il Vinaio in Mesa at 270 W. Main St (pretty much by Main and Center Streets). Now downtown Mesa  is not normally known for higher quality food or destination restaurants, but Il Vinaio is looking to buck that trend. I'm a big fan of locally owned, non-chain restaurants (especially in Mesa), so I was happy to give this place a try.


Il Vinaio doesn't look like much from the outside. It resides in an older building which resembles a diner built circa 1965. Inside, however, is a whole different story. The restaurant has a large area in the middle that is mainly open and provides room for the live music. The upper part of the central area has wine related quotes on the walls. It's a nice touch and it adds some airiness to the layout. On either side of this central area is more seating. The tables are cozy and some even have small loveseat-like benched pulled up to them on one side. This was a nice touch and my date and I were able to sit next side by side and be view the band (and each other) well. That set up is also conducive for sharing food.

There is a bar in the back corner of the restaurant and that seemed to be the most popular spot because there were only a few other patrons in the restaurant outside of the bar area (pretty empty for a Friday night). The live music is a nice touch, but it can get a little loud, so I'd recommend sitting away from the center of the restaurant if you want any chance of carrying on a conversation.

The wine list is a nice size and is good quality overall. There are plenty by the glass and some only by the bottle. Prices were kind of all over the map: from 1.5 - 3.0x retail. In general, if you opt for the cheapest wine on the menu, you're usually getting ripped off. I was pleasantly surprised to see a Consilience Syrah on the menu ($11/glass), so we ordered that. It was absolutely lovely, with rich fruit and a smooth, lingering finish.

The food is basically a hodgepodge of Italian meets Greek meets Spanish combined with a little bit of whatever the chef feels like today. The menu broken in to Starters (apps and salads) and Entrees (fish, meat, and pasta dishes). As you know, I'm a fan of sharing food because it means you get to try more from the menu. Here's a rundown of what we ordered:

  • Classico Bruschetta - This was pretty much what you'd expect ingredient-wise: tomatoes, garlic, basil, and Parmesan on toasted bread. However, this was probably the best bruschetta I've ever eaten (and I've had my share, trust me). The bread was toasted perfected in olive oil; slight crunchy on the outside, yet soft in the middle. The tomatoes were so juicy and flavorful that we were fighting over them. The one warning I will give is that there is no lack of garlic on this.
  •  Caesar Salad - Perfect size for sharing. This came with more of those yummy diced tomatoes on top, which I like on a Caesar. The dressing was very nice, with just enough pureed anchovies and garlic to give it a little kick without killing it. Croutons were good, but not great.
  • Pasta Pomodoro -Angel hair pasta with fresh tomatoes (you sensing a meal theme here yet?), garlic, basil, and olive oil. Again, the tomatoes just rocked our world. The server split our dish for us, too, which I always appreciate. The pasta was good, but actually a tad bland. I rarely add salt to food after it's cooked, but this dish needed some and a dose of pepper flakes, too. 
  • Individual Apple Pie - The server may have been trying to get into my date's good graces, but this dessert just appeared without us ordering it. We weren't complaining, though, because it was very good. Basically, it was a large ramekin lined with puff pasty, filled with apple pie goodness, and baked. Then topped with vanilla bean ice cream and a little caramel. The pastry was awesome as was the ice cream. The apples were good, but it was a bit much for me after the prior 3 courses. We put a nice dent in it tho, and there wasn't a scrap of puff pastry to be found on it...
Final Take 

The service was really top notch and they were very attentive. We also got to chat with both the manager and the owner. The food was solid and the wine selection was very good (beer choices are nice, too). Now whether downtown Mesa is ready for what Il Vinaio is offering is another story and I think that's biggest issue they face. The Mesa Center for the Arts is amazing and it's right down the street, so hopefully concert and theater goers will stumble upon this restaurant. But what I think would help Il Vinaio the most is some competition. My thoughts on this are that when you have a single, high quality restaurant surrounded by lower budget eateries, it's harder to draw the crowd to you. However, if there were a few higher quality restaurants in that area, well now you have something to attract more people. When one place is busy, you go to the next one over and check it out. That's why Scottsdale is money for many new restaurants because the hungry crowds are already there. Il Vinaio deserves to succeed and I hope that Mesa encourages similar caliber restaurants to set up shop.

