Writer Amanda Christmann
Photographer Loralei Lazurek

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he only thing better than Arizona sunshine and moonrises are the delicious foods of the Southwest. In the North Valley, it’s not only the smoky bite of anchos, the kick of serranos, or the fun in experimenting with prickly pear, saguaro seeds and other desert bounty that makes for a good meal; it’s the brilliant infusion of local ingredients with other national and international flavors to create something wonderful.

In the kitchen at Cartwright’s Modern Cuisine in Cave Creek, Chef Brett Vibber is doing just that. Each plate is his canvas, and his palette is an almost absurdly delicious combination of foraged and thoughtfully purveyed ingredients like prime beef from Niman Ranch; bold greens and tasty, colorful microgreens sourced from a Phoenix urban farm; and freshly-caught ahi and albacore brought in by families of ocean friendly seafood suppliers.

“If we can forage ingredients ourselves, we do it,” says Vibber. “For everything else, we have built relationships with people and suppliers who care about sustainability and providing the freshest, most high-quality ingredients.”

Vibber grew up in the Valley before his formal training in Japanese and Italian cuisine led him to kitchens in Rome, Panama City, Marina del Rey and other notable cities, ultimately opening Chicago’s renowned Roka Akor. He came full-circle in returning to Cartwright’s as head chef in 2014, and took the dive into ownership of Cartwright’s last year.

He continues to pay tribute to Cartwright’s signature Sonoran ranch house roots, only now he’s doing it with a twist. The newly renamed Cartwright’s Modern Cuisine includes many old favorites, but also an updated, decidedly international twist to the menu, including an innovative selection of ocean-inspired dishes.

New on the sushi menu is the salmon roll. It is crusted with saguaro seeds, a foraging swap for traditional sesame seeds. Inside is wild-caught sockeye salmon from northern Canada and daikon sprouts from SIFarms. It is served with house-brewed soy sauce and fresh wasabi.

Another starter is the wagyu beef tartare, featuring beef from Lone Mountain Wagyu in Colorado, the only purebred wagyu ranch in the United States. Paired with pickled nopales, a huckleberry and local date emulsion, and radish greens from Mountain Sky Farms 10 minutes away from the restaurant, it’s a fantastic twist for meat-and-potato lovers and foodies alike.

Among the new Cartwright’s entreés is Vibber’s favorite: Organic Ocean ling cod. In this creative dish, medallions of flaky, white ling cod are topped with a rich corn aioli and a surprise flavor, smoked trout roe. They’re served with delightfully smoky sweet chicos—a tribute to Puebloan Indians—and bacon-braised radishes and carrots from John Naughton of Mountain Sky Farms. It’s some of the best fish you’ll find in the desert!

The on-the-menu items are often daring and delicious, though they’re tempered with old favorites like stroganoff, New York strip and salmon—each served with unrivaled, uniquely Arizonan sauces and sides.

Vibber has perfected his art in such a way that, if you close your eyes and take time to enjoy each bite, it’s often possible to recognize each individual ingredient for its unique contribution. Every flavor is perfectly paired, and nothing is left to chance.

Leave It to the Chef

While the menu has plenty to offer, it’s what’s not on the menu that really excites Vibber—and a growing number of his guests.

The Chef’s Tasting option is, in a word, incomparable. For a price that is more than worth the experience ($75, plus an additional $30 for wine and drink pairings), diners get to try a seemingly endless line of Vibber’s favorite creations of the day.

“My goal is to tell a story with the food, and it’s always different,” says Vibber with the kind of delight on his face usually reserved for Christmas surprises.

Vibber invited Images Arizona publisher Shelly Spence, account executive Tatum Williams, and me to sample some of his work. He began by taking note of any food allergies or dislikes we had among us. As it turned out, we were a relatively easy bunch to please. Despite Tatum’s landlubber palate, we were up for anything and told him so. He accepted the challenge and surpassed our expectations with gusto.

Vibber brought out plates full of amazing-ness, beginning with Hamachi with jalapeño ceviche, ahi with chipotle aioli, and duck with triton radishes and pickled huckleberries.

He wooed us with albacore tuna with microgreens, dehydrated saguaro seeds and Japanese aioli with prickly pear infusion.

He tested us (and passed) with chorizo-stuffed quail served with sumac and steamed corn ice cream with pickled ginger, dehydrated corn and fennel pollen.

He left us wanting more with venison tenderloin with a smoked marble potato, local Swiss chard, and bacon and brown sugar chutney.

Then he wowed us with potato and herb ravioli with duck breast, served with smoked apricot and Calabrian chile relish.

In all, we sampled 11 beautifully presented, creative dishes, each more delicious than the last, before he topped off our evening with his infamous deconstructed blueberry pie served with lavender, honey, and huckleberry ice cream, made fresh at The City Creamery a few doors down, then topped with dollops of mascarpone and lemon curd.

It was a feast fit for a king, or three queens as it were, and was one of the most enjoyable culinary adventures any of us had ever had. Not only did we try dishes and combinations we may never think to order, but also we got a glimpse inside of Vibber’s ingenious mind.

What’s more, we weren’t alone. Chef’s Tasting has become so popular, and for good reason, that it’s now at the top of the menu.

Though there is distinctive change in the air at Cartwright’s Modern Cuisine, there is no doubt that Vibber is still giving Creekers and everyone else in the North Valley something to be proud of. It remains a destination restaurant for everything from a romantic evening out to a place for special events, and with Vibber at the helm, it will not disappoint.