Finally, a new restaurant opens in Phoenix and it feels and looks and tastes like what you want in all restaurants. A place that serves fresh, seasonal and appealing choices in a modern, hip, fun, and casual space. Ocotillo Restaurant, located at 3234 North 3rd Street, is without a doubt all this. It was voted 4th Best New Restaurant in Phoenix Magazine this year. It certainly deserves these accolades, and even more.
Ocotillo is a sprawling multi-structure compound built on one acre. It was a four-year dream in the making of Chef Sacha Levine, of FnB, and her co-partner Walter Sterling, of Oakville Grocery and Mary Elaine’s (CLOSED). They work with Dave Johnson, who manages the restaurant as well holds the position of beverage manager. He designed a most progressive wine list broken down in categories by type of wine. He also created a symbol matrix to illustrate the flavours and aromas of each wine. Eureka! What a clever idea that I wish was adopted by other establishments!
The restaurant is in an unassuming neighbourhood. It’s a corrugated steel and stained wood structure, surrounding by a manicured courtyard. Inside is bright and breezy, and outside there are different areas, communal tables, a beer garden, lounges, lawns where kids can run around, a cookout pit, and an area where movies can be screened. There are so many options for seating inside and out and they can hold up to 300 people. I’ve often said large restaurants usually can’t serve quality fare. Well, Ocotillo happily debunks that notion. This multi-layered campus is a must visit.
The kitchen focuses on contemporary “New American” seasonal cuisine, with a touch of an Arizona influence. The menu is large and everything sounded delicious, so it was hard to choose. What I liked was the menu offered a lot of healthy choices, as well as vegan and gluten-free options. The menu is expansive with a diversity of flavours and pricing and there is really something for everyone here. Each bite of food brought a new appreciation for the simple, perfect preparation and flavour pairings in each dish. There are a beautiful variety of salads, vegetables, small plates, pasta, sandwiches and large plates.
We had trouble deciding what to order, but our enthusiastic waiter Taylor was most helpful and recommend some of his personal favourites. He made sure our meal was not rushed and spaced out each course perfectly for us. We started with a watermelon-mango salad, with arugula, avocado, toasted coconut, herbs, and feta cheese in a lime vinaigrette that was a home run in flavour and freshness. We also enjoyed a hearts of palm with local citrus, avocado, crispy quinoa (a big trend in Arizona), and herbs in an olive oil and sea salt. This is the first restaurant we’ve been to here that doesn’t over salt its food. It doesn’t need to because of the freshness and quality of their product. My favourite dish of the evening was the halibut ceviche. Usually, Ceviche is a fish or seafood served raw. Here the fish is lightly cooked in its juice of avocado, heirloom tomatoes, tomatillo, crispy quinoa, corn nuts, and cilantro. Another standout was the seared scallops in an XO sauce, with garlic, chilies, peanuts, mint, basil and cognac. We could have stopped here as all the dishes had generous portions.
However, we continued with a housemade bucatini pasta with pork and ricotta meatballs, dried tomato pesto, greens and garlic crumbs. This dish packs a lot of flavour. We had trouble deciding between the Ocotillo chicken with chilies, citrus, local honey, roasted pecans and date potato salad (boy did that sound good …). Or, the crispy duck legs confit. But Taylor twisted our arms to go with the duck, his personal fave, done with a side of red corn polenta, and apricot mostarda, and baby greens in a cherry gastrique. We should all have to make such challenging decisions.
Not only does the restaurant have a great and helpful wine list, I have never seen such a large spirit list with HUGE selections of vodka, gin, mezcal, tequila, bourbon, whiskey, scotch, rum, liqueurs, cognacs, and vermouth. The selections were mind-boggling and I can’t imagine the work that went into curating this list. There is also a separate beer and craft cocktail list. I went for a classic Spanish gin and tonic, made with juniper berries, cucumber, raspberry, Angostura, and grapefruit bitter garnishes. My other half went for a Pimms cup interpretation.
For dessert, there were just a couple of options. We went for a ricotta pound cake, which was a little on the dry side, but was saved by a topping of marshmallow cream and a mango sauce, topped with berries.
The restaurant is open for lunch, dinner and weekend brunch. I checked out the brunch menu and it looks fabulous. They even have a separate stand alone grab and go coffee bar, run by a barista, where you can eat or take out pastries and drinks.
For me, Ocotillo is the quintessential modern Arizona eatery.