Overall Grade = B+ (Very Good)

The EV Foodie

Monday, April 26, 2010

Culinary Dropout - Upscale Bar Food

I had dinner Friday night at Culinary Dropout in Scottsdale at 7135 E. Camelback Rd. It took over the spot where the ill-fated Pink Taco used to be (next door to Wildfish). It's a great location with exposure to the mall crowd at Fashion Square and around the corner from South Bridge. This is another Fox Restaurant Concepts eatery (I'm a fan of most of their places), so I've been wanting to check this place out since it opened a few months ago.


Culinary Dropout was pretty busy the Friday night we were there. The bar area is a fair size and it was packed two people deep around it. The restaurant itself kind of sprawls out. It has fairly high ceilings and they mounted several flat panel TV's up high, so they can be seen from just about anywhere, but they do not detract from the overall atmosphere. I kind of liked being able to look up and catch the score of the game whenever I wanted to. The seating is a serious hodgepodge of furniture. Round tables, square tables, bench seats, wing chairs, and low backed lounge chairs with various fabric patterns make up the decor. This may sound bad, but it actually works (and the seats are very comfy, too). The place is fairly dim, but not like a cave. Noise levels were elevated, but we were able to carry on a conversation without any issues.

You can tell Culinary Droout wants to be more of a bar just by looking at the beer list vs. the wine list. The number of beers is twice as many as the wine, which is not a bad thing if that is what you're in the mood for. They have beers from all over the world and in any style you could want. The wine list is fairly small, with maybe 30 or so wines, but the selection is decent. Everything is available by the glass or the bottle and prices seem to be pretty much 2x retail. We had a bottle of Kinton Syrah that was $35. It's a fine example of a California Central Coast Rhone varietal: dark, rich, fruity, and just delicious.

The menu is a nice assortment of both small plates and entrées. You can mix and match your own antipasti as well. Prices range from about $12 and under for the appetizers and all the entrées are pretty much less than $20. There were so many good things to choose from that we ended up picking several different things from all over the menu. Here's a breakdown of what we ordered:

  • Chilled Oysters - These were perfect, medium sized oysters from the Pacific Northwest (I asked what type they were and forgot, but they were similar to Hog Island oysters). All I know is they were exactly as I like them to be. Creamy texture and very silky. Just a squeeze of lemon and dash of hot sauce was all they needed to be a perfect starter dish for the meal.
  • Artichoke Salad - This was actually a mix of artichokes, chopped asparagus, endive, and shaved parmesan. Let me just say that the salad is awesome. It was so good that my date would've probably dumped me for it...
  • Butternut Squash Cannelloni - We were debating on having room for this dish, but it sounded so good we had to try it and was very worth it. I'm sometimes not a fan of this type of pasta because there's too much filling, but this one was done very well. The pasta pieces were a smaller size and the butternut squash filling was just the right amount. The sauce was not overly rich and overall it was a very enjoyable dish.
  • Bistro Steak -This is a thin cut sirloin with a creamy peppercorn sauce that has just the right amount of spice to it without being overpowering. It is served with a side of french fries that are very tasty. The steak itself was cooked nicely and it's a satisfying large plate entree.
Final Take

I wasn't sure what to expect from this restaurant, but left knowing I'd be back soon. The food was great and the service staff was very nice. The manager was also making rounds a swell. We share all our food and the kitchen split all of our courses onto two plates for us (that's always a nice and welcome touch). People coming here looking for high end bar food will not be disappointed. If you're expecting something special, well you'll need to look elsewhere as Dropout is geared more towards being a restaurant-sized bar that serves up good grub. And for most people on a Friday night, that's just what the doctor ordered...

Overall Grade = B+ (Very Good)

The EV Foodie