Write On Rubee

An Arizona-based food, beverage and travel writer since 2008,  I launched this website in 2015 to document my culinary adventures, beverage escapades, gardening endeavors, and travel in the Phoenix area and beyond.  Also find a comprehensive calendar of Phoenix-area food and drink-related events on my Events page.


Cartwright’s Artistic Interpretation of Arizona Cuisine

By Molly Cerreta Smith

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.

Tamara Stanger, Brett Vibber, and Sam Pillsbury  (photos: Christina Barrueta)

Tamara Stanger, Brett Vibber, and Sam Pillsbury (photos: Christina Barrueta)

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.

Cartwright's Arizona meal

This was paired with a crisp rosé from Pillsbury Wine and Vineyard, which produces only local Arizona-grown wines – naturally.

Pillsbury Rose

Next, Sous Chef Joe Deruyter’s presented his version of “Arizona” ceviche, a colorful plate of prickly pear-cured Desert Sweet Shrimp topped with delicate slivers of onion, yellow tomato and serrano peppers from Rhiba and Mortimer farms.

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Sam paired this with his Wild Child White, a blend of three European aromatics (German, French and Italian).

Owner and GM Cody Heller with Pillsbury Wild Child White

Owner and GM Cody Heller with Pillsbury Wild Child White

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.

Navajo Kneel Down Bread

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.

barrel cactus Tamara Stanger

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.

Foraged Arizona sausage

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.

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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.

Sam Pillsbury and Jaren Bates

Sam Pillsbury and Jaren Bates

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.

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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.

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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.

RUBEE TUESDAY: January 16-23: Palo Verde, Kaiyo, Pa'la, Second Story Liquor Bar, Franco's, ZuZu

A semi-regular feature, Rubee Tuesday is a photo recap of my week's adventures in dining and drinking in the Phoenix area. 

Hamachi at J's Kaiyo Sushi and Bar

Hamachi at J's Kaiyo Sushi and Bar

Tuesday, January 16: Palo Verde at The Boulders Resort. With a kitchen led by ‎Executive Chef Kyle Lipetzky and Chef de Cuisine Joshua Winters, this is one of my favorite resort restaurants (link to a recent visit with Culinary Director Brian Archibald).  Last Tuesday, our group of six were spoiled with a surprise tasting menu by Chef Winters. Winters is a master of charcuterie and his skills shone in our starter, a platter of chicken liver and pork pate studded with pistachios, spicy Calabrian salami - Chef Josh says he is in the process of making another batch ("you'll see my name on salumi one day") -  white cheddar, cornichons, whole grain mustard, honeycomb and rosemary grilled bread. 

Palo Verde charcuterie The Boulders

Austin Bergeron was in charge of well-crafted cocktails and food and beverage manager Eric Beers expertly paired wines (you can see him entertaining us with the "Mollydooker Shake" on my Instagram video here). Other wonderful dinner highlights included cured salmon with Rogue Creamery blue cheese smoked in-house, fresh apple, apple butter, and a rye crisp, and gnocchi with dried corn, corn puree, Winters' ndjua which he started curing last year, and 18-month aged Grana Padano. 

 To find out the details about my favorite dish of the night, watch the video below.

(not pictured were our desserts paired with Mumm Napa sparkling wine - sweet potato Napoleon with star anise sponge and bourbon marshmallows and a Gianduja chocolate tart with hazeltine nougat and caramelized bananas). 

Wednesday, January 17: J's Kaiyo Sushi and Bar. If you haven't been to Kaiyo, you are missing out! With a superstar culinary team in the kitchen of Executive Chef Jason McGrath and Josh Bracher, this is not only a great neighborhood spot but a destination restaurant, so make your reservations now.  Look for a detailed feature to post next week, but, for now, here's a sneak peek. 

Hamachi special with honeydew melon, jalapeno and cucumber water

Hamachi special with honeydew melon, jalapeno and cucumber water

Thursday, January 18: Pa'la. I've been a long-time fan of Chef Claudio Urcioli since his Noca and Prado days (you can read my 2009 recap of a Prado dinner here), and have been wanting to try his new spot which opened two months ago. I had a morning meeting at Sanctuary on Camelback with the team of Nirvana Food and Wine Festival (tickets go on sale next week!), and lunch at Pa'la was part of my plan.

