By Jeff Kronenfeld, February 2021 Issue.
Stratta Kitchen is down-to-earth yet highly refined, just like its chef and owner, Alex Stratta. Don’t let his or his restaurant’s casual demeanor fool you. He won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest at Mary Elaine’s in 1998 and earned two Michelin stars for his Las Vegas restaurant Alex a decade later, though he doesn’t rest on past laurels. Instead, Stratta uses that lifetime of experience cooking in world-class eateries to offer the Valley big flavors without big calories.
His newest restaurant is somewhat of a departure for the culinary artist who cut his teeth cooking in California and Monaco, that most upscale of European microstates. In the latter, he worked under legendary chef Alain Ducasse until being lured to the Big Apple. There he learned from another foodie legend, working at Le Cirque under Chef Daniel Boulud. Stratta eventually migrated west to the Valley to helm the ultra-fancy restaurant Mary Elaine’s before Sin City stole him for a decade-plus. Las Vegas ran out of luck when he returned to Arizona four years ago, seeking a less crazy place to raise his family.
Stratta did a few consulting gigs for high-end dining establishments around town before finally lining everything up to start his latest eponymous restaurant. Finding his diet radically changed after winning a battle with colon cancer and looking for a better work-life balance, he was ready for something a little more laidback. His fast-casual restaurant focuses on bringing lighter fare from the sparkling Mediterranean to just off the banks of Scottsdale’s Marguerite Lake. Its eclectic menu offers other treats as well, so if you’re a ravenous glutton like yours truly, don’t worry; you won’t go home hungry.
Whether ordering at the counter, over the phone, or online, you may want to get a game plan together first.
The menu is deceptively simple, with a range of delectable protein and sauce options offered on their own or as add-ons for the bowls and salads. The staff is happy to offer pairing suggestions if you’re unsure how a skewer of Alaskan Sterling salmon will go with the Cali Coast, a half-sphere full of quinoa, yams, cauliflower, avocado, dates, and toasted almonds. If making too many food-based decisions causes you excessive anxiety, you could opt for one of the appetizers, wraps, or tacos. To balance out all those healthy options, Stratta also offers desserts, beer, and wine.
I visited the restaurant twice, once at lunchtime mid-week and again on a weekend afternoon. On both occasions, there were a few other parties of diners inside and on the patio, as well as a steady stream of customers and delivery drivers.
The spacious floor plan made sure I never felt too crowded. That said, more than half the tables were vacant each visit, a cogent reminder of both the pandemic and the location’s lack of foot traffic. The exterior’s rust-colored curves yield to the interior’s shiny white subway tiles’ clean straight lines. The open kitchen flanks the front counter, which features an equally open cooler brimming with bottled drinks. I was greeted promptly by a friendly masked employee on both visits.
I ordered online the first time, opting for the charred steak tacos, but the miso glazed fish variety tempted me. All the tacos and wraps contained interesting ingredients, and I made a mental note on which I might need to circle back to for future lunches. In addition to the cuts of steak, my substantial whole wheat tortillas came piled high with chiles toreados, pico de gallo, queso fresco, avocado, and radish. On the side were a couple of lime slices and a healthy portion of viscous chimichurri sauce.
The presentation for these was very on point, with explosions of orange, red, and green interspersed by a light sprinkling of white cheese. These little works of edible art tasted as good as they looked. From the steak and avocado base to the intervening layers of diced and thinly shredded vegetables, some fresh, some pickled, I was impressed by both the breadth and harmony of the flavors.
The tortillas deserve a special mention, as they are larger and thicker than average, holding up well until the very last bite. I was a little worried about there not being enough before I ordered, but this trio of large tacos powered me up just right for an afternoon of typing.
For my next voyage to the restaurant, I took advantage of its convenient location near the Greenbelt’s car-free bike paths. We sat on the well-spaced patio next to our resting two-wheelers, relaxing in the shade while basking in the heater’s warmth. It wasn’t long until our two starters arrived.
One was the Sicilian caponata with naan. For those not familiar, Stratta describes the dish as somewhere between a salsa and a ratatouille. Caper spheres and glowing lines of chimichurri sat in the deep red sauce like so many purplish-colored islands in a bloody sea. Fresh sprouts laid on top like the laurel crown of a Mediterranean demigod. It positively burst with tart, bitter and savory flavors, including an umami note, which the chef attributes to the capers, olives, pine nuts, orange zest, and currants. I thoroughly enjoyed this surprisingly filling dish. Stratta is particularly proud of this dish, which bears the indelible mark of his time in Europe.
Our second appetizer was the chickpea & herb hummus with Noble bread. It was creamy and cool with plenty of citrus zest. This, all combined with the savory herbs, spices, and foundational flavors like onions and garlic, made it almost dance on the tongue. Stratta said there’s no secret to its silky smoothness, which comes from pureeing the completely cooked chickpeas while they’re still steaming in a high-speed blender. Whatever the method, its results can’t be contested.
Moving to entrees, all the glistening lakes and ponds we’d biked past must have set our ravenous imaginations swimming. We tried the salmon Riviera wrap and a Terra bowl with scallops. When the wrap arrived, the first thing I noticed was the hue and texture of the fish. It wasn’t that artificial, almost neon color you sometimes see, but a lighter yet still vibrant coral.
Accompanying this were chickpeas, oven-dried tomatoes, peppers, crumbled egg, fennel, and plenty of sauce. The sandwich had a nice mix of textures, with the salmon’s moist fluffiness complemented by the chewy wrap and crunchy vegetables. This was an ideal late afternoon pick me up to sustain our bike ride home without inducing a food coma.
The Terra bowl proved aptly named — its rich earthy essence hardy even before I piled on the scallops. One of four bowls, it comes with mung beans, cannellini beans, wild mushrooms, spinach, brussels sprouts, asparagus, and spiced purple yams. It had a complex flavor that was smokey, bitter, and savory at once, with a mild but lingering heat coming from the spicy harissa sauce. The various consistencies and moisture levels of the ingredients marked this dish out as something unique.
I’d probably live longer if I eat at Stratta Kitchen every day, but after surviving 2020, I’m not sure how appetizing such a notion really is. As I biked home pondering this morbid thought, I regretted not ordering the double trouble chocolate cake. Luckily, as I glided down the curvy canal, my mood cheered at the thought that I can always be less healthy next time.