Cafe Reviews

An Evolving, New Arizonan Style of Cooking Flourishes at Cotton & Copper

Jackie Mercandetti
Venison medallions cooked in a cast-iron skillet are among the stars at Cotton & Copper.

When you eat at Cotton & Copper, you feel something you don’t often feel in metro Phoenix: that you are on the avant-garde, that you are channeling the zeitgeist, that you are immersed in a meal new and wild. It’s a thrill that may grip you in Brooklyn or San Francisco, but rarely in Arizona. Tamara Stanger, executive chef, is the chief architect of this buzz.

As you behold ruby slivers of goat carpaccio, the buzz may softly vibrate through you.

It may wrack you like an icy chill as you crunch into chicken breaded in Pima corn.

And certainly, it will crackle when you learn your blueberry-vinegar pie contains barrel cactus fruit.

Earlier this year, Stanger, formerly of Helio Basin Brewing Company, joined forces with Sean Traynor. Traynor sold his house to establish Cotton & Copper, which opened in a south Tempe strip mall over the summer without a sign.

Traynor helms the robust mixology program. Previously, he worked on the local cocktail circuit, including a formative stint at Counter Intuitive in its heyday. He and his team have branded Cotton, by word of mouth, a “public house.” It is much more. Stranger, who has devised a menu to vibe with his drinks, cooks in her singular, exhilarating, still-evolving style.

This style fits within a nascent culinary paradigm that I have theorized about before: New Arizonan. New Arizonan, on display at a handful of cutting-edge eateries and drinkeries in metro Phoenix, is marked by personal foraging, attention to the north and south of the state, modernizing ancient ingredients, local farms, global techniques, and rough elegance.

click to enlarge The corn dumplings have a fragrant spirit of maize. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
The corn dumplings have a fragrant spirit of maize.
Jackie Mercandetti

From the first bite, Stanger’s exquisite rusticity is showcased.

Corn dumplings — fried spheres really more like hushpuppies — have a fragrant spirit of maize that calls to mind green stalks and brown soil. Acid from heirloom tomatoes lifts crisp bites just a little, keeping them simple and close to the earth.

Curled and luxuriously folded-over chips — taro, parsnip, yucca, spiced potato, and baked soppressata — arrive in a mountain so tall it could be named. Their salty crunch and faintly sweet rooty intrigue prime you for drinking, even if the crisp soppressata trails out in a bitter haze. Trout rillettes are imbued with a nicely heavy smoke that flirts with ashiness but stops just short, thanks partly to herbs, green apple slices, and pickled zucchini.

The definitive starter is a rotating carpaccio: maybe elk, maybe bison, maybe goat. When I was in, ruby-centered slivers of goat quilted an antique plate under aged Gouda and tangelo pieces, looking like some kind of mosaic made by a druid on the Flagstaff forest floor. The animal, blood-mineral essence of the goat was lopped in half by the tangelo and a deeply sylvan elderberry gastrique — all accented with aged-milk umami, salt, and bursting Gouda crystals. This was a great dish but could have been stratospheric had the goat been sliced thinner.

After starters, you may need another drink. Traynor’s are magic and tend to vanish fast. He doesn’t favor any one spirit and strives for balance above all, which he seems to achieve. Watching his team concoct drinks is like watching a strange hipster ballet — a line of tattooed dudes gracefully shakes and stirs, pinches and pours.

click to enlarge The Silver King is tequila flexing alongside mint, chile, and lime. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI
The Silver King is tequila flexing alongside mint, chile, and lime.
Jackie Mercandetti

One of Traynor’s best is the Silver King, tequila flexing alongside the hugely bracing flavors of mint, chile, and lime. Another is the Buzzard’s Roost, a more stoic, medicinal-tinged rye tipple loaded with lemon perfume. The wooden bar that towers over the dim, sparely furnished 50-seat dining room also offers a well-curated Arizona-centric beer menu.

These libations and the young crowd contribute to the buzz, which physically manifests as volume. This place gets both loud and a little wild in a way that’s good for the soul. One night, under the gaze of the jackalope mounted atop the barback, a waiter dropped one of Cotton & Copper’s antique plates. A crash sounded. A hush spread.

“Damn, that’s some fine china!” a starry-eyed girl at the bar quipped.

Everyone in the room just kind of non-verbally agreed; you could feel a communal warmth, and the buzz leapt back.

Entrees at Cotton & Copper are mostly refreshingly original. That is why, though you may have eaten hundreds in your life, you should order the chicken sandwich.

Stanger bakes English muffins from dough she ferments for more than a day. A thick, dark muffin with a trace of tang and chew grudgingly yields to the juicy bird inside, fried in a coarse sheath of Ramona Farms heirloom Pima corn. What a shatter to that jacket! What juiciness to the bird, which seems to stay hot for 10 minutes! What a yolky gush from a fried duck egg, and what a slow-burning chile de arbol hot sauce, north star to remind you where you are: the Sonoran!

If you are an eater of rabbit, though, you might be in for exclamations of another kind. Atop dense gnocchi and a velvety white pipian (a mole-like sauce Stanger blends from almonds, golden raisins, and chiles), a meaty rabbit hindquarter shines with juice and promise. One night, the rabbit was dry. Very dry.

What? So early in service on a Saturday night? My table was downright vexed.

click to enlarge Chef Tamara Stanger features a new style of Arizona cooking. - MELISSA FOSSOM
Chef Tamara Stanger features a new style of Arizona cooking.
Melissa Fossom

Especially after having had the venison. Thin medallions from Montana couldn’t be cooked more perfectly. They are succulent with buttery dissolve and a shade of chew, minimally gamey and tender in a way that this lean meat isn’t. A mass of vegetables heaps under the mahogany-burnished game: halved pea shoots, radishes, baby carrots, and pink oyster and king trumpet mushrooms, all sopping in a dark, delicate cheddar-accented jus that brings ethereal lightness and soulful echoes to a dish that at first seems nothing but a classic tale told in five ounces of meat.

But this is a new story, a New Arizonan yarn, and Stanger is telling it the way she wants — with food that is rugged yet refined, harsh yet comforting, simple yet cerebral, and savagely beautiful the same way it was when that antique china hit the floor and burst like a seashell.

Her food mirrors the rugged beauty of the Arizona landscape. That food is not perfect, and Cotton & Copper is far from a perfect restaurant (though a slice of sugar plum pie with fennel and caraway slumbering in the crust may briefly sway you otherwise). You may get a dish or two that fizzles. You may get corn dumplings that, though good, could be sexier, or gnocchi that could be more like cirrus clouds. But you also get a dazzling vision of the future of New Arizonan food.

The most exciting thing about Cotton & Copper isn’t its present food or drink. It’s that Stanger has started to get a firmer grip on her style, that the best parts of the story are to come. It’s that, together with this, together with the buzz, Stanger is steadily closing the gap between her food and her ambition.