Sunday, April 1, 2012

Grazi, Graze - My First Tasting Event

The Twitterverse is a mysterious, exciting phenomenon, and it's helped me not only become friends with many other amazing food bloggers from across the country, but it's also caused me to come into contact with several food bloggers and food lovers right here in the Valley.  I have had a great deal of fun interacting with them, and I have learned about many outstanding local venues thanks to this bunch. Since I have tended to focus this blog on what we make at home, with few forays into what we eat at local establishments, I'll be honest and say that I kind of blog stalk those who have made it their focus to discuss what local chefs are making for dinner.  That way when events like birthdays and anniversaries come up, I have a list of Places to Visit.
Two of these local foodies are the ladies over at Phoenix Bites.  Started in 2010, the website works to bring together lovers of food from across the Phoenix metro area (which has a larger footprint than some states).  And they were kind enough to add me into their circle of those who have been brought together "in real life."  Last Tuesday, I was invited by Amy and Taryn to a private tasting for food bloggers.  I may have squealed when Taryn's tweet popped up on my phone.  I also may have spent the next hour, in my excitement, googling information about things that had nothing to do with the job I am paid to actually do.  But the only one with me was the dog, and I've made sure she won't tell.
Even better was that the stars had basically aligned themselves to make it possible for me to go with complete ease of schedule - HRH was already going to be overnighting at my mother-in-law's, so it was just a matter of telling The Husband that he was on his own for dinner.  As it turns out, he actually had scheduled what I like to call a "bro date" with a friend of his (he's gonna love that term...), and I was going to be on my own for dinner.  Except that I was going to a tasting.
I've never been to a tasting aside from the cake tasting we had before The Husband and I were married (way back when he was just The Fiance), so to say that I was excited is only a little bit of an understatement.  That combined with the fact that it was going to be a rare weekday evening out, doing something outside of the routine that we all find ourselves in made the work day on Tuesday drag a little slowly.
The event was located at the Zona Hotel & Suites in north Scottsdale.  The address alone had me feeling far more interesting than I had the previous night, when I was dressed in yoga pants and eating the rest of the Thin Mints, and I was looking forward to an evening that didn't include chicken nuggets or a free toy.
Zona Hotel and Suites offered the tasting, actually a menu reveal, as the culmination of the resort's reinventing of its bar and restaurant, Graze Desert Grille, previously under two names.  The new name is a nod to the emphasis on fresh, seasonal, and organic (whenever possible) local ingredients.  This philosophy of farm-to-fork means that the items we tasted will vary by season and ingredient availability; what may have been a fresh beet Tuesday night may become a radish when seasonally appropriate.  This, of course, means that diners in every season will be able to enjoy items in the prime of their flavor.
Menu items offer a snapshot of American cuisine with an emphasis on Southwest influences.  That doesn't mean that you'll see chiles or chimichangas on every plate; the variety that we were offered clearly demonstrates Chef Kevin Myers's endeavor to offer a plate for every palate.  Some of those plates might surprise those who think the Arizona food focus is still mostly "cowboy cuisine."  We've come a long way from a chop house on every corner, baby.
Our menu included samplings from Graze's breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus, which, while unveiled for us that evening, will be officially offered beginning April 5.
Along with each course was an appropriate wine or beer pairing, presented to us by Paula from Arizona Stronghold Vineyards and Hana from Quench Fine Wines.  While the food was excellent, the pairings, and the subsequent information that Paula and Hana shared with us about each pairing, was by far my favorite part, and as all but one course was served with a local Arizona brew or vintage, I came away from the evening with a new appreciation for Arizona wineries and wines that is more on the level at which I appreciate Arizona breweries and beers.
I could likely take an entire post to talk about each course and its pairing, so I've selected my favorites here.

I just had my iPhone camera;
the fading sunlight gives it away that I am NOT
Ansel Adams.
Queso Fundido (Family Style) - lunch and dinner menus
Served with warm flour tortillas and stuffed with Schreiner's chorizo and a variety of exotic mushrooms, it was basically all I could do to keep from stealing everyone else's tortillas to pick up every last delicious bite.
I've had queso fundido before in many iterations, but the mushrooms were a first for me, and I can assure you that it shall not be the last.  I can't recommend enough tearing off small pieces of the tortilla to use as the utensil instead of a fork or spoon here.  You get the soft tortilla, just chewy enough, surrounding the melty cheese, and then you get the chorizo and mushrooms; the mushrooms add a little bit of resistance to your bite, so you have to spend a little time chewing, which of course makes the flavor just intensify.  In fact, despite this being the second of our eight courses, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it, which means I'll either have to source ingredients to make my own "at home" version or go back in the very near future.
This was also the only course to be paired with a wine that is not local to Arizona.  Instead we sipped Bisol "Jeio" Prosecco.  Like the laws dictating what is and what is not Champagne, Prosecco can only qualify as Prosecco if the grapes are grown in a particular region of Italy.  Hana explained that the Prosecco - very light, crisp, and with plenty of apple and citrus - cut the fattiness of the chorizo and cheese very well.  She was absolutely right - the smaller bubbles of the Prosecco (which I honestly prefer to Champagne any day of the week) were excellent company to the fundido, so when I recreate this at home, I'll just have to obtain a bottle or two.
When I told my friend Alexa about the dish the next day, because I hadn't been able to stop thinking about it and was basically harassing my Spanish teacher friends to find out if they had any recipes they wanted to share with me, she said that this style of queso fundido - with the chorizo and mushrooms - is common in Spain, although it is generally paired with Spanish Cava.
***Note to self - go to Spain.

