Don’t bother trying to spell it out – just get to this sensational, butcher- and baker-run restaurant in Uptown Phoenix as soon as humanly possible.
They might not have the name recognition of, say, J-Lo and A-Rod, but Jason and Katherine Dwight are unmistakably a power couple. As the married team behind Persepshen – a hyper-local new eatery set in the former Hula’s Modern Tiki space in Uptown Phoenix – they’re one of those rare duos who seem equally endowed in talent, passion and vision. He’s the butcher. She’s the baker. Together, they cook, refine and prepare everything in-house except the beer and wine, and it’s uniformly fabulous. (One notable exception is the name – a belabored, satiric misspelling of the word “perception.” Try not to think about it.)
Leading by example, the Dwights will be major influencers in the Valley’s dining scene for years to come, I reckon.
A little background on the hard-working pair: Before opening the restaurant last fall, they cultivated a loyal following at the Uptown Farmers Market, selling homemade pickles, jams, sausages and baked goods from a WWII-era trailer, which is now parked on the Persepshen patio. Casting a wider net from their rustic-industrial digs, the couple turns out farm-to-table fare with obsessive self-reliance. They’ve even got their own curing chamber hung with meat.
Unlike your Facebook friends, the Dwights don’t brag about their accomplishments. Jason seldom mentions that he worked as chef de partie for celeb chef Kevin Binkley during the latter’s Cave Creek heyday, or that he was head butcher at revered Publican Quality Meats in Chicago; nor does Katherine talk about her stint at MJ Bread. Taste their food, however, and you’ll know they’re legit.
Jason’s charcuterie board is a good place to start for that first small epiphany. Rightly listed under “Real Big Plates,” it’s almost a meal in itself, featuring a selection of rotating meats that might include fatty Toscano Salame (fragrant with fennel and black pepper); coarse, textured, juicy sausage slices; spreadable and decidedly spicy ’nduja; and a fabulous pork kidney terrine that, with its subtle flavor profile of bourbon, cherry and orange, invokes the Manhattan cocktail. Mix and match the meats with grainy mustard, jam or relish; Katherine’s brittle, earthy, sesame seed-studded lahvosh; and Jason’s extraordinary pickled vegetables. (In this case, zingy, still-crunchy curried cauliflower and limp but lovely I’itoi onions, which are much more subdued than the green onions they resemble.)
The snappy $3 Just a Pig Stick that Jason sold at the market is here, too – a great snack with one of the restaurant’s local beers. Bacon-wrapped dates, stuffed with chorizo, aren’t exactly groundbreaking, but they’re delicious, the contrast of salty and sweet heightened by a swish of fiery harissa sauce and fresh cilantro.
The small plates section is devoted exclusively to vegetables, most of them models of wood-roasted simplicity. You’ll find cast-iron-skillet carrots, further sweetened with barbecue sauce and given a crunchy topper of fried onion strings; the sweetest, best sunchokes I can remember, their nutty flavor punctuated by dabs of Calabrian chile aioli and crispy kale chips; and delicate oyster mushrooms, whose umami richness is enhanced by black garlic, shallot and black pepper-flecked brandy demi-cream. Okra spears – pickled, lightly breaded and fried crisp – are offered with creamy remoulade and a sprinkle of local sheep’s milk pecorino for salt and spice. A hillock of firm, chewy farro – mixed with butternut squash, sweet potato and fresh black-eyed peas, sparked with tannic za’atar – is off-the-charts good. At this point, I’m considering vegetarianism.
That’s a laughable thought, given my infatuation with the 60-day dry-aged burger, charred and set atop a gorgeous buttermilk bun slathered with lemon aioli. Amplified with the funk of Danish blue cheese and the sweetness of strawberry-vanilla bean jam, it’s can’t-miss.
Ditto for small, crisp-edged slabs of pork belly, tucked inside a fluffy steamed bun smeared with kimchi aioli and stacked with cucumber, winter melon, jalapeño and slivers of green onion. Delish!
Cochinita pibil has been a crowd favorite since the Dwights’ market days, for obvious reasons. A patty of crisp, earthy, house-made masa serves as a pedestal for a juicy pile of pulled pork shoulder, redolent with chiles and citrus, and heaped with shredded cabbage, pickled red onion, pineapple and cotija – an impressive balancing act of flavors and textures.
In my experience, shrimp and grits can be mildly disappointing, but not here. Wood-grilled wild shrimp, charred and smoky, slumber on a blanket of Parm-enriched grits rimmed with chile oil. Bits of Italian sausage add another layer of smoke and salt; raw bitter greens confetti the top. It’s my all-time favorite version.
Meanwhile, Jason’s Mexican take on osso bucco is positively inspired. Imagine a 60-day dry-aged beef shank, so tender it practically falls apart, drenched in savory mole and laid over a bed of creamy pintos, with orange segments for juicy sweetness and peanuts to echo the nutty undertones of the mole. I long for rice or a flour tortilla to soak up all that lush sauce.
Now, here’s the bad news: You may not be able to find it on the menu again for weeks or even months. Jason breaks down whole animals, using every edible part, but when that animal is gone, the dishes he created from it are gone also.
On the upside, Katherine’s desserts are simple but sophisticated and uniformly wonderful. I tasted two stellar examples of her considerable talent: a chewy blondie spooned with Banyuls-candied pancetta and brown butter caramel, the plate dotted with puddles of tart-sweet prickly pear and clumps of creamy, salty goat cheese; and a sticky spiced gingerbread, sugary at its edges, topped with eggnog gelato and surrounded by bits of candied fruit. The best dessert I’ve had in an age, the best gingerbread ever.
The Dwights represent what a power couple should be – talented, dedicated and too busy to be obnoxious about it.
Cuisine: New American
Contact: 4700 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, 602-935-2932, persepshenarizona.com
Hours: W-Su 5-10 p.m.
Highlights: Charcuterie board ($24); wood-roasted sunchokes ($12); farro salad ($15); cochinita pibil ($22); mole osso bucco ($36); gingerbread ($10)