photos by David B. Moore; Okra buttermilk meatballs and polenta

Okra

Written by Wynter Holden Category: Food Reviews Issue: December 2015
Group Free

Crudo chef elevates Southern comfort food with masterful flavors and elegant fried fare.

Success breeds resentment, they say – along with outrageous expectations.

Consider star chef Cullen Campbell. His beloved Italian-inspired Arcadia gem, Crudo, has amassed an enviable collection of accolades during its four-year existence, including a 2012 Best New Restaurant of the Year nod from PHOENIX, a much-coveted James Beard dinner, and top billing in USA Today’s 2013 “10 Best Phoenix Restaurants.” Consequently, expectations were sky-high when Campbell and his team –  including his front-of-the-house powerhouse/wife Maureen Campbell and mixologist Micah Olson – announced plans to open a new-look Southern eatery in uptown Phoenix.

photos by David B. Moore; country ham and hoe cakesOkra lives up to the hype. Squirreled away in speakeasy-esque fashion behind the still-unfinished food hub The Colony, the eatery is as sparsely stylish as a Crudo plating. It’s an unusual look for a Southern restaurant: concrete block walls, giant rattan globe lights and minimalist décor don’t exactly scream “down-home charm.” But it works. Okra’s menu is similarly modernized, with top-drawer ingredients and portions more suited to waistline-minded hipsters than steak-scarfin’ cowboys. This is comfort food as envisioned by Atlanta superstar chef Hugh Acheson – not Paula Deen.     

For example, you won’t find fried chicken on the starters menu, but you will find fried chicken skins ($6). Crisp and sweet with a slow tickle of heat from Campbell’s honey hot sauce, they’re a fun alternative to traditional pork rinds. Other small bites include tangy Calabrian pork morsels in a vinegary sauce that smacks of draft beer ($6) and house-made head cheese ($5). Okra’s version of the latter is more of a terrine, the outdated aspic – think 1960s Jell-O casserole – rendered unnecessary thanks to Campbell’s canny preparation of the shredded porcine bits in a lightly fried shell. It’s a savory and unexpected dish.

The restaurant’s namesake vegetable dish was also unexpected, but not in a good way. Grilled and topped with creamy, crumbly quark cheese, Campbell’s okra ($4) suffers from an unfortunate texture described as “slimy” both by our overeager server and my table mates. A trip through the oil basket might have crisped those suckers up, much as it does for their Southern sister, the dilly bean. Okra’s dillies ($7) are crunchy and nicely pickled, their sourness mitigated by tangy “comeback” sauce – a creamy mayo-based dip related to Bayou remoulade.

Smoked chicken wings ($8) are pleasantly woodsy, with a nicer outer char than the typical fried variety, while paper-thin slices of country ham are the perfect foils to chunky pimento cheese in the hoe cakes appetizer ($9). Okra’s cakes are golden with deliciously crisp edges, the kind of minimalist cornbread appreciated by purists. (Seriously, put jalapeño in a true Southerner’s cornbread and you’re inviting a fistfight.) The fact they’re just sweet enough to contrast with the salty ham and tangy relish-studded cheese is evidence of Campbell’s mastery of flavor balance. Take a bite of the tomato-watermelon salad ($8) to find the same culinary poise. Pungent goat feta is tamed by the sugary fruit and acidic tomato, with grassy avocado acting as a creamy foil for a peppery, vinegar-based dressing. Simple yet delicious.

Canned biscuit doughnutWith nary a carpaccio or ravioli in sight, Okra still exhibits the telltale virtues of an Italian-trained chef. Red wine lends earthy flavor to the tender, moist meat of beef brasato ($18), while Campbell’s veal meatballs ($14) have a smooth, velvety texture reminiscent of the braised little wonders I enjoyed at the since-shuttered Marcella’s Italian Kitchen. Lightly sauced and served over firm polenta cakes, the trio of fork-tender orbs is substantial enough to be filling without feeling overly heavy.

Described on Okra’s menu as “focaccia,” flatbread-style pizzas are a solid bet. Campbell’s crust is airy and crisp, with a light smattering of toppings and sauce that makes the dish better for sharing than ordering as a solo entrée. Verde focaccia ($12) with garlicky broccolini tastes fresh and healthful; goat cheese adds density and creaminess. Lip-smacking four cheese-honey and pera (date, ricotta, pear) focaccias will end your meal on a sweet note ($12 each), with the former boasting a delicate nuttiness that lingers on the palate after each bite.

Though it’s one of the most delectable-sounding offerings in Okra’s Deep South stable, pig cheek pot pie ($16) proves disappointing. The vegetables in the pie are over-chopped and overcooked, resulting in a mushy, muddy mess that obscures the fork-tender pork. It’s a bummer. Instead, find your Southern comfort with “Tennessee hot” fried chicken ($13). The fowl is moist and succulent, its crisp outer shell soaking up piquant sauce made with red Fresno and cayenne peppers.

fried chicken skinsCampbell’s lone in-house dessert offering is a “canned biscuit” doughnut with salted caramel sauce ($3). Served warm with a doughnut hole on top, the confection has the addictive salty-sweet punch that compels moviegoers to mix their Reese’s Pieces with popcorn. It also boasts a moist, yeasty texture reminiscent of Krispy Kreme. Tart lemon chess and seasonal pear pies imported from Arcadia-based bakery Pie Snob ($7 each) are light and refreshing without cloying sweetness. Pair a slice with Olson’s decadent brown butter milk punch or the Pineapple Propeller, a dangerously smooth and chic cocktail featuring Plantation Rum, Scotch and citrus ($10 each).

Any new restaurant endeavor carries a well-documented risk of failure. But the risk is mitigated when the chef has a loyal customer base in his pocket and, oh yes, happens to be opening in one of the city’s trendiest dining ‘hoods. Okra isn’t perfect, but Crudo regulars should be pleased by the team’s solid encore, with its artful intermixing of genres and deep-fried carnal charms. Expectations aside, I reckon Campbell is fixin’ to nab a few more awards.

DETAILS
Cuisine: Southern
Contact: 5813 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 602-296-4147,
okraaz.comHours: Dinner 4-11 p.m. M-F, 3-11 p.m. Sa, 3-9 p.m. Su; happy hour 4-6 p.m. M-F  
Highlights: Fried chicken skins ($6); head cheese ($5); fried dilly beans ($7); country ham with pimento cheese and hoe cakes ($9); tomato watermelon salad ($8); buttermilk meatballs with polenta ($14); verde foccacia ($12); “Tennessee hot” fried chicken ($13); canned biscuit doughnut ($3); Pineapple Propeller ($10)

fried head cheese with Pineapple Propeller cocktail
tomato/watermelon salad with feta