Cafe Reviews

Province's Menu Is Merely a Flash in the Pan

Province, the much-anticipated restaurant at the Westin Downtown, doesn't disappoint in the looks department.

The main room is anchored by sassy hot pink walls, speaking loudly of Latin flair but subdued by the simplicity of the cork and recycled wood tabletops. Just a few framed square pieces of kaleidoscopic food art hanging on the walls, a gorgeous petrified tree limb sculpture planted firmly above a dark wood credenza, and a vibrantly green moss-framed wall of the patio entrance to the restaurant pay decorative homage to dishes influenced by Central and South American and Spanish cuisine.

The bar is separated from the main dining area by an 8-foot-tall wall of custom, climate-controlled wine storage. The space is inviting and cozy, with a large cushioned bench running the length of the south wall and dim Edison bulbs hanging from above wrapped in deep purple blown-glass coverings. I could sit here and drink wine on tap all night.

And maybe that's what I should have done.

Province's sister (and original) location in Chicago was awarded Gold Level LEED certification for its eco-friendly construction and sustainable operations, and it transposed a lot of the same Earth-conscious elements to Phoenix — from recycled leather chairs to PVC-free vinyl booths, floor-to-ceiling windows, highly efficient heat pump, mechanical and lighting systems, environmentally friendly paint, and regenerated cotton sheers.

If only the same standard had applied to the food I was served during several visits to the restaurant. To be sure, there were hits among the misses, but the misses were not even close. For as detail-oriented as executive chef and restaurateur Randy Zweiban clearly is, it's a wonder what his cooks will do when the boss isn't looking.

I stopped in for a Saturday morning brunch with my boyfriend and his parents. The parents, a sweet couple from the Midwest, were content picking around softly scrambled eggs drenched in butter to fork up a medley of fingerling potatoes and cherry tomatoes. I, on the other hand, will not be ordering salmon for breakfast again. Maybe ever. Definitely not at Province. The salmon Benedict had a lot of strong flavors that didn't come together: salty, smoky, bitter, buttery. It was unfortunate that my eggs were so under-poached that they more closely resembled a science experiment than breakfast. The whites were still translucent, as was the stingy dribble of ancho Hollandaise sauce. I did enjoy the side of housemade chorizo links, which were bursting with all the right spices: paprika, salt, cayenne, cumin, and fennel seeds.

If you find yourself in the mood for a sweet breakfast treat with blueberries, definitely order the orange oatmeal almond pancakes. Maple syrup, whipped cream, and butter were served on the side but were hardly necessary.

The check was dropped uncomfortably early, and our table was never actually wiped down before or after we were seated. I was left wondering whether Zweiban had someone he trusted executing his lunch and dinner menu.

My date and I started dinner with crushed hominy deep-fried into light fluffy balls with a crispy outer shell atop ancho aioli. Excellent beginning. Memories of my Nana's menudo came rushing back; I only wish her menudo had been deep-fried.

The mini Cuban pork sandwich is so mini you almost want to pop the whole thing in your mouth at once. Which I did. It took me ages to chew — somewhat politely, so that it didn't look like I had a huge jawbreaker candy inside my mouth. Even cute, tiny things pack a punch.

On a lighter note, we tried the hamachi sashimi for balance. I found it completely forgettable, especially with two types of ceviche on the menu.

It had actually been the delicious salmon ceviche sprinkled with fried capers on a crispy cracker that got me anticipating a full Province experience, after a tiny taste at Devoured Culinary Festival in March. But after the salmon Benedict, I wasn't up to it and, instead, went with the farm-raised shrimp ceviche. I was delighted with the service — atop a mini ice bath. Then I tried the dish.

It was overbearingly spicy and had no place next to the pink grapefruit segments, a combination I hope to never come across again. The shrimp itself was ice-cold and rubbery, with not the slightest hint of freshness.

It sounds as though I'm warning against all seafood items on the menu, but please do not avoid the shrimp and organic grits with manchego cheese. The grits took on a hint of smokiness from the perfectly grilled shrimp. The manchego cheese added another dimension to the creamy, well-seasoned grits — setting the dish apart from most other grits in town.

If ordering a salad at a meal isn't already second nature, it seems almost mandatory at a restaurant boasting a farm-to-table commitment. Knowing asparagus will soon be out of season, I couldn't pass up the Foxy Farms asparagus salad with spring onions, garlic, and fresh herbed ricotta cheese atop crostini. I wasn't familiar with Foxy Farms and asked our server if they were local. The maître d' was within earshot, looked over her shoulder, and simply replied, "Yes." I was hoping for some sort of location, but I figured I could Google it later, which I did. She might have meant to say that the asparagus was delivered by a local truck, because the only Foxy Farms I found is in Pennsylvania. Maybe that explains why the asparagus tasted like it just came out of a can. Or maybe it was just overcooked, or maybe this was a rare okra-asparagus hybrid. In any case, it was inedible, and the burnt crostini did the one edible item — herbed ricotta — no justice.

I skipped salad on a later visit, opting for a cup of tortilla soup with avocado and rotisserie-roasted chicken. I enjoyed the tableside presentation, but the soup was lukewarm — in both taste and temperature. I appreciated the creaminess of the avocado, but the dish was bland. I did have a bit more luck with the vegetables this time. The side of farmers market vegetables was of root varieties (button carrots, turnips, chiogga beets, French breakfast radishes) with a bit of baby summer squash. They were prepared simply in a mini casserole skillet — oil, salt, pepper, and aged sherry. The vegetables truly stood on their own, with the earthiness still intact.

The side of fingerlings, onions, and pork belly hash is served at both lunch and dinner, but I could have eaten it for breakfast and been more than content with a fried egg on top. It's nice to know the side dishes weren't an afterthought.

Our server recommended the 10-hour barbecued lamb. How could I not order it? It was served nestled in a bed of cornbread, chorizo, and roasted eggplant. All ingredients for stardom, but, in the end, the barbecue sauce was too overwhelming. Everything tasted sweet and spicy. I know that sounds like an outstanding duo, but it left no room for dimension or complexity, especially being paired with sweet cornbread and spicy chorizo. I hardly noticed the eggplant.

Housemade pasta is something I'm seeing around town more often. Province is all over the trend with their pappardelle pasta harmonized with piquillo peppers, mushrooms, Spanish olives, and manchego cheese. Thick, wide noodles had perfect texture, and the piquillo peppers were julienned to mimic the shape of the pasta. A little zip from the Spanish olives and slight sweetness from the roasted peppers made a great combination.

The whole menu is quite approachable, but that didn't always equate to enjoyable. The flatbread was vibrantly green and yellow with tons of herbs and arugula — some of which was beginning to turn. Obviously yellow arugula has no place in a restaurant with a commitment to fresh ingredients, and a soggy center has no place in flatbread.

The local beef cheddar burger on a brioche roll with potato frites and housemade ketchup missed on all fronts — dry, not passable on a lunch menu, and laughable as a dinner option.

When the weather is cool again this fall, I'd love to come back and enjoy the patio with the trickling waterfall and the glow of the fire pit while sipping Intelligentsia coffee and stuffing my face with the squash maple cream stuffed cupcake with honey ice cream. It is what every carrot cake should taste like and executed the way every one of Chef Zweiban's dishes should be.

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Nicole Whittington