Sunday, April 26, 2015

Renegade by MOD

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Chef Michael O’Dowd’s mind-bendingly maverick menu makes for adventurous eating at his reinvented restaurant

At first glance, Renegade by MOD’s boundary-pushing menu appears gimmicky. Venison lollipops? Smoked cheese on an ashtray? Seafood in a bag served on a skateboard? It makes one wonder if this sudden reinvention of the former Renegade Tap & Kitchen is the culinary equivalent of a midlife crisis. But attention-grabbing names and pairings aside, Chef Michael O’Dowd (aka MOD) makes it work, and you can tell he’s having fun.

O’Dowd spent a decade as executive chef of Kai at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, where he earned five-diamond AAA status and a Forbes five-star rating before abruptly moving to the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown in late 2012. In May, he opened Renegade by MOD with business partner Ed Leclere, a former promotions director with Harley-Davidson.

In its brief existence, Renegade has been rebranded as often as its chef has changed ZIP codes: Originally Chef Robert McGrath’s Renegade Canteen when it opened in 2010, the restaurant was renamed Renegade Tap & Kitchen when Chef Aaron May took the helm last year. Now in its third incarnation, Renegade oozes counterculture cool, due in part to the tattooed and pierced wait staff, all of whom are exceedingly knowledgeable and efficient. The walls are graffitied by local street muralist Lalo Cota. Bicycles are scattered throughout the restaurant and bar, and on a couple of visits, I spotted a Harley-Davidson in the entryway. But the edgy accents are offset by eye-pleasing earth tones, wood floors, plush booths and padded suede chairs that make you want to get comfortable and stay a while.

phm0913 ebmc2 mdI started off with the Renegade Punch in a Bag ($10, $5 during happy hour), a mixture of rum, peach, pineapple, orange and cranberry juices and a large champagne Kool-Aid ice cube, served in a knotted plastic bag with a straw. Not surprisingly, it tasted a lot like the Kool-Aid of my youth and went down just as easily, but as the name suggests, it packs an unexpected wallop.

Food is delivered on skateboard trays, cream cheese dip is served in ashtrays, and utensils sit in a metal bucket on the table, so you never have to hail a waiter for a new fork. Contrived? Yes, but by the last visit it seemed routine.

The menu is divided into chilled and warm small plates, large plates, and desserts, as well as a happy hour menu from 2-6 p.m. Digging into the small chilled plate menu, I opted for the Reimagined Panzanella Composition ($16). Loaded with three generous slabs of rare New York strip beef and a trio of local Crow’s Dairy goat cheese “marbles” (plain, balsamic and Green Goddess) balanced on house-made melt-in-your-mouth croutons, this salad could double as an entrée – and a work of abstract art.

The Goblet of Greens ($10) – a mix of lettuces, feta cheese, roasted corn, tomatoes, carrot strings and cucumber “noodles” – was nested on a soupy glob of Green Goddess dressing. The presentation was beautiful but nearly impossible to eat as served.

On the small warm plate front, the venison lollipops ($14) – served rare, dusted with dry mole, and topped with potato straws and a sweet wolfberry and lingonberry relish – were moist, tender and delicious. Another good choice is the “Simply Put... Pork Belly” ($11), a thin strip of tender pork infused with Mexican vanilla and accompanied by a small dish of peach cobbler.

Large plate choices include thinly sliced smoked Korean short ribs ($27) cushioned by a mound of tasty fried rice studded with ham, edamame, scrambled eggs, tofu and vegetables. It sounded promising, but the ribs were hard to navigate. Every bite was gristly and tough to cut, even with a sharp knife. When the server noticed we didn’t like the dish, she offered up a new one, which we declined. Instead, she took a glass of wine off the bill because, she said, “We want you to come back.”

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Photos - from left: Goblet of Greens • Reimagined Panzanella Composition

Her thoughtfulness wasn’t an anomaly. From busser to owner, who on one occasion came into the dining room to ask us if the music in the bar was too loud, the staff is beyond accommodating and cheerful. They take great pride in the food and drinks they’re serving and make every effort to please customers, which, in my book, is kind of rare these days.

Fish offerings are equally impressive. The expertly prepared diver scallops ($29)  from the Sea of Cortez were plump and juicy, without a trace of grit. Sitting atop a knockout Gruyère fondue, sautéed root spinach and a churro (yes, a churro), the tender scallops were garnished with polenta wafers and a squash blossom for the perfect collision of sweet and salty. When I asked about the long wait for our entrées, the waiter said Chef O’Dowd wouldn’t let anything leave the kitchen until he’s put the finishing touch on every plate. Fair enough.

After watching several diners order the seafood in a bag ($33), we decided to take the plunge. The bag, snipped by the waiter at the table, contained a generous portion of rich saffron-fennel broth brimming with steamed shrimp, mussels, escargot, Arborio rice, chicken confit and Spanish chorizo. We couldn’t slurp the flavorful broth fast enough.

Dessert, on the other hand, seems like an afterthought. While dense and appropriately sweet, the bread pudding ($8) topped with bacon, cranberries and Irish whiskey sauce was ho-hum, as was the moon pie served with a root beer float ($8) in which to dunk the very dry pieces of chocolate cake.

Once you get past the unusual menu and remember there’s a five-star, five-diamond chef manning the kitchen, you’ll be hard-pressed to find more original fare at reasonable prices. Don’t miss out on the fun.

phm0913 ebmc4 smDETAILS
Renegade by MOD
Cuisine: Contemporary American
Address: 9343 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale
Phone: 480-614-9400
Hours: Dining room: 5:30-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m. Friday-
Saturday; MOD Bar: 2-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 2-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; live music 7:30-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Highlights: Renegade Punch in a Bag ($10); venison lollipops ($14);
Reimagined Panzanella Composition ($16); diver scallops ($29)