Oh, Phoenix. When will you ever get your shit together?
I'm feeling ornery at the moment, thinking about how national culinary trends don't always play out successfully here, if they ever get off the ground at all.
Take gastropubs. What's a gastropub, you wonder? Last year, the Washington Post wrote, "Not quite a bar and not quite a restaurant, the gastropub is a British hybrid of sorts, offering a casual-meets-refined atmosphere that welcomes beer drinkers and wine snobs, non-fussy eaters and foodies alike."
Mabel's on Main
7135 East Scottsdale Road, #125, Scottsdale
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Bar open until 2 a.m.
Mabel's on Main
7018 East Main Street, Scottsdale
Hours: 5 p.m. to close, Wednesday through Sunday
Mad Chef Gastropub
3941 East Chandler Boulevard, #101
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday and Friday; 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
New York's The Spotted Pig kicked off the phenomenon in the States several years ago. Recently, its sister restaurant, The Breslin, has become a de rigueur pitstop for every foodie hipster friend who travels to Manhattan, thanks to a menu that takes comforting pub grub into brashly rustic territory: fried head cheese with sauce gribiche, skate and potato terrine with aioli, braised shin of beef.
Been there lately? Damn you. Sad to say, this kind of stuff may never find its way to Phoenix, where something that might've been edgy and underground in another city ends up making its local debut in full-blown, watered-down mainstream fashion. Here, the term "gastropub" is already and instantly about as meaningless as "bistro."
Six months ago, there wasn't a single one in the Valley, and now there are three self-anointed gastropubs in 2010: Culinary Dropout and Mabel's on Main, both in Scottsdale, and Mad Chef Gastropub in Ahwatukee. None of them satisfies my cravings for what I imagine to be gastropub food, and when it comes to ambiance, all are far from cozy. These places completely lack soul.
Culinary Dropout is the most promising of the bunch. Located in the Scottsdale Waterfront space that used to be the home of notorious Pink Taco, just off the prime intersection of Camelback and Scottsdale Road, it has a lot going for it.
First and foremost is the publicity firepower and sheer dollar signs of Fox Restaurant Concepts, which owns nearby Sauce and Olive & Ivy, as well as top-notch new Modern Steak, across the street. These people are brilliant at creating buzz. But can they sustain it? Don't forget, Pink Taco was once flavor of the moment, too, before its 15 minutes were up with the shiny-shirt crowd.
Hands down, Culinary Dropout has the best drink menu among the three restaurants, something that's paramount to my definition of gastropub. Dozens of wines by the glass or bottle, 25 different craft cocktails ranging from classic (French 75, Moscow Mule) to creative (the Sauerkraut combines Beefeater and St. Germain with lemon, simple syrup, orange marmalade, and Dijon mustard), and an extensive beer list that's heavy on microbrews and imports.
The menu is full of hearty fare like shortrib pasta, grilled cheese sliders, housemade chips, and burgers. I sampled some excellent beer-battered fish teamed with limp fries, chewy black mussels, and grilled bread in weak, forgettable broth, and beautiful sashimi-grade seared tuna swimming in too much ginger vinaigrette. Baked-to-order apple "monkey bread" — hot, doughy blobs that pulled apart in a burst of sweet steam — was the highlight.
So it seemed they might be on to something at Culinary Dropout, although the execution left a lot to be desired. As for the vibe, well, it's still a trendy Scottsdale watering hole. Calling it a gastropub seems disingenuous.
Several blocks away, in Old Town, Mabel's on Main recently took over a spot that used to be a townie sports bar, courtesy of chef Aaron May (Over Easy, The Lodge, 18 Degrees, and the late Sol y Sombra).
May's interpretation of gastropub surprised me, too. There were only 10 dishes on the menu when I stopped by, and get this — Mabel's had only Miller Lite on tap. The bartender, who turned out to be pretty cool, seemed embarrassed when we asked for a printed beer list and there wasn't one. How in the world do they expect to be taken seriously? If you care only about the party crowd, that's absolutely fine — just don't pretend to cater to food and drink connoisseurs.
Actually, I really liked the foie gras torchon with toasted brioche and blood orange, the bluefin tuna carpaccio with yuzu-kissed mache salad, and the juicy Deviled Burger, smothered with deviled egg. And I couldn't resist the oysters Rockefeller. But glazed pork belly was not fork-tender, and the Swedish meatballs may as well have been from IKEA.
Can't say I'd go out of my way to eat here, as Mabel's is basically a swanky retro lounge rather than a restaurant, but if I'm ever craving foie with a Miller Lite, I know where to go.
Last, and, I suppose, least, is Mad Chef Gastropub, a strip-mall joint in Ahwatukee where the vibe is Irish pub meets IHOP. After eating here, I was more than mildly annoyed.
What's wrong with just calling it a pub — a mediocre-at-best pub? Calling it anything else just sets me up for a letdown. Half of the place is a bar and lounge, and the other half is a bland dining room with dark green tabletops and a few obligatory Guinness promo items. Oh, yeah, and a boar's head on a shelf.
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Steak fries covered in melted cheddar and brown gravy — a variation on poutine, minus the cheese curds — weren't bad. And I enjoyed the soft, hot-out-of-the-oven Belgian pretzel bread, as much as I'd have happily skipped the nacho-esque queso that came with it.
Fish and chips were nothing to write home about, either. Tasteless batter cradling a so-so piece of fish was teamed with thick potato slabs that needed more time in a fryer. Disappointing braised pork belly, which lacked seasoning and was hard to cut, was perched on a mountain of dry, bland, pointless couscous. Did I stick around for dessert? Take a guess.
Sadly, we're 0 for 3 when it comes to gastropubs. I wish someone would just bring it already.