Each year on our anniversary, we choose a nice restaurant, a spendy one we wouldn’t drop into on a Tuesday night, and pay no attention to the prices. We’ve eaten at City Zen in Washington, D.C., at Eve’s in Alexandria, Virginia, and other interesting and not-so-wonderful places.
We got married on the coldest day of the year, all those years ago, in Connecticut. This year, we walked into Tarbell’s (in Phoenix, Arizona) without winter jackets, on January 24, and remembered the 80-degree temperature difference with a grin.
The reception was friendly, but they seemed to have lost our reservation. The two young women at the desk smiled, but spent a long time scrolling and whispering at the screen. During the 15 minute wait, we were offered two tables, one tall one in the noisy bar, and a smaller table right in the middle of the raceway between kitchen and dining room, which we also declined. The wait was worth it.
“The wait was worth it” was the watchword of the evening. The waitstaff was uniformly cheerful and informal, which I enjoyed. Once we were seated at the banquette, our server arrived with a “Hi-Ya, Guys!” I glanced at my husband and raised my eyebrows. I absolutely hate being addressed as “guys,” when “you,” or “folks,” would be far more accurate. The server was so observant that she never used the term with us again that night, although we heard her use it at other tables. Good move.
Word of warning: this is a loud restaurant. The tables are close together, and no conversation is private. The kitchen is open, and the noise level rises as the evening progresses.
We ordered drinks, which appeared quickly and were cold and nicely served.
The menu is short and satisfying. It includes a vegetarian, fish, and meat choices. Our appetizers, yellowfin tartare with taro chips and duck confit, were excellently spiced and beautifully served. The tartare was evenly cubed fish, which had been shaped in a timbale (a straight-sided cylinder) and placed on the plate. It had an impeccably fresh, briny, but not salty, flavor. The taro chips were crisp and substantial, and made a perfect counterpoint to the fish. On the opposite corner was a small cyclinder of cucumber relish. It provided a good finish for the course.
My husband’s duck confit was finished with white beans. The duck skin was crisp and flavorful, the duck rich and satisfying. It was a generous portion, served on the bone, and presented in an asymmetrical bowl that made chasing the white casoulet beans with a fork a bit of a game. The beans were a perfect foil for the duck, supporting the flavor and texture of the meat without overwhelming it.
The plates were removed together, and promptly after my husband had just finished. (I had finished my tartare a few minutes earlier). It reminded me how good service can really add to the enjoyment of the meal. Most restaurants today will ask, “Are you still working on that?” as if a meal is a project to complete. Removing both plates is far more polite, and watching when the diner places fork and knife on the plate makes this excellent service possible.
And then the wait began. My husband had ordered butternut squash ravioli with spinach and pine nuts. I had ordered pepper steak with creamed spinach and potato gratin. The first 15 minutes weren’t too bad, but when the server (this time, a man, probably the expediter) appeared and asked if we’d like more drinks, he told us the meal was a bit delayed, but would be here soon. We then waited another long time, and became aware we were hungry. The expediter came back, apologized some more, and gave us a time update.
The last time I experienced this, my meal was stone cold and shriveled, so I said the wait wasn’t a problem if both meals arrive hot, but not from being under the heat lamp. The server assured us they would both be perfect, and sped off.
He returned with our plates, both hot. He then waited to make sure we were both satisfied with the quality of the meal. My husband cut into a moist ravioli, which was steaming, and declared it hot. I tried my steak and it was perfectly cooked and hot. The server apologized for the wait and left. What a great touch–making sure the food is right before speeding off.
The wait had been worth it. My steak was exactly as I had ordered it–medium rare. It was crusted with pepper, but not overwhelmed by it. The spinach was whole leaf and flavored by a touch of lemon and a light waft of butter sauce. It wasn’t creamed, it was better. The potato gratin was magnificently layered with cream and gruyere cheese. The potatoes were not mush and the cheese was the perfect counterpoint to the rich and flavorful beef. When I couldn’t finish it, the staff immediately boxed it for me.
My husband’s ravioli were tender and redolent with butter, pine nuts and the spiced butternut squash that created a perfect textural difference between the pasta. Butternut squash can be damp, but this ravioli was moist, but the filling not squishy or mushy. It was firm and vaguely sweet, the true flavor of good, ripe squash. Tarbell’s serves locally grown, organic vegetables, and it shows.
We shared a dessert, as perfect as the rest of the meal. All desserts are made at Tarbell’s. A tower of mascarpone cheesecake was the lightest, best-tasting cheesecake I have tasted. Not gummy or slick, but airy without being mousse-like, fresh and clean tasting, it was topped with a light caramel sauce that had been infused with rosemary. The herb’s flavor was a delicate touch and sparked the caramel, which was neither cloying nor heavy. Around the plate, piped in dark chocolate, were the words, “Happy Anniversary.” Spelled right. Great calligraphy.
The meal left nothing to be desired, except for the timing of the main course. And when the bill arrived, they apologized for the weight and did not charge us for our drinks or dessert. “Because we want your anniversary to be perfect.” And it was.
Tarbell’s is located on the Southeast corner of 32nd Street and Camelback Ave. in Phoenix. Parking is in the shopping center, and free. On weekends, there is valet service.
–Quinn McDonald is a writer, life and creativity coach who loves eating and experimenting with recipes. Her husband is a personal chef. They are obviously a good match, and have been for more than 20 years.