Cafe Reviews

Wine bar Cork pops a little creativity into each dish

There are a lot of good restaurants in the southeast part of town, but besides Kai, at Wild Horse Pass, the options aren't very exotic. But now there's a new spot that just might give foodies an excuse to head to south Chandler.

It's called Cork, and although it hasn't worked out all of its early kinks, it has the potential to be among the Valley's most noteworthy restaurants. Definitely for people in Chandler, Gilbert, Queen Creek, and even Tempe, it's worth a try.

No, I didn't think every bite was sublime at Cork, but I found a lot of things to enjoy. Executive chef Brian Peterson's menu was interesting and quirky, and even when a certain dish didn't work for me, I appreciated the ambition and creativity behind it.

This dawned on me as I was nibbling on a salad of organic greens, aged balsamic vinaigrette, poached pear, and St. Pete's blue cheese. I've eaten salads along those lines at other restaurants, but there was something else in that dish that made me smile: sweet popcorn.

That's right. There was caramel corn tossed right into the mix, as if even the most basic thing on the menu, a salad, needed something unusual to set it apart. Now I realize that caramel corn and blue cheese, a truly unlikely combo, actually taste pretty good together.

I liked the service here — it was down to earth and welcoming. My server, whom I encountered on more than one occasion, was really knowledgeable about the food as well as the wine. The bartenders were also agreeable.

Another thing I appreciated about Cork was the atmosphere, which was sophisticated (cork floors, a spectacular wall of wine bottles behind glass, and copper mesh curtains dividing the room) but not fancy. At its heart, this is a neighborhood wine bar that just happens to serve inventive, beautifully presented food. Unlike at some of Phoenix's poshest fine dining spots, this is a relaxed, casual dining experience.

(Earlier, when I name-dropped Kai, it was more in reference to the unique food than the vibe. When it comes to formality and price point, Cork is far more accessible, although its menu still has some adventurous highlights, from grilled Nilgai antelope to smoked wild boar rack.)

That's not to say that owners Robert and Danielle Morris aren't interested in fine dining.

"My wife and I would treat ourselves to Mary Elaine's, or Kai, or Picasso in Las Vegas, but the tasting menu might run us up to $250 per person," says Robert. The concept at Cork, he explains, is to serve tasting-menu-style small plates, only à la carte. "That way, you can eat as much or as little as you want."

That wasn't lost on me. Although five or six items added up to a sharable meal for two, I could've just as easily been satisfied with a couple of courses all to myself — and gotten out with a very reasonable check.

The Morrises actually come from a fine-dining background — he was a sommelier and assistant GM at Lon's at the Hermosa; she was a pastry chef there (and also worked for Alex Stratta at Renoir in Las Vegas). Chef Brian Peterson, another co-owner, worked at Lon's, too (as well as Latilla at the Boulders). They all left the Paradise Valley restaurant three years ago, and opened Cork on April 1.

Dinner at Cork started with fresh bread, served with a trio of accompaniments: herbed butter, olive oil and balsamic, and olive oil-chile dip. There was a slice of fresh cucumber in each glass of water (just like at the spa!). And among 300 selections on the well-rounded wine menu, more than half of the bottles were under $50.

In keeping with the small-plates idea, items weren't designated "appetizers" or "entrees," but were still organized as such. My first bite of Kona kampachi — silky, sashimi-grade yellowtail — made a good impression, artfully plated with a squiggle of soy-sugar reduction, a tiny pile of shaved pickled radish, and a pinch of pink sea salt. Another knockout starter was seared foie gras, served alongside a moist piece of banana bread and soft bananas Foster with apricot brandy. It was like sneaking in some dessert at the beginning of the meal, and very tasty.

Dessert also came to mind with the watermelon salad, although it wasn't a success like the foie. Chunks of pink and yellow watermelon, tossed with shaved red onion and a touch of walnut oil, were teamed with crème fraîche panna cotta and a swipe of raspberry sauce. The panna cotta lacked the tartness I expected from crème fraîche, and combined with that sweet berry sauce, it overwhelmed the natural sweetness of the watermelon.

A plate of ostrich crudo featured miniature slices of barely seared, ruby-red meat resting on a slice of yellow heirloom tomato, with chilled cheese tortellini on the side. It was interesting to see ostrich prepared this way, as crudo (Italian for "raw") usually refers to raw fish. But in this case, the idea was better than the execution: The ostrich meat had the delicate texture of tuna, and was so mild as to almost be flavorless on its own. A touch of limoncello syrup gave the dish a faint, citrus-y sweetness.

The Maine scallop and BBQ pork belly, with a side of corn relish and some spicy avocado emulsion, appealed to me more. Seasoned with salt and pepper, the scallop was nicely seared, although the pork belly was a little dry around the edges.

Niman Ranch pork loin, however, was a thoroughly juicy piece of meat. The lasagna that accompanied it had an intriguing composition, unlike any lasagna I've ever had before. Alligator meat added chunky texture to the bolognese sauce, while pancetta and mushrooms gave it complexity. The flavor was pleasing, but the underdone pasta and crunchy bottom of the lasagna was not.

No complaints with red wine-poached beef tenderloin — it was melt-in-your-mouth good. The comte croquette served alongside it was crisp and golden, with a creamy, gooey middle. I also enjoyed the Madagascar salt prawn, the same jaw-dropping sea creature I'd recently encountered at Roka Akor in Scottsdale. At Cork, the prawn was tempura-fried, resting on a salad of fresh bok choy, sweet snap peas, pineapple, and cantaloupe in chile-spiked papaya sauce.

Hands down, the most memorable dish was the Colorado lamb chop, a huge, succulent chop served with the best risotto I've had in ages. Flavored with spinach-Marcona almond pesto and studded with wild mushrooms, the risotto had a heady aroma. But it was also slightly al dente, a pleasure to eat. Drizzled around the edges was a tasty reduction of lamb jus, Zinfandel, and mustard.

Decadent desserts were just as head-turning as the savory dishes. Chocolate pot de crème, topped with chipotle cream, was so velvety and thick that I could make my spoon stand in it. The one letdown was the accompanying churro in the pot de crème's menu description. When I hear "churro," I think of crispy, hot confections; this cold, hard nubbin was just a garnish, not worth a mention.

The artfully deconstructed presentation and mysterious flavors of the deceptively simple-sounding banana cream pie were so much better than what I'd anticipated. Resting on one half of the plate were banana slices and a roasted baby plantain — both bruléed — with a pinch of raw sugar crystals. A glistening line of cocoa sauce divided the square plate; on the other corner was delicate banana custard on an Oreo crust. The topping, also bruléed, was a dollop of amazing homemade marshmallow fluff. It was just sweet enough, and so creamy.

From beginning to end, dinner revealed a lot of creativity in the kitchen. Cork might still be a diamond in the rough, but imagine how much it'll shine with a little more polishing.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig

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