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January, 2010, Page 145
Photos by David Moore
Seafood soup with shrimp, mussels, clams, fish and vegetables
With an offbeat menu and moderate prices, the hip St. Francis falls somewhere between ‘high-end’ and ‘hangout.’
St. Francis is the new kid on the uptown block. It’s a restaurant, by the way, not a church, parochial school or religious goods store. The pious name is derived from the original neighborhood land deed, though the area has never been known locally as anything other than Central and Camelback.
Chef/owner Aaron Chamberlin comes, most recently, from the La Grande Orange hospitality juggernaut. St. Francis is like none of those LGO affiliates. Chamberlin seems committed to creating a neighborhood restaurant unlike any other.
The architects did an inspiring job turning a boxy, undistinguished, mid-20th century office building into a vibrant contemporary space. It’s very much in the urban loft mold with exposed brick walls, ceiling beams and a second floor mezzanine. A two-story garage door in front allows the bar to function both indoors and out. There are clever touches, such as antique spoons inlaid in the wall next to the entrance (the motif carries over to the menu). But there are also some design flaws. Doors to the kitchen swing directly into the dining room, closely skirting an awkwardly placed corner table. On the east side of the restaurant, powerful overhead fans quickly chill food on the tables below.
Flatbread with sweet figs, bitter arugula, tangy goat cheese and onions
The relentlessly hip look includes a tiny counter to perch at and eat while peering into the kitchen. It also includes a young, good-looking staff clad in cute T-shirts and jeans. Their attitudes are brisk, and they mean business – no reservations for parties fewer than six, and don’t expect to be seated until your entire party arrives. There isn’t much friendliness or instructive palaver going on with customers, either. I dined there three times before I figured out that the little munchies like olives and potato chips placed at the corner of the bar are meant as help-yourself, happy hour bar appetizers.
It’s an offbeat menu, limited in scope and geared more toward snacky options like entrée salads and sandwiches than full-blown meals. To some extent, it changes constantly. Proceedings start with superb, baked-on-premise semolina bread and quality olive oil. Late summer sweet corn chowder ($6) was pure sunshine. A few weeks later it was a complex, satisfying pumpkin soup with crème fraîche, bright hints of cider and a sautéed apple cube and pepita garnish ($6). With notes of sage and rosemary and a vibrant lemon aioli dip, the simple-sounding fingerling potato appetizer ($6) is irresistible. Warm, creamy goat cheese swirled with bright tomato and topped with a plop of pesto ($8) is plenty for two.
Chamberlin has some flavor-bending surprises up the sleeve of his white chef’s coat. For instance, tangy, full-flavored buttermilk cheddar dressing smoothly unites romaine and fall vegetables with grapes ($8). Deliciously crispy-soft flatbread with sweet figs, bitter arugula, tangy goat cheese and a load of onions ($12) also is unexpected.
pumpkin soup with apples, pepitas and crème fraîche
Befitting a neighborhood eatery, the French onion burger (think the classic soup combo) ($12) is one of the best in town. It’s nicely crusted outside and plenty rare inside, placed on a tender, toasted brioche bun. One time, the accompanying fries could have passed muster in a Parisian bistro, the next, they were akin to cardboard. Green chile pork stew ($12) was chockfull of tender meat but missing any robust spicy seasoning, and the accompanying cornbread was terminally dry.
Steak lovers will enjoy a pepper-crusted flat iron ($20), though more of the emerald green spinach and buttery parsnip purées that accompany it would be welcome. The wood-fired, oven-roasted chicken ($17) – moist and crackly-skinned – is the house signature and may be the best in town. It is served on a Middle Eastern-accented salad with pine nuts and a bed of smooth, mild hummus. A generous chunk of perfectly done salmon ($18) also got the same served-on-salad treatment.
Seasonings are off-kilter on certain dishes. The seafood soup ($19), loaded with fresh, distinct-tasting shrimp, mussels, clams and fish, also was extremely salty. The forbidden rice and vegetable bowl ($14) is simultaneously busy and boring and not helped by a nuance-less, sweet-spicy sauce. A sandwich built around a primo hunk of rare tuna ($15) has a soft, wet texture that begs for something crunchy, toothsome and more punchy than a wan olive aioli. The colorful pickled veg salad on the side only goes part way toward this.
The vanilla gelato served with a date-rich toffee pudding is irreproachable, as was the chocolate “parfait” that combines dense, dark chocolate cake with mousse-like milk chocolate, whipped cream and wonderful sweet-salty candied hazelnuts ($7 and $8).
pepper-crusted flat iron steak with creamed spinach, potatoes and red wine sauce
I love the tight, well-chosen wine list with most options available by glass and bottle. The house wines are two very good Spanish varietals served by the carafe at $16 ($10 before 6 p.m.). By the time this hits print, St. Francis will be open for lunch and the menu will have a more wintery edge.
This is a restaurant with plenty of sophistication and style, but it’s not a high-end destination. Nor is it casual and accessible enough to be a neighborhood hangout. St. Francis is in a class by itself, enjoyable despite – or maybe because of – the lack of a defining label.
: 111 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix
: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday
: Pumpkin soup ($6); fingerling potatoes with lemon aioli ($6); baked goat cheese ($8); salmon salad ($18); oven-roasted chicken ($17); peppered flat iron steak ($20); French onion burger ($12); chocolate hazelnut parfait ($8)
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