Michael O'Dowd's Urban Vine: 24-Hour Pork Belly and Soy Bean Gazpacho

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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: Urban Vine | Kitchen | Hops | Grapes Location: 2201 N. 7th Street Open: Over a week Eats: Modern American Price: $15 per person

Every time we lose a good restaurant in town, it's a sad occasion. But of all the losses we suffered last year, one of the most heartbreaking had to be Renegade by MOD. The restaurant opened last May but came and went in just over six months after chef Michael O'Dowd and partner Ed Leclere parted ways.

O'Dowd's quickly bounced back and put down roots at a new restaurant in a new part of town. Urban Vine, which O'Dowd opened with business partner John Rothstein, opened its doors on May 8 at 2201 North Seventh Street in Phoenix. We're hopeful the restaurant will be doing the same type of risk-tasking, interesting cuisine we got to taste at his last venture.

See also: Urban Taco in Phoenix: Salsas Take Centerstage

Many will know Urban Vine's location as the former home of the Coronado Cafe, a longstanding restaurant in the central Phoenix neighborhood. The interior is mostly unchanged, though O'Dowd has moved the bar and added taps for beer.

The overall feel is an eclectic one, the kind of vibe you'd expect to get from a home built in the 1920s that's been converted into a restaurant. Many of the walls still remain, so you'll find the restaurant has numerous small dining rooms rather than a single, larger, open one. There's also an outdoor covered patio. It's not the buttoned-up, Scottsdale vibe he had going before. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Once you've found your seat -- someone will probably tell you that you can seat yourself anywhere -- you'll be poured a glass of water and then presented with a tray of sliced lemons, oranges, and springs of rosemary. You get to pick which of the three you'd like to add to your glass, a nice touch and a reminder of the fact that both owners come from fine dining backgrounds.

When it comes to the menu, there's a selection of "small bites" and entrees. The smaller plates include items like Queen Creek marinated olives ($7) and slowly toasted nuts and wasabi peas ($6).

We started our meal with the Heirloom Tomato and Soy Bean Gazpacho with jumbo lump crab meat ($9). The soup arrived in a blue mug with a pile of fresh crab meat on top of a very flavorful broth of tomatoes and other spices. The chunky texture, thanks to whole soy beans, might not be what you're accustomed to, but in no way took away from our enjoyment of the dish. The combination made for a surprisingly hearty starter that still manages to be perfect for summer.

We also tried the Mesquite Grilled Chicken Sandwich on a Focaccia Roll ($12), a sandwich that features pieces of perfectly grilled chicken -- moist on the inside but with a nice crusty char on the outside. It's layered with Havarti cheese, avocado mousse, tomatoes, onions, and bacon all between two slices of fresh bread. The side of thinly sliced malted vinegar chips make a perfect complement.

Lastly we ordered the 24 Hour Pork Belly ($12), probably the best thing we tried on our first visit. The order comes with a pile of tender pork belly topped with a peach chutney and a side of bread crisps. The pork belly is "scented" with mole, according to the menu, and offered a flavor faintly reminiscent of very good carnitas. We loved the slight sweetness of the peach chutney and the buttery, crisp toasts.

It's worth noting that a dining companion ordered the Young Farm Greens & Rocket Arugula Composition (read, "salad), which at $12 seemed like a lot to pay for what amounted to not much food. The elements -- which included roasted beets, pecan soil, Crow's Dairy goast cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, and bacon -- were all present and artfully arranged. We just would have liked to have seen more of them.

On our visit the finishing touches were still being installed on the restaurant's bar; by now there should be six taps for beers. It seems the restaurant will need a little time to find the right balance between its casual neighborhood vibe and the upscale, fine dining touches. Until that time, it may feel a few growing pains.

The new space still shows a little bit of the whimsy O'Dowd was putting out at Renegade by MOD, though nowhere near the same scale. Then again, it's still very early. We enjoyed just about everything we tried so as long as the food stays on the current track, we'll be happy to keep going back.

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