There are several things that come to mind when you hear “Flagstaff.” Certainly, Northern Arizona University and Snowbowl are up there. Likely Ponderosa pines, mountains, breweries, fall colors, stars, small-town charm and a general laidback vibe as well.
But gourmand greatness? Epic eats? Destination dining? Each of these will be top of mind when you think of Flagstaff after a visit to Shift Kitchen & Bar, which is nestled into a cozy nook in the historic Babbitt Building along Flagstaff’s ultra-walkable downtown corridor.
Recently named among the “Top 10 Romantic Food Destinations” in the country by “Eat This Not That!” and among the winners of “Best Dish” at Devour, Shift will literally shift all you thought that you knew about Flagstaff and its food scene.
The entry and actual dining room space at the eatery are small, with exposed wood and brick as well as a long bar where guests can watch much of the food and drink being made or garnished. It feels contemporary yet casual, with most folks in jeans and flip flops or flats. The vibe definitely puts one at ease in comparison to the grandeur of venues with menus as impressive and high-concept as theirs.
Owner Dara Wong, who was working away on a bevy of desserts behind the bar when we walked in, welcomed us personally almost immediately, as she did with several other tables around us. Her story is a cool one. Her family is both Jewish and Asian, with both being all about enjoyment of food together. She actually got her undergrad degree in business in Colorado, but soon found corporate life didn’t feed her soul. So, she enrolled in a culinary program in Denver, where she fell in love with baking. And it fell right back in love with her. Adept from the onset, her talent took her far and fast, including to Vail, before she moved to Flagstaff, where she made a name for herself working for Tourist Home, Tinderbox Kitchen and the Annex.
By 2016, Wong was ready to bet on herself and opened Shift with a partner (she is now the sole proprietor). The name was purposeful as her aim was to shift folks’ perception about the food scene in the mountain town, showcasing bold flavors while shining a light on locally sourced ingredients whenever possible.
Five years later, and it is safe to say mission, accomplished. And then some.
Shift offers more than a meal; it offers an experience.
This starts upon being seated and treated to the drink menu. There are both alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktail options alike. Wong uses Seedlip non-alcoholic spirits in the mocktails versus just throwing some juices together and calling it a day. As for the alcoholic offerings, the signature sips were artfully crafted as opposed to retreads of the same old thing we’d had a hundred times over. Of particular note were the Vipers Den, which combined Aperol, hibiscus and citrus with Olmeca los Altos, a new-to-me tequila with a delightful bouquet of fruit and subtle hint of sweetness that played off the bitter Aperol quite well; the French Girl, which had cognac, dry vermouth and toasted coconut; and my personal favorite in the Shift Sazzy, a rye bourbon cocktail with absinthe.
Lubricated by our first fabulous sips from our cocktails, it was time for the main event: dinner!
We ordered a combination of small plates and entrees, each of which is smaller than a traditional entrée on purpose to allow for sharing and sampling versus being married to one item all night. The bread board boasted insane lavender butter and whipped Boursin cheese that I wanted to take over to my own table instead of having to share. That was until the pickled French fries arrived. Let me preface what I am about to say with one important note: I hate pickles and most pickled things. Like, I will ask for another plate if a sandwich is garnished with a pickle on the same plate and its juices touched anything else. I am that person. I say all of that to say this: we had to order a second bowl of these magical potatoes of love. We mauled these fries. I could not believe how the salt and crispness of the fries was taken to an entirely other level with this pickling technique.
While I was still eating the second batch of fries, our entrees arrived. My friend and I opted for the pastas of the moment – which at this moment are a leek-infused cappelletti and tomato-based Pomodoro pasta with braised walnuts – while our men went for the meat, ordering the Niman Ranch Pork Belly and Shift Burger, respectively. My cappelletti was so melty and rich that it was a challenge keeping it from sneaking down my lips as I mouthed “Mmmmm” over and over. The aged gouda in the sauce took me over the edge (in a good way). My friend was worried when she saw those walnuts, but they completely worked, especially in tandem with the fried basil to offer a layer of texture. I would love to tell you how the burger was, but my friend’s hubby would not share. He said it was too good. It has puffed rice on top as well as a fried egg that was cooked to perfection. There was also gravy – sort of a Hawaiian Loco Moco-style gravy – he got on the side and used for dipping. As for my man, his pork belly was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. It had corn pudding instead of mashed potatoes, along with blue corn chips. I made the few bites he would give me into little nachos, and it rocked my world.
You remember I noted the owner is a pastry chef, right? Welp, she goes hard on the dessert menu, out to shift (see what I did there) your preconceived notions about the final course.
First, there was the jalapeño cheesecake (seen at top of page). Upon taking a bite, my friend’s hubby had to sit back, close his eyes and wouldn’t let any of us talk. He wanted to savor every second of what he called the single best cheesecake he ever had.
Then, there was the variations of chocolate, which featured brownie bites and ganache gelee paired with sorbet made from basil. I never wanted to stop eating those brownies, while my boyfriend refused to believe the sorbet was made from a plant. It was his ultimate highlight of the night.
Finally, we got to what became my best bite of the night in the pink peppercorn pavlova with strawberry dust and avocado sorbet (the boyfriend raved about that one, too). The combination of crispiness, crunch, chewiness and creaminess of the pavlova was unlike any dessert I’d ever had in Arizona. It is one I will order again, and again and again. Forever.
To say this is a special spot in Arizona is an understatement. Food like this needs to be smelled, seen and sampled by everyone. It is a melting pot of flavor, much like our Grand Canyon State is a melting pot of cultures and cuisines itself. Shift showcases the best of us in every bite.
During the COVID pandemic, Shift is open for limited hours. To learn more, visit www.shiftflg.com.