Cuisine has come to downtown Glendale.
Cuff is a casual, locally owned New American restaurant featuring the culinary skills of chef Tom Harvey, late of Eddie V's in Scottsdale. Harvey and restaurateur David Chang have partnered with chef Matteo Cataldo to launch a laid-back bar and diner that offers expertly prepared, familiar fare which, with very few exceptions, is worth a drive to the burbs.
Opened last fall, Cuff is housed in the Humphrey-Davidson Building, the oldest remaining commercial building in Glendale. Constructed in 1895, the former dry goods storefront, most recently home to Chang's short-lived Zing bistro, has been lovingly transformed. Chang has maintained some original interior features, including the punched-tin ceiling, and transformed the long, narrow space into a warm dining room fronted by a bar and featuring a cozy and secluded back patio. (Next door, a venue called Off the Cuff hosts private events and parties; around the corner, Chang's Zang Bistro has recently opened.)
Harvey worked under notable chefs including Allen Susser and John Fleer before arriving in Scottsdale in 2011. He's a Georgia native, and his menu is crammed with Southern influences and ingredients. Meat is often smoked or pulled; grits and po' boys are featured. Cataldo, born and raised in Salerno, made his name as a celebrity pizzaiolo in Manhattan; his Italian touches are apparent in the eggplant Parmesan sandwich and big-bowl presentation of a simple baked chicken, served "Amalfi style" in a lemon Parmesan broth.
Surrounded by international cuisine (Haus Murphy's, Little Saigon, Touch of European Café, and La Piazza al Forno all reside within a single block), Harvey has crafted a menu of American favorites which, at first glance, offer no surprises. The revelations arrive on plates filled with Harvey's tasty and clever variations on the tried-and-true.
Deviled eggs are a cute appetizer, properly prepared but not, despite the addition of bacon chunks and bits of pickle in the creamy yolk filling, especially remarkable. But Harvey has managed to give new life to fried calamari, lately a tired warhorse. Crispy outside, tender inside, and drizzled with a spicy sweet-and-sour sauce, it's offset brilliantly by a fiery sambal aioli. Another prosaic opener, the Caesar salad is a generous pile of Romaine in a creamy garlic dressing topped with super-fresh white-bread croutons. It needed tossing.
Entrées are Harvey's strong suit. Shrimp and grits offers a half-dozen sweet, tender crustaceans on a bed of creamy, buttery grits, topped with a poached egg and afloat in a pool of tomato sauce chunked with andouille sausage. Charred crispy outside, melt-in-your-mouth moist inside, the brisket is another mainstay made better with a snappy brown sugar and red pepper glaze. The side of French fries, served with this and all of Cuff's sandwiches, are among the best I've eaten, anywhere. Crisp and hot, they're shoestring-sized, lightly spiced, and hugely tasty. The same can't be said for the acidic, bland vinegar slaw served alongside the brisket.
Harvey's sideways take on posole, his signature dish, is another stunner. His Asian-influenced version of this classic Mexican soup involves a half-dozen pot stickers, stuffed with seasoned roast pork and floating in a cilantro-rich tomato-chipotle broth, studded with hominy and sprinkled with cotija cheese. It's a dramatic combination of temperatures, flavors, and textures. I wanted a second helping at once.
Sandwiches are Cuff's short suit, in each case because delicious and well-prepared fillings are obscured by too much bread and too many accompaniments. The cheeseburger is built around a tender puck of tasty ground steak, buried under a pile of lettuce and lost beneath a colossal tomato slice and a tasteless and surprisingly greasy egg bun. The eggplant Parmesan sandwich is perfection, once it's removed from a far-too-bready roll. Thin slices of breaded, pan-fried eggplant smothered in a terrifically tangy marina and wrapped in broiled mozzarella might make a superb solo entrée.
Desserts, courtesy of downtown Phoenix's Mamma Toledo's Pie Hole, are enormous but humdrum. The best among them is the carrot cake, a mammoth slice of dense, moist cake that's lightly iced. The coconut cream pie, another restaurant staple whose time has come, tastes like neither coconut nor cream, and appeared to be made with a grocery store crust.
Dinner is available at Cuff's front-and-center bar, where signature cocktails include a Barrel Cuff Sour, a frothy blend of rye, honey syrup, and lemon juice, and a distinctive gin and tonic involving thyme and lemon that's just different enough to be special. The impressive and discriminating wine list includes a Southern Australia Shiraz and a relatively obscure French rosé.
Here's hoping Cuff enjoys a long run. If current seating is any indication -- even late on a recent Monday night, there were few empty tables -- its success is likely. The restaurant's calling card with West Valley diners may be its familiar dishes and low prices, but Cuff's gold stars go for Harvey's innovation. New American cuisine never tasted so original.
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Cuff 5819 West Glendale Drive, Glendale www.cuffdowntown.com 623-847-8890
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Deviled eggs $6 Shrimp and grits $14 Cuff posole $13 Smoked brisket $15