A partnership with Omar Alvarez of Tortas Paquime, this tapas restaurant is a casual, order-at-the-counter spot ensconced in a 1920s bungalow. I loved everything about it and can't wait to return. In fact, they just launched dinner service last week. The menu revolves around the wood-fired oven with tapas, open-faced sandwiches on Italian flatbread called schiacciata, and Navarro grain bowls. You'll find a lot of fresh fish options, and Claudio tells me that he will be putting a bigger focus on seafood in the coming months. For a first-hand description of the menu from Chef Claudio himself, click on the video below.


Friday, January 19: Second Story Restaurant and Liquor Bar. The last time I had Executive Chef Chris McKinley's food was when I judged the Dish it Out Competition in 2016 and he won for the second year in a row (you can read that recap here). I also loved his food when he owned The Local (2014 Instagram photo link). Well now, I can have a fix of Chris' food anytime, and that includes his best-selling WTF biscuits with fermented pink peppercorn honey, creme fraiche butter, and rye whiskey jam. And be sure to order the optional "nip" of Whistlepig barrel-aged maple syrup for $5.   

WTF biscuits Second Story Liquor Bar

Looking for suggestions on what to order on your next visit? These were all winners. And with Allison and Tyler behind the bar, you can expect excellent cocktails too. 

Saturday: January 20: Franco's Italian Caffe. According to my Swarm check-in, this was our 20th visit. You can read my first article about Franco's, one of our favorite Italian spots, here.

Franco kindly set before us complimentary prosciutto and melon ("because the melon is so good today") and asparagus wrapped in prosciutto in a white wine butter sauce. My husband ordered his usual - fettucine and meat sauce as a primi, and then the Orecchie Elefante, a pounded, breaded veal chop with a request of lemon-caper sauce on the side. I tend to explore the specials, as I did on this visit - pappardelle with rabbit ragu, and grilled New Zealand snapper. Dessert is always Franco's grandmother's merenghata, a cake layered with semifreddo and meringue. 

Monday, January 22: ZuZu at the Hotel Valley Ho. As a media guest, I attended my first Monday Night Chefs Table, which this month featured the Prisoner Wine Company.  Executive Chef Russell LaCasce is one of the valley's shining stars, and this dinner was just another example. While scrolling through the pictures of our delicious dinner, keep in mind that this was for a sold-out crowd of 90! Perfect execution.

Chef LaCasce

Chef LaCasce

First course:  Pear and citrus salad with warm goat cheese fritter, watercress, hazelnuts, and a barrel-aged vinaigrette, paired with the 2015 Blindfold

Second course: Coffee-rubbed duck breast with  salsify puree, cherry-zinfandel syrup, braised oyster mushrooms and cippolini onions, paired with the 2013 Thorn

Third course: Braised veal cheeks with Anson Mill grits with aged white cheddar, Swiss chard, and black truffle, paired with the 2015 Derange (the unique etched bottle is designed by Stranger & Stranger).

Dessert:  Executive Pastry Chef Audrey Enriquez' brown butter financier with spiced anglaise, blackberries, and caramelized apples, paired with the 2015 Saldo

Financier Audrey Hotel Valley Ho

And we'll be back...in two weeks! We left with reservations already made for a return visit with family visiting from out of town.  ZuZu's Monday Night Chef's Dinners take place monthly at at cost of $75 per person plus tax and gratuity.  More information can be found here. Upcoming dinners include:
February 19 | Opolo Vineyards
March 26 | Rombauer Vineyards
April 16 | Hess Collection Winery

And bonus - I got to try two brand-new additions to the cocktail menu: 
Second Star to the Right with Star Punch (pineapple juice, orange juice, guava nectar, passion fruit puree, and lemon-pear marmalade) and the barrel-aged 'Silk Tie' (Ultimat vodka, lemongrass, kumquats and yuzu juice) with a Zacapa rum float. 
From the Ashes with Arizona's Del Bac whiskey,  pineapple juice and prickly pear and barrel-agd TY KU coconut sake, Patrón Citrónge and Captain Morgan Black spiced rum.

To browse past Rubee Tuesday recaps, visit this link.