This swanky Scottsdale restaurant challenged my idea of what health food can be
At Scottsdale's "beyond organic" restaurant Santé, a hostess greeted me underneath a 6 foot tall chandelier of bright pink ostrich feathers.
As she led me through the posh dining room, past the affirmation crossword puzzle, the living moss wall and the life-sized photo of a model taken by the owner during her earlier days as a fashion photographer, a Zoolander-esque voice in my head murmured the words, "health, it's so hot right now."
Inspired by a popular restaurant group Rustic Canyon in Santa Monica, co-owners Nico Doniel and Nick Neuman have created a chic spot that'll accommodate any dietary restriction, where the health and environmentally conscious can go to see and be seen.
Reviewing a classic:This OG empanada restaurant is a metro Phoenix essential
Meals begin with a dietary assessment
The first thing my server inquired about were my dietary restrictions. (None.) After I ordered a chai tea latte, she cleared a set of large, pristine wine glasses off the table and left me to study the menu.
The word "organic" graced every dish, while the eclectic plates — like chorizo smattered Japanese sweet potato with a lush coconut curry yogurt and grass fed bison steak in blackberry guajillo mole — were labeled with equations like veg + vegetarian + gf + nuts.
In a move that felt straight out of the Southern California playbook, Santé will accommodate any eater, with recipes that appeal to raw foodies, keto enthusiasts, FODMAP followers and even dogs.
Even the house water was described as being "structured and re-mineralized with coral to create a molecular shape ... that mimics the water found in nature," whatever that means. The list of mocktails made with nonalcoholic spirits is almost as big as the list of cocktails. And just as pricey.
Through its food and "biophilic environment" meant to evoke the natural world, Santé has set out to be Arizona's first green gourmet restaurant. What that actually means, depends on whom you're talking to. Here, it seems to come down to the restaurant's plant forward menu and meat sourced from regenerative farms, a symbiotic style of agriculture that aims for lower impact production methods and a lower carbon footprint.
"Why is there no organic, cool chic-y restaurants with all the things?'" Doniel, a certified health coach who splits her time between Phoenix and Los Angeles, remembered asking Neuman, who owns the Old Town Scottsdale Italian restaurant EVO.
"We celebrate a lot of dietary needs for all kinds of people," she said. "I noticed when I came here from LA, that there’s really nowhere that people can come and celebrate food together."
The menu's charm owes much to the vision of executive chef Saul Velazquez, a native of Nayarit, Mexico, who grew up in Phoenix, trained at the Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale and spent a decade with Fox Restaurant Concepts where he earned the distinction of the company's youngest executive chef at the age of 21.
Velazquez and his chef de cuisine Eric Abaloz created the bulk of the menu under direction from Doniel, who would go to them with ideas for dishes, which they then developed.
If there are two camps to plant-based cooking, Santé's approach is less about creating alternatives that mimic meaty foods and more about elevating the vegetables themselves with interesting techniques and sauces.
Santé is a plant-lover's paradise
Plant-forward dishes shine the brightest at Santé. Fresh off the grill, two blackened quarters of cabbage were crisscrossed with a chunky kale chimichurri sauce and chive yogurt. This preparation took a humble ingredient and treated it like a star.
Rainbow carrots were presented over lentil hummus and enveloped in yogurt and black sesame seeds then coated with a nutty pistachio dukkah spice mix. An arugula and fennel bulb salad was positively delightful with its lemon vinaigrette and cubes of fresh, creamy, wine-caked goat's milk cheese, which rounded out the bitter anise.
Even a platter of raw vegetables became a celebration of bounty with intricately layered broccolini, purple pickled cauliflower, radishes and green bulbs of Romanesco showing off psychedelic fractal patterns.
I loved it, but if you're going to graze, I suggest the vegan cheese board.
A 'cheese' board was the surprise hit
The former cheesemonger (and current cheese snob) in me bristles when I hear the words "vegan cheese," a food paradox of nut-based dairy that's always tasted just a little bit off to me. That's why I'm shocked to be saying that Santé makes one of the best cheese boards I've had in town, and most of it is vegan.
I honestly didn't even realize it when the massive wooden board arrived with all manner of housemade jams and spreads, fierce snaps of pickled fennel a burst of green grapes and golden raisins that complemented the aged Spanish cheeses.
I gravitated toward two soft cakes dusted with vegetable ash that I assumed to be the mushroom pate, smearing the garlicky spread all over Santé's housemade sprouted organic sourdough bread.
It turned out to be a vegan cheese spread made from cashew milk. Maybe I'm getting a little bit hippy, but I think I liked it even more than the real stuff.
Skip the sustainable meats and stick to the plant-based and seafood entrees
Meat-centric dishes, like a grass-fed New York Strip steak topped with a prairie of sprouts, dominate the entree section. And, as a whole, the mains weren't executed as well as the sharable veggie dishes.
The strip steak could have been more tender and the bison was also a let down.
A roaming bovine, bison meat is lower in fat, but also higher in protein than a traditional beef steak, and that came through in the 8-ounce filet, which was juicy, but ended up tasting a little flat.
My biggest problem with the dish was not the meat itself, but the melted Manchego cheese over the top. Aged sheep's milk cheese is a tough one to melt successfully, and unfortunately, in this case the heat only funkified it, making it clash and overpower the flavor of the meat.
A buttermilk brined chicken from North Carolina-based Joyce Farms was more successful, with perfectly crisp skin and a lovely jus made from kalamata olives and maraschino cherries.
The entree I'd go back for was the Kvarøy Salmon. The Norwegian company states that rather than give their farmed fish antibiotics, they employ a new technology that uses lasers to detect harmful sea lice and zap them away. At Santé, the superb piece of fish was flakey to the fork with a flawless crust served on a bed of sunchoke puree and supple fava beans with dollops of a charred lemon sauce. Divine.
If you only order one thing at Santé, it should be this
One of the two vegetarian entrees ended up being the best plate on the entire menu — a raw chilled lasagna layered with vegan ricotta made from cashew nuts, which came pretty close in flavor to the ambrosial dairy product that usually butters up traditional lasagnas.
To amplify it, the chef drops in a sweet chutney of roasted tomatoes, a perfect foil to the freshness of the thick slabs of zucchini that stand in for noodles.
I think it's the olive oil that I loved the most, though, draped over the julienned veggies and pooled at the bottom of the vintage-style plate where it was infused with fresh chives.
"It tastes like I'm eating a salad," said one of my dining partners when I ordered it for the second time. And perhaps that's why I loved it.
Like many of the dishes here, the lasagna was substantial enough to fill me up, yet somehow managed to be delicate. Much like vegan cheese board that blew my mind, it challenged my perceptions of what health food can be.
Where: 15507 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale.
Hours: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday; 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Price: Starters $17 to $42; salads $14 to $21; vegetables $14 to $18; mains $21 to $60.
Sound: During the day the restaurant is rather quiet, but on evenings and weekends the mood gets livelier and louder. Conversations reverberate through the high ceilings, which can make it harder to hear.
Vegetarian/vegan options: Vegetarian and vegan options dominate the menu and almost everything is customizable. It's a plant-based paradise.
Recommended dishes: The tour guide cheese board ($24), fennel arugula salad ($16), Kvarøy Norwegian Salmon ($34) and the charred cabbage ($14).
Details: 480-687-3189, lovesante.com.
Stars: 2.5 (out of 5)
Should you go?
5 — Drop everything
4 — Yes, and soon
3 — When you get a chance
2 — Maybe, if it’s close
1 — You can do better
0 — Not worth your time