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January 25, 2011


Ciabatta with Olive Oil and Balsamic, "Gremolata", and Compound Butter Dominic Armato

Hot damn, a night out!

With my ladylove, I mean. I sneak out at night by myself all the time. But precious few are the evenings when we get to dine together in a manner that doesn't involve high chairs and sippy cups, and we tend to seize those opportunities to do it up. So a surprise night out a couple of weeks back found us trekking down to Chandler (though I use the word "trekking" loosely... it's not THAT far, people... *sheesh*) to hit Cork. Good buzz in foodnerdia, a (virtual) wall full of awards from local prestigious publications... seemingly a safe bet. Seemingly.

Though it's not a matter of prejudice -- hell, Noca is one of my favorite places to eat in the city -- I now find nice restaurants in strip malls humorously incongruous rather than jarring and odd. But I still don't understand why seemingly every single restaurant bar in Phoenix must have huge television sets, particularly when they glare out over the dining room as they do at Cork. But we'll call it a regional quirk, and the set in one of the side rooms was showing a fireplace DVD, which almost makes up for it in hilariousness. All snark aside, though, it's a perfectly warm and pleasant room, not quite upscale and not quite casual, right down to the crowd which ranged from formally-dressed couples to families with kids sporting t-shirts and jeans (the parents, not the little ones). Cork bills itself as New American, though a good deal of naked Europeanness is on full display. But the truth is that I didn't study the menu quite as carefully as I should have, because I noted rather quickly that they do a five course chef's tasting. Done and done. Plus, our server explained that this is a place that likes to send out different menus to different diners. Bonus.

Chilled Duck with Fig-Cranberry ChutneyDominic Armato

When our first plates arrived, in front of me was a fan of chilled, sliced duck breast that was doused in olve oil and served alongside a jumbo quenelle of fig and cranberry chutney that was obscured by a forest of microgreenery. It wasn't a particularly strong start. I found the duck underseasoned, and though I realize I'm perfectly free to leave some behind, the chutney was so thick and intense, very sweet and heavily spiced, that the amount served probably would have been too much for an entire breast, much less a small plate with a few thin slices. And perhaps the chutney blew me out, but I wasn't getting much out of the olive oil other than lubrication. There were perfectly good elements here, it just seemed as though some very basic things -- seasoning, proportion -- kept it from coming together in a meaningful way.

Tuna with Mushroom and Soy CaramelDominic Armato

Trading plates, I moved on to a tuna crudo, done here with a mushroom salad and soy caramel. Now, it's true that I've been spoiled by some rather excellent creative crudi lately, but I'm not certain this would have been particularly notable even if not held up against those yardsticks. The mushroom salad was rather vinegary, almost pickled, and played western hemisphere, setting up a contrast with the soy in the salty sweet caramel. But this particular east-west -- if you want to call it that -- struck me as more awkward than harmonious, and it was definitely too much for the poor fish that just couldn't stand up to it. This makes it sound like a train wreck, and it wasn't. But it wasn't especially good, either.

Scallop with Pork and LentilsDominic Armato

Round two arrived at the same time round one was being cleared, this time featuring hot seafood for the both of us. My ladylove received a seared scallop atop lentils, with pork and hunter's sauce. With this dish, I felt like we were headed in the right direction, but it still wasn't quite coming together for me. The pork I found a bit odd. If intended as a variation on the trite (if effective) combination of scallop and bacon, I appreciate the effort. But mixed into the lentils were lumps and strands of a rather bland sort of pulled pork, moist and tender but more present than actively contributing. And though the scallop, as you can see, had some wonderful color, it was missing the accompanying texture you'd expect. Still, a good dish, if not completely satisfying.

Cod with Butternut Squash and Herb JusDominic Armato

My second was a visual stunner, a seared piece of cod at the center of an explosion of color comprised of butternut squash puree and "herb jus," punctuated by toasted seeds that I presume came from the squash. But aesthetics aside, this dish felt like a missed opportunity. The jus had a nice, herbaceous brightness to it and the toasted seeds added some needed texture, but the squash was flat and watery. Whatever method used to put in that state had failed to coax out the vegetable's flavor. A little salt might have helped, too. The cod was more problematic, overcooked and bordering on tough, an almost chewy fish nugget adrift in a bland and brightly colored vegetable sea.

Beef and Lobster RouladeDominic Armato

Round three produced a near miss and a puzzling disaster. A possibly surf and turf inspired beef and lobster roulade wrapped raw beef around a finely chopped lobster salad, before being rolled in herbs and set atop a generous smear of red pepper aioli. The beef's flavor was excellent, and a fitting partner for the tender, if perhaps overly minced, lobster. The aioli provided a nice, subtle, creamy base and a bit of caviar provided salty punch, but the roulade was rolled in black pepper and a mix of herbs -- both fresh and dried if I'm not mistaken -- that was bordering on overpowering. The predominant flavor was thyme... very strong, very raw thyme. And though I've no doubt that a little would have been quite lovely, there was enough here to make itself a distraction. Easier on the crust, and I think there's a much better dish here.

