Sam Fox Shoots but Doesn't Score with The Arrogant Butcher
One good thing I can say right off the bat about The Arrogant Butcher, the latest "concept" eatery from restaurant guru Sam Fox, located in CitySpace, kitty-corner to US Airways Center in downtown Phoenix: It's convenient.
And though it's always great to see another downtown restaurant open its doors to a dinner clientele — albeit only until 10 p.m. most days — it's obvious from the restaurant's menu offerings that it's pandering mainly to a captive sports-event-and-convention crowd hankering for the comfort of the fried, cheesy, salty, and cured.
Would I drive across town just for the food here? Probably not. But I would be lying if I said there were no standout items being offered by this latest addition to the downtown Phoenix cuisine scene.
Fox is well known for his other restaurants in the Valley, including Scottsdale's Olive & Ivy and Modern Steak, so I was looking forward to trying The Arrogant Butcher. Unfortunately, I don't feel like it's up to Fox's usual standards, which have been very high, indeed. Plus, the name is just plain annoying. According to one waiter I spoke to, it came from Fox's memory of a neighborhood butcher who always thought his meat was the absolute best available and theatrically presented it as such.
Maybe in tribute to the fact that The Arrogant Butcher is located near the quickly disappearing warehouse district, the restaurant is a consciously casual combo of industrial and boho elements: striped-fabric banquettes and booths, ochre-color resin tables, oversize hanging light elements made variously from mirrored glass, fabric-covered wire shades and, in the back room known as The News Room, gigantic woven baskets that do nothing to muffle a sound level that prohibits normal communication without full-on shouting.
The focus of the main room is a U-shaped metal bar with backlit bottles and an open patio that's supposed to be climate-controlled, as well as a small raw seafood bar over which a huge Deco-style clock is mounted. We'll see in ensuing months whether that claim about the patio's climate control is, in fact, true.
For lunch, even with reservations, we were shuffled into the inescapable din of The News Room, lined with photos of Arizona public figures, old downtown landmarks, and those kitschy images you're bombarded with in unsolicited emails. Joining us was a large party of either office workers gone wild or cavorting conventioneers, one of whom presented butt to the entire table in a fake mooning; that was followed by several full glasses being launched onto the floor.
The following Saturday night we went for dinner sans reservations, though we didn't have to wait long to be seated in the main dining area, directly adjacent to the outside patio. (There was no Suns game that night, which clearly helped.) It was considerably quieter there, though fairly packed with a younger, amiable crowd out for a good time. And because there were no events happening downtown on a Tuesday night we visited, the restaurant was, foreseeably, less than bustling.
I've concluded that some of the best things on The Arrogant Butcher's menu are its cheese and charcuterie selections, from which you can fashion your own antipasti platter. Favorites in the cheese department include Montchevre Le Cabrie, a Brie made from tangy goat's milk, and addictive Rogue Creamery Smoky Blue, served up with freshly baked, crusty bread and a mini-jar of cherry marmalade. Such preserved-meat entries as La Quercia prosciutto, Benton's Smoky Mountain Ham, and Fra'mani salumi are sliced preternaturally thin, so that you can almost see through them.
Served with warm bread and sweet-and-sour homemade mustard, the meats' melt-in-your-mouth texture vied mightily with the mixed foie gras and chicken liver pâté, smooth as butter and flecked with earthy bits of black truffle. The accompanying sour cornichon pickles made the pâté a must-order item, though nearly outdone by the smoked salmon rillete. Ordinarily a shredded mixture of pork or duck poached in its own fat, The Arrogant Butcher's twist uses tender chunks of smoked salmon bound lightly with herbed crème fraîche, crowned with capers, olives, and marinated red peppers, and served in a glass crock. Slather that on the rustic bread that comes with it, and you will become an instant fan.
I can't say much about the rest of the appetizers. The potato fritters with bacon and cheese, made for dipping in truffled crème fraîche, become greasy the instant they cool off, as do the deep-fried rock shrimp in a corn meal batter served with a side of aioli that tastes suspiciously like Creole Dijon remoulade sauce. What saves the shrimp are the deep-fried shisito peppers mixed in — small, relatively mild but intensely flavorful Japanese peppers that look like a cross between a jalapeño and stunted okra. I actually thought about asking for just an order of the peppers.
I wish I could say something positive about The Arrogant Butcher's salads, sandwiches, and most of their entrées, but I can't. A roasted squash and Brussels sprout salad sounded like a great idea, but it was so over-salted that the sweetness of the squash, as well as the nuttiness of the sprouts, was completely drowned out. Grilled chicken tabbouleh salad with oregano vinaigrette, made with romaine, cucumbers, tomatoes, feta, and a mere sprinkling of bulgur wheat and skinless marcona almonds, was edible but hardly noteworthy. The crab cake Louie salad, with barely there avocado, greens, corn kernels, and pieces of white asparagus served with two lackluster pucks of more cake than crab, was even more disappointing. And The Arrogant Butcher's turkey pastrami sandwich with Swiss cheese and coleslaw on a soft pretzel bun made soggy by the coleslaw did not do the sandwich category proud. Though I love fries made with skin-on potatoes, the ones that came with the sandwich were so cold and flaccid that even Viagra couldn't have helped.
Likewise, a number of entrées we tried just didn't pass muster. Jambalaya with rock shrimp, chicken, and what purported to be bologna-textured andouille sausage, served lukewarm at lunch, had nothing but a mild spiciness going for it. Beef entrées were little better. A bone-in dry-aged rib eye steak with roasted mushrooms and shallots for a whopping $35 was disproportionately fatty and not cooked to order, while the skirt steak with bacon, fingerlings, and fresh green beans was, well, just meat and potatoes. Fish fared better, with battered and deep-fried California halibut fish 'n' chips coming out hot and crispy, though the fries were again floppy. The grilled swordfish with artichokes was nothing special; the cooked creamy barley side proved to be the best thing on the plate.
The two most satisfying entrées included sweet potato tortelli in a nice butter sauce with sautéed Brussels sprouts — imagine thin, homemade tortellini on steroids filled with a sweet, creamy sweet potato filling sprinkled with crunchy hazelnuts. And crab-stuffed chicken, the outside browned to a nice crisp, the inside moist and tender, was made tangy with Meyer lemon and caper berries.
In retrospect, there may be one thing I would drive across town to The Arrogant Butcher for: dessert. Namely, the warm peanut butter cup dessert paired with a rich chocolate gelato. It's like a handful of large Reese's Peanut Butter Cups melted to a pudding consistency. Yes, that might truly be worth the drive.
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