Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: From Deep Scratch at Persepshen

Jackie Mercandetti Photo
House-made charcuterie is the way to go at Persepshen.
Jason Dwight carves up steers. Not half steers or quarters, but whole animals. These days, he breaks them down in Persepshen, the central Phoenix restaurant he opened in October with his wife, Katherine Dwight. Once, in Chicago, Jason ran a butcher shop for Paul Kahan, one of the city’s biggest chefs. At Persepshen, the menu quickly morphs as Jason works through the limited cuts that each steer can provide.

Recently, when he got to the shoulders, flatiron steak blipped onto the menu. And then the cuts were gone, so the steak went off.

A few weeks ago, Jason was rich in chuck, so he did a burger. Katherine, a baker, baked the buns. But soon the chuck was history, meaning so was the burger.

click to enlarge A ponderosa pine table and juniper tree chandelier. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
A ponderosa pine table and juniper tree chandelier.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
At Persepshen, the Dwights approach every ingredient like they approach beef. They put themselves at the whims of local supply chains in a way that few other places do, plugging deeply into local growing and ranching cycles, into what the land and its agriculturalists can provide. Their menu doesn’t change along neat seasonal lines, but along the bounds of the produce seasons, what their providers have, and what they as chefs need for their style of sustainable, from-scratch cooking.

The phrase “from scratch” is overused to the point that it has lost meaning. At Persepshen, the scratch is real and deep. The Dwights, for one, make their own bitters. They make their own chorizo, harissa, tortillas, mostarda, and charcuterie. “If we don’t make it, we don’t serve it,” Jason says. “Right on down to the ketchup.”

Before opening Persepshen, the Dwights sold food at the Uptown Farmers Market. Jason has chops not only as a butcher, but as a chef. Katherine, having baked at L20 in the Windy City and MJ Bread in Phoenix, knows the ways of dough and ovens. The oven is the centerpiece of Persepshen, a quirkily furnished space with a vaulted ceiling and a giant window onto Central Avenue, light rail trundling past at long intervals. Lately, the oven has burned with Arizona citrus and pecan wood. Tables are made from reclaimed local woods, including the communal slab that runs across the dining room, salvaged from a beetlekill ponderosa pine. The room is warm, sylvan, rustic, rustic, rustic.

Above the main chamber of the 65-seat dining room, a dead juniper hangs, strung with lights — an Ent of a chandelier.

click to enlarge Duck l'orange. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Duck l'orange.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Waitstaff suggest you permit the kitchen to send food out scattershot whenever it’s ready. Since the thrust of the menu is small plates, with only three large-format dishes, you might as well agree. The Dwights’ food is New American with far-reaching global touches: Mexico, China, India, Italy, France …

To start: Go for bacon-wrapped dates. Yeah, I know. This is a somnolent combination. But at Persepshen, the dates are stuffed with an intense house-made chorizo, its creamy dissolve just about melding into the meaty glide of the dates. All that sweet, heat, and umami gets a soft fiery kiss from harissa.

Lots of small plates star vegetables, cooked in the wood oven. Sunchokes are heartily blackened and almost burned in places, with nutty perfume and softness inside. Slender carrot strips also get an aggressive char, plus a lacy topping of fried onion strings. These roasted vegetable small plates are well made and evoke primal, campfire ages of cooking. They can feel overly simple, but that’s kind of the point.

Okra is different. The Dwights pickle and fry red okra from Crooked Sky Farms. Seasoned in the same rub they use for capicola (wait for it!), breaded partly in semolina flour, the shatteringly crisp golden lengths tumble across the plate like a spilled quiver of darts. You don’t even need the yellow remoulade.

click to enlarge Jason and Katherine Dwight make a great team. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Jason and Katherine Dwight make a great team.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Larger-format dishes have more parts. Unfortunately, a tandoori chicken plate was a letdown, the only letdown I had here. Billed as a large plate, the chicken arrives as three spice-jacketed legs on a bed of okay biryani. Duck, though, was on the other end of the spectrum. Jason gives it a 24-hour salt cure, a 24-hour sous vide, and then a final roasting in the oven. You get half a duck per order. As you saw it into parts, mahogany lacquer from the orange reduction glistens. Some bites are so rich, so meaty, and so iron-tinged that you might feel like you’re eating something other than poultry.

Jason says his last meal would be this duck. My favorite menu item, though, is his charcuterie board.

In a town where too many charcuterie boards are middling, here’s one with rare intention and character. But to follow his model, you would need butchery and curing skills, for Jason makes his rotating cast himself, based on what meats his pigs and cows can yield.

Recently, the board was a stunner, a nice match to Persepshen’s simple-but-solid cocktails.

click to enlarge Bacon-wrapped dates. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Bacon-wrapped dates.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
You get five meats, two pickled vegetables, a mostarda, a jam, and long planks of Katherine’s snappy lavash. One of the meats was ’nduja, a spreadable salumi. Jason’s version, less creamy than the southern Italian standard, featured oil-packed Calabrian chiles rather than dried. It was really nice with the lavash. And though the ivory-webbed capicola carried a pleasantly strong, husky smoke, and though the gray Tuscan-style sausage burst with minerality and the tingle of whole peppercorns, it was a kidney terrine that stole the show.

Coaster-sized discs of soft meat blared loud irony notes, rounded with housemade bitters and brandy-soaked cherries. Together these flavors, as was the design, re-created the flavors of a Manhattan cocktail but in meat form. My jaw would have been on the floor if I weren’t busy chewing.

All kinds of gems litter this ever-changing menu, from a spellbinding pickled curry cauliflower all the way up to 60-day dry-aged steaks. You may be surprised to see an ossobuco with Mexican flavors, a cochinita pibil, a trio of swordfish tacos soft and steaky and bursting with slaw buried in sail-like flour tortillas. Fortunately, unfortunately, you never fully know what a given night’s menu will bring — and you have to choose between many attractive pathways.

click to enlarge Fried okra. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Fried okra.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Whatever your choice may be, get gingerbread for dessert. Katherine uses fresh ginger to make a soft loaf dark with cocoa powder. Once cool out of the oven, she dredges the dark loaf in butter and rolls it in sugar crystals. Candied fruit tops your fat slice. So does a scoop of gelato made from house-made eggnog heady with cinnamon, vanilla, and rum — a rich, wickedly creamy intensity that hits you like a sudden burst of nostalgia.

Persepshen is an important restaurant, and not just because the food tastes good. The Dwights cleaver-cut through trends to the source of our food system, running the kind of restaurant that we’re going to need as sustainability concerns deepen in the coming warmer years. Here, you feel close to the past, close to your food and natural cycles of life and death, immersed in the food system in a primal way. It makes not only for a great meal, but a vital style of cooking and eating.

4700 North Central Avenue
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday

Bacon-wrapped dates $9
Fried pickled okra $9
Charcuterie board $24
Duck a l’orange $38
Gingerbread $1