Restaurant Review: Urban Vine

Story and photos by Mark Sterling-Ogle, Oct. 23, 2014.

Chef Michael O’Dowd, the local restaurateur who catapulted Kai at Wild Horse Pass to grandness, is back — this time with a restaurant venture of his own.

Urban Vine has taken over the former Coronado Café space on Seventh Street, north of McDowell Road, in Central Phoenix. Editor's Note: Urban Vine is now closed. Since fall 2015, The Coronado has operated in this space.

John Rothstein, Kai’s former manager and sommelier and O’Dowd’s business partner, selected the spirits and wine here, which includes a small selection of Old and New World reds and whites (glasses, $8-$13; bottles, $32 and up) as well as an eclectic variety of local brews on tap.

On my first visit, a weekday luncheon with an old friend, I was warmly invited to take any table. Traversing the worn wooden floors of the 1920s bungalow, I passed through the cozy bar area and noticed the walls decked out with wooden panels from wine boxes.

There are several small rooms to dine in, and warmly colored walls have been ornamented with local artist’s work and antique kitchen gadgets. I felt like I was visiting a friend’s country cottage, invited over for some home cooking.

Black bean hummus and gazpacho.

The menu offers a small but diverse selection split into “on the chilled side” and “on the warm side” options. There are also several daily specials available, which are just as varied.

I decided to start with black bean hummus ($10), served with cucumber and pickled carrots as well as soft pita bread lightly scented with a whisper of garlic and Meyer lemon. The black beans, pureed with spices to a perfect dipping consistency, had a delightful kick.

We also decided on the heirloom tomato and soybean gazpacho ($7). The generous helping arrived in an old-style tin coffee mug, adding to the wholesome charm of the dining experience. Although it was reduced to a pulp, the farm-to-table flavors were quite evident and the freshness was palatable.

My dining companion left the entrée selections up to me, and I jumped at the chance to order two items that caught my attention right away.

The 7th Street Jumbo Lump & Backfin Crab Cakes (available in $14 or $24 sizes) came with pan-flashed kale, chipotle aioli and Meyer lemon drizzle. While tasty, I failed to find chunks of lump crab. Perhaps I’ll never find a crab cake in the desert that can hold a candle to those I’ve enjoyed in Maryland.

24-hour pork belly.

The 24-hour Pork Belly ($13) was a different enchantment altogether. Mounds of mole-scented pulled pork belly and butt came atop artisan bread, accompanied with a refreshing ginger and peach chutney. The copious serving was so plentiful I dared not pick it up, so I enjoyed it open-faced. The tender meat was perfectly seasoned and I delighted in each and every forkful.

My partner and I returned later in the week to try a few more items. We began with the daily bruschetta on local “noble” artisan sourdough bread ($11), that day’s being an herbed goat cheese piled high with diced tomatoes kissed with balsamic vinegar. The slabs of thick sourdough proved a tad too clunky to be eaten by hand and we took up our forks and polished off the dish.

Shaken wedge salad.

I selected the “shaken” wedge ($11), chopped iceberg lettuce presented in a large jar, layered with roasted corn, tomatoes, chunks of bleu cheese, cucumbers, sweet onions and a ranch-and-blue-cheese dressing. In a fun and interactive twist, the server gave the jar a vigorous shake before emptying the contents on a plate. I enjoyed the mixture but couldn’t help but notice that it lacked a classic ingredient: bacon. I brought the omission to the attention of our server, and she returned apologetically with a side of crispy lardoons.

My partner is a burger aficionado, so there was little doubt that he would pick the grilled Wagyu/Kobe burger ($13), which comes with the optional addition of pan-seared mushrooms and onions, bacon and an assortment of cheeses ($1 each). He ordered his cooked medium with bacon and bleu cheese, and was so thrilled with the flavorful handful that it was half way gone before he noticed that it was also missing the bacon. (It became a running joke with our server that the preparer had something against bacon.)

I decided to try one of the daily specials: the grilled flank steak sandwich ($16). Topped with melted Swiss cheese, sautéed mushrooms and onions and a surprising kick of creamy horseradish, which was such a great compliment that I asked for an additional helping.

Both of our sandwiches came with a refreshing wedge of watermelon and a side of lemony pearl, or Israeli, couscous. The side was served in a most unusual small dish, which, upon closer inspection, I realized was an amber glass ashtray, circa 1970, like one might have found on nightstands of a roadside motel. While it fit the kitschy décor, it was still a tad unsettling.

Even though we were quite replete, at the end of the meal we listened to the daily special dessert selections and I did perk up at the sound of carrot cake ($7). Expecting moist, spiced cake laden with teeth-curling cream cheese frosting, the cake was instead served with just a hint of sweet icing on the plate with fresh cream and assorted berries. I found it delicious, nonetheless.

The menu in the evening is the same, with specials from “Sky, Land and Sea” that range in price from $23-$34. Some recent specials have included a grilled New York strip, roasted chicken and pan-seared salmon. Side dishes vary, according to what fresh ingredients might be on hand.

While the cozy gathering spot is not the high end Kai, it’s not meant to be. “I like the atmosphere of the local community,” O’Dowd said. “I’m going to bring it and have fun.”

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