Cafe Reviews

Oh, Fenix Fair

What am I to do with a restaurant so studiously unambitious as the still-neonatal Fenix Eatery and Bar, ensconced in the small, dowdy "Arcadia Village" shopping center at 40th Street and Camelback Road? I hear the rabble crying to me like they did to Pontius Pilate millennia ago, urging that Fenix be crushed like a bug! And yet, nestled unromantically between Fat Slims BBQ and a Baskin-Robbins, Fenix offers a whiff of unrealized potential, and a few solid plates in the bargain. But should this be enough to stay the executioner's hand?

The space itself is at the very least intriguing, if somewhat reminiscent of a suburban garage. The large, glassed-in firehouse door on runners, which can be down or up depending on the weather, seems a little gauche, but it does lend the place a sort of cosmopolitan airiness. Linen-draped tables would enhance the allure, but management has opted for a more casual look, and clothless tables with copper-ish tops. To one side is a long, handsome wooden bar, and a heavy, antiquey leaded-glass side entrance. Opposite is a brown and black banquette running along most of the wall, and in the far back, a window looking onto the kitchen where you can see chef/proprietor Omar Matmati slaving away.

Fenix's most prominent decoration is a wall-size blow-up of Man Ray's famous black-and-white photo of heiress and art collector Peggy Guggenheim at the height of her elegance and glamour in 1924. Its presence is an odd and not unwelcome nod to the aesthetic grandeur of the past, but I doubt very much if that old biddy Guggenheim, were she alive today and bitchy as ever, would have approved of the sad, frameless repros of paintings like Toulouse-Lautrec's depiction of cancan dancer Jane Avril, and so on. These posters are dry-mounted and look as if they were picked up on sale at Target, or pulled out of the attic with a minimum of dusting.

This laissez-faire attitude extends to the decaying flowers in vases beneath these same pale reproductions. Perhaps I'm picking nits, but an abundance of nits means you have a head full of lice. Fenix is not that bad off, but you would hope that a new grub outlet presenting itself as a sort of bistro-brasserie, with the bill of fare to match, would want to avoid any sour notes, especially when they are avoidable.

Matmati's menu isn't aimed at setting the world afire, but there is something to be said for doing classic dishes well, particularly in our day and age, when every young buck in the restaurant world wants to take the same dishes and muck about with them until they're completely unrecognizable. Matmati, who has run restaurants in Gotham and done time in the kitchens of Harry's Strip Club and the Famous Door, is an old hand when it comes to dishes such as mussels mariniere, duck à l'orange, and so on. I respect his expertise, even if I sometimes wish the results of his labors were not so prosaic.

Take the escargots, prepared traditionally in little pools of garlic butter. On many occasions, I've bemoaned the cliché, because, well, there are other ways of skinning a snail. Also, when American chefs take the garlic butter approach to gastropods, I usually end up with escargots so encrusted with baked-dry gunk that these earthbound mollusks lose all appeal. But there was no overkill in Matmati's prep, no crust on the porcelain dish. I certainly wouldn't throw it out if set before me again.

I felt similarly disposed toward the Maine sea scallops au gratin, in a cream sauce with mushrooms -- a comforting, albeit slightly bland, starter. However, the mussels mariniere and the mac 'n' cheese had me giddier than Angelina Jolie with a new Third World adoptee. No, I'm not as mad as Lewis Carroll's hatter; the mac 'n' cheese was truly brilliant, mainly because Matmati uses Gruyère and a little Parmesan instead of Velveeta, like everyone else in this megalopolis, and he has enough sense to choose quality pasta for the mac side of the equation.

Mussels should be a no-brainer, I know, but tell it to Christopher Gross of Christopher's Fermier, whose mussels, when I sampled them months back, were rank. At Fenix, you receive a bowl full of black Mediterranean mussels, fresh and plump, served "mariner's style" in an ambrosia-like sauce of white wine, shallots, garlic and cream that's made for bread-dipping. Perhaps Matmati could give remedial classes in cooking to Gross.

Pretty much everything else I tasted at Fenix was palatable, if not always memorable. I couldn't get enough of the Long Island duckling in its slightly bitter-orange bigarade sauce, but the wild rice served next to the fowl did nothing for me except make my teeth hurt, as the grains were so pebble-like that their mastication was hardly worth the effort. The green beans and roasted potatoes that accompanied my pan-seared sole and my grilled New York steak were better, if ordinary. The sole was not bad, though a little squishy, and the New York, with its pat of maître d' butter, was a tasty piece of meat, yet more medium throughout than the medium-rare at which I ordered it.

The braised beef short ribs in a demi-glace were a distinct improvement -- delectable and falling-off-the-bone tender. The coq au vin? A fair rendition of the famous chicken/red wine stew that some believe was first dreamed up by Julius Caesar's personal chef. Sides like the garlic mashed pots and the sautéed spinach with shallots were just okay.

The desserts are created off-site and are kind of puny, though the peanut butter crunch and the amaretto cheesecake went nicely with my espresso. Regarding Fenix's liquid refreshments, I was glad to see a number of modestly priced bottles included on the wine list. One source of annoyance: table water that tasted of the tap, always at the top of my peeve list.

Nevertheless, I've decided to spare Fenix a one-way trip to gustatory Golgotha. Sending its owner off to a spelling bee might be more appropriate punishment. In any case, as long as Matmati is flexing his mussels, this paunchy Pilate will let this restaurant slide.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons