Josephine

Nikki BuchananApril 25, 2020
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King salmon crudo; Photography by Rob Ballard
King salmon crudo; Photography by Rob Ballard

Led by one of the Valley’s top young chefs, this adaptive reuse gem in RoRo pleases all senses at once.

If the only criteria I used for choosing exceptional restaurants were design and ambiance, I’d already have my No. 1 pick for our year-end Best New Restaurants issue. The hands-down winner would be Josephine, an art-filled charmer that brings serious sophistication to an increasingly gentrified Roosevelt Row. Housed in a 1919 bungalow – its exterior inexplicably painted a nightclub-y matte black – the tiny, two-room space is romantic but not cloying, industrial but not cold and hip but not annoying in that trying-too-hard sort of way. Better yet, it pays homage to strong women, zeitgeisty catnip for those of us doubly blessed in the X chromosome department.

And, hey, the food’s pretty good, too, courtesy of former Café Monarch chef de cuisine Ryan Pitt. Recruited by Tuck Shop doyenne Grace Unger – who was the original face of the project, but parted ways with the owner, Phoenix-based hospitality group True North Studio, shortly after its January opening – Pitt has created a wildly imaginative and playful menu he calls “French-influenced and globally inspired.” His small plates are grounded in French technique, to be sure, but they’re quite literally all over the map, featuring ingredients and gently tweaked preparations from far-flung places such as Morocco, Indonesia and Tibet.

Niman Ranch steak tartare
Niman Ranch steak tartare

He nimbly (and, for the most part, successfully) straddles the fence between fine dining and snacky global food that’s fun to eat‚ which makes sense given his résumé, which also boasts a stint at Citizen Public House.

Sitting at the gorgeous wooden slab of a bar in the anteroom is lovely (next time, I’ll eat here), as are creative cocktails such as The Colonel, built upon sugarcane-based rhum agricole, crème de noyaux (almond-flavored crème liqueur), lime juice and mango – a thing so good that I forget to politely sip it.

From the tidy “debut” section of an also-tidy, 16-item general menu comes chile crab galette, Pitt’s spicy riff on the crab cake, combining deep-sea crab and tiger prawn with creamy nibs of robiola, a light, fresh cheese, that brings crab Rangoon to mind. Mango agrodolce adds sweet and sour notes, while a crispy red pepper tuile, adorned with hibiscus flowers and scallion curls, makes a fancy tam o’shanter. Crispy Maine lobster a l’orange, which our server compares to the orange chicken at Panda Express, is better than its apt description – dainty, feather-light nubbins of crisp fried lobster, bathed in a sweet-tart orange gastrique offset by bitter vegetable ash and briny sea beans.

New Orleans Cajun spring roll
New Orleans Cajun spring roll

A Moroccan-style lamb samosa, its meaty, cardamom-scented filling wrapped in glossy puff pastry, the shell topped with a confiture (think chunky jam) of tomato harissa, is another favorite, sided with plump Israeli couscous tabbouleh. Meanwhile, a molded circle of steak tartare, set atop a crunchy base of Noble brioche, gets a frosting of black truffle gribiche (mayo-based sauce with hard-cooked egg, mustard and capers) and a scattering of crunchy radish and sunchoke chips. At its center sits a raw quail egg yolk that runs in golden rivulets over finely chopped prime sirloin.

Pitt uses quality ingredients. The steak from Niman Ranch, the lamb from Anderson Farms and the duck – confited and scattered through slippery Beijing noodles – from Maple Leaf Farms are all amazing. Tossed in house-made sambal with Napa cabbage, scallions and pickled burdock (a nutty, vaguely sweet root vegetable), the noodles are light and spicy-sweet, with just an undercurrent of fermentation.

butter cake
butter cake

Farm-raised cordyceps mushrooms from Tibet are the scene-stealer on a plate of sturdy, rectangular agnolotti, their interiors stuffed with more mushrooms (including trumpets and oysters) and an oozy, ultra-rich Mornay sauce made with Belletoile Brie, a triple cream I would gorge on if left unattended. Jazzed up with pickled shallots, crispy sunchokes and roasted baby zucchini, the plate dotted with Parmigiano truffle emulsion, it’s more straightforward than the others but no less satisfying.

Oddly, the New Orleans Cajun spring roll – wrapped up with tiger prawns, Chinese sausage, fermented Carolina Gold rice, red leaf lettuce and a pickled version of the Cajun Holy Trinity (shallot subbing in for onion, celery and bell pepper) – doesn’t really do much for me. Not sure why. I love nuoc cham (in this case, a tame version of Vietnam’s fish sauce) and I love remoulade, but this combo seems a bit too fusion-y and forced.

I could go the rest of my life without eating salmon (unless it’s raw or smoked), but I ordered the Ora King salmon at Josephine because I remember having a phenomenal salmon Pitt dished out one summer at Café Monarch. This dry, unremarkable rendition in no way lives up to that earlier ethereal version. Golden-skinned, silky Chilean seabass, on the other hand, is wonderful, served over a creamy puddle of shiitake beurre blanc enriched with Manila clams, Controne beans and Chinese sausage. Fermented mushroom salad adds another layer of umami.

Snake River Farms spinalis (a fancy word for ribeye cap) is excellent, too, expressed as mini slabs of beefy, fatty goodness nested into brown butter potato purée and drizzled with creamy foie gras-boosted pepper sauce. Alongside: an arugula salad with pickled walnuts and lemon vinaigrette to cut through the steak’s richness. Is 5 ounces of meat worth $59? Only you and your financial adviser can answer that question. Given Pitt’s 30-something audience, I’m thinking a good old 8-ounce ribeye with those same fancy fixings might better serve.

I love the gooey almond butter cake with cardamom-spiced yogurt, vanilla gelato and blackberry-plum gastrique. I also love our friendly, energetic server, and I’ve made my feeling about the space itself pretty clear. Apparently, there isn’t much I don’t like about Josephine. Yes, the portions are small, but so are the prices for the quality of ingredients and the level of sophistication you’re receiving. (Hell’s bells, you pay 15 bucks for a strictly mediocre lunch at Panera!) Pitt is aiming high for this nascent neighborhood. I hope his chutzpah pays off.

Josephine

Cuisine: Global
Contact: 218 E. Portland St., Phoenix, 602-675-4069, josephinedtphx.com
Hours: Su-Th 5-10 p.m., F-Sa 5-11 p.m. (check for new take-out hours during pandemic)
Highlights:Chile crab galette ($16); crispy Maine lobster a l’orange ($18); lamb samosa ($15); mushroom agnolotti ($18); Chilean seabass ($38)

interior of Josephine
interior of Josephine

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