Specializing in global cuisine, this scrappy, owner-operated bistro on Seventh Street is ambitious but confounding – starting with the name.
If you’ve whizzed by a small, hand-painted red and white sign on Seventh Street north of McDowell and wondered what Bri means or even how it’s pronounced, join the club. Nothing about this little culinary conundrum, located in a refurbished bungalow, is easy to figure.
It’s the brainchild of Vince Mellody, a young chef who cooked for Doug Robson at Otro before opening this operation a few months ago. The name Bri (rhymes with “eye,” apparently) is a purposeful misspelling of “braai,” an Afrikaans word for “barbecue,” which describes the small South African charcoal-burning oven Mellody bought because it would fit in his tiny kitchen and cooking on it sounded fun. I appreciate the freewheeling attitude, which spills over to the menu, a short list of small plates with a distinctly international bent. Two pricy but shareable meat platters – pork and duck, both in the $40 range – round out a menu geared toward grazing.
Mellody tackles French, Italian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Japanese and Korean dishes with varying degrees of success, but there’s no denying his international approach is on-trend – as is the cocktail program, created in collaboration with distributor Young’s Market. You can’t go wrong with the fresh and summery East of Havana (combining rum, amaretto, lime, coconut and ginger beer).
But I have a not-so-tiny bone to pick with this cheeky little restaurant that shows Twilight Zone re-runs at the bar, and it’s this: With three exceptions, nothing on the menu is particularly compelling – and one of the exceptions is store-bought potato chips tossed in honey butter, Korean- and Japanese-style.
The kitchen turns out two other memorable dishes: crunchy, bitter radishes served with crostini and miraculously airy, tangy-sweet butter, a French classic made sexy with Mellody’s house-made “virgin butter” (untouched by human hands, it’s all the rage in Sweden); and fleshy, translucent lychee fruit, which he transforms into a vegan version of scallops, grilling them and setting them afloat in a chilled, faintly spicy carrot-curry sauce that bears a hint of smoke. Lovely.
After that, everything gets a little dicier. Frico caldo, a pan-fried cheese and potato pancake topped with thick tomato ragù, is a greasy, falling-apart mess the first time, a success the second. Lightly fermented “kimchi-style” green beans, loaded with garlic and dried Korean chiles, are heavy-handed and one-note. Cannellini beans cooked in tomato sauce come off more as a humdrum side dish than a true small plate, while a soft, oozy egg poached in a wimpy soy and pork broth suffers horribly in comparison to other local specimens, like the swoon-worthy onsen egg at Hana.
I expected something more exciting from Drooling Duck, a riff on a Szechuan chicken dish that translates to “mouthwatering” but isn’t; and flavorful but dry pork spare ribs, braised in fermented black bean sauce, then topped with crispy garlic and shallots. The best meat dish is a smoky, wood-roasted duck leg amped up with a side of red chile oil.
I don’t doubt that Mellody has talent and vision – what he lacks is experience and judgment. I’d ditch the confounding name (spelled “Bree” on the receipt), find some focus (Asian might not be a strong suit) and create a narrative that isn’t lost in translation.
Contact: 2221 N. Seventh St., Phoenix, 602-595-8635, brion7th.com
Hours: Tu-Sa 5-11 p.m.
Highlights: East of Havana cocktail ($10); honey-butter potato chips ($4); radishes with crostini ($7); frico caldo ($8); lychee “scallops” in carrot curry ($8); roasted duck leg ($12)