Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cowboy Ciao - Phoenix

Last week I was in Phoenix, AZ for work. It's hot in the desert. I stepped off the plane and into the jetway, and I was immediately in danger of breaking sweat. Yuck.

That day, the temp reached 100 degrees F, and I thought I might die. So first I have to give props to the Arizona Grand Resort and the Oasis Water Park. Because of the awesomely thrilling 3-story-high water slides, I was able to cool off, get the adrenaline pumping, feel like a little kid again, and sustain some massive bruising on my legs and glutes. It's all good!

That night, we went to Cowboy Ciao, characterized as "American food with global influences." It's a trip you should not miss.

Truth be told, we were all ready to head to Digestif, the sister restaurant, but a quick chat with the concierge told us that we should really change course and go to Cowboy Ciao; it's just across the street!

I was reluctant because I was thinking the main fare would be slabs of steak and some beans off the chuckwagon, served to us on red and white checkered table cloths. As extra incentive, perhaps they would throw in some bandannas and dollar cowboy hats so we could really feel it.

Instead, I found a remarkably charming place that vaguely made me feel like I was outside, with the huge windows, earthy tones and ethereal atmosphere.

The evening was off to a great start when David looked up from the wine list with eyes as big as saucers. "They have Paradigm here," he whispered in reverence. How could we not imbibe on that resoundingly silent endorsement? It was a Cabernet Sauvignon from 2005 - a great year in California - and it was quite delicious. I might have been able to have my dinner off of that wonderful glass of wine alone. Yeah, who am I kidding?

As we perused the menu, we decided we'd go family style. I love traveling with folks who like that method. It's so much better, allowing for the most extensive tasting while lessening the risk of order envy, which happens to me almost everytime I'm at a restaurant...

We ordered three appetizers - Pork Belly (I know, I never tire of it), Dungeness Crab Stack, and Mediterranean Calamari. And two entrees - the Exotic Mushroom Pan Fry and "We're Number One" Ahi Tuna. Yes, it's actually named that. Any place that has that kind of moxie is all right with me!

The Calamari is good, but there's nothing so superbly special about it, so let's move on to the more unique and out-of-this-world good stuff.

The Pork Belly came out in these triangles, and I even have to admit that I was a bit thrown off by its looks. But when you knife into that crispy shell to reveal a much tenderer and moist interior, you're anticipating the texture. Then you pile some of the Thai cucumber slaw and the Asian-inspired sauce and you're now overcome with pure joy. I'm much more familiar with the Pork Belly/Hoisin sauce kind of combination, so this nouveau (to me) idea of taking it to Southeast Asia? Brilliant.

Dungeness Crab Stack was a cylindrical disc of crab and avocado, garnished with shaved fennel and a lemon-tarragon vinaigrette. Superb. It had a freshness to it that was just perfect on a searlingly hot day.

The entrees? That Mushroom Pan Fry is one helluva dish. It's got all kinds of wild mushrooms simmered in this wonderfully viscously savory cream sauce that I will request everyday when I get to heaven. This sauce was so awesome that we asked for bread just so we could sop every last drop of it up. A server made the unfortunate gesture of moving in on the plate to take it away, and the crowd went wild. He didn't do that again all night.

The Ahi Tuna - well, hmm. I remember liking it, but I think we all agreed that it would have been better a little more rare, and really we didn't talk about it much. We were too busy licking the mushroom sauce off our faces.

The mistake of the evening was ordering dessert when we were far too full and gratified. But we thought, hey, the food was so fantastic, I bet the desserts are, too! We got the Boda-licious Bread Pudding and the Fossil Creek Creamery Cheesecake.

Perhaps it's because I'm not much of a sweets fan. However, I do appreciate a good dessert. I couldn't appreciate these, though. In comparison to the stellar-osity of the appetizers and entrees, I just felt the desserts fell short. Then again, the standard was set pretty gosh darn high.

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