It grieves me to say it, but here in Phoenix at least, the independent restaurant in its purest form – one location, one chef-owner, one vision – is headed for extinction. You can still find plenty of established, eponymous exceptions (Christopher’s, Tarbell’s and Vincent’s, to name three), but almost every hot new eatery unveiled in the past year has been a link in a local chain, owned and operated by an industry-savvy investment group with deep pockets and expansion plans that border on Napoleonic.
Hey, I like trendy digs and super-cool vibes as much as the next gal. It’s sincerity I miss.
So it’s with gladdened heart that I bring good tidings of Restaurant Progress, a cozy, 37-seat charmer housed on the east end of the Melrose Pharmacy building in Melrose, a district better known for vintage furniture shops and LGBT watering holes than upscale dining. Owner T.J. Culp, a 25-year-old pioneer whose résumé – he cooked at Culinary Dropout and Central Bistro – belies his tender age, has created an unpretentious and intensely personal place that conjures the sophisticated neighborhood restaurants of San Francisco or Los Angeles. The kid’s got it going on, and on my first visit I’m immediately taken with the space he envisioned and shaped with his own hands: the old-school lettering on the storefront window; the convergence of exposed brick, subway tiles and glass block; the open kitchen, garden patio, heavy cutlery and terrific music selection; and most vitally, Culp’s no-BS approach to everything food- and drink-related.
His modern American menu, which changes every four to six weeks, offers around a dozen mostly seasonal dishes: cold appetizers, hot and cold small plates and a smattering of entrées, plus a five-course chef’s tasting menu priced at $75. The beverage selection is just as straightforward: 30 small-production, reasonably priced wines by the bottle, eight or nine of them by the glass ($9-$12), another 10 artisanal beers and a half-dozen creative craft cocktails dreamed up by Jason Dominguez, formerly of Kazimierz World Wine Bar.
Both of the cocktails I order taste lovely and perfectly match the season. First, the summery Straw Hat weighted by Dobel Silver tequila and composed of strawberry, mint, lime, cranberry bitters and soda; then The Experience (Hendrick’s gin, arugula, rose water and lime), a dangerously smooth little number that fully lives up to its name.
Scallop crudo, found in the cold app section of the menu, evinces a similarly refreshing quality, combining slippery, olive-oiled slivers of scallop with scoops of icy cucumber granita and lime crème fraîche, garnished with cilantro microgreens. I’ll remember this one when it’s 115 degrees in the shade. Almost as light and twice as simple is a plate of peppery radishes served with softened butter and flaky Maldon sea salt – très Français! – with a few of the radishes coated in smooth shells of butter like so many white chocolate-dipped strawberries.
Although pounded tenderloin carpaccio could’ve used a bit more hammering to make the sliced meat less chewy, the dish is a tasty, satisfying riff on tradition, adding nutty, potato-like sunchoke chips and shaves of Grana Padano (a first cousin of Parmesan) to classic complements of salty capers and mustard dressing.
Another classic combo – beets and blue cheese – arrives on a nest of deep green kale, the red and yellow beets slightly warmed and generously sprinkled with creamy clumps of handmade Maytag blue, the whole thing lightly dressed in sweet balsamic and olive oil.
Meanwhile, the dish titled Poached Egg is really another salad, this time involving a tangle of kale and asparagus dusted with finely grated Grana Padano. The spears have been shaved into long strips and arranged, along with the lemon- and olive oil-anointed greens, over two small eggs so delicately poached that the whites are just set and the yolks gush from the center. You’ll appreciate the name after one bite.
Culp’s take on chicken and dumplings may not bring your grandma to mind, but it’s every bit as comforting as her version, blending airy ricotta gnocchi – Italy’s national dumpling – with moist bits of chicken thigh and fresh peas, all bathed in a rich, buttery sauce deepened with chicken liver and buckwheat froth, the top strewn with crispy crumbs. I order it twice – in the name of research, of course.
Instead of the ubiquitous roasted chicken entrée, Progress offers squab, a small bird prized for its dark meat and fatty skin and a hard sell for many a squeamish diner, I’m guessing. Seared to a light golden crisp, then plated with farro grains and a sauté of oyster mushrooms, cauliflower and kale, the bird is a wee bit dry; however, the pleasantly chewy farro, which has soaked up its juices, is so outstanding that all is forgiven.
Pan-seared, crisp-skinned seabass is the lightest, healthiest option on one night’s menu, combining bok choy, shiitake mushrooms and broccoli with crisp, papery strips of nori, which lend that salty, fishy taste of the ocean. It’s very good, but I can’t help feeling jealous of my buddy’s impossibly rich beef Bourguignon, the succulent, almost caramelized meat served with root veggies, the best mashed potatoes I’ve had in ages and a dollop of chive-flecked crème fraîche. I’d eat this anywhere, anytime, hellish temperatures or not.
Pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon runs a distant second. Although I love the double-whammy of salty, porky goodness, I’d much prefer an accompaniment of spuds or legumes to chickpeas and caponata (Italy’s sweet and sour answer to ratatouille). Sweet shishitos are a nice touch, though.
The restaurant offers one dessert selection per night, take it or leave it. The sweet offering on one occasion is strawberries and cream, a bright, clean mix of fresh berries, mint, Sweet Republic berry gelato and dehydrated meringue crisps, while another night’s feature is creamy vanilla pudding, gussied up with dulce de leche, malt powder and almond-studded white chocolate tuiles (both $7).
The truth is, I adore this little place, and I can’t wait to go back for more – maybe brunch or late night. Have my meals been flawless? No, but they’ve been damned good. Has Culp pushed the culinary envelope? Not especially, but I don’t think that was ever his intent. What we have here is a remarkably good neighborhood restaurant that most likely will get even better. As Culp himself would be quick to say, it’s a work in progress.
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