Utter the words "Fox Restaurant Concepts" in certain circles and you'll elicit predictable responses: "Yawn." "The food is average." "It's food for the mainstream." "They're concepts, not restaurants." "It's a chain, you fool." It seems people in this town who consider food a serious endeavor treat Sam Fox and his empire as something inherently less than. Never mind the fact that he is a local independent restaurateur who just so happened to make it big. Aren't we all just a wee bit envious?
I, too, had a hard time setting aside my preconceived notions. Although I have a profound respect for Sam Fox the businessperson, I've never quite fallen in love with any one of his restaurants. Many of those expected snobby retorts I received when I asked around had merit. Fox ventures have a pattern of starting out strong and chef-driven (The Greene House, North Italia during Chris Curtiss' tenure) and then starting to fizzle, as if Fox Restaurant Concepts loses interest. Great minds, it seems, don't have great attention spans.
But The Henry could change all that.
Sam Fox's Latest, The Henry, Has Got It All
4455 East Camelback Road
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday
Wood-grilled artichoke hearts: $13
Grilled and chilled shrimp: $15
Thai peanut black cod: $24
Mediterranean branzino: $27
To say it's a lofty endeavor is an understatement. Equal parts neighborhood hangout and dining destination (supplemented with a quick-service coffee and food bar), The Henry is the culmination of everything that Fox Restaurant Concepts knows so far. And based on multiple visits and a deep dive into the breakfast offerings and the full menu (lunch and dinner), I feel confident saying Fox knows a lot. With the restaurant situated on the ground floor of the company's corporate headquarters, one gets the feeling that the powers that be are watching closely; I saw Sam Fox himself there on multiple occasions.
Befitting its upscale Arcadia neighborhood, The Henry is an appealing blend of English pub décor: dark green banquettes and steampunk cues in the form of an expansive kitchen, metal trim, exposed ceilings, and a beautiful metal staircase to the Fox headquarters upstairs. The look is softened with luxe fabrics, intricate moldings on the ceiling, and subtle details like library books in the bar area. Beyond the dining room there is a beautifully lit patio, as well as clever tables near the coffee bar, with free Wi-Fi and power outlets. Regrettably, none of the design elements do anything to dampen noise levels that border on deafening during peak hours — and on each of my visits, some during off hours, the restaurant was nearly packed. But if you can stand the noise, it's a spectacular and inviting space.
Chef Christopher Wolven and his kitchen team often shine brightly, but the Mediterranean branzino isn't just "good for a Fox restaurant"; it's possibly one of my favorite fish dishes in the Valley. Revelatory in its simplicity, the product speaks for itself instead of being masked by sauce. Sometimes referred to as loup de mer, branzino is a delicate sea bass with a rich, but not fishy, flavor. At The Henry, it arrives mostly naked, save for a light dressing of lemon and chili flakes, proving that good seafood needs little more than adept preparation. More complex and equally satisfying was the Thai peanut black cod; the naturally sweet, flaky fish served as perfect contrast to the cardamom broth and earthy shiitake mushrooms. It's odd that seafood is such a focus at a neighborhood restaurant with a pub feel (three of the nine entrées are fish, but they're all done with equal success).
There's more than just great seafood, although that unto itself is enough to keep me coming back. The wood-grilled pork chop, a hearty thick cut, is everything that good pork ought to be: simply prepared. Accompanied by sweet but not cloying apple-braised onion and creamy cauliflower "polenta," this was a very satisfying dish. My only disappointment was that the Swiss chard was cooked to death, leaving limp, oily greens of despair.
Braised short rib was deserving of the melt-in-your-mouth cliché — it's luxuriously tender and fatty in the best possible way. The accompanying potatoes, deftly fortified with fourme d'ambert cheese (a nutty blue cheese that is one of the oldest cheeses in France) would make an indulgently rich meal on their own.
Entrées aside, The Henry is still a neighborhood restaurant, touted on the building façade as "The Greatest Neighborhood Restaurant." As far as Phoenix goes, the claim might be a valid one when it serves sandwiches as fantastic as the C.B. & Rye, an arrhythmia-inducing mountain of housemade corned beef and Gruyère cheese on marble rye. Buttermilk fried chicken seems to appear, in one iteration or another, on almost every Fox menu (except the healthy ones), but you're better off with the Chevy Chase. Sure, it's an $18 sandwich, but it's also enough to feed two very hungry people, and it's amazing that the roll has the heft to stand up to the classic combo of skirt steak and burnt onion. Cleverly, this steak sandwich is offered on the menu with an optional Bloody Mary. If you don't get the joke, you're no friend of mine. (Put it on the Underhills' bill.)
The best bet for breakfast is the smoked Norwegian salmon, set atop a highly seasoned potato pancake and dotted with peppery arugula. It's great for a starter but better suited as an entrée and would be a perfect pairing with The Henry's roving Bloody Mary cart, stocked with your choice of alcohol (tequila, anyone?), Bloody Mary mixes, and accoutrements. In fact, the entire cocktail program is worthy of consideration, with a welcome focus on many whiskey-based combinations.
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The misses are few and far between, and when they fall short, it usually is related to a lack of innovation, not poor execution. Wood-grilled artichoke hearts, an appetizer on the full menu, deliver a knockout punch before the main event. At $13, the dish is no bargain, but the artichokes are delicious; what they lack in originality they make up for in rustic appeal. The same could be said for grilled and chilled shrimp: nothing particularly novel here, but delicious nonetheless and perfectly executed. More inspired but less successful was the warm kale and roasted garlic dip, a theoretically healthier alternative to the classic spinach dip. Although well balanced, it was dry and the pita chips came straight from a bag. Sometimes it's best not to reinterpret the classics. And to appease the less adventurous is a perfectly acceptable roasted chicken, straightforward and moist but not nearly as interesting or nuanced as heritage birds, and it plays to a lower common denominator.
Country fried chicken, a seemingly appealing breakfast combination of fried chicken on a buttermilk biscuit with gravy, and topped with a fried egg, would have been better if the gravy were even remotely delicious. Caramel apple French toast is exponentially more delectable than standard fare, and sweet caramelized apples made it almost dessert-like. There also is bagel and lox, available in the restaurant and the coffee bar, using dough from Tempe's Venezia bakery that is proofed and baked on-site at The Henry. Mind you, the bagel wouldn't pass muster with even the most casual New Yorker, but it's still not a bad way to start the day. "Health food" has worked its way into Fox menus ever since the company launched True Foods Kitchen, and it's represented here in the form of a quinoa breakfast burrito and the Flower Child Scramble, with kale, mushrooms, and roasted squash. Kale and quinoa — you have to hand it to the team at Fox for managing to get almost every trendy food of the moment onto one section of the menu.
With each of my visits to The Henry I wondered whether Sam Fox might have been trying to channel Balthazar, the iconic brasserie in New York City. Although The Henry isn't French, it — like Balthazar — serves three meals a day and is the cornerstone of a larger ownership group. Balthazar is, in many ways, the definitive SoHo neighborhood restaurant. I once managed to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at Balthazar, all in the same day. Make no mistake about it: The Henry is great, but it's no Balthazar. However, from a functional perspective — and the fact that they are both packed from opening to close — they are eerily similar. And that's a high compliment. The Henry isn't just a restaurant that you're happy to have in your neighborhood. It makes you want to move neighborhoods to be closer to it.