Sophomore efforts are a tricky business, especially if you're trying to make lightning strike twice. So when word got out early last year that the team behind Arcadia's beloved Crudo was launching a second restaurant in Phoenix, the mounting anticipation — and high expectations — were palpable.
Okra Cookhouse & Cocktails, a Southern restaurant and bar with Italian accents, bears no signs of the classic sophomore slump. In fact, the restaurant radiates a kind of easygoing confidence that belies the fact that the kitchen has been in full swing only since September. Okra finds chef Cullen Campbell and his team exploring and reveling in the chef's Southern roots. The result is a menu jammed with crowd-pleasing, old school Southern eats artfully upgraded and dressed up for high-end consumption.
Like its sister restaurant, Okra is hidden from street view, tucked away in the rear entrance of the Crown on 7th, a Midcentury Modern strip plaza in north Central Phoenix. The space, which seats about 100 between the dining room and outdoor patio, is outfitted in a low-key industrial-minimalist style, with a few warming touches like exposed brick, a long wooden bar, and softly glowing pendant lights.
On the drinks side of the menu, you can bolster yourself for the salty and fried delights to come with Southern standards like a Sazerac or a mint julep. In fact, the bar offers a small menu dedicated exclusively to the julep, offering creative riffs on the warm-weather cocktail that include mezcal, rum, and a handful of other high-quality spirits.
The food menu is organized into small plates ("Snacks"), entrées ("Bigs"), and a small selection of focaccia pizzas. The heart of the menu is in the small plates, a giddy array of Southern-fried bites delivered with Campbell's knack for refining and emboldening even the simplest ingredients.
Take the fried chicken skins — already a house favorite — which are drizzled in an exceptionally good sweet-and-spicy honey hot sauce. Crispy and deliriously fatty, the chicken skins showcase Campbell's talent for transforming a deep-fried bar bite into a respectable high-end small plate. Hush puppies, another deep-fried starter, are good but unexceptional. The cornmeal balls are nicely fried but don't offer up much flavor served on a smear of mild goat cheese that doesn't do much to amplify the mealy balls.
Smoked chicken wings are a worthy starter, intensely smoky and glazed in spicy okra hot sauce. The meaty wings are paired with white barbecue sauce, a creamy and tart sauce that's like a high-end take on ranch. It's the sauce of choice at many barbecue joints across the South, helping to mellow out the spiciness of the wings.
Then there's the restaurant's namesake ingredient, okra, which you might remember as the gummy, slimy veggie you pushed around your plate as a kid. It's worth giving this humble veggie another shot. The whole pods are grilled and given a delicate char, then topped with a drizzle of creamy quark cheese. In the hands of the kitchen, the pods are smoky and savory, turning the crunchy greens into a simple, wholesome snack.
Before Italian prosciutto invaded American menus, there was dry-cured country ham. Okra serves an exceptionally good slow-cured artisanal ham, produced by Benton's Smoky Mountain Hams out of Arkansas, with a side of pimento cheese aioli and hoe cakes. Slather a spoonful of creamy pimento cheese onto one of the buttery, griddled corn cakes and top it with salty-sweet ham shavings for one of the tastiest homespun bites on the menu.
Even more simple and exquisite is the roasted bone marrow, a long beefy shinbone glistening with soft marrow. The luscious marrow slides down the long trench of the bone like melted butter. It's good enough to eat on its own, but even better scooped onto a homemade biscuit. The dish also comes with a small mason jar of oxtail and red pepper jam. The braised oxtail, suffused with the sweet, ruddy flavors of the jam, is wonderful layered on the biscuit with a drizzle of marrow.
These days, you'll find fried chicken everywhere, from out-of-the-way soul food joints to white tablecloth restaurants. At Okra, the kitchen offers it as an entrée, preparing it in one of two ways: Tennessee hot or Umbrian-style with traditional Italian herbs. The Southern variety was excellent on a recent visit — moist inside, with a crispy, craggy shell doused in a racy cayenne hot sauce. The thigh and leg combo comes with a big wedge of moist, mildly sweet cornbread, a lovely companion to the vinegary spiciness of the fried chicken.
Catfish al arrosto is another highlight. Traditionally called the poor man's fish, the catfish fillet gets the high-end treatment at Okra. The beautifully roasted fish — sweet, fleshy, and nicely seasoned — looks more like a pan-seared halibut, and it's draped delicately across a soupy, savory bed of okra and lima bean succotash.
Comfort food is a big part of Southern cooking, and it reaches its fullest expression at Okra in the house buttermilk meatballs plate. The plump, spongy meatballs, juicy and rich, come piled on a delicious heap of thick, buttery polenta. It's a hearty, warming dish, the kind you'll daydream about on drizzly days.
Speaking of simple pleasures, there's the house pimento cheeseburger. The meaty patty, made from ground chuck, is moist and, miraculously, not the least bit greasy. It's wrapped in the official cheese spread of the South — a creamy, tangy pimento — and squeezed into a buttery brioche bun.
At Okra, there's no use in hemming and hawing about whether you have room for dessert. You will want to end your meal with the house dessert, which is a canned biscuit doughnut topped with salted caramel. "Canned biscuit" may not sound particularly elegant, or even appetizing. But it's an airy, lushly rich, fresh-out-of-the-deep-fryer treat that is impossible not to love. If you manage to resist the siren call of the canned biscuit doughnut, the restaurant also carries a revolving selection of fresh gourmet pies, handmade by local pie guru Traci Wilbur, also known as the Pie Snob.
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It will be interesting to see what Campbell and company come up with next as they continue to build on their repertoire of simple yet highly inventive and refined genre-bending food and drink. For now, though, it's enough to feast on fried chicken skins — and canned biscuit doughnuts.
Okra Cookhouse & Cocktails
5813 North Seventh Street
Hours: 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday, 3 to 11 p.m. Saturday, 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday
Fried chicken skins & honey hot sauce $7
Country ham, pimento cheese aioli & hoe cakes $10
Fried chicken $13
Catfish al arrosto, okra succotash & gremolata $18