With his new CenPho bistro, culinary star Michael O’Dowd creates wine-ready country cuisine ripe for the plucking.
Contrary to its citified name, Urban Vine is anything but urban, vibe-wise. It feels more like you’re stepping into an old friend’s country cottage for a cozy evening of sipping wine, sharing a home-cooked meal and swapping stories by the fireplace.
Set in the charming 1920s-era Phoenix bungalow that formerly housed the Coronado Café, Urban Vine reunites kitchen maestro Michael O’Dowd – famous for launching the AAA Five-Diamond dining palace Kai – with front-of-the-house guy John Rothstein, who was sommelier and manager at Kai when O’Dowd was perfecting the fabled restaurant’s neo-Native American cuisine.
In the interim, O’Dowd did a short stint at Sheraton Phoenix Downtown, and a not-much-longer stint at Renegade by MOD, the trendy north Scottsdale contraption that sputtered and seized just seven months after opening early last year. Diners expecting to find Renegade’s carnival atmosphere at the chef’s newest venture will be disappointed. No gimmicky venison lollipops and bag-borne cocktails, no cavernous dining room – just a simple menu of locally sourced foods, easy-on-the-ears music and laid-back neighborhood ambiance.
Draped in muted tones with painted wood floors, the eatery – located next door to the original America’s Taco Shop on the Seventh Street dining corridor – goes unabashedly rustic, with throw rugs and homey knickknacks scattered throughout. Diners can eat at the bar or at one of the inside tables; come non-hellish weather season, there’s also patio seating, with nice views of the herb garden O’Dowd planted out back.
The menu features “Small Bites & Urban Eats” plus three nightly specials – one each from sky, land and sea. Also on board – a small selection of draft and bottled beers, several red and white wines by the glass or bottle and a handful of craft cocktails including the Basquiat ($8), a thirst-quenching melange of bourbon, blackberry-infused elderflower, fresh lemon juice, agave nectar and cherry bitters.
Digging into the small bites, I sampled the black bean hummus ($10), a spicy blend of black beans, heat-packing habanero chili and mole served with pickled carrots, slices of cucumber and wedges of warm salted pita.
On another visit, I tried the daily bruschetta ($11) – grilled sourdough from local Noble Bread topped with juicy chopped tomatoes, diced asiago cheese, bits of roasted purple corn and a dash of fennel pollen. A little on the messy side because the ingredients had nothing to bind them, but a flavor-packed combo nonetheless.
The heirloom tomato and soybean gazpacho ($9), served in a generously sized coffee mug, can be ordered with or without lump crab meat. I opted for the former, adding big chunks of fresh crab to the soup’s already complex texture of pureed tomatoes, jalapeño peppers and crunchy soybeans. The gazpacho was refreshing on a hot day, and I must admit: It was so good, I was still daydreaming about it days later.
Salads here are given a lot of thought. The Young’s Farm greens and arugula composition ($12) was dotted with chunks of Crow’s Dairy goat cheese, cucumber ribbons, cherry tomatoes, bacon nuggets, pecan soil and roasted red beets marinated in curry and garam masala. The greens and arugula stayed crisp under the light cider nectar dressing. Presented in a mason jar, the shaken wedge ($11) is, as promised, shaken and plated tableside by the server. The layered ingredients – tomatoes, sweet onions, bacon bits, cucumbers, roasted corn, bleu cheese and chopped iceberg lettuce bathed in a lemony ranch and bleu cheese dressing – plopped out perfectly mingled and was big enough to split.
The mesquite-grilled chicken sandwich on focaccia roll ($13), a plump grilled chicken breast layered with melted Havarti cheese, vine-ripened tomato, onions, lettuce and applewood-smoked bacon topped with avocado mousse, shared the plate with house-made malt vinegar chips and a hunk of sweet watermelon. It proved too big to finish, but made for an outstanding midnight snack.
Pork lovers will be happy with the 24-hour pork belly ($13), a mound of pulled mole-scented pork served with ginger-peach chutney and two grilled artisanal bread crisps. I could have used a few more scraps of bread to soak up the succulent juices. Another good choice is a small order of 7th Street Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes ($14), served with pan-flashed kale, chipotle aioli and grain mustard chutney. Usually crab cakes are padded with a bounty of fillers, but these crunchy rounds let the crab do the talking.
Dinner specials vary from night to night. I tried the 8-ounce filet ($29) served with an aromatic mushroom risotto tickled with fennel pollen and a handful of crisp asparagus. When the server didn’t bring a steak knife, I used my butter knife to cut through the tender beef with no struggle and savored every delectable bite. Likewise, the pan-seared sea bass ($27) – resting on a bed of orzo with red beans, garbanzo beans and sun-dried tomatoes – was tender, flaky and masterfully cooked.
We sampled several desserts including a cobbler ($7) studded with fresh peaches, blueberries and strawberries sweetened with a brown sugar topping; and a creamy bread pudding concoction ($7) punctuated by bits of chocolate and cranberries. Don’t miss Carol’s chocolate cake ($8), two sinful layers of lighter-than-air cake with cream cheese frosting that was so enjoyable my dining partner remarked he’d never seen me eat a dessert so aggressively. And yes, I did share.
Michael O’Dowd fans should rejoice. He’s resurfaced with a new, accessible concept and continues to create fresh and innovative fare. It’s worth the trip from wherever you live in the Valley, venison lollipops or no.
Urban Vine Kitchen + Hops + Grapes
Contact: 2201 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 602-258-5149, urbanvinephx.com
Summer hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Highlights: Heirloom tomato and soybean gazpacho ($9); mesquite-grilled chicken sandwich on focaccia roll ($13); 24-hour pork belly ($13); Carol’s chocolate cake ($8)
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