Two talented Valley chefs, two new Modern American menus. Our critic takes the plunge.
Celebrity chefs are often compared to rock stars, but they can be like movie stars, too, playing the same role for so long they get typecast. So I was eager to see how two Valley chefs – both of whom I’ve long admired – are faring at their new restaurants, playing against type and against expectations.
Let’s start with Brian Peterson over at Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails (2 E. Jefferson St., Phoenix, 602-258-0231, bluehoundkitchen.com). Ten years ago, the house restaurant at the Hotel Palomar was the darling of an emerging Downtown dining scene, famed for its irreverent vibe, edgy cocktails and good eats. Stephen Jones, who went on to achieve culinary stardom at the larder + the delta, was its first chef. Over the years, the place fell off my radar, but now that Peterson heads the kitchen, I’m paying attention again. He was the executive chef at Cork, an upscale restaurant and wine bar that gave foodies a reason to drive to Chandler until it closed in 2014.
His new menu leans heavily on starters and shareables, many of them so playful and appealing there’s no need to order entrées. Take his sous-vide rolled and fried chicken thighs, set atop a bed of creamy whipped carrots, overlaid with shavings of pickled celery heart and strewn with pungent crumbles of Point Reyes blue cheese. It’s the most deliciously elegant riff on Buffalo wings I’ve ever eaten. I’m just as high on the chef’s creamy mac and cheese, with an ingredient list that resembles a charcuterie board, including nubbins of garlicky, mildly spicy linguiça (a smoke-cured Portuguese pork sausage), grape halves, arugula and faintly tangy taleggio cheese, which coats the macaroni like buttery velvet.
Fried Brussels sprouts, browned and crunchy, are also excellent, lavished with green peppercorn aioli and thin slices of Manchego cheese, with a bit of lemon zest for spark. The portion is enormous, easily enough for four people. Beef cheek poutine, however, needs a bit of tweaking. Love the smoky fries, cooked to a fare-thee-well and strewn with succulent beef cheek, melted cheese curds and giardiniera for piquancy. The only problem? The thin bone marrow gravy soaks into the fries, which is delicious, of course, but doesn’t lend that opulent gravy mouthfeel that makes poutine so good.
We go big on entrées, ordering the steak of the day (grass-fed New York strip, cooked to perfect temperature with plenty of smoke and char on its exterior) and Ibérico Secreto, a fatty cut taken from acorn-fattened Spanish pigs, said to be the Wagyu of pork. The portion is barely enough for one person, but the meat is juicy, rich, porky and, inexplicably, a little chewy. The $61 steak needs a heftier, more satisfying side than a smattering of thinly sliced fried potatoes, mushrooms and spinach, but the pork is delicious with creamy grits, sweet “barbecued” fennel and cherry mostarda.
Thanks to Brian Peterson, this Blue Hound is back on the scent.
Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails
Highlights: Rolled and fried chicken thigh ($18); mac and cheese ($17), Brussels sprouts ($15), grass-fed New York strip ($61); Ibérico Secreto ($47)
Like Peterson, executive chef Chris Nicosia is trying new things at The Craftsman Cocktails & Kitchen, an airy, pleasant New American restaurant-cum-bar in North Scottsdale (20469 N. Hayden Rd., 480-401-1102, thecraftsmanaz.com). The name pays homage to the owner’s hardworking grandfather, but also alludes to Nicosia himself, an Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame inductee best known for his stint at high-end, now-defunct Sassi. These days, he’s flipping fancy burgers while the bar slings cocktails made with liquor from The Craftsman’s own distillery. The two cocktails I tried were thin and strictly OK.
The menu specializes in elevated comfort food offered at elevated prices that don’t seem to bother the well-heeled crowd that seems to have fully embraced this likeable, if unremarkable, place. The market-priced charcuterie and cheese board – which features a rotating selection of salumi, cheeses and nibbles such as lavash, olives, jam and the like – is an excellent case in point. It’s decent, but suffers by comparison to comparably priced boards I’ve enjoyed recently at Persepshen in Uptown Phoenix and Quiessence at The Farm at South Mountain.
Instead, give me The Craftsman’s ultra-crunchy potato chips, made in-house and served with creamy lime- and cilantro-sparked queso dip. I could eat them all day – with or without Nicosia’s creative sandwiches. The best of the lot is the Distiller’s burger, a premium, porcini-rubbed patty fashioned from brisket and short ribs, nicely charred but still plenty juicy. Stacked on a garlic aioli-slathered brioche bun with caramelized onions, fontina and arugula, it’s sloppy and supremely satisfying (though I did find the bun a bit too soft for the burger’s heft).
I also love the Heavy-Handed Grilled Cheese, composed of snowy cheddar (a luscious cow’s and goat’s milk blend), prosciutto and spicy fig jam. It’s probably called “heavy-handed” because the griddled house-baked bread is too thick and fluffy to be a true grilled cheese – which doesn’t make it any less delicious. Meanwhile, the Wagyu pastrami sandwich with pickled cabbage could be great if it weren’t overwhelmed by dark, dense pretzel bread. Why reinvent the wheel when a simple rye would do?
The menu is a mixed bag. Asian-inflected Shipwright Ahi Salad, an inspired amalgamation of arugula, togarashi-rimmed tuna, tangy marinated shiitakes and crunchy wasabi peas – all drizzled with yuzu aioli and lightly dressed with ginger-passionfruit-sesame dressing – was my favorite dish of two visits, while mushy lemon and chive gnocchi, embellished with asparagus, peas, bland pea purée and Pecorino, was the worst. Fish and chips – cod enveloped in Craftsman vodka-spiked breading – falls somewhere in between: fresh and moist, but neither crunchy nor memorable.
I applaud Nicosia’s zeitgeisty move in a new direction, but as a craftsman, he should be sweating the details.
The Craftsman Cocktails & Kitchen
Highlights: Chips and dip ($10); Shipwright Ahi Salad ($24), Distiller’s burger ($18), Heavy-Handed Grilled Cheese ($14)