Oysters with Horseradish CreamDominic Armato

My oysters, however, were bordering on insulting. Three Kumamotos arrived, served on the half shell with a splash of Minus 8 vinegar next to a smear of horseradish crème fraîche. Minus 8 is essentially icewine vinegar, a nice change of pace from the ubiquitous balsamic that's become so overused for that combination of tart and sweet. The crème fraîche was just heady enough to emphasize without detracting, but the problem lay in what it was emphasizing: dry oysters. I'm of the opinion that when eating raw oysters on the half shell, the liquor is an integral -- nay, critical -- part of the experience. I remain open to the possibility that liquorless oysters on the half shell serve a worthy purpose, but I've yet to be shown what that purpose is, and this was no exception. Even setting aside the complete (and I mean complete) lack of liquor, however, the oysters themselves were dry... almost kind of tacky on the outside. Which means that unless they were removed and toweled off before being returned to the shell (that's a joke), I can't imagine these weren't shucked earlier in the day and set in the shells in the fridge to wait for service. Which is a mortal sin, as far as I'm concerned. To be clear, this isn't actual intelligence. This is educated speculation. But I don't see how they could have been shucked anytime close to being served.

Brisket with Leek Mushroom RisottoDominic Armato

With round four, the meal finally found its footing, steering into richer, meatier, more straight-up savory (and more conventional) waters. My ladylove was served a generous portion of braised beef brisket with leek and mushroom risotto. The risotto was an exceptionally loose and creamy variety, a little heavy and soupy, I think, by most Italian standards but by no means out of bounds for the wild west of New American. Though short rib would have been the cut more typically used here, the risotto was so rich that I think the brisket was a good call. There's luscious and there's overkill, and I think short rib probably would have taken it to the latter. It was a solid, satisfying, rib-sticking type of plate that I enjoyed, even if I felt it was the kind of dish that I could get in any number of restaurants.

Pork with Mustard and Potato GratinDominic Armato

My final savory course was the strongest of the lot, pork tenderloin served with potato gratin and asparagus and dressed with a grainy mustard-spiked jus. Like the brisket, the flavors were big and bold and meaty and anchored by sauces reduced to thick intensity, though the jus and mustardy notes kept this one feeling a good deal lighter. The pork was beautifully cooked, the potato pave tender and creamy (actually, a little seared color would have been nice), and the sauce was quite delicious. This dish was tight. But again, it was also entirely conventional, a very basic crowd pleaser that was long on comfort if short on ambition.

Amaretto Cheesecake with Pecan BrittleDominic Armato

Desserts followed the same playbook as the previous course. The more playful of the two -- relatively speaking, that is -- was an Amaretto cheesecake, loose and creamy and quite sweet with a wedge of pecan brittle on top. My ladylove feared I'd find it too cloying (she has no such upper-end limits when it comes to the sweetness scale), but to me, Amaretto's cloying. Why should a cheesecake flavored with it be any different? It worked for that reason. Chocolate mousse was firm without being overly dense, a lighter milky sort of chocolate with a really delightful hazelnut crisp base and a dark chocolate cap. Very straightforward, and very good for what it was.

Chocolate MousseDominic Armato

At the end of the meal, our server left us with a cheery, "See you soon!" And all I could think to myself was, "Hmmmmm... probably not." Which isn't to say that I don't think Cork might be worthwhile. We had a couple of good dishes. But they were the exceptions, and they were the dishes that, frankly, any good restaurant should be able to hit on. Was this a matter of expectations given all of the good word I've heard? Perhaps. But specific criticisms aside, I feel like the overarching problem was a wide gap between ambition and execution. It's great that there are a horde of beautiful, creative dishes to choose from on the menu at Cork, but that's meaningless if the flavor and precision aren't there, and for many if not most of our dishes, they weren't. It's worth noting that I'm way out of the mainstream on this one. Cork is a well-decorated restaurant. So either I caught a rough night or some folks were more taken by what they were eating than how well it was made. Or I don't know what the hell I'm talking about. But while I'll happily truck down to Chandler any day of the week, and often do, based on our dinner there I'm disinclined to do it again anytime soon for Cork.

4991 S. Alma School Rd.
Chandler, AZ 85248
Tue - Sat4:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Sun10:00 AM - 2:00 PM4:00 PM - 9:00 PM