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November, 2012, Page 165
Photo by David Moore
Kentucky fried quail with Brussels sprout slaw and “red, white and bleu” potato salad
Superchef Aaron May answers the prayers of Old Town-area gastropub enthusiasts.
The name is the first clue that Chef Aaron May’s newest endeavor, Praying Monk, is the polar-opposite of Iruña, the Basque-inspired tapas joint he formerly operated in the same Old Town storefront. Iruña sounds like a sexy, standoffish Spanish sophisticate; Praying Monk – named after the signature rock formation on Camelback Mountain – conjures a celibate Belgian beermaker. While Iruña was sparklingly upscale, the new eatery resembles an earthy, wood-paneled roadhouse with an open beam ceiling. Iruña served food people didn’t seem to understand; Praying Monk dishes recognizable yet elevated comfort food, with 20 draft beers – including a few Belgian breeds brewed by actual monks – and a selection of flights. The $300 jeans crowd is gone; a more relaxed clientele has moved in.
Don’t look for traditional burgers-and-brews bar fare; the Lodge, another May spot, is good for that. Instead, Praying Monk fills a niche in Old Town with mid-priced Southern-inspired cuisine, a culinary balance of comfort and creativity, and savvy service.
May – who was in the kitchen on all of my visits – serves seasonal, cliché-free dishes that can accurately, un-ironically and honorably be described as gastropub food. Where else in town could you find something like the “F” This PB & J, a peanut butter and jelly foie gras torchon ($16) served in a hinged mini-Mason jar? Or Kentucky fried quail with Brussels sprout slaw and “red, white and bleu” potato salad ($15)?
“Chocolate and Beer” dessert
Oddball as they sound, they were my two favorite dishes. The heady foie paired with just-sweet-enough house-made peanut butter and blackberry jam struck a perfect balance. The crunchy quail – an “it” food fixture in San Francisco, but still cutting-edge here – would do the Colonel proud, retaining its juices and delicate essence while adding excitement with the batter.
Other items also qualified as elbows-flying, get-it-while-you-can delectable, like tender fried cauliflower with currants and smoked almonds ($5); a soft, golden Bavarian pretzel with tangy grain mustard ($7); glistening, olive oil-dressed, pan-seared Brussels sprouts ($5); beery, hearty fish and chips ($10); exquisitely-cooked salmon ($18) with peas, bacon and chives on a bed of braised sunflower seeds that could have passed for rich rice; and a knockout dessert aptly named “Chocolate and Beer” ($7) – cake and ice cream made with Old Rasputin stout and a bacon shortbread cookie.
Don’t feel left out if you want something light – the salads are superb. The oversized roasted chicken salad ($10) bursts with a veritable pantry of goodies – beets, dried cranberries, almonds and more – and minty citrus dressing. We couldn’t taste the promised goat cheese in the dressing, so if you’re not a goat cheese fan, try it anyway. The usually humble Cobb salad ($10) here is a work of art, impressing with a burst of colors, aesthetic-forward arrangement and top-of-the-line ingredients, including three tangy cheeses – blue, Swiss and cheddar.
I could find fault with a few items if pressed. The much-touted house-made pastrami ($9) on Karsh’s rye was OK, but it had no chutzpah – it needed something more. The burger ($12) sounded delectable on paper but didn’t deliver the promised flavors, including a nonexistent sriracha mayonnaise. Smoky Tasso ham (a misnomer; this cut is from the shoulder, not the hind) might be popular in Louisiana, but here, it overpowers the watery Creole shrimp & grits ($14). Lump crab, corn and bacon dip ($8) was fishy.
Inside Praying Monk
Also, some dishes – the scallops with fried sunchoke “tots,” most prominently – were over-salted. And nothing you do to pig ears ($5), not even dousing them with fiery rocoto chile sauce, will make me like them. If you’re hell-bent on ear, go during happy hour, when all appetizers are half price from 3 to 7 p.m.
Praying Monk – an homage to both the iconic rock and to beer-making monks, God love them – should have no trouble attracting a devout following, thanks to the soul-stirring menu.
: 7217 E. First St., Scottsdale
: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Tuesday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday
: “F” This PB & J foie gras torchon ($16); Bavarian pretzel with grain mustard and pickles ($7); Brussels sprouts ($5); fried cauliflower with currants and smoked almonds ($5); fish and chips ($10); Cobb salad ($10); roasted chicken salad ($10); Kentucky fried quail with Brussels sprout slaw and red, white and bleu potato salad ($15); salmon with peas, bacon and chive on braised sunflower seeds ($18); “Chocolate and Beer” dessert ($7)
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