Chow Bella

Aaron May's Praying Monk Opens as Vitamin T Closes

Editor's Note: We inadvertently reported that Breakfast Club hadn't yet opened at CityScape. The error has been fixed. Chef-restaurateur Aaron May got a little surprise late last week from RED Development, the commercial real estate company behind CityScape in downtown Phoenix. The larger-than-life owner of Vitamin T, a taco shop situated on the east end of the mixed-use complex, was locked out of his space after a landlord-tenant dispute.

True, his landlord occupies offices directly above the recently expanded taqueria. Could carne asada smoke have exacerbated the problem?

More likely, it was the fact that May wasn't paying the rent.

"This came as a complete shock to us," May tells Chow Bella. (Full disclosure: I worked as Aaron May's publicist for about a year in 2010-'11.) May adds that he and his partners were "actively working with RED Development's management to resolve back due rents." A quick-casual food outlet featuring Mexico City-style street eats seemed like a no-brainer back in 2009, but the concept, which was positively reviewed by every local publication and drew a decent lunch crowd, struggled come nightfall.

Then again, other than The Arrogant Butcher and Stand Up Live, how many real success stories can CityScape claim?

RED booted Oakville Grocery barely three and a half months after it opened, while most of the restaurants originally slated to open there never actually did. Not Bob Lynn's LGO Public House or other local independents such as Blu Burger Grille or Press Coffee. Not Jason Doyle's BrewPublic Craft House, La Crepe Nanou, or Rasputin Vodka Bar. And not Huey's 24/7 Diner, a funky comfort food dispensary based in Louisiana.

Truth is, the culinary landscape at CityScape is a mostly humdrum, this-could-be-any-city offering of corporate restaurants, including Five Guys, Jimmy John's, Tilted Kilt and Chipotle. The latter surely stuck in May's craw.

Nevertheless, restaurant owners are still required to pay rent.

Although the chef contends there has been a miscommunication and says he hopes to "continue to operate at CityScape," one wonders whether the forced closure might not be a blessing in disguise for the restless restaurateur, who plans to open Praying Monk, an "American beer café," in the former Iruña space on Wednesday, May 2.

May insists he'll be spending lots of time in the kitchen alongside chef de cuisine Diego Apodaca, who took over the helm at Iruña when Le Bernardin alum Brian Barry left for Florida last summer. May's partner, Quinn Goldsberry, and his longtime bartender/GM, Mickey Venerable, will tend the front of the house.

Meanwhile, the vaguely industrial space looks like a sophisticated beer hangout should, thanks to a concrete-topped bar plunked in the center of the room, tuck and roll leatherette booths and loads of rustic reclaimed wood. Vintage photos of an old brewery remind us why we're there.

May claims the extensive beer selection may not be the biggest in the state but will certainly be the "best curated." His beer-friendly menu will include appetizers, snacks, sandwiches, and entrees such as: charred octopus, arugula and grapefruit; foie gras torchon with housemade peanut butter and blackberry jam on toasted brioche; shrimp and grits with tasso; crispy pig ear with rocoto chile, lime and sea salt; cider-braised pork and beans; house-made pastrami on Karsh's rye; scallops with sunchoke "tots", Parmesan and pesto; and Kentucky-fried quail with Brussels sprout slaw and red, white and bleu potato salad.

Chow Bella has contacted RED's development manager, Jeff Moloznik, and we'll report back on what we hear from him regarding Vitamin T.

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Nikki Buchanan