The first thing you should probably know about CoR Tapas & Wine is that it’s something of a rare species in the metro Phoenix dining scene. CoR is a Spanish-inspired tapas bar, a fact that would not be of special interest, if not for the near-total absence of tapas-style small-plate options in the Valley. If you have even the slightest interest in Spanish cuisine, or count yourself as an aficionado of the gastronomical unit that is the small plate, you may want to bump CoR to the top of your required eating list.
That said, you don’t have to be an especially huge fan of the usual tapas parade of cured meats and sausages, vegetables, and seafood to appreciate an evening at CoR. CoR’s owner Michael Corey Chan has certainly taken a calculated risk with their restaurant’s format — in the past, tapas bars have struggled to find an audience in Phoenix. But if there is any place good enough to carve out an enduring space for tapas in the Valley, let’s hope that it’s CoR, where the small plates deliver on the Spanish promise of clean, bright flavors — and then some. The plates may be on the smaller side, but the culinary ambition is big.
CoR Tapas & Wine is situated on the relatively quiet corner of 12th Street and Campbell Avenue in midtown Phoenix, occupying a small, boxy 1949 storefront that has been painted a bright and baroque shade of purple. One of the restaurant’s exterior walls has been livened up with an amiable black-and-white mural of silhouetted, beret-donning men, Basque old-timers maybe, sharing a bench with a couple of small dogs. Inside, the design is a little more understated, the airy room filled with comfy half-booths glowing under dim track lighting, exposed wooden beams, and a long polished bar. The centerpiece of the room is probably the single communal hi-top table that sits under a funky chandelier. The underlying theme of the room might be summed up as “modern date-night deluxe.” But CoR is also comfortable and inviting enough — service is generally informal and friendly — to become your regular neighbourhood haunt, the place to go for a glass of wine or import beer and a chat with one of the bartenders.
CoR has cycled through at a least a couple of chefs since it opened in November of last year, but no one else has quite taken ownership of its kitchen like current executive chef Casey LaRue, whose résumé includes stints in the high-pedigree, pressure cooker kitchens of food luminaries like Boston’s Ken Oringer and the Michelin-starred Jean-Georges. LaRue also has extensive experience as a private chef, and he has put his cumulative experience to quick use by completely revamping the CoR Tapas & Wine menu.
Speaking of the menu, it’s rather modest in size and scope, offering about a dozen tapas options that seem to pull inspiration from all regions of Spain and the Mediterranean. There is also a small selection of salads and bruschetta. You can order as few or as many small plates as you wish, and your server will probably course them out from lightest to heaviest. Small plates, of course, are designed to be shared, but this is still probably not the place to come for a budget-minded happy hour or dinner. Most plates are priced like full-sized entrees, with seafood plates, for example, ranging between $12 to $18.
Even if you only stop by CoR for a drink, though, it’s worth splurging on a basic starter like the house cheese and meat board — it’s called the CoR Board here — which turns out to be a sort of small-scale, memorable feast of neat, endorphin-boosting bites. You don’t have to know anything about the chef to detect a certain amount of obsession with balance, brightness of flavor, and scratch-made preparation. On a recent visit, the board was brightly mosaicked with thick, ruddy slices of Spanish chorizo, salty cubes of fontina, and glistening purple wedges of fresh figs. LaRue makes his own fresh pepper bread, which is sliced into thick, spongy slices and lightly grilled, a fine base for smearing on some of his house-made ricotta, or to soak up the slightly sweet juices of his pickled scallions. Who knew a stringy onion could taste so good? But there’s probably no more purely indulgent bite on the board than the salty, ribbony strips of house-made lardo, which are tied around hunks of fresh figs.
LaRue has a knack for working with vegetables, a talent probably best exemplified by a plate of charred Brussels sprouts. The quartered veggies are cooked to a sort of languid al dente, so that all their natural caramelized meatiness is extracted to perfection. They’re sliced and tossed into a messy salad of fennel, papery-thin slices of radishes, and soft, salty motes of feta cheese, all the elements fusing into a kind of crescendo of exceptionally rich, sweet-salty flavor.
A bowl of shishito peppers, meanwhile, blackened and shriveled into soft, melty bundles, is enhanced by the slight, measured addition of honey. And roasted beets, usually paired with goat cheese, are here instead coupled with fresh, house-made mozzarella and fresh citrus, which suits the earthy meatiness of the beets well.
A classic and simple tapas dish like patatas bravas is rarely terrible, because it’s pretty hard to screw up fried potatoes. The CoR patatas bravas are given a lovely upgrade, though, the perfectly crunchy potato slices floating on a spicy yet not-overwhelming aioli. It’s worth noting the addition of extra-crispy, homemade potato chips, which are used to garnish the plate.
A well-rounded tapas menu could not exist without some form of seafood, and there are many good options here, including a wonderful plate of pan-seared scallops. The scallops are beautifully cooked, their tops faintly crispy, and skillfully paired with a spicy jalapeño puree that doesn’t overwhelm the mollusks. Calamari is more apt to disappoint, though. On a recent visit, the breading on the bits of fried squid was slightly soggy and bland.
Gambas al ajillo, the classic Catalonian dish of garlic shrimp, is wonderful. The plump, nicely cooked shrimp is paired with a smooth, buttery garlic aioli, a sort of ambrosial liquid on the plate whose richness is offset by razor-thin slices of fried, blackened lemon wheels. The bright, crunchy zest of the lemon is a small flash of brilliance, the sort of thing to help you snap out of the buttery stupor brought on by such rich aioli.
Speaking of falling into a flavor-driven stupor, LaRue’s glazed pork belly, sliced into slinky, supple pieces that melt on contact with your palate, does not disappoint. And a small plate of pan-seared steak, cooked to a perfect medium-rare and paired with a romesco sauce and extra-juicy, slightly blistered tomatoes, is probably not the most exciting dish on the menu, but it’s no less delicious.
At a tapas bar, there’s little use trying to resist the allure of homemade sangria. CoR’s homemade white bolero blanco pairs well with pretty much everything, and the bar also offers an extensive list of sangria-based cocktails.
There are only two desserts currently on the menu at CoR — a tres leches cake, and a plate of homemade churros with chocolate. The tres leches cake was a little underwhelming on a recent visit. But the fried churros, shimmering with a healthy dusting of sugar, were deliciously sweet and airy. They are made in the style of a classic Madrid breakfast, small enough to hold like pens, and designed to be dipped into your ramekin of melted chocolate.
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There is probably no more satisfying way to finish out a meal at CoR Tapas & Wine, though, than by plotting your next visit.
CoR Tapas & Wine
4500 North 12th Street
Hours: Tuesdays through Thursdays 4:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m.; closed Sundays and Mondays
Charred Brussels sprouts $9
CoR Board $17
Glazed pork belly $14
Pan-seared scallops $18