First Taste

First Taste: A Salty Trip to Character in Downtown Phoenix

The scallops.
The scallops. Natasha Yee
When a new spot opens in town, we're eager to check it out, 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 — an occasion to sample a few items and satisfy curiosities (both yours and ours).

Restaurant: Character
Location: 218 East Portland Street
Eats/drinks: Fine dining with upscale American fare, cocktails, and wine
Open: About four months
Price: $$$
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday

In a grey brick building with black accents resembling a modern home, the space on Portland Street formerly known as Josephine now goes by Character. It opened this past November. The restaurant is led by Peter Kasperski of Scottsdale's (now closed) Cowboy Ciao and Kazimierz Wine & Whiskey Bar and Richie Moe, a mixologist who ran cocktail programs at the likes of The Gladly, Citizen Public House, and Bourbon & Bones Chophouse and Bar.

We stopped by a few weeks ago for a Saturday night dinner.

In a beautiful but mostly brown dining room, the ornate chandelier that Josephine diners once marveled at was notably absent. Character's wine cellar, housed in a clear glass vault, was nice to look at, but on the whole, the interior design leaves a bit to be desired.

click to enlarge The Arizona State Salad arrives in downtown Phoenix. - NATASHA YEE
The Arizona State Salad arrives in downtown Phoenix.
Natasha Yee
The best plate of the evening? An order of burrata and meatballs off the "Graze" section of the menu. Hearty, heavy meatballs rest atop fresh burrata cheese, oozing over a rustic fennel tomato sauce. Leek oil adds depth while grilled country bread provided ample opportunities for dipping. An excellent starter, paired with a glass of Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay –- buttery with hints of Golden Delicious apples, Bosc pears, toasted nuts, and oak spice. (Our vodka press was also done well.)

Another must-order: The Chopped Salad. This is an oft-mentioned dish at New Times and elsewhere, and served at Citizen Public House for years. It's dubbed the Arizona State Salad. The thing has its own Facebook page. This Chopped Salad was served with pesto buttermilk dressing and a whole lineup of winners: arugula, couscous, Asiago cheese, pepitas, and dried currants. Timeless as ever. Kasperski, you've still got it.

click to enlarge The grilled artichoke hearts with Bellavitano mousse were rich and satisfying. - NATASHA YEE
The grilled artichoke hearts with Bellavitano mousse were rich and satisfying.
Natasha Yee
Our venison was beautifully plated, with beurre rouge over cipollini onions and an acorn spaghetti squash puree with snap peas and fried sage. At medium-rare, it wasn't gamey, but a satisfying enough carnivorous dish.

The crispy grilled artichoke hearts came over Bellavitano mousse (a hard cow's milk cheese with a nutty but fruity flavor) and tomato vinaigrette with lemon thyme. They were zesty but the mousse was almost too rich, though the char from the grill added some dimension to the dish.

click to enlarge Character's interior could use some pizazz. - NATASHA YEE
Character's interior could use some pizazz.
Natasha Yee
Sea scallops, another from the "Graze" portion, were decidedly lighter but way over-salted. The pair was served with a saffron Bernaise and marinated grape tomatoes. The server-recommended salt and vinegar waffle fries' were also too salty. (Yes, salt and vinegar fries are supposed to be salty, but this was extra.) When the server cleared the table for dessert, a handful of waffle-shaped stragglers lingered in the bowl, their brininess too much to fully bear.

Thanks to the hits of sodium, dessert beckoned: butterscotch bread pudding made with house brioche bread and topped with spiced pecans and butter pecan swirl ice cream. It did the trick.

As for Alias, a dimly lit speakeasy a quick stroll behind Character — it will have to wait for another night.
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Natasha Yee is a freelance writer and yoga teacher who likes to explore the city. She considers the thesaurus her best friend.
Contact: Natasha Yee