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Pineapple-basil cheesecake

Secret Garden

by Nikki Buchanan | Photography by Grace Stufkosky | Scottsdale magazine | September 4, 2014

It’s a calm night at Gertrude’s, the pretty, multiwindowed restaurant at the Desert Botanical Garden. Near the entrance are a dozen or so cocktail drinkers, clustered around the dueling pianos, soaking up the evening’s relaxed ambience.

According to Executive Chef Matt Taylor, who came on board at the height of season this year, the current volume and pace represent a 180 from February, when Gertrude’s—named for the garden’s environmentalist founder, Gertrude Divine Webster—was packed all day, every day. Lucky for us, the summer slowdown gave him time to make the New American menu his own, with local ingredients and the creative Southern touches that have earned him notice over the past six years at Metro Brasserie, Noca and Market Street Kitchen.

But Canadian-born Taylor is not some cornpone cook riding the biscuits-and-gravy train. He’s cooked in New York for Daniel Boulud, in New Orleans for the legendary John Besh and here for James Beard Award-winner Brad Thompson. All that kitchen hopping has resulted in soulful, sophisticated food with a sexy Southern accent. 

His plan for Gertrude’s is simple: make it as iconic as the hallowed ground on which it sits. If the DBG represents everything we love about Arizona (and it does), then Gertrude’s should too. To that end, the restaurant has its own garden, boasting herbs and vegetables that are just as likely to wind up in a cocktail as on a plate.

On a still-blazing July evening, the Cactus Cooler, a thirst-quenching combo of Cruzan rum, pear syrup, spiced rum melons (chunky in the glass), fresh mint, fresh lime and nopalito (the tart pads of the prickly pear cactus) is everything we parched desert dwellers want from a summer cocktail—something light, uncomplicated and refreshing. Like the regular menu, the cocktail selection changes seasonally, featuring hometown products like locally distilled bourbon (Copper City) and locally made bitters (AZ Bitters Lab). The craft beer list boasts loads of local and regional brews, while the short, progressive wine list spans the globe but favors the Left Coast.

Taylor makes his own charcuterie, and it’s fabulous, but the spectacular starter of the moment is a crunchy, golden heap of cornmeal-dusted oysters, served on a plate swirled with Tabasco ranch dressing, collard green pistou (France’s pesto) and chile oil. Oh my! Just as habit-forming is Taylor’s take on poutine, Canada’s heavy comfort food built on french fries, gravy and cheese curds. Here, the ultrarich gravy is bolstered with foie gras; the creamy cheese comes from an artisan cheese-maker in northern Utah; and the whole gloriously gooey compilation is strewn with shaved summer truffles.

When your flagging appetite craves fruit, try the summer melons salad, tossed with arugula, Marcona almonds, fresh mint and lemonade dressing. And when you want something more substantial—heat be damned—opt for the green asparagus salad, Taylor’s spin on the classic French bistro frisée salad, served with a bright bundle of asparagus and a poached local duck egg (Two-Wash Ranch), surrounded by puddles of warm and crispy bacon vinaigrette.

The yin in you will love the British Columbia salmon, baked on a brick of salt that renders it moist and flaky. Perched atop sharp horseradish potato salad with a leafy spray of pea shoots and a drizzle of Fresno pepper vinaigrette, this is summer dining made simple and sublime. On the opposite end of the spectrum waits the 16-ounce Niman Ranch pork chop, brined for eight hours with honey, lemon, Kaffir lime, fish sauce and thyme, and finished on the grill until its edges are crunchy. Surrounded by a moat of insanely rich grits from Hayden Flour Mills, edged with maple syrup-y jus and topped with kale kimchee, this is man food made worldly.

Never mind you’re stuffed by now, dessert is a must—especially the caramelized peach galette, baked with Fromage d’Affinois (think Brie on steroids), topped with sweet corn ice cream and fresh thyme. And I thought I could go the rest of my life without another piece of cheesecake until I tried Gertrude’s hot-sweet pineapple-basil version, assembled on a gluten-free mesquite graham crust and given a garnish of crisped basil leaves and candied jalapeño.

I figure I’ve got maybe two or three months left to get into Gertrude’s for breakfast, brunch, lunch and another dinner or two. After that, this place will be overrun with snowbirds and visitors clamoring to put it into rotation for the rest of the season and—if they’re smart—well beyond. Maybe even into next summer.

Gertrude’s Restaurant at the Desert Botanical Garden
1201 N. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix

Hours: Sun., 7am-7pm; Mon.-Sat., 7am-9pm
Appetizers: $5-$20; salads and sandwiches: $10-$15; entrees: $20-$30; sides: $5-$10; desserts: $5-$10; brunch: $10-$20; cocktails: $10-$15

What to Wear
Casual resortwear is just fine. In the daytime, you can get away with shorts and flip-flops.

What to Drink
Any of the craft cocktails or a good beer

Where to Sit
On the patio in good weather; at the bar after work; and in the cool, quiet private dining room when you have a group