Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails is the downtown restaurant Phoenix has been waiting for: a true urban gathering place of dusky lights and reclaimed wood, alive with the sounds of cocktail shakers and colloquy, perfumed with smoky ham, fried quail, and fresh-baked brick-oven bread.
Opened in June, the restaurant's contemporary trappings — located on the second floor of the new Hotel Palomar at CityScape — may be decidedly city-sleek, but Blue Hound chef Stephen Jones isn't above mixing his versions of corn dogs, tater tots, and Mexican pozole in with the Hamachi crudo and duck confit flatbread. A blending of sophistication and familiarity, Jones' contemporary American and local-ingredient-driven menu is one that Blue Hound's guests, from the traveling business set to downtown denizens, can enjoy equally.
Most of Jones' dishes are hits. The ones that aren't simply fall below the culinary bar of originality the chef has set for himself (and his diners). And given that most of them are available as small plates or in two sizes, sharing is a smart way to explore the offerings, contrast and compare, and find a new favorite or two.
For openers, there is a tiny iron kettle filled with lightly fried, delicately crispy tater tots heavy with the flavor of smoked bacon and served with a lively French onion dip.
Hickman's Farm deviled eggs, said to be a six- to eight-hour process involving freezing then flash-frying the eggs to over-medium prior to applying a second eggy, mousse-like mixture on top, were, sadly, less interesting than their technique. Barely there brioche and stated flavors of smoked ham and Dijon fell woefully short, making these deviled eggs simply average. And although not listed as a starter, the crunchy street tacos (listed in the "Sea & Ocean" entrée category), stuffed with a bright bay scallop ceviche and topped with pickled red onions and cilantro, make for a sharable refresher before the main course.
Salads are as fresh as they are inventive. In one instance, Jones starts with dressing on the bottom. On top of the Thousand Island, a small garden of watercress and arugula tops generous, juicy slices of heirloom tomatoes and onions that are smoked, dipped in batter, and fried to a pleasing crunch. And red Indian peaches from McClendon's Select never tasted so scrumptious as they did when roasted and diced with delicately sweet Marcona almonds, creamy and soft fromage blanc, spicy pepper cress, and a drizzling of honey.
When it comes to the flatbreads, the one Jones tops with duck confit, pickled kumquats, roasted onions, Gruyère, and arugula is the most original. Featuring golden-tinged, crispy bread spread out over its wooden serving paddle, this unique mix of flavors — slightly sweet, succulent, and gently spiced — easily satisfies a hungry table.
Jones' version of the Mexican stew pozole may be, for now, the best dish on the menu. A heady, sweet-and-smoky concoction, the tender Ancho chile braised pork neck, cabbage, hominy, avocado, and pickled red onion topped with a fried egg and toasted bread (for soppin') arrived at the table nestled in a jet-black iron pan. The grilled rainbow trout, tender and mild with a crispy skin, however, comes dangerously close to matching the pozole — especially topped with sweet corn and atop a wonderful basil sauce. More inventive but just as tasty is the Kentucky-fried quail. Soaked overnight in buttermilk, it's fried to a golden, satisfying crunch and set atop foie gras-kissed cornbread over a thick pool of red beans and sausage gravy that's as good as red beans and sausage gravy gets.
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Unless it is the lusciously creamy chocolate crème brûlée with a glistening top of crispy sugar served with housemade pecan sandies, desserts lack the overall proficiency and flavor power of the rest of the menu. In lieu of a dry caramelized upside-down cake or a lemon blueberry cheesecake (with little blueberry and less lemon), one might fare better with an after-dinner drink instead.
Which brings us to the cocktails portion of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails. The novella-size booklet — loaded with Prohibition-era classics, signature creations, tequilas, and enough bourbons, scotches, and gins to fill a few liquor cabinets — may be more than what you'd care to page through, but the end result is worth it. And because the barkeeps, like the servers, are as knowledgeable as they are friendly, asking for a little help certainly couldn't hurt. My "Summer of Shandies..." made with Hanger One, lime, simple syrup, fresh cucumbers, and Coors Light, made for a refreshing drink and a perfect send-off to the season.
Then there is the downtown. Our downtown. And Blue Hound seems to have been built to make the most of it. Amid a bustling, low-lit bar of wood and mirrors one can feel its energy, floor-to-ceiling windows in the dining area give way to a view of its buildings, and an outdoor patio is the perfect spot for taking in its nighttime air.
It's a perfect match of city scene meets city restaurant. And in downtown Phoenix, that's worth raising a glass.