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: Restaurant Progress
Location: 702 West Montecito Avenue
Open: About five weeks
Eats: Seasonally driven, modern American fare
In hindsight, it seems sort of bewildering that it took this long for a spot like Restaurant Progress to make its home in Phoenix's Melrose District.
The neighborhood is known for its eclectic mix of independently run and singular spots, and its enviable midtown location puts it in close proximity to downtown, uptown, and other buzzy spots around Phoenix.
There are lots of places to eat and drink on Seventh Avenue, of course, but Restaurant Progress feels a little different. The restaurant, open for dinner and late-night service only, is an intimate, well-lit spot with little more than 30 seats, and it brings seasonal, fine-dining airs to a commercial strip that's mostly known for casual diners and taco spots.
It feels personal and intimate, in a way that few other places in the neighborhood currently do. The restaurant's chef-owner, TJ Culp, is one of the city's youngest and most impressive culinary talents, and nearly everything about his first restaurant already feels well-honed, thought-out, and artfully composed.
The appeal of Restaurant Progress begins with the design of the space itself, which seems a natural fit for the neighborhood's well-established fondness for the vintage aesthetic.
There's old-fashioned lettering on the restaurant's broad, glass windows; artfully re-purposed found art and framed fabric swatches hanging in a small, pleasant gallery wall near the front entrance; vineyard chairs and heavy, vintage-styled silverware; neat midcentury shelving holding potted plants; and lots of gleaming, white subway tile, which frames both the bar and small open kitchen.
Service is more friendly than you might expect, and the quiet sense of hospitality that pervades the space turns out to be another reason to look forward to a return visit to Restaurant Progress.
The menu is small and focused; the dozen or so dishes offered for dinner recently fit onto one side of a single sheet of paper. The menu is expected to change monthly, a server informed me. The restaurant also offers a separate late-night menu that stretches from 10 p.m. to midnight on Tuesdays through Sundays, and a brunch menu on Sundays.
One of the starters on a recent night was a crudo of yellowtail, a sophisticated dish that looks more unassuming on the plate than it actually is. Meaty hunks of hamachi, buttery and luscious, played well against a bright, creamy scoop of avocado puree. Papery rounds of radish, a homemade nori chip, and a soft sprinkling of togarashi spices added a light, peppery snap. The dish achieved a very fresh, bright, and almost startling balance of flavor and texture.
What to expect from a plate of heirloom carrots? At Restaurant Progress, such an order might yield a colorful dish that plays on a theme, and which showcases the chef's talent for expressing and enlarging subtle flavors.
Described as a "variations of textures," this carrot dish featured wispy ribbons of raw carrots; a couple of deeply caramelized, roasted carrots; dehydrated carrots transfigured into a soft powdery spice; and underneath it all, a silky carrot puree. The total effect was that of softy, buttery sweetness — richer and more surprising than what your palate is expecting.
Octopus and pork belly, another mid-course plate on a recent night, could not be accused of subtlety. The dish was full of meaty, salty intensity — even the lovely muddle of cooked-down white beans on the plate, flecked with herbs, registered extra-rich, buttery, meaty notes. The pork belly was exceptionally lush and salty; the octopus pleasantly chewy, with a delicate char. The plate, nicely girded by the soft heat of Fresno chiles, is the kind of craveable pile of protein that you can easily wipe out in a the space of a couple of minutes.
You might have a hard time getting excited about a thigh of roasted chicken. But this entree — there are four entree options on the menu on any given night — revealed itself as one of the most flavor-rich plates of the evening. The chicken, beautifully browned and succulent, was steeped in a salty jus, and wrapped in the flavors of deeply caramelized pearl onions and crimini mushrooms. A few bright, sweet, gelatinous dots of dates, and a muddle of sweet potato puree, helped create an irresistible layering of sweet-savory flavors.
Pork tenderloin, another entree, was draped with a bright, snappy layer of mustard seeds. The bright pink, nicely cooked slices of pork were paired with black-eyed peas, infused here with a ham hock ragu, which seemed to help burn off some of the peas' natural earthiness, imbuing them with almost as much salty-meaty flavor as the pinkish, succulent rounds of pork on the plate.
It only takes one long dinner at Restaurant Progress to suspect that the restaurant is powered by the variegated forces of culinary talent, youthful energy, and raw ambition. It's a potent combination, one that makes Restaurant Progress feel like the kind of restaurant every neighborhood deserves, and especially one like Melrose.
And with its shifting menu, full of smart and confident cooking, it's easy to eat and drink here and feel like you're eating at one of the most exciting new restaurants to debut so far this year in Phoenix.
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