Cartwright’s Artistic Interpretation of Arizona Cuisine
On Wednesday, July 25, Cartwright’s Modern Cuisine Chef Brett Vibber, his kitchen staff, Chef Tamara Stanger (formerly of Helio Basin Brewing Company and soon to be at the helm of Cotton & Copper) and Sam Pillsbury of Pillsbury Wine (who really needs no introduction), collaborated on An Evening of Arizona Cuisine. This multi-course dinner was built upon food solely foraged from the unique terrain of the Grand Canyon State.
Much like a writer uses words to tell her tale and an artist his palette, the chefs and winemaker used local and indigenous ingredients to share their stories in each beautifully-presented plate and accompanying glass. In a true team effort, according to Vibber himself, each chef was given an opportunity to reveal a few pages of their own stories, told through food.
Our meal began with a simple yet tasty amuse — a creamy, firm base of polenta topped with a bright red Rhiba Farms tomato, a sliver of foraged horse mushrooms, and a rind of local goat cheese.
This was paired with a crisp rosé from Pillsbury Wine and Vineyard, which produces only local Arizona-grown wines – naturally.
Sam paired this with his Wild Child White, a blend of three European aromatics (German, French and Italian).
Tamara Stanger revealed her chapter in this story of Arizona Cuisine, bestowing upon us her Navajo Kneel Down Bread wrapped in a Rhiba Farms banana leaf with a juicy backyard-picked plum and local flowers. Hearty with a hint of spice, yet still delicate, this is a dish for the history books.
The Jeweled Cactus course was a playful and visually stunning course featuring Saguaro and Barrel cactus honeys, date cream, saguaro pâte de fruit and cactus seeds paired with Pillsbury Chardonnay, which recently won a Gold Medal from the San Francisco Chronicle.
Chef Vibber credited Cave Creek’s The Meat Market (just down the road from Cartwright’s) for the Chiricahua pasture-raised pork sausage in the next dish. Topped with local wildflower pollens that the kitchen staff has been collecting, including fennel, chamomile and wild onion from Arizona’s Rim Country, the sausage was perfectly balanced with an artistic “swoosh” of wolfberry jam and Mountain Sky Farms honey.
The cheese course followed, featuring soft-ripened goat milk cheese aged for three-and-a-half weeks and made by Cartwright’s own Chef Geoff Greiner, with Malaysian kumquat and juniper emulsion, strawberry jam and a semolina crisp.
This was the ideal “palate cleanser” to prepare for the next dish — Chef Jaren Bates’ interpretation of “chicken and waffles” taken to the next level.
A nine-hour smoked duck leg breaded with cornmeal and mesquite flour and served with a blue corn waffle, pickled okra, cactus seed butter and cactus syrup. Sam paired this with another San Francisco Chronicle Gold Medal Winner – a 2016 Viogner, featuring Southern Rhone aromatics grown right here in Arizona.
One of the most interesting parts of this dinner was the introduction that each chef gave as their guests were being served. It made each bite even that much more flavorful, more delicious, knowing that, for example, the watercress pesto was made from watercress foraged just twenty minutes from the restaurant. It gave insight to the secrets that our desert, riparian and forest landscapes are holding so sacred – just waiting to share. Each plate truly held the passions of these hardworking chefs, and you could taste it.
That said, Chef Vibber went “rogue” from the Arizona-only menu for just one item — that local watercress pesto was topped with a piece of Alaska Wild Sockeye that chef caught himself on a recent trip. Just knowing that this was perhaps not locally foraged, but chef foraged, wove in yet another thread to the tapestry of the evening, giving such significance to the meal.
Next, a perfect “one bite” of Chiricahua pasture-raised lamb with a glaze that subtly hinted of maple was served with smoked cayenne and lavender and paired with Sam’s carefully-selected Petite Sirah featuring aromatics of the Rhone variety.
And while I truly hate to pick a favorite, let’s just say the grilled buffalo rib-eye with blackberry and onion and served with a scrumptious chickpea fritter falls into the “last but certainly not least” category.
To cap off a truly unforgettable meal, the dessert was a fantastic interpretation of a classic ice cream sandwich. However, this version was all Arizonan — sweet corn ice cream sandwiched between crumbly blue corn shortbread and sweetened with Mountain Sky Farms honey and agave, jalapeno-infused whipped cream and a blackberry-sumac jam with fresh strawberries and dried sweet corn for a perfect crunch.
This dinner shared the story of Arizona food, but also revealed that much of the tale is yet to be told. Chef Vibber and Stanger share the passion and belief that there is so much more to be discovered when it comes to defining what “Arizona cuisine” really is… and I’m certainly ready for the next chapter.
Cartwright's Modern Cuisine is located at 6710 E Cave Creek Rd, Cave Creek, AZ 85331. It is open daily for dinner and reservations can be made at (480) 488-8031.
This writer received a complimentary media invitation.