Two of the Valley’s most unfairly talented young culinary professionals team up to deliver a winning, Arizona-centric “public house” in Tempe.
Mixologist Sean Traynor debuted Cotton & Copper last July, and so far, this budding restaurateur seems to know what he’s doing.
For starters, he picked a white-hot location for this modern-day public house: the bustling, bougie northeast corner of Warner and Rural roads, where Aaron Chamberlin’s Tempe Public Market Café and brand new Ghost Ranch, as well as a gym and yoga studio, are situated. Smart move No. 2? Traynor gave his saloon an Arizona-centric theme, with historical photos and vintage dinnerware and barware. But his smartest move was hiring rising chef Tamara Stanger, the breakout star from Helio Basin Brewing Co. who sources locally, forages the desert and works at establishing a definable Arizona cuisine.
Traynor, who has an enviable reputation of his own (Counter Intuitive, UnderTow), offers a dozen specialty cocktails made with local ingredients and named for once-booming Arizona mining towns. The fantastic Agua Caliente, which marries chile-infused mezcal with pineapple, lime and fresh ginger, is an early favorite – smoky, spicy, faintly sweet and tart all at once. The gin-based Cordes Ranch is far more refined but every bit as slurpable, and I can envision the masses going gaga over the Silver King – basically a tequila-based mojito.
Traynor describes his thunderously noisy place as a bar first, and Stanger obliges, creating a short menu heavy on sophisticated snack foods that go well with cocktails, local beer and a short list of wines. Her creamy, slightly spicy smoked fish rillettes, served with grilled, house-made bread are simply outstanding. Shaved fennel and sliced apple provide sweet, crispy punctuation. Not far behind is tepary bean spread, essentially a Native American hummus blanketed with grape halves and all manner of pickled things, including cucumbers, cauliflower and peppers. Sided with shatteringly crisp, house-made crackers, it’s an elevated spin on the everyday snack.
Corn dumplings – three dense, deep-fried nuggets set atop rich Parmesan cream littered with heirloom tomatoes, herbs and a dusting of corn ash – seem more like hush puppies than dumplings, but the misnomer is forgivable when they’re so good. Also fun, if not actually exciting, are pub chips – a collection of house-made barbecue chips, taro chips and fried, salty rounds of salami, all to be dunked in faintly sweet pesto or mustardy aioli.
The charbroiled burger, dripping with juices and topped with sharp melted cheddar, sautéed mushrooms and shallots, its bun smeared with béarnaise aioli, is a dreamy mess of a thing, accompanied by a cup of homey rabbit and corn soup, the finely shredded meat afloat in a light, flavorful broth. Even the simple, cornmeal-crusted chicken sandwich, served on a biscuit-like roll with tomato crema and chile de árbol, then topped with a sunny side up egg, is worlds better than bar food needs to be.
Despite the occasional misfire – dry Belgian hare surrounded by vaguely leaden gnocchi, redeemed by a luxurious pumpkin seed mole; and the worst vegetarian burger I’ve never eaten – this sincere little spot gets a lot right, and if it were in my neighborhood, I’d probably drop by often for Traynor’s easygoing cocktails and Stanger’s user-friendly Arizona cuisine.
Cotton & Copper
Contact: 1006 E. Warner Rd., Tempe, 480-629-4270, cottonandcopperaz.com
Hours: Tu-Th 3-11 p.m., F-Sa 3 p.m.-midnight
Highlights: Smoked fish rillettes ($10); tepary bean spread ($10); corn dumplings ($8); burger ($13); cast iron filet medallions ($23)