Praying Monk: Embrace the Familiar (and the Beer), Avoid the Novelty

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: Praying Monk Location: 7217 East First Street, Scottsdale Open: About two weeks Eats: American food and boutique beer Price Point: Around $11 to $30 a person

There is a saying that when a door shuts, a window opens. In the case of Valley chef and restaurateur Aaron May, when your downtown taco shop, Vitamin T, closes, your new venture, Praying Monk Restaurant & Bar, launches in the location of your former restaurant, Iruña, in Old Town Scottsdale.

Or something like that.

Praying Monk, a name a nod to the red sandstone rock formation on Camelback Mountain, bills itself as a "familiar-meets-fun ode to American food and boutique beer." And indeed, for brew lovers, a lengthy list of boutique beers -- 18 on tap and 39 by the bottle -- is something to wax poetic about. As for the food, erring more on the familiar and less on the fun may be the best way to enjoy.

Two appetizers, both recommended by my friendly server, best demonstrate this point: The first, a simple but highly satisfying dish of Louisiana-style shrimp and grits ($11) featuring succulent, tail-on shrimp atop a small plate of grits (with just the right consistency -- not too creamy yet not too thick) and sprinkled with cubes of spicy, peppery pork along with Creole seasoning. The second, a less successful foie gras torchon with housemade peanut butter and blackberry jam ($16), served layered in a single jar (foie gras on the bottom, jam in the middle, peanut butter on top). Individually, each of the ingredients was stellar; but when combined, the peanut butter and jelly overpowered the foie gras. And the thin glass jar, accompanied by a small spoon, proved difficult to dig into, which resulted in sticky fingers.

Like the PB&J foie gras, a salad whose croutons are a grilled cheese sandwich cut into thick crunchy cubes ($9) feels more novelty than nosh-worthy. The blood orange vinaigrette on mixed greens and veggies was lovely, but the grilled cheese sandwich cubes were served at room temperature, so the cheese was unpleasantly congealed. The salad would have been better off without them.

There is a good fish sandwich ($12) called the Paia (the name of a neighborhood in Maui) featuring two thick pieces of the tasty white fish wahoo, or ono in Hawaii. I especially enjoyed the sandwich's nice crunch of red onion and its hint of caper aioli and soft bun. And there is Kentucky fried quail ($15) featuring a well-seasoned breading remarkably similar in taste to KFC's familiar coating, but unfortunately it was served alongside a rather unremarkable Brussels sprout slaw and potato salad.

Praying Monk's novelty act continues with dessert, in the form of Cap'n Crunch panna cotta. The spongy sweet treat is a nostalgia trip for those who grew up eating the sugary cereal for breakfast. Topped with a bruléed lid and a few additional pieces of the cereal, it's more guilty pleasure than standout dessert.

Praying Monk is an open and comfortable warehouse-like space. With walls covered in reclaimed wood, there's a concrete-topped bar in the center of the room, as well as leather booths and candle flames that flicker to the beats of indie rock.

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