First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Restaurant: Match Cuisine & Cocktails
Location: 1100 North Central Avenue
Open: Less than a month
Eats: Globally-inspired eats made with mostly local ingredients
Price: $20 and under/person
The image of the '70s sex symbol and mustache icon — nearly nude and sporting tall, Britney Spears-inspired hair, stretched across a bearskin rug and a cigarette dangling from the corner of his grin — beams down at you as you step into the hotel lobby.
The painting, from local artist Randy Slack, hangs behind the front desk, and it's notable not just for its inversion and blurring of traditional sex symbol roles, but because its cheekiness and humor makes a pretty unforgettable first impression. It also sort of tamps down on the pretension that can plague boutique hotels and restaurants.
Slack's piece feels designed to elicit a smile, and you might say the same thing about the dining room at Match Cuisine & Cocktails, which is not as art-filled as the rest of the hotel's ground floor, but is gorgeously lit and practically blinds you with its gleaming newness.
In the middle of the day, the restaurant and bar, located just off the lobby, past a lounge area, is all sunbeams and radiant glass. The room is encased by glass windows and doors, some of which open to transition breezily into an outdoor patio. There's a spacious bar area, sleek with tall, padded stools, where you can order globally inspired cocktails like a caipirinha, or a coffee-brandy concoction, the Ca phe sura da, which is described on the cocktail menu as "an examination of French Imperialism and its influence on the globe." Okay, so maybe you'll catch a whiff of pretension here and there, but maybe that's the price we must pay for growing a slightly more cosmopolitan downtown scene.
In the main dining room, the seating is comfortable (are these the heaviest, most padded chairs in downtown dining? Possibly, and that's not a complaint), the atmosphere is loose and friendly, and depending on where you sit, an open kitchen offers glimpses of your meal coming to life.
It's worth noting that small groups can reserve the 20-foot counter in front of the open kitchen for a special "Chef's Counter" dining experience, if that's your kind of thing.
The chef at the helm is the respected Akos Szabo, who has worked in top kitchens from Boston to Southern California, and who might best be known around town for his time at the old Mary Elaine's at the Phoenician in Scottsdale.
At Match, the menu is described as "global street food," featuring mostly local products and ingredients, with many dishes cooked over a wood-fired grill, or in the kitchen's handsome wood-fired oven, which has already earned the nickname of "Isabella."
If you stop by for lunch, you'll find a smallish menu consisting mostly of sandwiches, salads, burgers, and pizza. Your server may explain that most plates are intended to be shared, but at least during lunch, the small-plate format feels at odds with dishes like burgers and sandwiches, which dominate the midday offerings.
Still, nobody said you have to share your food — not even if your burger does come sliced neatly in half. And, anyway, most likely you will not want to share something like the "Bluto," a hot-sauce rubbed fried chicken sandwich that's so saucy and juicy, it threatens to slip right out of its shiny, basted onion roll. The combination of hot sauce and blue cheese develops into a nice, tangy swell of flavors that is hard to resist.
The "Press-Tami" sandwich, featuring thin slices of coffee-rubbed pork belly, is also good, the salty meat ingeniously balanced by a very good and fragrant slaw.
The house burger is known as the AZ Burger, and true to its name, it features all Arizona-sourced ingredients, including Cochise County grass-fed beef. It comes dressed in a Homeboy's Hot Sauce habanero spread and it's draped with melted cheddar cheese. But even so, the beef patty leaned toward being a bit under-seasoned on a recent visit.
Wood-fired pizza takes up a good amount of real estate on both the lunch and dinner menus. The pies are on the smaller side, but still shareable. The "Barrueta" is good and a little spicy, thanks to a house-made Filipino longanisa, a finely ground sweet-spicy sausage that melds into the tomato sauce and flairs nicely with low-grade heat. The pizza is embedded with coriander and crackly bits of garlic, which adds texture and notes of deep, fragrant flavor.
Shareable sides include Guatemalan black beans, which are dappled with a little salty cotija cheese and crema. All good, but mostly unexceptional. A better option might be the vegetable caponata, a salty, savory eggplant salad, or maybe a side of smoky, salty, wood-grilled green beans, which are embedded with crispy bits of pork belly and fried onion. The mostly veggie dish is simple yet wonderful.
And while you may not expect much from something like house-cut frites, these fries here are very good: dense, thick-cut and extra-crispy.
Lunch at Match Cuisine & Cocktails makes a smart first impression, and the restaurant's commitment to local ingredients and innovative cocktail program is something to appreciate.
But the concept of creative, shareable global street food seems mostly lost amid a cavalcade of dressed-up sandwiches, salads, and sides. The dinner menu promises more intriguing options, although familiar items like pizza and sandwiches are still ever-present, and feel like a distraction from some bolder, more creative end. Is Match Cuisine & Cocktails poised to shake up the downtown Phoenix dining scene? Maybe not quite yet, or at least not in the midday hours.
If there is one very good reason to visit Match, though, it might well be the dessert menu, which features the work of pastry chef Audrey Enriquez. The Oaxacan Wreckage dessert feels like a sort of impromptu chocolate-and-chile showpiece, as if globs of deep, rich, vaguely spicy mole-chocolate mousse, squares of rum sponge cake, puffs of coriander cream, and crumbles of crunchy smoked almonds all sprouted up together on a single white plate. Of course, there's nothing impromptu about it. The plate is impeccably designed, and the result of that labor is not merely a beautiful-looking dessert, but one that is well-composed, texture-rich, and intriguingly delicious.
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Match Cuisine & Cocktails serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus a "Light Rail Express" option that promises to get you properly nourished and out of the restaurant in 30 minutes or less. Self-park enthusiasts, please note that even on the sleepiest of days, this is a valet-only property. Don't forget to say hello to Burt on your way in.