Photo: LightRain Images
Duck and Brie Quesadilla - dinner menu
Since the words duck and brie are two of my favorite in the genre of food, I knew eating in a manner dictated by social norms - you know, not using both hands and stuffing the quesadillas whole into my maw - was going to be difficult.  I did, however, manage to channel all the lessons that Savor offered me to make sure that I not only enjoyed the idea of the food but the food itself.
This did not disappoint in any imaginable way.  The confit of the duck leg was literally perfect with the Brie.  I'm not even sure how else I can describe it other than perfect, because it was.  It was perfect. Both duck and Brie can be rich, but the combination was not at all overpowering; the balsamic reduction drizzled over it was all that was needed to add a little acidic zing to the otherwise full-flavored bites, and I could easily imagine making this a meal rather than the appetizer that it is on the menu.
Paired with the quesadillas was the 20120 Arizona Stronghold Tazi, a white blend that had a thick and almost syrupy bouquet.  In fact, I dreaded taking a first sip for fear that it would be cloyingly sweet, so much so that I asked Paula if it was a semi-sweet or semi-dry.  She said, "No.  Just try it.  You'll be surprised."  And indeed I was shocked to find instead an extremely full-mouthed and dry wine that was filled with citrus and finished clean.  If asked, I probably would have put a red with this dish, but the full-mouth feel of the wine really made it pair nicely with the duck and Brie, especially in the warm Arizona evening.

I should have put a photography class
on my Twelve for 12.
Local Beet Salad - dinner menu
I know, I know - of all the courses I could have discussed, I chose a salad.  But it was - surprise! - the pairing that made this phenomenal, and it was truly my favorite.
The salad consisted of both "regular" beets as well as golden beets, so the looks of the salad alone should win it some sort of artsy award - green, deep red, gold, and the scattering of lavender-infused goat cheese was far better in person than my phone's camera could capture in the evening light.
I could tell that Paula was excited to offer the pairing for this course, even over her enthusiasm for the other pairings she had already described for her.  She kept saying, "Wait until you try this with the beets. You'll be amazed."
"This" was the Centennial Red - one of three blends that celebrate Arizona's 2012 centennial (which, if you missed it, was February 14 - we're not only The Grand Canyon State, but we're also The Valentine State, in case you're ever on Jeopardy!).
I took my first sip before having any of the salad - the bouquet was laden with berries and some spices, and that initial sip reminded me of some zinfandels that I've had.
THEN I had another sip after a bite of the golden beet.
The wine was completely transfomed.  It was silky and earthy and mineral-y, kind of like sucking on a piece of granite.  That's a Good Thing, mind you - it was the perfect balance to the earthy beet.  But where the beet's earthiness is sweet, the earthiness of the Centennial Red still had the dry spiciness and currant-y finish that thoroughly countered the beet.  I went back and forth between the two - bite of beet, sip of wine - until I had no more beets.  Or wine.

What didn't I discuss but could have?  Well...
  • corned beef and green chili hash with egg, sunny side up (breakfast menu)
  • pressed pulled pork sandwich (lunch menu) - paired with Mudshark Scorpion amber ale
  • rocket salad (lunch and dinner menus)
  • pan seared grouper (dinner menu) - paired with Arizona Stronghold Dala chardonnay
  • whiskey braised shortrib with white cheddar mashed potato (dinner menu) - paired with Page Springs Vino del Barrio rojo

Pressed pulled pork
Photo: LightRain Images
whiskey braised shortrib
Photo: LightRain Images
So, by the time dessert was presented, I had to force myself to take a bite of the flourless chocolate decadence cake, which was deliciously bittersweet.  The cheesecake lollipops were adorable, but my love for the grouper - atop the best spaghetti squash and greens combination I could imagine - pretty much sealed the fate of dessert that evening.
Now, these were all brilliant dishes and lovely presentations, but they were far from being overly pretentious.  The restaurant is, after all, at a resort that has many families visit (there is a children's menu, in case your Wee One is so inclined to request chicken nuggets like mine does every day), so while everything from the candles and grass centerpieces to the platings were elegantly done, the food itself was comfortable so that a family can easily enjoy a meal without worrying that the other diners will look witheringly over at the people who are letting their child sing the theme song for Jake and the Neverland Pirates over and over again (not that I have ever had that experience; a friend told me about it).  That comfort can make a good meal great, and a great meal fabulous.

My most sincere thanks goes out to Chef Myers, Brian Blanke, and the rest of the team at Zona Hotel and Suites as well as to Paula and Hana for their information and education on the different wines (and one beer) that we sampled.  I can honestly recommend each of the plates and glasses that I was offered and am anxious to try more pairings when I get the chance.  Most of all, however, I am grateful to Taryn and Amy for inviting this teacher-come-blogger on a fun "field trip" to see how the big guns in blogging do a Tuesday night.  Ladies, it was fantastic to meet you two in person; I knew I liked you via Twitter, but in person you take awesome to a new level.


  1. Duck and Brie? Funny - I have those in my fridge needing to be used… I think you just spurred something in me.

    And I think I need to rehydrate after all of the drool I just expelled from reading this post. Thanks for that...

  2. Mental note: do not read Allison's food posts when ravenously hungry. Man! I could have done some serious damage on that chow. What a cool outing!

  3. You got to go to a tasting? HOW COOL! I have ALWAYS wanted to be invited to one of those. And it looks like some of the things that you sampled were just...beyond. Not to mention that the plating is 11/10!