Cafe Reviews

Is Chef Aaron Chamberlin’s St. Francis Holding Back?

When rustic American restaurant St. Francis finally opened its doors for Labor Day weekend, I think Phoenix food fanatics heaved a huge sigh of relief.

Why? To say the place was highly anticipated is an understatement.

First, take a look at chef-owner Aaron Chamberlin's résumé. After working in Washington, D.C., New York, and San Francisco for such chef luminaries as Michel Richard, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Nancy Oakes, he moved to the Valley and helped launch LGO Pizzeria, Chelsea's Kitchen, and Radio Milano, all happening hangouts. Who wouldn't want to see what this rising star would do with his own restaurant?

In that regard, I'm still waiting. I liked the food at St. Francis, but I wonder if Chamberlin is somehow holding back. In his quest to keep the menu simple and humble, perhaps he's psyched himself out of the creative flourishes that could make more dishes truly memorable.

There's also been a lot of buzz about the location. As if they needed any further proof that the area around Camelback Road and Central Avenue is gaining momentum as one of Phoenix's hottest new restaurant districts (it's also home to Maizie's, Postino Central, Aiello's, and Hula's Modern Tiki), locals and Mid-Century architecture fans have been eagerly watching St. Francis take shape.

The restaurant's name, by the way, references the name of the midtown Phoenix neighborhood and is also the English translation for "San Francisco," the city where Chamberlin launched his career.

Chamberlin hired Wendell Burnette Architects to overhaul the early-'50s Harold Ekman building, and the final result is stunningly cool. Man, who wouldn't want to eat dinner here? It's an impressive example of what's becoming a true Phoenix aesthetic, juxtaposing vintage features with ultra-modern touches, and blurring the boundaries between inside and outside.

Garage doors are de rigueur in this pleasant weather and, here, a big glass one on the front of the building lets the breeze waft through and opens the bar to the outside. Pivoting doors to the side patio create a seamless transition from the dining room.

Inside, the combination of original brick walls, contemporary art, uplighting, and a must-see ceiling crisscrossed with support cables (instead of columns) has an urban edginess; dance music by the likes of LCD Soundsystem and Hot Chip cranks up the energy. There are also a few counter seats with a view into the kitchen, where chefs tend to a massive wood-fired brick oven.

So after all the hype, how was St. Francis? Service was the main thing that needed improvement. I can think of at least four occasions where servers showed up at my table with another table's dishes, looking confused. They also missed some opportunities to get us more drinks (the Sunny & Dry cocktail, made with gin, cucumber, lemon verbena, and lime, went down easily). If they can polish up the front of the house as well as they polish their antique silverware, they'll be set.

The food was comforting and tasty, but I can't stop thinking there was a disconnect between the sophisticated vibe and the basic offerings, especially in light of the chef's fine-dining background (and the army of talent in the kitchen). Simple can still be dazzling, you know. Chamberlin told me he plans to slowly add to the menu — seasonality is his big thing — so I look forward to seeing what else he'll do as he settles in.

What I liked most about certain dishes was the joyful barrage of fresh vegetables that brightened them up. I'd expect that from the chopped salad of Romaine hearts and summer vegetables tossed in light buttermilk cheddar dressing, but I was delighted to find such variety in the wild salmon salad. Pieces of fresh, clean-tasting seared salmon and a poached egg glistened on top of chilled potatoes, celery leaves, shaved radish, yellow beets, yellow wax beans, green beans, and Italian parsley, with perky lemon dressing that enhanced the fish.

Likewise, the forbidden rice bowl was as flavorful as it was colorful. Chewy black forbidden rice was nutty and aromatic, heaped with green and yellow wax beans, carrot, mushrooms, cauliflower, broccoli, red beets, soybeans, cherry tomatoes, roasted red pepper, corn, caramelized onions, and spicy-sweet dressing. You could eat this and not miss meat one bit.

In the baked goat cheese and walnut herb pesto appetizer, which was served in a small crock with a side of toast, there was an unexpected layer of tomatoes. It was delicious, to be sure, but tomatoes should've been noted on the menu for people who won't or can't eat them. Creamy goat cheese also turned up on the puffy, crisp flatbread, scattered with fresh black mission figs and arugula. You could share this as an appetizer or just down the whole thing like a pizza.

Rich, fragrant broth was the highlight of the seafood soup, a mélange of mussels, shrimp, halibut, and clams with a cheese-soaked slice of bread floating in it. But there was something lacking with the pepper-crusted flat iron steak. Could it have been . . . pepper? It just wasn't a very flavorful piece of meat, although I didn't mind its accompaniments — red wine reduction, spinach purée, and crispy, herb-flecked roasted fingerlings.

Much tastier was succulent roasted chicken with tomatoes, its hot, crispy skin juxtaposed with a slick of hummus and a cool salad of cucumber, olives, peppers, arugula, and pine nuts. The roasted pork chop was also juicy, nestled on corn-studded polenta with roasted red peppers and whole-grain mustard sauce.

My dining companions and I appreciated desserts that weren't run of the mill. How about fresh strawberries and figs tossed with airy meringues and a dab of aged balsamic? Or a velvety chocolate-hazelnut parfait? Those two covered both ends of the decadence spectrum, and definitely satisfied our collective sweet tooth. But warm sticky toffee pudding was gobbled up in a greedy blur of flashing spoons, along with a shiny blob of sweet cream gelato.

When St. Francis really hits its stride, I expect every dish to disappear like that.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig