Something truly magical happens when the right combination of elements convene at a dining establishment. In the case of Gertrude’s Restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona, this could not ring more true. Not only does the eatery boast an incredible location literally inside the famed Desert Botanical Garden, it also combines fresh seasonal ingredients with culinary par excellence that, all combined, make it a must-visit venue for any food lover.
Overall, the Desert Botanical Garden sits on 140 acres and is home to over 50,000 plants, including rare and endangered varieties. Gertrude’s, itself, is named after environmentalist Mrs. Gertrude Divine Webster who founded the Gardens in 1939. In a conversation I had with Gertrude’s General Manager, Michelle Jacob, she underscored the impact of the Desert Botanical Garden setting, emphasizing the extent to which it provides the culinary team with daily inspiration. Indeed, at the direction of Executive Chef Matthew Taylor and quite apropos given its locale, Gertrude’s ingredient-driven menu proffers light, fresh and quite distinctive farm-to-table fare.
While the scenery is certainly unparalleled, it is Chef Taylor’s well-honed vision that drives the über-fresh cuisine at Gertrude’s. Having worked under two James Beard award winners among other famed culinary masters, Chef Taylor brings a tremendous amount of high-caliber experience to bear at Gertrude’s where his menus celebrate Arizona-based growers and producers. His seasonally-inspired cuisine marries classic American favorites with pristine ingredients, elevated cooking techniques and savory flavors from around the globe. Also eclectic are Gertrude’s drink menus featuring local brewers and winemakers supplemented with international spirits that deliver unique botanical creations to pair with the dishes.
Seating on Gertrude’s highly acclaimed garden patio is the perfect setting for a lunch, a leisurely glass of wine or a full four-course dinner. Inside, the dining room and adjacent custom bar are energetic, and a private room houses the coveted Chef’s Table. There, a glass wall can be fully retracted to allow an interactive experience with the Chef or closed for an intimate dining experience.
Speaking of dining experiences, my own visit to Gertrude’s is one I will never forget. Each dish was beautifully plated, precisely prepared and remarkably consistent. My party decided to eat family style so we could taste much of what the restaurant had to offer that evening. We opted to take a decidedly seafood-oriented route with the appetizers, first selecting the Bouchot Mussels that were served with a briny and rustic ham-hock broth and charred tomato. Grilled bread for dipping perfectly punctuated this novel interpretation of surf and turf. The meaty, salty ham was a stellar foil to the delicate flesh of the mussels, which were pristine and clean. We also selected the fresh Sashimi since it was marlin, given there’s not much opportunity to enjoy that particular fish in this form. The delicate fish was juxtaposed with slivers of bright red and green jalapeno peppers and cool diced mango. A soy-based sauce finished the fish dish perfectly.
As good as these dishes were, the collective favorite starter that evening was the Cold Smoked Salmon “Tartare” with chopped egg and chive pistou, topped with deep dark Bowfin caviar and finished with a drizzle of Lemon Oil. House-made crackers were served alongside negating the need for utensils. The heavier smokiness of the salmon in combination with the large freshwater fish eggs that have only a mild saltiness was divine, both with respect to flavor profile and mouthfeel. The crispy sheeted crackers added the necessary amount of crunch and texture that balanced out their softer counterparts.
In a clear effort to not be outdone by the starter selections, the entrée group brought its a-game. On our docket: a thin-pounded Chicken Fried Pork Loin with a crispy and well-seasoned batter that was accompanied by a savory mustard vinaigrette. This was served alongside a Tuscan-inspired tomato-brioche panzanella salad bursting with large and lovely slices of fresh yellow tomatoes and red onions tossed in a creamy salsa verde. Another entrée selection was the grilled Prairie Harvest Bison Tenderloin served atop a billowy and amply-portioned carrot purée. This was all adorned with pearl onions and a glistening red wine jus.
Finally, Blackened Scallops also made an appearance, served over a thick Louisiana-style roasted corn maque choux stew. A fiery Tabasco hollandaise sauce amped this bold dish even further. Because they are so delicate, scallops are all-too-often treated with kid gloves. This dish took a daring approach that duly hit the mark.
On the side we ordered the Jalapeno Creamed Corn. What we thought was to be a subtle side dish nearly stole the entire show! The firm, fresh corn came swimming in the cream sauce, which was spiked with just the right amount of heat from the pepper. While the color palette of this dish is somewhat muted, the flavors are extraordinarily robust and command your utter and full attention.
Dessert-wise, we fell prey to the warm, crispy and perfectly fried Ricotta Donut Holes rolled in cinnamon sugar and served with three side sauces for dipping: smoked hot fudge, salted caramel and a translucent bright red berry jam that harkened me back to my childhood jelly-donut days.
When I asked Jacob if Gertrude’s has a “signature dish,” she emphatically replied with this: “The Smoked Pork Gumbo is highly acclaimed and is Chef Taylor’s pride and joy. From the ‘8 hour roux’ to the locally smoked Andouille, from the Benton’s Farm ham to the hand selected vegetables, Chef Taylor’s file-based recipe –both arduous and tedious–renders a flavor explosion that has Valley food critics clamoring for it. Served over horseradish potato salad with crawfish and topped with fresh chives, it is second to none.” Of this, I have no doubt.
Gertrude’s also accommodates youngsters with a kid’s menu offering elevated, fresh-centric items such as Mac and Cheese with house-made cheese sauce, a Burger made with Niman Ranch beef, PB&J made with house-made jam, and an Ice Cream Sundae with house-made chocolate sauce.
As good as the food is at Gertrude’s, Jacob is insightful and realistic about what it will take to ensure the eatery continues to stand out from the crowd. “Let’s face it, unique food and clever drink can be found everywhere,” she said. “What is needed to set us apart is overwhelming hospitality that mirrors the superior food and drink, delivering a complete package about which guests simply cannot stop sharing.”
Yes, even restaurants will reap what they sow, and my bet is on Gertrude’s to yield a multitude of fruitful and bountiful seasons up ahead.
***Some or all of the accommodations(s), experience(s), item(s) and/or service(s) detailed above were provided at no cost to accommodate this review, but all opinions expressed are entirely those of Merilee Kern and have not been influenced in any way.***