Cafe Reviews

Cafe Review: Valentine in Melrose Delivers on Its Grand New Dream of Regional Cuisine

The Hiramasa crudo at Valentine.
The Hiramasa crudo at Valentine. Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Valentine is one of the most ambitious, beautifully weird, and best restaurants to open in recent memory. The Melrose hybrid by Blaise Faber and Chad Price — part coffee lounge, part eatery, part bar, part experimental cocktail “vault” — is so distinct and so out of left field that nothing else in greater Phoenix feels remotely similar. Even the mid-century modern, throwback-desert aesthetic is fine-tuned to its own frequency. Something groundbreaking is happening here, and it’s just beginning.

Looking at its ingredients can give you a keyhole glimpse into the intensity of Valentine’s grand vision of a modern Southwestern cuisine that goes its own way. Take vermouth. For seven years, Faber has made his own vermouth and liqueurs, which, woven into cocktails at Tratto, won him high acclaim. For Valentine’s cocktail program, Faber has developed a cactus vermouth — “a blend of tinctures from the desert,” uniting, just for starters, creosote, palo verde buds, desert sage, Arizona honey, and two types of cactus.

Faber has had to make mixology essentials from scratch; the Southwest-inflected versions of ingredients he wants to use don’t exist until he makes them. “I’ve never had so many extracts, tinctures, syrups going at once,” he says. “It’s really a big project.”

click to enlarge A very Arizona cocktail: A green chile margarita in a cowboy boot. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
A very Arizona cocktail: A green chile margarita in a cowboy boot.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
A green chile margarita here is deeply vegetal yet crisp and delicious. A salted radler, lush and pink with salt paved down the glass, emphasizes all the best bitter notes of grapefruit and IPA. Soon, Faber and Price will finish rolling out a separate drink menu for their fireplace-lit back cocktail “vault” — one that focuses on the 5 C’s and 6 biomes of Arizona and that will be more regional and inventive than even the first.

This cocktail program could warrant its own article. So could the pastry program, an evolving collection of sweet and savory baked goods like red fife cookies and ham-and-cheese croissants that use grains from BKW Farms and Hayden Flour Mills, made by Tartine and Flour and Water (San Francisco) veteran Antonia Kane. So could the espresso program. Have you ever slurped a latte floated with oil teased from heirloom squash? Incredible.

After long planning, Faber and Price opened mid-pandemic. They have studied the Southwest’s deep history, Arizona’s desert and non-desert biomes, the region’s niche ingredients and their boutique growers, and culinarians across time who have tried to see it all anew — like Mark Miller (Berkeley, California) and Janos Wilder (Tucson). They call Valentine’s food and drink “modern Southwestern.” One key separator between them and other recent Valley innovators is that their vision reaches beyond Arizona. This is because, Faber says, “everything that brought us to where we are today is bigger than a state or a sub-region of a state.”

And yet, Arizona is front and center. The tepary beans come from Ramona Farms; the heirloom squash from Pinnacle Farms; the steak, goat cheese, eggs, tortillas, and desert grains from down the road or highway. The focus is Southwestern yet sharply local. Valentine even refuses to put cranberry in cosmopolitans because Arizona has no bogs.

click to enlarge The V Team (left to right): Chef Donald Hawk, Chad Price, and Blaise Faber. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The V Team (left to right): Chef Donald Hawk, Chad Price, and Blaise Faber.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Also key to this opening is chef Donald Hawk, formerly of The Gladly. Faber and Price intended to open as a bar. Luckily, they expanded to food and poached Hawk, one of the more talented and highly-thought-of-yet-still-underrated chefs in the Valley.

Hawk cooks in an open kitchen adjoining the bar. The aroma of mesquite and olive wood smoke washes over an airy dining room that bleeds into a lounge, where people sink into pastel-blue and brown-leather upholstered chairs and sip on natural wines and crabapple ciders and sweet corn lattes. Food is served from 7 a.m. until just after midnight (some days), and Hawk lets it rip from the morning’s first churro waffle. Brunch, served five days a week, looks far past the usual sleep-inducing staples.

Hawk slides cheddary beef patties into house-baked squash bread. He edits that churro waffle with a mesquite-chai spice. His avocado toast embraces darkness and turns its namesake green fruit into a supporting actor at the end of the credits behind SMOKED TROUT and SQUASH and CHAR, maybe even behind the cool sizzle of WATERMELON RADISH.

click to enlarge Valentine's pastries are out as early as 7 a.m. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Valentine's pastries are out as early as 7 a.m.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo

He reintroduces hushpuppies, Southern cornmeal fritters, to the land of cattle ranges, monsoons, and molten sunsets. Hawk’s is composed of red fife and cornmeal, and he deepens it with gouda and kimchi fermented from cabbage hung above an open fire. Dumped out of the fryer, the hushpuppies are finished with black syrup molasses and jalapeno honey. Distantly sweet, they’re packed with the deep warmth of ancient heirloom grain and piping hot.

In the a.m., Hawk’s steak and eggs are a hell of a plate if you plan to eat. The eggs and Rovey Farms bavette and flour tortilla smeared with inky huitlacoche are all on target, sir yessir, zero complaints. But a dark pool of beans steals the dish. These are the mighty tepary bean, cooked with pork belly that has been cured in green chile powder and smoked, then smoked again with the beans. The mind struggles to fathom how much flavor these beans have.

Hawk calls his food simple. It isn’t. He stacks laborious techniques from across borders and time and the far-flung kitchens of his career to squeeze the full potential from each ingredient and put them in unlikely conversation with another, all ingredients admirably sourced.

The apotheosis of his Valentine-era food might be the smoked chicken. While his cult-favorite brown-butter crudo gets a nice update at Valentine (hiramasa, I’itoi onion, mint, whole raisins), and while dishes like a hellaciously crisp Romanesco cauliflower on native seed tahini might look sexier, this chicken seems to cut closer to Valentine’s vital heart. Hawk brines these birds for 24 hours, then marinates them in spiced yogurt for another day. Then he smokes the chicken. He makes a chicken stock. Once the stock is ready, he adds more chicken bones and feet, reducing this to a “double chicken stock.” He adds this stock to a pan of toasted wheatberries and cabbage from Blue Sky Farms, then folds in whipped lardo. This goes onto the plate with yogurt combined with chile mayo. Half a chicken — grilled over olive wood after its mesquite-smoking — gets perched atop this shallow, creamy, brothy pool. But not before Hawk, at the last minute, brushes on a Chinese-style “magic sauce” blitzed from I’itoi onion, sesame oil, soy, and sherry vinegar.

click to enlarge Donald Hawk’s smoked chicken dish at Valentine. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Donald Hawk’s smoked chicken dish at Valentine.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
The chicken is juicy and tender, satisfying in the bone-deep way of a simpler, humbler, more strictly traditional Southwestern meal.

Anyway, I kind of like Valentine. In these reviews, I usually have a few (or more) negatives to highlight. This time I can’t really think of any. Hawk, Price, and Faber are doing something momentous at Valentine. And they’re only just getting started.

4130 North Seventh Avenue (in front of Modern Manor)

Hush puppies (brunch only) $7
Steak and eggs (brunch only) $28
Hiramasa crudo $19
Crispy Romanesco $13
Smoked chicken $32
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy