Unless you live in the East Valley, you will drive and drive and drive to get to Earnest in Chandler. And your journey, once you arrive, will have been worth it.
Earnest is the fine dining establishment formerly known as Cork. Its owners closed up shop last July, reopening with a more casual approach to upscale eats. Co-owner and executive pastry chef Danielle Morris recast Earnest as a restaurant more accessible to frequent diners, a theme found in its tagline (“Comfort food, redefined”) and its summertime kids-eat-free promotion. The interior is cozy and expensive-looking, with low, clean lines, a lot of dark wood, and peculiar and lovely lighting fixtures.
Executive chef Sean Williamson is the former sous chef of Cork, where he trained under co-owner Brian Peterson. Williamson’s cooking reflects Peterson’s deep knowledge of American cuisine and food combinations, and is timely in technique with flavors rooted in French cooking traditions. I’ve found many of these dishes on other local menus, but few have been so unpretentious and well-prepared.
As starters go, the fried soft-boiled eggs were a culinary dream come true. Panko-breaded and deep-fried, their yolks slightly runny, they combined low-food ideas of excess with a gourmet presentation. The warm spinach salad came topped with one of these eggs, and was studded with lardon, bits of sweet apple, and crispy corn nuts and tossed in a bacon vinaigrette.
A daily foie gras special is offered; ours came resting on a jam of golden raisins and served with lightly breaded and fried balls of goat cheese, seared cherry tomatoes, and a sprinkling of micro-greens. A chicken liver and bacon pâté is a sturdy second choice: a creamy turine served with mustard, pickle, and delicious housemade bread for spreading, perfect for anyone who just says “no” to foie gras.
At dinner one night, our waitress suggested the zucchini cakes, which turned out to be a crispy bed for a delicious crab meat concoction drenched in champagne Hollandaise. Crispy pickled onion and asparagus spears topped off a dish crammed with flavor and texture.
Entrées were made with the same finesse as Williamson’s appetizers. Ribbon pasta was tossed with chunks of crisp-skinned zucchini in a tomato and roasted red pepper pesto. The sauce was just the right consistency, coating every noodle to which whole piñons clung, providing an additional and unexpected crunch.
The braised beef short ribs stroganoff came served on a pile of tender noodles into which ground sirloin had been folded. A side of nicely sautéed greens was a perfect accompaniment to fork-tender beef ribs with a nice, crispy outer glaze.
The mammoth double-cut, bone-in ham pork chop, baked for a half-hour but still juicy, is cured to taste like ham. It came on a bed of cheesy sausage-studded potatoes and garnished with a sweet-and-sour combo of whole grain mustard and applesauce. Eaten with crispy smashed potatoes ordered as a side dish (tricked out with beer cheese sauce and an egg), it was perfection.
Williamson’s weekly special is a Wednesday-only fried chicken, clad in a crispy crust and served with a different pair of sides each week. He also hosts “Throwback Thursdays” that feature a weekly high-end dish from Cork’s old menu, and is planning an improvisational menu for later this month.
Eating at Earnest, we rarely had room for dessert, but caved in during one recent visit, ordering the tiramisu. The creamy mascarpone was close to soft fudge; the cake light and fluffy, the coffee, from Lux, strong but not overpowering. A trio of gourmet versions of well-known candy bars is a tired concept, but these — a coconut-rich “Mounds” bar; a peanut butter cup; a caramel-and-nut “Snickers” bar — were exceptional, all the same.
The staff was unfailingly gracious. Our waitress, Grace, made pairing suggestions and cheered our questions rather than shrugged at them, which I see often in restaurants with a menu this sophisticated. (Poor Grace. We liked her so much, we talked her leg off — about food, about working so far out in the East Valley, about her 18-month-old son. She was a sport.) An impossibly youthful busboy kept dishes cleared and smiled a lot. During another visit, the bartender stopped by to ask what entrées we’d tried, although we hadn’t ordered a single drink with dinner.
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It’s a good thing it takes me half an hour to get to Earnest from my home, or I might be here every week, chatting with Grace and eating foie gras. And my waistline wouldn’t like that.
4991 South Alma School Road, Chandler
5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday