Crave Grand Tasting a gastronomic success

By: Carey Sweet - October 2009
The Arizona Republic

"I'm over where the food is."

That's how one attendee at last Saturday's Crave Grand Tasting at SouthBridge was overheard identifying her location to a lost companion. "The food," she repeated, shouting into her cellphone amid a noisy sea of revelers.

It was hardly helpful, given that most of the Bridge at the Waterfront, plus a good stretch of Stetson Drive, had been transformed into a showcase of all things edible and drinkable. With more than 40 of the Valley's top restaurants displaying their best creations at sampling booths, there was hardly anywhere that the food wasn't.

As anyone confronted with the vast array of temptations soon realized, a game plan was necessary to take it all in without risking exploding, or worse, missing something.

A success? You bet.

In just its second year, Crave, a three-day celebration of Scottsdale-area independent eateries, proved that the city can compete with any other major restaurant market in America.

As guests converged on the Grand Tasting, they were greeted by Prado manager Pavle Milic, doing an elaborate presentation of Tio Pepe fino sherry. With a dramatic swoop, he dipped the cup end of a venencia into a barrel of the Palomino grape wine, flipped it over his shoulder and deposited the liquid in a guest's glass.

The dry, almost salty spirit was the perfect complement, he explained, to Prado's offering of day scallops decorated with Montegottero lemon vinegar, aji panca chile and Duncan Trading Co.'s mizuna.

Just a few steps away, it was dueling butterfish, with chef Justin Pfeilsticker of Trader Vic's presenting seared Hawaiian butterfish in truffled yuzu vinaigrette and micro-greens, while chefs Cullen Campbell and Brandon Crouser of Crudo offered up raw butterfish with cured lardo, oven-dried tomatoes, arugula and Meyer lemon vinaigrette.

Several restaurants were all about the ribs, including Kazimierz's beef short rib tacos, chef Chuck Wiley's (Café ZuZu) positively dreamy beef short ribs over cheesy grits, and chef Mel Mecinas' (Talavera and Crescent Moon at the Four Seasons) adobo short ribs alongside mac-n-cheese studded with chorizo, poblano, onions and pepper Jack.

Mecinas, explaining the secret weapon to his ribs (braising them with avocado leaves), also sent out seriously spicy togarashi-dusted ahi atop heirloom tomato and avocado, plus a delightful mango cheesecake lollipop in white chocolate shell.

Many plates were sophisticated.

Elements chef Beau MacMillan put together his elegant, addictive pork and crab Buddha buns with pickled cucumber and scallion, while Atlas Bistro drew crowds for its foie gras torchon on grain bread with exotic pickles. Estate House flaunted the foie, too, stuffing it into figs rolled in Gianduja chocolate and hazelnuts with a sour-cherry gastrique.

Not to be outdone, Cowboy Ciao turned heads for its paprika-cured pork belly on apple-butter toast with apple-coriander salad, served with all-American root beer cake, caramel cream-cheese mousse and a molasses spice cookie.

For his flagship Zinc Bistro, chef Matt Carter assembled Scottish salmon over braised artichoke, then added a splash of tomato nage, a pinch of micro basil, a dollop of potato foam and a finishing shave of almond-bacon brittle. Petite Maison chef-owner James Porter went the other route, being trendy-simple with beef-marrow bones drizzled in red wine gastrique, served with brioche and a plastic spoon to scoop up the fatty goodness.

There were even a few category busters, such as Metro Brasserie's difficult-to-define charcuterie capped with pork rind, and Ahnala's provocative sign that promised, "Ecuadorian ceviche horchata de arroz chile-dusted plantains and chips" (alas, it was a typo, missing the important commas separating three distinct dishes).

Some guests loved the squishy meatloaf texture of Peter DeRuvo's (Sassi) homemade sausages on a roll topped with slaw and house-made brown mustard; others did not. "Interesting," mused one guest, conceding that the sides of fresh fried Parmesan potato chips and savory beans were knockouts.

Calistro Bistro, meanwhile, did well with red and gold beet terrine on a skewer. Yet its overly sweet and mushy pork taco in a dry tortilla needed work - plus a plate, or at least a napkin, as servers plopped the messy bundle straight into guests' hands.