When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. 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: Milk Bar Location: 801 North Third Street Open: About three weeks Eats: Polish Price: $10 to $15/person
"This would do well in Chicago," remarks the guy sitting at the next table over.
And he's probably right. But on a Thursday evening, despite its high-visibility location in downtown Phoenix, the newly opened Milk Bar is mostly empty.
The restaurant's odd name becomes less odd when you learn it's the English translation of bar mleczny, the name of the Polish dining institution that dates back to the Communist Era. These bar/restaurants served simple, traditional Polish food to laborers back then, and this Milk Bar aims to bring the tradition into the modern era.
The restaurant and bar comes courtesy of local architect Derek Pasieka (whose other projects include the 300m apartments), and if one thing's for sure, it's that it sticks out like crazy among downtown's gray buildings and newly built high-rise apartments.
Milk Bar is stark white with a bar lit by overhead color-changing lights. Two large silver bull statues with Pasieka's emblem on their heads stand guard outside the patio doors. The flashy European aesthetic makes it looks more like an art project than a serious food and beverage establishment, but from our initial visit, that judgment doesn't hold true.
Take, as an example, the plate of cold salads or bukiet ($4.50). The "bouquet" included three pickled salads, the best of which was a tangle of beets flavored with clove and other fall spices. Just the right amount of sugar balanced with tart vinegar made these as good to eat alone as an accompaniment to something more substantial. Simple pickles with carrot and red pepper, and approachable sauerkraut rounded out the mix.
The plate of three pierogi ($5.25) were pillowy soft and are better filled with the housemade sauerkraut and mushrooms than the meat blend, which was flavorful but dry. And for a more filling meal, the keilbasa ($10.95) is a satisfying choice. A large, snappy Polish sausage comes with covered with nicely caramelized onions, pickled sides, toasted white bread, and mustard.
For drinks, the menu focuses almost exclusively on vodka. But at $9 and $12 respectively, neither the Tatanka (bison grass vodka and apple juice), nor the Clockwork (orange and clove vodka, irish cream, Cointreau, and orange) seemed worth the money. The better value seems to be exploring the selection of imported beers, which start at $4.50 for a lemon Polish beer and reach up to $8 for a Lithuanian ale or a Polish porter.
Or for something truly different, try a small glass of nalewka babuni ($5). These traditional Polish fruit liqueurs come in a variety of flavors including honey, raspberry, peach, and cherry. The quince variety, tart and barely sweet, made a nice -- if boozy -- palate cleanser.
So though it's showy, Milk Bar does seem to be bringing some serious Polish flavor to downtown. And now that the place has settled on its business hours (for the first few weeks it was open only sporadically), perhaps more diners will be willing to give it a try. The concept, at least, infuses something new to the scene, and at a price point that seems most fair for the quality.