Unveiled just before the pandemic, this risk-taking Tempe steakhouse escaped our notice for 20 months. It was worth the wait.
In 2019, after decades of cooking in other people’s restaurant kitchens, Chad Bolar decided he wanted to open his own restaurant. His timing was just a wee bit off. After transforming a Pilates studio in South Tempe into a proper restaurant space with a wood-burning oven, he and his wife Becky opened The Peppermill – a steakhouse with French and Asian influences – in early January of 2020, just two weeks before there was an official name for COVID-19.
Miraculously, the Bolars and their fledgling restaurant survived the next 19 tenuous months, garnering a neighborhood following who loved their inventive menu and laid-back vibe. More astonishing still is how few Instagramming food freaks have discovered it, pandemic or no. It’s a fantastic little find.
A cursory glance at the menu confirms this isn’t your average steakhouse or your average neighborhood hangout either – not when the burger is fashioned from short ribs and brisket and the hollandaise is enriched with duck fat. The appetizer section, dubbed “Tidbits” (a misnomer for portions this generous), is peppered with foodie bait, including the ubiquitous bone marrow, pork belly and octopus I hesitate to order these days because they’re so often poorly executed. Not here.
Two giant marrow bones, split lengthwise and spooned with horseradish chimichurri and chunky pork-belly-and-jalapeño marmalade, are wonderful, the marrow rich, savory and gelatinous. Done right, it really is “God’s butter.” We scoop everything – a heady mélange of sweetness, spice, herbs, salt and fat – onto grilled house-made bread, trying to eat this primal dish politely.
I don’t think I’ve had better pork belly than Bolar’s – three small, meaty slabs with charred lids, aromatic and crunchy with “everything bagel” seasoning, the meat ribboned with buttery fat. We swish our forks through cinnamon-whipped cream cheese, inky fig gastrique (tart, sweet and sticky), truffle hot sauce and a nutty sesame seed sauce. To cut the fat: crisp apple slivers and pickled shallots.
Octopus is everywhere these days, a menu cliché, or so I thought until I had Rene Andrade’s better-than-sex rendition at Bacanora. Now I’m high on Bolar’s exceptional take as well, charred to a smoky, blackened crunch, but plenty moist and tender within. Chorizo and peperonata add a sweet and spicy fillip and a nice change-up from the potato/romesco routine.
At this point, we’re blown away, but not surprised. After all, Bolar spent nine years in the kitchen with Christopher Gross, working as the James Beard Award winner’s chef de cuisine at Christopher’s Fermier and Christopher’s, then as his executive chef at Wrigley Mansion. You can see and taste his intuitions about color, texture and flavor balance on plate after beautiful plate.
It isn’t all perfect. Eager for the wood-fired foie gras from the Tidbits menu, and tantalized by the “Nutter Butter cookie” that would supposedly come with it, our faces fall when the dish arrives – not in the form of a wood-fired lobe that we can nibble at our leisure, but a foie gras sandwich on buttery griddled bread. Layered with apple, barbecue-ish sauce and I don’t know what all, it’s overwrought and overthought, masking the foie’s delicate flavor and silky texture with both bread and breading. Foie reduced to diner food was not what we ordered or wanted.
I’m also disappointed with fritto misto – a mix of shrimp, calamari, clams, indiscernible crab, peppers and onions, dredged in cornmeal batter and fried to a mahogany crunch. No need for the Southern-fried spin when classic fritto misto is lighter and more elegant. Loved the velvety charred lemon aioli, though.
We’re back on track with a duo of duck that comes straight from Gross’s playbook – orange-cured crispy duck leg confit and silken chamomile tea-poached duck breast, bathed in a perfumy spiced port reduction. Served with honey-roasted carrots and sautéed sesame spinach, it’s an exoticized classic I adore. A 16-ounce grilled New York strip, ancho-crusted and napped with a creamy pepper sauce that grabs you by the throat, is on point, too, accompanied by savory potato doughnuts I could happily eat by the dozen. Made with choux pastry (think eclairs and beignets) and loaded, baked potato-style, with sour cream, chives, crème fraîche and Parmesan, they exude playful sophistication.
On another visit, a friend and I mow through a craggy, crisp-fried chile relleno stuffed with duck confit, goat cheese and corn, found on the happy hour menu. Just as excellent was a clever grilled broccoli Caesar, chunky with lardons; and Bolar’s famously sloppy brisket/short rib burger, stacked with pork belly, smeared with red pepper jam and black garlic bone marrow aioli, and offered for $12 on Thursday’s burger/fries/beer night. If only I lived near this place!
Bolar is smart, opening an approachable indie steakhouse-cum-gastropub in an affluent neighborhood that lacks for one. Earthy but elevated, it rarely reaches beyond its grasp, giving south Tempeans their own nice-night-out version of House of Tricks up north. As customers flood back to restaurants for the normalcy they crave, he’s locked and loaded with a style of cooking that has wide appeal, food nerds included. Good timing, eh?
Cuisine: Steakhouse/Contemporary American
Contact: 7660 S. McClintock Dr., Tempe, 480-590-6755, peppermillaz.com
Hours: Tu-Th 3-9 p.m., F 3-10 p.m., Sa 5-10 p.m.
Highlights: Roasted bone marrow ($22); roasted pork belly ($14); grilled octopus ($22); ancho-crusted New York strip ($43); duo of duck ($47); Peppermill burger ($16); chile relleno ($9 during happy hour)