Wine bar Cork pops a little creativity into each dish

There are a lot of good restaurants in the southeast part of town, but besides Kai, at Wild Horse Pass, the options aren't very exotic. But now there's a new spot that just might give foodies an excuse to head to south Chandler.

It's called Cork, and although it hasn't worked out all of its early kinks, it has the potential to be among the Valley's most noteworthy restaurants. Definitely for people in Chandler, Gilbert, Queen Creek, and even Tempe, it's worth a try.

No, I didn't think every bite was sublime at Cork, but I found a lot of things to enjoy. Executive chef Brian Peterson's menu was interesting and quirky, and even when a certain dish didn't work for me, I appreciated the ambition and creativity behind it.

Just desserts — and more — at Cork.
Jamie Peachey
Just desserts — and more — at Cork.

Location Info

Map

Cork

4991 S. Alma School Road, Ste. 101
Sun Lakes, AZ 85248

Category: Restaurant > Contemporary

Region: Chandler

Details

Seared foie gras: $17
Kona kampachi: $13
Colorado lamb chop: $16
Banana cream pie: $8
480-883-3773, »web link
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Cork, 4991 South Alma School Road, Suite 101, Chandler

This dawned on me as I was nibbling on a salad of organic greens, aged balsamic vinaigrette, poached pear, and St. Pete's blue cheese. I've eaten salads along those lines at other restaurants, but there was something else in that dish that made me smile: sweet popcorn.

That's right. There was caramel corn tossed right into the mix, as if even the most basic thing on the menu, a salad, needed something unusual to set it apart. Now I realize that caramel corn and blue cheese, a truly unlikely combo, actually taste pretty good together.

I liked the service here — it was down to earth and welcoming. My server, whom I encountered on more than one occasion, was really knowledgeable about the food as well as the wine. The bartenders were also agreeable.

Another thing I appreciated about Cork was the atmosphere, which was sophisticated (cork floors, a spectacular wall of wine bottles behind glass, and copper mesh curtains dividing the room) but not fancy. At its heart, this is a neighborhood wine bar that just happens to serve inventive, beautifully presented food. Unlike at some of Phoenix's poshest fine dining spots, this is a relaxed, casual dining experience.

(Earlier, when I name-dropped Kai, it was more in reference to the unique food than the vibe. When it comes to formality and price point, Cork is far more accessible, although its menu still has some adventurous highlights, from grilled Nilgai antelope to smoked wild boar rack.)

That's not to say that owners Robert and Danielle Morris aren't interested in fine dining.

"My wife and I would treat ourselves to Mary Elaine's, or Kai, or Picasso in Las Vegas, but the tasting menu might run us up to $250 per person," says Robert. The concept at Cork, he explains, is to serve tasting-menu-style small plates, only à la carte. "That way, you can eat as much or as little as you want."

That wasn't lost on me. Although five or six items added up to a sharable meal for two, I could've just as easily been satisfied with a couple of courses all to myself — and gotten out with a very reasonable check.

The Morrises actually come from a fine-dining background — he was a sommelier and assistant GM at Lon's at the Hermosa; she was a pastry chef there (and also worked for Alex Stratta at Renoir in Las Vegas). Chef Brian Peterson, another co-owner, worked at Lon's, too (as well as Latilla at the Boulders). They all left the Paradise Valley restaurant three years ago, and opened Cork on April 1.

Dinner at Cork started with fresh bread, served with a trio of accompaniments: herbed butter, olive oil and balsamic, and olive oil-chile dip. There was a slice of fresh cucumber in each glass of water (just like at the spa!). And among 300 selections on the well-rounded wine menu, more than half of the bottles were under $50.

In keeping with the small-plates idea, items weren't designated "appetizers" or "entrees," but were still organized as such. My first bite of Kona kampachi — silky, sashimi-grade yellowtail — made a good impression, artfully plated with a squiggle of soy-sugar reduction, a tiny pile of shaved pickled radish, and a pinch of pink sea salt. Another knockout starter was seared foie gras, served alongside a moist piece of banana bread and soft bananas Foster with apricot brandy. It was like sneaking in some dessert at the beginning of the meal, and very tasty.

Dessert also came to mind with the watermelon salad, although it wasn't a success like the foie. Chunks of pink and yellow watermelon, tossed with shaved red onion and a touch of walnut oil, were teamed with crème fraîche panna cotta and a swipe of raspberry sauce. The panna cotta lacked the tartness I expected from crème fraîche, and combined with that sweet berry sauce, it overwhelmed the natural sweetness of the watermelon.

A plate of ostrich crudo featured miniature slices of barely seared, ruby-red meat resting on a slice of yellow heirloom tomato, with chilled cheese tortellini on the side. It was interesting to see ostrich prepared this way, as crudo (Italian for "raw") usually refers to raw fish. But in this case, the idea was better than the execution: The ostrich meat had the delicate texture of tuna, and was so mild as to almost be flavorless on its own. A touch of limoncello syrup gave the dish a faint, citrus-y sweetness.

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1 comments
Krista
Krista

Don't waste your time This restaurant is terrible. They describe themselves to you by saying they have smaller portions like it's a good thing to charge $15 for less food, but smaller is an understatement. They served a "Salami platter" with exactly one (1) slice of salami on it, (seriously), a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar, 3 crackers, 4 slices of cheese that tastes like feet, one tblsp of jam and one of thick ranch dressing that they call mousse. All of this for the low, low price of $12. Their desserts are tiny, and the chocolate peanut butter one had a description that would make any reese's lover want it consisted of three tiny little brown crackers that tasted more like cardboard than the chocolate it was supposed to be, with several tiny dollops of some light brown paste that tasted a little like cream cheese with a dash of peanut butter thrown in. There was a chocolate cage on top which tasted good, but that wasn't worth the $6 I paid. To top it all off, the waitress was terrible and snarky.If you want good, authentic Italian food with similar prices but decent portions, try Tutti Santi. It has a great wine selection and bar, and the food is sensational.

 
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