Cafe Reviews

With Praying Monk, Aaron May Continues to Go His Own Way

If a restaurateur could be likened to a music genre, then chef Aaron May is punk rock.

The student of France's L'Ecole Ritz Escoffier, recipient of the 2010 Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame "Chef Extraordinaire" award, and chef-owner of a string of Valley restaurants and bars does what he wants, the way he wants to — and with zero apologies.

From his most high-profile restaurant, the Spanish-themed Sol y Sombra, which closed after three years in 2009, to Over Easy, his popular Guy Fieri-endorsed breakfast spot (currently being expanded to four locations) and a half-dozen or so other concepts, May's ever-changing lineup of restaurants reflects a man constantly on the lookout for something new.

And last spring, the new happened fast.

When his detractors sneered after he was locked out of his downtown CityScape taco shop, Vitamin T, due to nonpayment of rent, May hardly seemed to notice at all. He was too busy welcoming fans into Praying Monk, his latest venture in Old Town Scottsdale.

If May can be likened to punk rock, then Praying Monk plays out like a punk rock show. The scene is a mash-up of industrial and dimly lit DIY. The ever-changing menu of modern American food, like a set list, offers May the ability to add and subtract whenever and however he likes. Some songs (or dishes) are fist-pumpers, while others aren't nearly as good — and have you heading for the bar. That's a good thing at Praying Monk, since an extensive selection of beer is one of the things it does best.

With around 20 brews on tap and 40 in bottles, Praying Monk's beer menu may not be the biggest in the Valley, but it might be the most carefully crafted. The selection honors Trappist brews, in addition to suds made in places like Northern California, Oregon, Colorado, England, and Belgium. And with prices ranging from a cold glass of $4 Praying Monk signature American pale ale to a $23 bottle of fruity and bittersweet La Trappe Tripel, everyone from the casual drinker to the suds-lovin' connoisseur can find something to his or her liking.

On the food side, the single-page menu offers a selection of mostly approachable American fare — snacks, salads, sandwiches, and lots of grilled meat. Most dishes are fairly straightforward, simply prepared, and made with top-notch ingredients. A few, like a spread of peanut butter, blackberry jam, and foie gras (more "PB&J" than "F") layered in a glass mini-jar, trade in flavor for flash.

If your dining chums agree to try the pig ear appetizer and then decide they are not fans of offal, the bowl of thin, crispy, and very chewy slices (best enjoyed with a squirt of lime and a dip in a spicy rocoto chile sauce) will be yours to enjoy. Sadly, the plate of chicken wings, tender but without a trace of flavor in their coating, falls flat for a shareable snack of a more conventional nature. Best are the crispy potatoes. Headily perfumed with truffle aioli and topped with shaved Parmesan and chives, the golden cubed spuds are deceptively addicting and more filling than you might expect.

Those looking for lighter fare should skip the trio of street-size lobster tacos. A heavy-handedness of crème fraîche effectively extinguishes what's left of the sweet meat's flavor after the chunks have been breaded. One of the salads is a better choice — in particular, the one featuring meaty pieces of moist and tender chicken atop a flavorful mix of roasted beets, green apples, dried cranberries, honey roasted almonds, red onions, and romaine lettuce dressed (underdressed, on my visit) with a minty citrus goat cheese vinaigrette.

There are sandwiches, too, served with fries or red wine vinegar coleslaw. If your server recommends the Cuban, know that its parts — specifically the braised pork and ham — are better than the whole. Too much meat and thick bread detract from the pickles and mustard, throwing off this traditional sandwich's flavor balance. Better are thick fried pieces of the white fish wahoo with crunchy red onion and a hint of caper aioli between a pillow-y bun in a sandwich called the Paia, the name of a town on the island of Maui.

The two-handed meal May does best is the Praying Monk Burger. Made with top-notch beef from New York gourmet meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda and layered with melted Vermont cheddar, caramelized onions, and arugula on a downy onion bun grilled with sriracha mayonnaise, this spicy, juicy creation is just about as good as gourmet burgers get.

There is a decent entrée of fish and chips — three long and lightly breaded pieces of moist, flaky meat stacked pyramid-style on a few handfuls of fries and served with a unique pineapple tartar sauce that gives the dish a tasty, tropical flair.

For those considering meatier main dishes, the skin-on duck breast is nothing short of heaven-sent. Deftly prepared and featuring steak-y overtones, the succulent, deep-red slices are ones for the memory book. Served in a shallow pool of pan sauce, the duck sits atop a nest of red cabbage and, unfortunately, in my instance, an undercooked spaetzle with barely a hint of its promised mustard flavor.

More successful overall is the mouthwateringly tender, slow-cooked short rib with notes of oregano, garlic, and cilantro. Alongside braised kale and woozy grits laced with jalapeño and cheddar, this hearty meal goes down well with an equally hearty brew.

For a staggeringly sweet and pyrotechnics-style ending, there is Praying Monk's Triple Chocolate Baked Alaskan. Featuring a dense, fudgy cake topped with a scoop of chocolate ice cream covered in rum-tinged meringue, the dessert, flambéed upon serving, resembles a giant toasting marshmallow. That is until the fire is sufficiently doused by the server with a generous pouring of warm chocolate sauce. If you weren't already sitting down, the intense level of sugar in the dish might make your knees buckle. Still, my dining guests and I finished it handily.

The stage for May's Praying Monk, in the former home of Iruña, his Spanish tapas place in Old Town, is set like any solid beer-swigging hangout in the area should be. Walls of brick and reclaimed wood surround a pleasingly low-lit dining area and a concrete-topped bar. Outside, there's a small yet pleasant patio with cushioned seats and a fireplace for evenings when the beer drinking can be had under the stars. Attentive servers, casual and happy to steer you to the restaurant's better dishes (trust them, they know), tend to customers clad in everything from the latest fashions to flip-flops and tees, sitting on leatherette booths and stools and eyeing vintage brewery photos.

May is typically on hand. Chatting with customers, greeting industry folk popping in for an after-hours libation, and, most likely, thinking of what he'll do next — whether anyone likes it or not.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld