If you've been to Postino — either the original in Arcadia or the wine bar's Central Avenue location — then you have a good idea of what Windsor, the latest venture from restaurateurs Craig DeMarco and Lauren Bailey, has in store. Save for a small sign out front, Windsor prefers to be found the way you would a house party. DeMarco and Bailey seem to understand that if there is one key to success in opening a restaurant in a neighborhood, it's opening a restaurant that looks like the neighborhood — and then serving food as approachable as the scene itself.
Like when my kebabs met The Cars — or was it The Kinks? — and started ka-bobbing.
As I listened to Windsor's lively playlist of '70s and '80s favorites, the wooden skewers, heavy with succulent, lightly charred chunks of chicken, pork, shrimp, and veggies, became like drumsticks in my hands.
The conversation turned to music — how could it not, at a place where the soundtrack is clearly as much a part of the experience as the menu? — as I pulled the kebabs' bounties from their sticks, dipping them in a thick red sauce, spicy and peppery, and its copper-colored companion, sweet with a tinge of vinegar. What was our first album? Our first concert? Between bites, we discussed, argued, and sang along under low lights in posh, black leather booths.
The cozy Windsor, with its come-hither list of beers, wines, and cocktails, is as convivial as any restaurant you'll find in Central Phoenix. But when it comes to the food — upscale versions of bar staples — you need to know what to put on your plate to stay satisfied here.
Just as fun as my skewers were the sweet, addictive corn dog poppers dabbed with mustard. And a bar snack called Russian Roulettes, in which a single hot chili pepper is hidden among several milder ones, showed the restaurant's humor.
Fondue seemed like it would be a good time, too. But thin, dry pieces of pulled pork, clearly not fondue-friendly, fell helplessly into a communal pot of ho-hum melted cheese. Thankfully, the dish's tasty chunks of pretzel bread, courtesy of MJ Bread, came to the rescue.
The most frustrating starter was the Smorgasbord. Its array of smoked salmon, kale chips, hummus, and even a hard-boiled egg suffered under a heavy-handed amount of salt; and the pickled veggies simply proved too acidic to consume. A white bean dip in the middle of the platter didn't seem to complement any of the offerings and further added to this dish's disappointment. My guests and I left most of the platter untouched.
Windsor's excellent cocktails lifted our spirits. Mine, the No. 29, a light sipper of gin and celery, was so crisp and refreshing that I rationalized substituting my salad order for it — a good idea, I decided, after sampling my companions' offerings: the mediocre, Mediterranean fattoush salad, leaden with soggy grilled pita bread, or the country vegetable chop, whose dazzling display of fresh veggies sadly was drowning in buttermilk ranch dressing.
The mixed grain salad fared better and turned out to be one of the tastiest items on the menu. Featuring black quinoa, roasted butternut squash, baby beets, currants, and goat cheese dressed with a lively orange basil vinaigrette, this was a garden of goodness that left me wanting more.
When it comes to main dishes, there were some surprises. Unfortunately, only a few made the leap from standard to scrumptious.
One of the winners was the crab cake BLT. Served open-face on a thick bun, the crave-worthy jumbo crab cakes and crispy bacon were delicious paired with whole grain mustard remoulade. I enjoyed the sandwich with one of Windsor's better side dishes — chilled bean salad, a colorful and crunchy creation featuring dried tomatoes and feta cheese.
Two items looked especially appealing on paper — and even on the plate — but ultimately left me disappointed. The bahn mi halibut sandwich, with its beautifully glazed and grilled piece of fish and colorful cilantro, cucumber, and fresh jalapeño slices, was dashed by a sambal mayo that not only was spread too thick but was unnecessarily spicy. The Porkwich was piled decadently high with three kinds of pig within a buttermilk bun, but, in the end, the pulled pork, braised ham, and smoked bacon duked it out in a flavor battle with no clear winner. It mostly just left me thirsty long after my meal.
Best bet is the Brown Bag Chicken Sandwich. Served cold and with juicy pulled chicken, goat cheese, avocado, and dried tomatoes, with a bit of a crunch thanks to toasted hazelnuts, the sandwich could roost in my lunch sack any day.
Failing on all fronts was the New Orleans-style pork ribs. They were tough and tasted as dry as they looked — not even the sauce could save this poorly prepared tribute to The Big Easy.
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Windsor has been packed with well-heeled Gen Xers since the day it opened, and it's easy to see why. Like Postino, its hip scene and impressive collection of craft beers, wines, and liquor — including a great selection of whiskey, rye, bourbon, and scotch, along with cordials, aperitifs, and digestifs — make it a great place to hang out and imbibe.
Whether you're inside the dining room — with its exposed brick walls, dark wood, inviting central bar, and cool-looking plaid-backed barstools — or on the dining patio (a scene unto itself with its open arrangement of concrete, wood, and potted plants), the place is conducive to simply being there.
But good drinks and taste in décor seem to be concealing more than a few poor to average dishes. I'd be more inclined to stop in for drinks and bar snacks.
If you're looking for a sweet ending, you can walk the crazy-cool hallway connecting Windsor to Churn, DeMarco and Bailey's homemade ice cream and sweet shop. The west wall's incredible display of cassette tapes is another nod to Windsor's stellar atmosphere. As you make the walk, the beats from your youth follow, and the setting transforms from intimate and lounge-y to bright and bustling at Churn. Depending on your experience at hit-and-miss Windsor, it's the signal of a fabulous finish or a welcome sign that the party's over.