Gertrude's at the Desert Botanical Garden
“Where should I take out-of-town visitors?” is a question I am often asked, and the Desert Botanical Garden is a frequent answer. Celebrating the beautiful Sonoran desert, it’s the perfect location to admire the natural beauty unique to Arizona. Encompassing 140 acres in Papago Park, the DBG showcases more than 50,000 plants, including those native to Arizona along with plants from around the world adapted to desert conditions. Frequent cultural events such as art exhibits and concerts appeal to both visitors and locals alike. What makes this an even more enticing destination is its on-site restaurant, Gertrude’s, helmed by acclaimed Chef Matt Taylor (link to a previous feature I wrote for AZ Wine Lifestyle). Gertrude's bright and airy dining room and picturesque patio is the perfect setting for Chef Taylor's regionally-influenced and locally-sourced menu, along with a beverage program featuring Arizona vineyards, breweries, and distilleries and creative cocktails at the hands of General Manager Michelle Jacob. "We do our best, from the food to the drink, to bring in as much local as possible," Michelle tells me. "We're not so much as farm to table, or desert to table, but just Arizona to table. It’s very much an Arizona experience."
Gertrude's, named after Gertrude Webster, an environmentalist and founder of the Desert Botanical Garden (1939), serves lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch. The menu changes seasonally and the cocktails are a collaborative effort. "Every time Matt creates a menu, we sit together and taste the food and come up with what drinks best complement and host those items." Michelle says. "He has a theme in his head, where he wants to go with the food to suit the atmosphere, and what flavor profiles he's working on. We're in a setting, a tourist attraction, where we have a wonderful opportunity to take care of people from every walk of life, every culture, and every nation, so we try and create something that appeals to everyone from every aspect."
This thoughtfulness is exemplified in the jewel-toned Hummingbird, a refreshing blend of Cruzan Rum, Hum Botanical Liquor, fresh lemon juice, and hibiscus nectar. "This cocktail has hibiscus, which is very prevalent here in Arizona," Michelle notes.
This was expertly paired with Chef Matt's juicy Niman Ranch ham steak with dirty rice and rich redeye gravy. Chef Matt, well-known for his skill with Southern-influenced fare, explained his inspiration: "We made dirty rice for family meal one day and had some leftover Canadian bacon from brunch. I was like, man, I love ham steak with redeye gravy. This is a little different because it’s a darker one. In Texas you’ll see more of the light gravy and in Georgia and Louisiana more of the dark. Here I make it with coffee, root beer, pork stock and hot sauce. The dirty rice is cooked with Benton’s bacon for a nice smokiness, fried chicken livers, onions, peppers, celery, lots of garlic, Creole spice, and ham hock broth." That explains the layers of flavor in this delicious dish, and the finishing touch is a zippy foil of acidity brought by batons of pickled watermelon. "We pickle the watermelon with blood orange juice and it cuts the richness of the ham. It’s very representative of the South and it’s fun to pair with that cocktail. It’s one of the more simple dishes but it’s right up my alley."
The Hummingbird is also a wonderful partner to accompany one of my favorite entrées at Gertrude's: Tender, rosy, cider-cured duck breast with truffle and steel-cut oats. Michelle explains, "My bar manager Scott Case came up with the Hummingbird. I tasked him to create something that would specifically play against the flavor profile of this dish. It's served with steel-cut oats with truffle and broccoli, which are all very earthy. I wanted something bright to complement the duck."
"This is probably my favorite dish," says Chef Matt. "I love broccoli, it’s my favorite vegetable, and I love broccoli with truffles. Instead of doing rice, we wanted to try savory oats and cook it like risotto, but not as creamy. I like apples with duck, so we cured it with cider, and the sauce is a maple-sherry gastrique. I think the flavors of apple, maple, duck, and truffle really go well together." I certainly agree.
Chef Matt has a way with seafood, and tells me, "Every day we try to run a market fish, be it sashimi or crudo style, or cooked. Lately we’ve been doing a carpaccio with our albacore tuna flown in from Hawaii." To create the rectangles of silky, translucent slices, the tuna is layered between parchment paper and gently flattened with a rolling pin. "The sauce is made from smoked Fresno peppers, so we have a little bit of smoke and a little bit of spice. It's served with a salad of frozen grapes for texture and temperature contrast and a chiffonade of arugula and red oak lettuce. Then we add chicharrónes [crispy fried pork rinds]. I love fish with meat, like surf and turf. Think of it as tempura on your sushi roll."
Michelle explains her pairing of a barrel-aged Manhattan with coffee-infused whiskey served on the rocks. "I think it plays really well against the subtle flavor of the raw fish with the pepper and spice. I felt that the coffee and whiskey would balance with that and complement it instead of competing. I didn’t want to go sweet." The star is a local spirit, Whiskey Del Bac from Tucson's Hamilton Distillers. "We do a barrel-aged blend of his traditional whiskey and the smoked whiskey. We're actually going through it so fast that he’s aging us a 15-gallon barrel that we will get in January. Then we infuse it with coffee beans from Espressions Coffee Roastery in Phoenix. We also use AZ Bitters Lab Figgy Pudding bitters and amarena cherries that we smoke ourselves."
The Tundra, a dessert cocktail, is one of Michelle's favorites on the menu and she's happy to point out it's dairy-free, blending coconut water, milk, and rum with mint and white chocolate. It's wonderful on its own, but pairs beautifully with a fabulous mango panna cotta showered with vibrant mild ground chile and embellished with toasted coconut and mint. "It's not cloyingly sweet. I want it to complement the dessert because I want the dessert to shine," Michelle describes. "Coconut and white chocolate go together and pair nicely with the mango ."
Chef Matt guides the dessert creations. "It’s going into wintertime, which is tropical fruit season. The fruit from the southern hemisphere is really great this time of the year; we did pineapple last year. This is a mango mousse panna cotta with lime curd, macadamia nut powder, and Piment d'Espelette. I love chiles with mango and I like heat in dessert. I’m not a big sweets person so I like some spice or some salt that makes everything pop. The macadamia nut powder with toasted coconut gives it texture and we have the lime curd for acidity."
The current menu launched in mid-October. The dishes are available at both lunch and dinner with the addition of lunch items such as wraps, "but we sell a nice amount of entrées at lunch," says Chef Matt, "and popular appetizers are the salmon tartare and mussels." "We sell a ton of tuna and scallops," adds Michelle.
Now is the perfect time of year to visit the Desert Botanical Garden. Chef Matt tells me about some of the current events. "We have Bruce Munro with a nighttime exhibit that has to do with light and water. He's from England and his pieces are really cool. And the luminarias are nice. They have live music set up throughout the garden."
With an exceptional Sonoran desert setting and equally special menu, Gertrude's at the Desert Botanical Garden is a magical combination.