Chef Stephen Jones’ inspired reboot of his nouveau Southern bistro could be the Valley’s pre-eminent comfort-food destination.
Say what you will about the culinary chops that chef Stephen Jones so effortlessly displayed at Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails, then again at his original The Larder + the Delta in the defunct DeSoto Central Market – the man has never been more dialed-in than he is right now at his new TL+TD reboot in Central Phoenix.
Set in a cheery, open-kitchen space overlooking the greenbelt on Portland Avenue, it’s an expanded, more sophisticated version of the old restaurant, and a virtuoso effort that instantly catapults him into the “Valley’s best chef” conversation. It’s that good.
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, The Larder + the Delta reflects both the chef’s Mississippi-Alabama roots and his own experience as a classically trained chef who reveres tradition but isn’t wedded to it. Frequently, his menu celebrates iconic dishes from various regions of the South: hot tamales from the Mississippi Delta, burgoo from Kentucky and Lowcountry perlou from South Carolina. However, a handful of delicious aberrations – say, pickled shrimp toast that conjures both avocado toast and Mexican ceviche; or broken rice porridge, a soupy mishmash of warm, cereal-like Sonoran white wheat, Carolina gold rice, braised greens and blue oyster mushrooms, topped with an oozy, soft-cooked egg – defy classification. (I guess “modern-day comfort food” will do.) Jones has set out to create his own elegant, sometimes down-home interpretation of Southern cuisine – a little less heavy, a lot more urbane – and he’s pulling it off extraordinarily well.
With a creative cocktail or affordable, well-chosen wine by the glass in hand, I could happily make a satisfying meal from the snacks section alone. Jones’ menu is a shifty thing, often changing multiple times per week, but the small-plates selection usually includes mahogany-brown chicken skins, deep-fried until they curl and crisp, sprinkled with grated orange rind and lightly drizzled with lavender-scented orange blossom honey – so ridiculously addictive that leftovers from brunch don’t last the afternoon. Every bit as riveting are rosy shaves of aged artisanal Benton ham from Tennessee, the texture a cross between silk and leather, the flavor deep and agreeably salty, sided with chunky tomato jam, spicy pimento cheese and crusty, hash-marked bread.
Crispy pig ears, given a dusting of crushed Cheetos, make for quintessential beer food – crunchy outside, faintly chewy in the middle, their slightly musky flavor reminiscent of bacon. And although smoked catfish dip is listed in the “fishes” section of the dinner menu, it’s really another phenomenal snack, presented in a jar alongside pumpernickel-like bread so charred it shatters in the mouth, leaving a smoky finish that echoes the fish. Pickled celery relish – Jones’ answer to an Italian giardiniera – adds heat, tang, oiliness and crunch.
Vegetables are a huge part of the Southern repertoire, and Jones dedicates the largest section of the menu to them, stretching the boundaries of tradition so completely that some dishes don’t seem Southern at all. Take lightly breaded and fried cauliflower florets, for example, daubed with soft smears of smoky blue cheese from Rogue Creamery, strewn with pickled celery and dappled with hot sauce, a deliciously sophisticated allusion to Buffalo wings. Whole roasted broccoli, on the other hand, perfumed with lavender and orange rind, skews Middle Eastern, thanks to creamy clumps of garlicky, yogurt-y labneh.
Also veggie-centric but more overtly Southern are Jones’ hoecakes – flat, crunchy disks traditionally composed of nothing more than cornmeal, water and salt. They’re more akin to leavened pancakes here, crisp-edged but fluffy and faintly sweet, set atop a swath of savory celery leaf salsa verde, then crowned with celery leaves, corn, cured egg yolk and peppery watermelon radish. These are citified hoecakes, not the rustic, cornmeal-based patties of the Southern poor, but I love them, anyway – especially at brunch, when they’re scattered with cubes of sweet, caramelized fried apple (another distinctly Southern touch). Jones takes artistic liberties with beignets as well, transforming the sweet, powdered sugar-dusted fritters of New Orleans into hot, crispy puffs of savory dough that practically melt away on the tongue, swiped in foamy green goddess dressing, redolent with anchovy and tarragon. However, the best of the Southern vegetarian lot just may be the Hoppin’ John, a dish of rice and red peas akin to pilaf and a culinary byproduct of the African diaspora. Cooked with smoked pork and onions, the rice grains are fluffy and distinct, some offering up a crunchy, toasty edge developed at the bottom of the pan.
Entrees offer a little something for everybody: meltingly tender butcher’s steak, thickly sliced and liberally strewn with pungent watercress and new potato salad; Lowcountry perlou, a crunchy-bottomed rice dish brimming with mussels, clams, sweet shrimp, smoked oysters and dense, spicy andouille sausage; and spatchcock half-chicken, blackened from the grill, set atop moist brown bread dressing (chunky with carrots and celery) and drizzled with a rich, umber chicken jus.
But the best chicken – the chicken you want to plan your life around – is Tuesday’s eight-piece hot chicken bucket, offered only for takeout with faintly sour bread-and-butter pickles, tangy-spicy-sweet apple slaw and sliced white bread. Deep-fried to just shy of black, this bird is moist, mouth-glowingly hot, faintly sweet and preternaturally crispy-crunchy. It’ll be the unhealthiest thing you eat all week, and you won’t care.
You’ll more than likely find that same craggy chicken on the towering KFC sandwich, stacked with pickles and apple slaw on a soft potato bun smeared with hot sauce aioli at lunch; or on a fluffy biscuit oozing with cream gravy at brunch.
Major disclaimer here: Much of this loveliness won’t be on the dynamic menu when you visit, but I’m personally convinced that Jones and crew can do little wrong, so don’t fret. Although Southern food has been the rage for more than a decade, the chef’s approach feels personal, inspired and new. As he refines classic Southern cuisine, he also redefines it, elevating and broadening the genre to something more than merely regional cooking.
The Larder + The Delta
Contact: 200 W. Portland Ave., Phoenix, 480-409-8520, thelarderandthedelta.com
Hours: Tu-Th 11 a.m.-10 p.m., F 11 a.m.-midnight, Sa 4 p.m.-midnight, Su 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Highlights: Smoked catfish dip ($13); pimento cheese and ham ($14); hot chicken bucket ($20); vegetable beignet ($11); hoecakes ($11); Lowcountry perlou ($29); Hoppin’ John ($12)