Ocotillo Restaurant

Reviewed By: Leslie & Andy
Andy's youngest daughter, Lily, has been hearing great things about Ocotillo restaurant in Phoenix and wanted to try it to see what was up. Lily enjoys appealing to our foodie natures by finding restaurants we may want to try as a family. So when she asked if we could go tonight, we thought it was a great idea! An ocotillo plant is a stick with spikes in the Winter, but in the Spring it turns into a somewhat leafier green stick with spikes and pretty red flowers.  I have been studying these plants since we moved to Arizona because they tend to be in everyone's yards. They are indigenous to the Sonoran desert, so that explains their prevalence. However, Ocotillo Restaurant--named for the spikey sticks--is a casual dining restaurant located in Midtown Phoenix.  Offering contemporary cuisine and several outside patio spaces where you can enjoy the native flora and a lovely cocktail.

Ambience:  Upon entering the restaurant we each took note of an interesting design aspect.  There are cowhide leather chairs tucked in a corner, nice light wood, brightly lit--but not overpowering, some industrial touches in the bar with exposed metal framing. Ocotillo is tastefully decorated with linen napkins and simple tableware.  We were shown to our seat, which was through a large set of swinging wood doors.  The doors looked really nice, but slammed heavily with the comings and goings of the waitstaff and patrons. Slightly jarring. Outdoor patios are abundant and range from a nice seating area for fine dining, to some garden areas where one can enjoy the flowers and plants, to a slightly clubby atmosphere with music and another bar.  Ocotillo seems to be a something-for-everyone kind of restaurant and their ambience achieves their goal nicely.

Quality:  Executive Chef Walt Sterling really shines here.  The menu has a wide range of options from salads, to small plates, to pastas, and meaty entrees.  The unique menu items are not overly pretentious and allow you to branch out from your usual choices and dive into something really awesome like Sundried Strawberries with Balsamic Reduction, Herbed Ricotta, Basil, and Grilled Bread--AMAZING! Or Tagliatelle with Braised Rabbit. But there are also some classics such as Mesquite Grilled Ribeye with Garlic Mashed Potatoes. We tried the above mentioned strawberries and loved them.  We also had an Ahi Tuna dish that was perfection, Eggplant "Meatballs" with Basil Pesto, and Pacherri Pasta with Prosciutto and Shaved Peas--all of which were enjoyed immensely.  There was only one miss and that was the Arugula Salad. Andy likes Arugula, I do not.  This was a mountain of Arugula, lightly dressed in a tasty vinaigrette.  That's pretty much it.  Lettuce and dressing.  Nobody, even someone who likes arugula, can eat that much arugula without a buffer like parmesan cheese (which it had if you could find it) or some basic vegetables. It's bursting out of the fridge as I type this.  By the way, much to Andy's chagrin, I couldn't decide which of the three desserts I wanted and since there were three of us at the table, I made the executive decision to order all three...because dessert, duh.  Though he "protests," Andy loved all the desserts as much as I did and we could probably make a special trip just for the Vanilla Custard or the Fudge with Coconut Ice Cream.

Service:  Service was a little disappointing.  Upon entering the restaurant a gruff bartender greeted us with "Wait at the host stand. She'll take care of you there." Ok. So we waited at the host stand obediently.  We were finally seated in the section of a server who seemed a little under-confident and under-trained.  He was very nice and opened up more as we were closer to dessert, but he made a few key mistakes--we had trouble hearing him, and were unsure when he was trying to take our orders or give us advice.  For example, when Andy ordered the Arugula Mountain, the server told us he would bring some plates and forks for sharing.  Wait a minute... We don't want to share a salad.  Who shares a salad?  What could have been explained was that the mountain of Arugula we were about to receive could feed the three of us plus a small army of hungry rabbits and we'd still have some leftover.  We received little explanation, were just left with many questions, and three plates. Andy and I both enjoyed my Pinot much more than he enjoyed his red blend, so on the second round, Andy asked for a bottle of the Pinot.  The server said it would be the same price to order by the glass.  We asked how much the bottle was and he responded with "I'm not sure.  It's about four times the price of a glass." Well, how much is a glass we inquired.  "I'm not sure.  About a quarter of the price of the bottle."  (Insert unamused blank stare here.)  I secretly envied the group sitting a few tables away who had an enthusiastic, charismatic server, who introduced himself and brought waters without question.  I hope we get that server when we return for the fudgy dessert and a glass of Pinot...

Value:  When I asked Andy his thoughts on the value of Ocotillo he said "It might have been a little steep." I have to agree.  The food was really good and definitely the highlight of the restaurant overall, but we left a little disappointed with the service and ambience.  So the whole package seemed diminished when we handed over the credit card.  I know we have eaten in other restaurants where the food was on point and the service equally so--making a steep check a little easier to pay.  Usually, we were upsold by charisma into a bottle of wine and several desserts.  This time we (I) just wanted to try all three desserts and I don't see anything wrong with that.  I am an independent woman with a need for fudge--so, I mean I have self control--and you can stop judging me.  Anyway, the value was undermined by the strange evening and the distance we drove to experience the strange evening.

Overall, we enjoyed Ocotillo and if we happened to be in the area we'd definitely return.  The food was fantastic!  It absolutely lived up to the hype.  But we'd hope to be able to experience another outdoor seating area (away from slamming doors) in the section of a more experienced and personable server.  And I would most definitely talk Andy off the ledge of Arugula Cliffs and into a more suitable salad... And he'd probably put his foot down when it came to dessert time.