Friday, October 19, 2007

Chelsea's Kitchen, 9.30.07

5040 N. 40th St., Phoenix
M-Sun, 11 a.m.-10p.m.
Offers a Sunday brunch menu, and a lunch and dinner menu, and while a few dishes are different between the two, the prices are the same: ranging from a $12 burger with fries to a $27 filet mignon with veggies and potato

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My good friend J was in town, and we decided to have dinner. She wanted something reasonably healthy and wasn't overly anxious about the price, as long as it was casual and allowed for conversation. She also mentioned recent cravings for rare-cooked tuna. Remembering the tasty tuna tartar appetizer I once had there, and also remembering the tuna burger I’d seen on their menu, I directed us to Chelsea's Kitchen (CK).

Chelsea's Kitchen is one of Craig and Kris DeMarco and Bob Lynn's several brainchildren that make up the LGO Hospitality family, which includes Arcadia’s trendy places to be seen, Le Grande Orange Grocery, Le Grande Orange Pizzeria, Postino Cafe, and Radio Milano (one of two branches, the second being in Pomona, California). I’m not big on being seen, and CK tends to cater to the slightly older, not-so-trendy-but-still-in-the-know crowd who wants a good meal and a low-key atmosphere.

My work group goes there regularly for special occasion lunches, and I've liked every meal I've had there. I'll put a warning in about the Howie Burger, which is the first dish I ever ordered--after awhile, the bottom bun got soggy, which was more of a nuisance than anything else. The regular burgers hold up much better. The restaurant's lightly honeyed cottage cheese side is a nice alternative to fries.

Their sign is bold, stark, all caps, bright, red, big along the building's roofline. It's straightforward and to the point. It is what it is, just like their menu. No frills, no garnishes. The interior is the same. hardwood tabletops, a few giant, yet minimalist stone pots for fake floral arrangements. Seats to lounge in. nothing soft and flowing, but comfortable all the same. A band of windows, shaded by the roof’s overhang, enwraps the dining room, bringing in comfy ambient light. That night, the comfy lighting was dim, but no so dim that you’d need a flashlight to read the menu and get a good look at your plate. Everything’s clean, right down to the design lines. Even the open-view kitchen’s stainless steel gives off a well-scrubbed look.

The hostess greeted us with a smile. I saw folks on the front patio and instantly suggested we sit outside, too, remembering how loud the dining room's music can get and how close the quarters are and mentioned it to J. She asked the hostess about outside seating, and they sat us at the rear patio, along the canal, which I think was nicer than the front would’ve been. A very short time after sitting, our waitress arrived to take our drink order, and we both ordered lemonade.

The service the whole night was quick and attentive, which was nice as most of the tables inside and out were seated. The servers weren't obtrusive while J and I had our animated conversation over our meal. We weren’t waiting long before our lemonades and glasses of water arrived. The lemonade was cold and fresh, though after a few sips through a straw, some of the pithy stuff at the bottom started sending a face-puckering, bitter wash over my tongue. Unfortunately, there was no sweetener at the table, so I took only occasional sips. At the least, it was refreshing. And while I didn’t love it, but they were quick and liberal with both lemonade and water refills at my table, topping us off whenever we got close to half empty.

Jewel and I decided to look over the menu first before getting into a conversation, as they tend to be animated, focused, and intense; we know that once we started, we’d never look at the menu to order. The first thing I pointed out was the tuna tartar with guacamole and tortilla chips. She’d never had tuna with guacamole, and we decided to split the appetizer.

The tortilla chips served with our appetizer chips were pale, fresh, crispy, and salty—all the components of a very addictive food. The only petty complaint was the one chip that was just a bit chewy. The tuna tartar and avocado accompaniment was nicely done. It was simply seasoned, which is essential for letting the buttery tuna shine through. Avocado and tuna are a classic combination for a reason--they work well together, with the avocado buffering the fish (not fishy) taste, and the tuna polishing the avocado's taste. And on the crisp, thin chips, we got a nice, brief crunch without overwhelming the tuna's and avocado's texture. Unfortunately, the speedy service worked against us, and it was just a few minutes between arrivals of appetizer and entree.

First, I had a taste of the familiar french fries, which I'd ordered before on previous visits. Sometimes, the skinny fries are limp, but the seasoning is consistently tasty--typical good seasoned fries. Even if they come out of the kitchen crispy, they of course soften up as they cool. Fortunately, since they’re so skinny, they don’t turn into an unappealing, mealy mass of potato as they cool.

The tuna burger was beautiful, served with the top bun and all the accompanying fresh veggies to the side--lettuce, thinly sliced tomatoes, fans of avocado slices. I put the two together, sliced it in half, and had to give it the smackdown to make sure I could wrap my maw around it. The burger was perfect--moist, flavorful, scrumptious, and rare. The bun was fresh and soft. The glaze was awesome--slightly sweet and tangy, and the burger's edges were crisped, offering a nice contrast to the soft middle.

I'll admit--I was wary at first when I went to Chelsea's Kitchen. It's sister sites are known as places to be seen, but I wanted a place to tuck away and have good food. The open dining room doesn't allow that, but there are plenty of patio niches that make close conversation easy, making the restaurant good for groups, despite the tight spaces you sometimes have to navigate between tables in the dining room, but even better for a few friends if you sit outside. You probably won't find yourself daydreaming about the fare, but it's good and consistent enough to keep on tap in a pinch when you don't want to blow a load of dough on a really good tuna burger.

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