Sometimes I can be a little hardheaded – the sort who doesn’t do something simply because everyone keeps telling him he has to – the sort who has never seen Titanic, for instance, and never will. That said, when a fellow gourmand tells me a restaurant is really good I rarely resist – except in the case of FnB – a space that no less than four people whose palates I trust had been telling me to visit for quite some time but a restaurant whose menu had simply never ‘wowed’ me despite multiple looks. Sure I’d heard the superlatives about Charleen Badman’s hand with fresh produce and of course I’d been made well aware of GM Pavle Milic’s quality customer service but what finally got me to commit was simply a menu change that brought about a plethora of fall produce – my favorite.
Considered by some to be the best restaurant in the area and by others to simply be a solid rustic locavore spot with an Arizona-centric wine list my arrival at FnB was unannounced largely because of my apprehension for the online menu’s accuracy (the website admittedly needs work) but after perusing the options I walked in to find the place nearly packed, only 2 seats at the bar open at 7:40pm on a Sunday night. Greeted at the hostess stand after a moment’s wait and asked if I had a reservation I stated I did not and after a short pause I was told that my seat would be needed by 9:00 for a “Late Night Love” reservation, but if I was willing they would seat me…not exactly ideal, but understandable and with that I was quickly taken to what I’d consider the best seat in the house; a spot at the U-shaped bar with full view of every inch of the kitchen.
Seated high with pigs, pumpkins, and candles between myself and the trio of chefs and with the menu resting before me it would not be long before my water was filled and my server arrived – a young woman asking if it was my first time at FnB and then proceeding to explain the fact that they are ‘small plates,’ ‘locavore,’ etc until I politely cut her off and stated the explanation was unnecessary and I was ready to order; 2 appetizers, a main, and 2 sides – an order she claimed would be “a lot” to which I smiled and jokingly said “I thought you said they were small plates?” before assuring her I would be fine.
With the music a sort of ignorable reggae-blend and patrons chatting amongst themselves at audible but certainly not “loud” tones as each chef worked with relative autonomy and Charleen finished plates at the pass I really enjoyed the homey vibe of FnB and with the walls minimally adorned I particularly love the splashy tiled floor that, much like other aspects of FnB, one may not expect by simply standing outside reading the menu. Greeted briefly by Charleen and overhearing her say to my neighbor, a winemaker for Cakebread Cellars, that Pavle was away scouting wines I was additionally impressed by just how attuned to the diners every member of FnB’s staff was; front of the house and back always in the right place at the right time with plates coming out at a perfect pace to each of the 40ish seats.
Sitting, watching, and enjoying the energy of the room moments after my friend from the prior week’s dinner at The House stopped by to say hello it would not be long before crusty bread and clean, herbal, and grassy olive oil would arrive and quickly on its heels was more bread, but this time a substantial upgrade in the form of “Chopped Chicken Liver Crostini with Fig Chutney” featuring warm and toasty bread topped with rough cut chicken liver, rougher cut figs, a bit of pistachio and some chives. Rustic as hell, savory but sweet – a good start and a sign of things to come.
Arriving quick on the heels of the crostini and garnering the majority of my early attention due to temperature components, Fried Green Tomatoes with Green Goddess and Feta would prove to be the highlight in an evening full of them and without a doubt the best tomato based dish I’ve had since my first visit to Alinea. Still a touch sour and retaining all of its snappy texture despite a quick dip in the fryer each medallion of cornmeal crusted tomato was a shock to the palate and well balanced by the tangy cheese with a substantial vegetal component added by sour cream, chervil, lemon, pepper, and what may have been avocado this plate sang a song of late summer with every bite as good as the one prior.
Having already mentioned FnB’s aptitude for pacing but informed by my server that people were finishing up earlier than anticipated and thus they’d not need my seat for LnL I heard the young chef before me inform the rest of the team to start working on my next course as I reached the final bites of the crostini and within fifteen minutes course two arrived as a complete trio with a main and two sides, none with meat and none needing it either; to quote a non-vegetarian friend “you could make a complete meal out of just the vegetable side dishes and walk out happy.”
Beginning first with the main course as it was actually the weakest of the evening’s savories, the “Pasta, Lobster Mushrooms, Tarragon, Corn, Peas, Pistachio Crumb” was not a ‘bad’ dish by any means, but at $25 the house made rolled noodles, butter, and fresh vegetables it simply did not live up to the price tag. Obviously not one to quibble prices of quality ingredients I certainly see where Charleen was going with this dish but even at $5-10 less it was just pasta, a bit of olive oil, vegetables, nuts, and fungus – the later two together dominating the flavor and texture profile to the point where the rest was superfluous.
Fine with the pasta but wanting to be wowed like I was by the tomatoes I found salvation in both “sides” and if I were forced to choose which I liked better I’d likely suggest the “Spaghetti Squash Almondine” in one breath and the “Roasted Carrots, Pine Mushrooms, Garlic Butter” in another – the former featuring tender strands of the sweet gourd touched with pepper, oil, and a generous helping of toasty sliced almonds and the later carrots in different degrees of preparation paired simply with rich butter, mounds of tender mushrooms, and a healthy compliment of garlic; a perfect bite found in the charred carrot and a particularly hefty ‘shroom on a slice of bread dredged in the garlic butter.
Essentially incapable of skipping dessert after such a good (okay, fine, any) meal I was hoping for bread pudding as an alternative to the pudding I knew I would be having a few weeks later at the FnB/noca showdown I was disappointed when the answer was panna cotta and thus went with the Butterscotch Pudding, Fresh Whipped Cream, Nutmeg hoping it would be as good as the rumors – and to that, I guess it depends which rumor you believe because for me it was good, but in the end entirely unmemorable as the use of unflavored whipped cream did a nice job of balancing the sweetness of the pudding but did nothing in terms of texture rending each bite the same as the last in terms of taste and texture. A spoonful would have been enough.
Adhering rather closely to the previously noted time restrictions and finishing up the last bites of the pudding around 9:05 my server next arrived with the clever Ipad billing system and $90 (after tax&tip) later I was bid farewell by servers and staff before making my way to the streets of Scottsdale where even on a Sunday night well-heeled folks were out drinking, dining, and having a great time – though undoubtedly on less ‘wowing’ food than much of what I’d just enjoyed, regardless of price. A meal that certainly fell far short of perfection yet at the same time the sort of place I’d return with minimal hesitation I will admit that I don’t think FnB comes close to the designation of “best restaurant in Arizona,” but with carrots and tomatoes that had me reminiscing meals at Michelin 3* restaurants there is no doubt that there is something special going on in that small kitchen on Stetson.