First Taste

Earnest in Chandler: An Olive Oil Cocktail and Savory Monkey Bread

When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out -- and 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, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).

Restaurant: Earnest Location: 4991 S. Alma School Rd, Sun Lakes Open: Over a week Eats: Seasonal American Price: $30+ a person

For six years Cork was a star in the East Valley dining scene. The restaurant, opened by three alumni from Lon's at the Hermosa Inn, brought a level of culinary excellence to a part of town where fine-dining was -- and is still -- pretty hard to come by. Just last year we spoke to chef Brian Peterson about how the restaurant had struggled to find its niche, but consistent national recognition for the restaurant's wine program and love from local diners seemed to indicate Cork was here to stay.

Alas, it wasn't. On July 1 Cork closed it doors for good and joined a growing list of local restaurants that have decided to redo their concepts to appeal to the more casual dining set. Just over two weeks after closing Cork, the restaurant reopened as Earnest, a seasonal American restaurant with a focus on updated comfort food, craft beer, and American spirits. From the original Cork trio only chef Brian Peterson and pastry chef Danielle Morris remain. Morris' husband Robert, a sommelier who co-owned Cork, isn't involved with the new restaurant.

See also: The Revival in Tempe: Spirit-Forward Cocktails and Waffle-Wrapped Chicken

The effort to make the restaurant a more casual dining spot is successful to a point. The renovated dining room includes design elements such as a chalkboard wall, reclaimed-looking wood, and Edison bulb light fixtures. It feels less sophisticated than Cork, but no amount of aesthetic alterations can change the fact that the restaurant's focal point is the beautiful, glass-encased wine room.

The menu, described on the restaurant's website and re-imagined classic American cuisine, retains an elevated sensibility -- and elevated price tags. Entrees, which range in price from about $15 to $24 each, are about $10 cheaper than what Cork was serving, but still make for a relatively expensive meal.

About half of the menu is dedicated to hot and cold starters, which can also be enjoyed as shareable plates. The deviled eggs ($7) fit well into the restaurant's Americana theme but alternated between being heavy on salt in one bite and on the mustard in another. The lamb meatballs ($12) were also a disappointment; the dish came with just three meatballs dressed in an unremarkable tomato sauce peppered with pieces of feta cheese.

The savory monkey bread ($7) fared much better. Though the name may be a bit misleading to those familiar with the gooey, sweet version of the dish, Earnest's take is still quite enjoyable. You'll get a half loaf of crusty, white bread sliced and adorned with melted cheese and spices. It's a bit greasy, but hard not to like.

Earnest's scallop-tuna casserole ($14) might be the best representation of what the restaurant's trying to achieve. The heavy cast iron miniature cocotte offered a pleasing tuna, cheese, and mushroom casserole -- like the kind your mom used to make, but better. A large scallop resting on top of the dish added an even more elevated touch, but seemed like forced effort by the kitchen. It was near impossible to get a piece the scallop and a bite of the casserole in one forkful.

The selection of nine entrees felt a bit heavy for an Arizona summer; almost all were meat-focused dishes including steak, pot roast, ribs, and brisket. We tried the pork "ham" chops ($22), a thick, bone-in chop served with apple sauce, pieces of chunky sausage, and a potato casserole. The moist pink pork benefited from a nice, peppery seasoning making this the favorite dish of the night.

On the cocktail front Earnest struggles. The menu of six drinks showcases all American-made spirits but falls short in flavor. The Garden Variety ($10) is described as offering "Tito's olive oil infused vodka" but really delivers a very unpleasant layer of oil sitting on top of a basil-y drink. The Revival ($10), made with tequila, Aperol, grapefruit juice, and ginger beer, tastes almost exactly like Jose Cuervo Grapefruit Tangerine Margarita mix.

There were certainly glimpses of the vision for Earnest, but for now the restaurant still seems stuck between its fine-dining past and casual future. It's worth mentioning that the service was quite formal, but was also some of best we've had at a restaurant in a while. Given time, it's easy to believe that Earnest will find its place in the local dining scene as Cork once did.

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Lauren Saria
Contact: Lauren Saria