A Taste of New American Food in a Sonoran Desert Locale

Chef Michael Rusconi’s restaurant is a showcase for his North American upbringing and culinary background.
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Rusconi’s American Kitchen

Chef Michael Rusconi’s grilled beef tenderloin medallions.

Since moving to Phoenix three months ago, my partner and I have been pleasantly surprised by the quality of food presented by many of the area’s chefs. Some of the world-famous resorts have always garnered national recognition like Sanctuary’s Beau MacMillan or the Four Seasons Scottsdale’s chef Mel Mecinas — and rightly so,  but food lovers of America rarely hear about something special coming out of Phoenix’s independently owned restaurants.

Truthfully, Phoenix does have one recognized name: Chris Bianco, famous for Pizzeria Bianco and his artisanal pizza. Wood-fired. Small selection of pies. Hand-milled Arizona durum wheat for crusts. But by only concentrating on Mr. Bianco, I believe a lot of our national critics have missed the boat on the Valley of the Sun’s food scene.

As the sixth-largest city in the United States, food devotees should be clamoring about dining in our southwestern States. However, it’s not the case. Charleston; Portland, Oregon; and even Dallas have been leading the culinary charge. Even national food newsletters haven’t included a dining guide to Phoenix’s exemplary restaurants. And forget the epicurean publications. They publish 12 issues a year, so it’s difficult for them to keep up with their on-line presence about restaurants as they are working on their recipe development. And when the big epicurean publications do decide to include Southwestern chefs, it’s a round-up. Nice, but Phoenix chefs and restaurateurs are creating ideal culinary experiences and should be recognized for their efforts just as in Charleston, Portland, or Dallas.

With all of that said, deep into northern Phoenix, past Piestewa Peak, along a stretch of asphalt ribbon known as Tatum Boulevard lies another strip mall populated with designer discount stores and Asian fast food. Hiding among all the retail, with approximately 20 feet of public frontage rests a Phoenician gem named Rusconi’s American Kitchen. The restaurant’s name is a showcase for Phoenix as a melting pot. Owned and operated by an Italian American who was born in California and raised in Chicago, Chef Michael Rusconi attended a Vermont culinary school and uses small Arizona farmers’ produce and meats to create compelling New American food.  From my personal dining experiences, both internationally and domestically, Rusconi’s dishes can be placed on the American restaurant table with New York City’s Blue Ribbon Brasserie owned by the Bromberg Brothers, Neal Fraser’s Redbird in Los Angeles, and Jennifer Puccio’s Marlowe in San Francisco. It’s not about comparing but that each chef has a place alongside each other.

Rusconi’s American Kitchen is a cavernous restaurant. It’s seems small from the on-set, with a half dozen bistro tables outside. Inside past the hostess stand and bar, the woody interior opens up and easily seats a hundred or so diners. On a Tuesday night in the middle of a Sonoran desert suburb, the two-and-half-year-old restaurant was full with several large parties and multiple four tops.  Several well-dressed couples sat on barstools talking to the mixologist. Rusconi’s American Kitchen is doing very well, and it was still early.

As the hostess walked us to table, we had a clear view of the open kitchen. Chef Rusconi was conducting at the open kitchen’s pass calling out dishes. From my experience, to see a chef guiding his staff is indicative of a great meal. It’s a clear road of transparency from the kitchen to the diner, the cook to the eater.

New American is a good definition for Rusconi’s American Kitchen. The term American describes the entire menu while new provides Rusconi an opportunity to fuse his personality into the food. For Rusconi, it’s a showcase and reverence for his North American upbringing and culinary background.

His menu starters are genuine American fare such as boneless short ribs, grilled asparagus, shrimp and wild arugula salad and chilled avocado and spicy cucumber soup. The only thing that gives the restaurant a southwestern spirit is the occasional use of chile or a cilantro sprinkling. For instance, the boneless rib appetizers ($12) are served with a savory ancho-chile chocolate sauce, topping vanilla scented potatoes; grilled asparagus tossed with a piquillo pepper jus and Laura Chenel goat cheese. ($8) or the shrimp and wild arugula salad, mixed with citrus, mango, pine nuts for added texture, and Fresno chilies ($10).

This restaurant is Rusconi. It’s his life travels, and personal evolution with California inspired dishes such as grilled melon and wild arugula ($8) or in the soup above. Chicago is present with Durham Ranch buffalo sirloin ($14), pecan wood grilled beef tenderloin medallions ($25) or with the short rib appetizer. Representing Vermont are the artisan cheeses with spiced nuts and grilled crostini ($11) and the baby field greens with crispy Coach Farms goat cheese served with slices of duck prosciutto, spicy balsamic and grilled peaches ($9). The “kitchen” board is a selection of house-cured meats made exclusively by Rusconi and hand-selected cheeses from California ($14).  House cured olives, and hand-jarred pickled vegetables accompany this menu mainstay.

On the evening that we dined, we started with an entrée of roasted sea scallops ($28) split between us. Not being a fan of sea scallops in restaurants, I was hesitant. When overcooked, the mollusks are chewy like a new radial tire. It takes precision to get them from cooking surface to plate. Rusconi seared the sea flesh in butter, presenting a brilliant crispy crust, and a succulent center. Combined with the other ingredients — smoked bacon, grilled corn, grits, jicama, frisee and parsley sauce — each bite was a balance of tastes and textures.

The scallops were followed by a luscious grilled salmon ($22). The fish, noted as sustainable, is grilled and finished with a blackberry glaze. The sugary fruit melts into the medium-rare preparation allowing for a sweet and savory composition.

Lastly, a garlic and herb crusted rack of lamb ($28), provided a counterpoint to the two seafood dishes. Served with roasted garlic, fava beans, and celery root gnocchi, the lamb cooked to a perfect medium-rare, didn’t break new culinary ground. Still, it was thoroughly enjoyable. We don’t need to have our dinners be as exciting as a new Michael Bay movie every single time.

At the end of the meal, we were presented with four desserts. An overload of sugar to be sure but the standouts were the Brie Cheesecake ($6) and the Warm Dark Chocolate Bread Pudding ($6), a cross between chocolate cake and brioche soaked in chocolate. Neither were overly cloying and were simple yet elegant presentations to end a very enjoyable meal.

To a visiting diner from out of state or just on the other side of Phoenix’s expansive metropolis is whether to eat chef Rusconi’s food? And yes, it’s worth the travel from hotel to the strip mall. Rusconi’s American Kitchen isn’t breaking new epicurean ground but what he does do is provide extremely good meals at an exceptional price point. Unfortunately, that can’t be said in other cities in the country.

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