[Editor's Note: Following publication, Cycle's PR representative Ty Largo contacted us to clarify that Chef Dan Moody gave notification well in advance that he would not be able to attend the event.]
While the Valley has an established pop-up art gallery scene, this past weekend marked the debut of anything even close to a pop-up restaurant, in the form of Cycle, at the Lexington Hotel in downtown Phoenix. After development group Habitat Metro purchased the hotel, they decided to gut the anchor restaurant -- which looked like a Denny's that was stuck in 1985, according to past guests -- and put in a pop-up restaurant while awaiting the full hotel renovation scheduled this fall.
Friday night's opening attracted a wide range of guests, from local business owners to families and couples out for a romantic dinner. RelationChef Dan Moody, originally scheduled to be the restaurant's inaugural chef, backed out at the last minute. Fortunately, dessert diva Tracy Dempsey was there to take his place.
"Originally, I couldn't do it because of a scheduling conflict. I only have one helper," Dempsey said during a break in the opening night activity. "But I'm actually happy that I was the guinea pig!"
Chef Brandon Crouser of Avalon and Crudo, who assisted Dempsey, says he'd love to come back as a featured chef.
The chefs were happy, but did the guest experience live up to the hype? Find out after the jump...
Cycle is as much about the social experience as it is the food. The space is fun and funky, with bare concrete pillars, butcher paper tablecloths and chalkboard walls (with chalk provided at each table so guests can "make their mark"). Outside, a handmade metal bike rack keeps with the restaurant's theme.
A DJ spun an eclectic mix of rock, house and classic '80s tunes such as Michael Jackson's Thriller while PR reps, chefs, Humane Society volunteers and even Habitat Metro principal Feliciano Vera walked around chatting up guests at each table. Service was spotty, as the group was still getting the hang of the rotating crowds, but the excitement and personal touches made up for any lags. It's pretty amazing when the owner of the hotel asks you if you need more tea. Limiting online reservations was also a brilliant plan. The place never felt crowded, and the too-loud music was the only thing that limited conversation.
For the evening, Dempsey offered three "savory bites" and three desserts, each plate costing $7. We sampled four out of six available dishes, including a rich, fudgy s'mores cupcake topped with a handmade toasted marshmallow and graham cracker ice cream, and a Tender Belly Bacon & Gruyere Tart that converted this onion-hater. The pork was crisp and salty, the gruyere mild but stout enough to hold its own. Caramelized onions added texture and bite, while tart green apple cole slaw had a vinegar-y kick that contrasted with the tart's savory appeal.
Lisa G.'s meatballs (handmade by Lisa herself before the event) were just as I remembered them from her wine bar days, and Dempsey's brown bag o' cookies dessert was playful and provocative. The pineapple and bacon gingersnap was a hit with the men, while a strawberry-cornflake variety reminded me of childhood mornings. From spicy chocolate-chili cookies to a mystery marshmallow lollipop rolled in vanilla shortbread crumbs that tasted remarkably like mild Parmesan cheese, each treat in the bag yielded a flavor surprise.
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A #5 special with pork and chicken skewers and two egg rolls purchased at the Hey Joe! Filipino street food truck parked outside was equally enjoyable. The chicken was amazingly moist, with crispy charred skin, and the barbecue sauce on the pork had a delicate burn that hits you after the meat has been consumed. Lechon Kawali (deep-fried pork belly) and freshwater prawns with shells on were a hit with the crowd. Though some diners never got past the massive $6 beers and fruity cocktails, I only noticed a few tiny remnants of food left behind on the paper plates and plastic silverware provided.
Cycle definitely has the formula for success -- great food, fun atmosphere, personal service, and an ever-changing chef that won't leave our palates bored. Hopefully, a few other local developers and building owners will hear the word-of-mouth that's sure to get around, and continue the trend that Cycle has started.