After months of delay, the FOUND:RE Phoenix hotel opened in Downtown Phoenix last fall, and it’s every bit the flashy vessel of painfully cool urban panache the PR folk promised. Situated near the Roosevelt Arts District, the art-inspired boutique hostelry is everything its dowdy predecessor, the Lexington, was not: urban-industrial, edgy and tons of fun. You’ll sense the cheeky attitude the instant you spot artist Randy Slack’s goofy homage to Cosmopolitan’s 1972 centerfold of Burt Reynolds, lounging in all his glory on a bearskin rug. In Slack’s version, titled “Burtney,” Reynolds sports a blonde wig reminiscent of Britney Spears’ flowing locks, propelling the original feminist message a thought-provoking step further. See? You’re into it already.
To the left of the gallery-style lobby stands a big, inviting bar offering quirky cocktails that echo the wild creativity of the hotel’s artists. This first “chapter” of mixologist Maxwell Berlin’s menu-as-travel guide, titled Roots, explores various drinking cultures of the world, and it requires a sense of adventure. “Snowfall on Fujisan,” a frothy coffee drink, combines Japanese whiskey, local mesquite, soba, roasted kabocha squash, red miso, espresso, steamed local milk and an Asian pepper called sancho ($13). Whew! Nothing simple about it, but it’s fun. Ditto for a Kermit-green, French-inspired cocktail subtitled “An Examination of French Imperialism and Its Influence on the Globe.” Is this a history seminar or a cocktail?
If only adjacent dining option MATCH Cuisine & Cocktails was as inspired. Tucked away to the right of the bar, the space itself is casual and appealing, thanks to a bank of picture windows overlooking the street and an exhibition kitchen fronted by café tables that affords a view of the bustle. Meanwhile, executive chef Akos Szabo, who is of Guatemalan and Hungarian ancestry, has fashioned a series of accessible, affordable menus to facilitate every conceivable dining opportunity – breakfast, brunch, lunch, midday, happy hour and dinner, plus a Lightrail Express menu – bringing his own multi-cultural predilections to the table by way of international street food. (That’s the catchphrase, anyway... I can’t imagine eating escargots or lobster bisque on the fly.)
The dishes, presented in small-plate format, represent iconic national favorites from around the world: samosas from India, spicy meat patties from Jamaica, a tagine from Morocco and so on. In theory, I love the whole world-of-food-under-one-roof idea, but pulling off such an ambitious menu is a challenge. As it turns out, MATCH’s menu descriptions almost always sound better than the food tastes, and simple execution seems to be the kitchen’s biggest problem.
To wit: A handful of dishes arrive lukewarm and unappealing. My friend and I send back velvety lobster bisque for a re-heat, appreciating its lavish components far more when they’re actually hot. Bolstered with pieces of sweet Maine lobster, mascarpone gnocchi and roasted mushrooms, it’s one of the best dishes on the dinner menu.
I didn’t have enough meals in my budget to know if the two wood-fired pizzas, served nearly cold one lunch hour, deserved a second shot. It doesn’t seem likely, given the gummy texture of the dough and pallid, wimpy crust. Admittedly, the spicy-sweet house-made Filipino sausage that tops the Barrueta pizza is delish, but the Grateful Shroom, combining truffle cheese, toasted garlic, crispy onion and mushrooms, ought to be better, given its ingredients.
On the other hand, wood oven-roasted escargots, a dinner offering served piping hot and bubbling, are a hit, each tender gastropod bathed in parsley-brown butter and fourme d’Ambert, a mild, creamy French blue cheese. Added bonus: toasted Noble bread to mop up the rich remains.
Most dinner offerings fall into the good-but-not-great category. Doughy, daintily folded chicken samosas, for instance, seem less greasy and more elegant than the “authentic” versions offered at most Indian restaurants, but I miss the crunch and spice of the real deal. (An accompaniment of mouth-cooling cucumber raita proves an unnecessary accessory.) MATCH’s poke bowl–combining Bakkafrost salmon belly from the ice-cold waters of the Faroe Islands, wild-caught yellowfin tuna, sushi rice, avocado, seaweed, pickled cucumber and citrus ponzu – is certainly good, but here again, I find myself wondering why I’m not knocked out.
Frankly, I can’t imagine anyone but a toddler enjoying the Marrakech tangia, an inexplicably bland entrée allegedly composed of saffron couscous, black olives, pistachio, preserved lemon, coriander-mint yogurt and sumac that tastes like nothing more than unseasoned rice-like pasta and chicken, thrown together in a bowl (excuse me, a tagine). Where, oh where, are the exotic ingredients listed on the menu? Other than the olives, we can’t taste them.
I’m just as crestfallen at lunch, first by a green papaya salad that tastes as if it were made hours – if not days – ago; and most accutely by the Bluto, a fried chicken sandwich smeared with blue cheese, meant to replicate Buffalo wings. Unfortunately, the crispy breading breaks off of the chicken in one giant husk, and the sandwich is an impossible-to-eat mess. The fries are nice, though.
To my mind, the creative desserts are the best reason to eat at MATCH. I like the savory quality of the miso cheesecake; the classic flavor profiles of passionfruit, coconut and dulce de leche found in the Argentinian alfajores cookies; and the sheer fun of the Oaxacan Wreckage, in which chocolate, chiles, almonds and coriander cream conjure Oaxaca’s famous black molé.
Unfortunately, my enthusiasm summited with dessert. I’d like to be as gung-ho about MATCH as everyone else seems to be, but until the kitchen gets a handle on the basics, Szabo and his crew just can’t light my fire.
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