Jay Fox's Dining Guide
A tale of two cities
“Too much of a great thing can be wonderful.” — Mae West
mark & isabella
IT’S BEEN JUST OVER FOUR YEARS since celebrity chef Mark Tarbell opened The Oven Pizza e Vino (d/b/a The Oven) at Belmar in Lakewood. Over that time, The Oven has won numerous awards for its fantastic pizza and delish salads, all made from scratch in-house. Bon Appetit magazine gave it rave reviews. I Don’ Do pizza. I just don’t care for it, and it has too many carbs. But this stuff I crave.
A coupla years ago, Mark talked about opening a second restaurant at Belmar, something akin to Tarbell’s, his fine dining eatery in Phoenix. And for almost two years, I’ve kidded Mark and Denver executive chef/operations manager Brian Cauley about a specific location and a theme for the new restaurant. It finally happened. I guess the old adage is true: “Good things come to those who wait.” Last month, the same nite Georgia and I were experiencing our first dining experience at Tarbell’s in Phoenix, mark & isabella opened in Belmar. It musta been fate.
G’s been to m & i four times in the past three weeks. I’ve been there twice. We’ve been turned away twice. No, silly, it wasn’t my state of inebriation; they were packed. On Fridays and Saturdays you can’t get into the place. Cuz m & i and most of the eateries and shops in Belmar are rockin’. Let’s get right to the food.
As the menu sez, “everything is passionately prepared by hand, with love!” It’s open for dinner only (’til maybe spring) every nite from 5 p.m. The menu includes soups and salads, munchies, pasta, entrees and desserts. Most everything is made from scratch right thar, in-house.
I’m hooked on the eggplant parmesan, sometimes with a side of maavelous house-made meataballs. I happen to luv fried eggplant most anyway I can get it. This dish is sheer perfection, with three huge thingies (whatever you call them scalloppini-like things) for a mere $10. The plates are the largest I’ve seen, and the eggplant overflows the plate. I may switch to the chicken parmesan next visit.
Georgia and friends have tried half the menu. If you’ve been to The Oven, you probably know how beautiful and delicious the salads are. The same applies to these salads, of which there are four.
The “beginnings” include G’s fav, a fritto misto — veggies dipped in a light batter, with zesty tomato and gremolata sauce for dipping. There are several others.
The menu offers more than half a dozen pasta dishes, ranging from the spaghetti and meataballs with house-made red sauce ($16) to the hand-rolled tagliatelle heaped with roasted garden veggies and garlic ($14), to the linguine Alfredo with broccolini and pepper flakes ($13).
The main dishes include the two parmesans and two polenta dishes with either meataballs or Haystack Mountain goat cheese. You can add grilled chicken to any dish for $5 as well as add a half-dozen other sides for varying prices.
Since the restaurant is barely a month old, there will be changes in the menu as they try new items. The menu also will change as the seasons change to bring you the best of what’s available locally.
You really should leave room for dessert — or, if you’re like me, you take home part of your dinner and then you’ll maybe have room for dessert. There is G’s fav: warm chocolate bread pudding with mascarpone cream ($7), as well as “North End” style cheesecake, yummy warm chocolate cake, gelato, sorbetto and biscotti. There! I got all six of ’em in. I assume by now you figured out that the “mark” in the name is Mark Tarbell’s, but no one is telling where the name “isabella” comes from. Since my cars are all named Isabella, I figure it’s the name of Mark’s motorcycle. So if I’m wrong, shoot me.
A moment on service. It is terrific: professional, friendly and quick, even when the place is packed. Be sure to ask about the pictures on the walls. I think they’re relatives of my roommate from college. Or not.
This gorgeous, modern 150-seat restaurant is located in the space vacated by Sean Yontz’s most recent failure, Chama, directly across from the skating rink. Now if we can only get a really good Mexican restaurant as well as a replacement for Johnny Rockets next to the wonderful movie theater in Belmar.
Now, on to Phoenix and Tarbell’s.
G and I spent the Christmas holiday in Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tucson. She’s ready to move there, at least during the winter months. The weather was perfect. G spent an entire week dining, shopping and relaxing, the latter at the wondrous spa at the Westin Kierland resort. What more can a woman ask for? And I got to pay for the dining, pay for the shopping and pay for the wondrous spa at the Westin Kierland. What else can a man be expected to do?
After four years of hearing about this restaurant, we finally got to dine at Tarbell’s. Oh my, what a maavelous restaurant. Chef Tarbell has won so many awards for this restaurant, he needs to double the size of it to get all the plaques on the wall. The list includes Best Chef award, Iron Chef of America 2007, Best Restaurant award from Food & Wine Magazine and many more.
While I knew the food would be phenomenal cuz I’ve eaten perhaps 50 times or so at The Oven, I still didn’t expect to find the ambiance and the luxurious décor and the friendly and efficient service at this Phoenix show-stopper. It’s beautiful, with large windows and an uncrowded arrangement of comfortable tables and chairs. The room seats about 100. But it’s the food that’s gonna getcha. Just like all Mark’s ventures, the food is the best available. The produce is always fresh and locally grown organic.
The winter menu is composed of 10 “first plates,” or munchies, including several soups, a tuna tartare, classic steamed mussels, calamari, duck confit with white bean cassoulet and locally made garlic sausage, and several wondrous salads. G started her dinner with the fab Caesar salad ($9). I started with a super-good seafood chowder.
There are four house-made pasta dinners similar to the ones available at mark & isabella, but we weren’t here for pasta.
To give you an idea of the menu, here are several of the entrees. There’s a grilled ahi tuna with carrot-cilantro salad, spicy beet (ugh) sauce, parsnip and soy ($26). The “ugh” was for beets in general. If you’re into veggies, there’s something called “The Earth’s Best” organic veggie plate ($22), which I didn’t consider at all. A double-cut pork chop with roasted garlic grits and brown-sugar-braised red cabbage ($31) sounded like what G would go for.
Instead, she ordered a super-thick, waiter-recommended pepper steak (a fine New York strip) with potatoes au gratin ($35), which turned out to be twice as big as she could manage. It was cooked a perfect medium, as ordered. I delited in the “Mr. Fish of the Moment,” which that nite was a highly recommended striped bass. Certainly one of the best pieces of fish I’ve ever had. Not to be confused with the very good but more oily, sea bass. This fish was unbelievably flavorful and tender and large enuf to satisfy me on the hungriest of nites.
The rest of the dozen or so entrees included Scotch beef (wonder if it’s Scotch cuz they put some hooch in it, or cuz it was mailed to the restaurant from Scotland), pan-roasted organic chicken, grilled Scottish salmon, meataball pizza, sweet sopresatta (Italian dry-cured salami) and several other dishes.
Dessert. Why go out to eat, ’ceptin cuz good restaurants have good desserts and we can’t make them at home. Tarbell’s offers nine house-made desserts, including cheesecake, profiteroles with vanilla-bean gelato, Southern bread pudding and others too sensuous-sounding to write about. I saved just a wee bit of room (after a modest rest period) for a 2-die-4 “beloved chocolate mousse,” featuring Guittard chocolate. LOL….Talk about coincidences, as I sit here typing away, I’m wearing my cap from Guittard Chocolate. But I’m not going to eat the cap. Sure wish I had some more of that mousse.