The Phoenix is a bright new spot on Amherst Street, half a mile west of where Black Rock Kitchen and Bar launched the “better food for Black Rock movement” in 2011. ¶ Mary Logue, an owner whose operations résumé includes stints at Manhattan’s Smith & Wollensky and high-end corporate dining, has overseen the transformation of a shuttered shot-and-a-beer place that had its interior gutted by fire into a personable little dining spot. It offers a gastro-tavern menu with robust dishes artfully done, an American bistro if you will. ¶ Logue made it easy for visitors to find, with a sharp-looking steel sign, and a customer parking lot next door. The 60-seat place has beige walls, padded banquettes and tables, and a patio out back. At dinnertime, sun filled the front room through street-facing picture windows.
Instead of a bread basket, a relish tray arrived, setting the ambitious tone with addictively crunchy spicy pecans, crispy fried tortilla strips, red pepper hummus, California olives, pepperoncini and bread-and-butter pickles.
We looked through the brief menu and asked for black bean soup ($5), polenta fries ($4), roasted root vegetables au gratin ($7), sugar snap pea and barley salad ($7), and a half order of pierogies and kielbasa ($7).
For entrées, Cat pounced on the shrimp and grits ($18) and I asked for the strip steak frites ($17.50). Blackboard specials included liver and onions ($14.50). Besides sides and salads, vegetarians can try penne pomodoro ($12) or the root vegetable au gratin, entrée-sized ($14).
The soup arrived highlighted with a spiral of sour cream and a dollop of salsa, whose fresh-cut crunch and acid highlighted the deeply earthy bean flavor. The beans were only partly pureed, leaving some welcome texture.
The root vegetables au gratin was rustic but restrained, with cubes of tender-but-not-mushy sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots and rutabaga atop a shallow bath of seasoned cream. It was crowned with an unartful tangle of cheddar cheese and red onions, but didn’t need those to win my respect; well-cooked vegetables accented with cream, not drowning in it, did that. We returned to the dish several times before Cat said, “Get this away from me.”
Polenta fries usually disappoint me with mushiness and sauce dependency, but these crispy strips of deep-fried corn mush would have disappeared quickly even without the aid of the spiced lemon mayonnaise. These grown-up Fritos tasted like toasty corn, and packed an audible crunch.
The salad of sugar snap peas and barley brought a warm jumble of julienned pea pods, carrots and diced bell peppers, stir-fried with barley, atop spinach. Arriving with grilled bread, it offered pleasant contrasts of warm chewy grain and cool, crunchy salad, its Asian flavors accented with sesame oil.
The pierogis and kielbasa were decent, though the pierogi pasta was stiffer, chewier than the best versions. Our attentive server swiftly brought sour cream and yellow mustard at our request. The juicy kielbasa disappeared quickly along with caramelized onions.
Cat’s shrimp and grits was a welter of tender medium-sized shrimp, with discs of spicy sausage and sautéed vegetables – spinach, bell peppers, onions – atop a foundation of mild polenta. The grits weren’t overly enriched with cream and cheese, and still tasted like corn. Making sure we got a little corn with every bite, we finished it.
My steak, cooked accurately, was topped with blue cheese, and there was more blue cheese dressing on a small chopped romaine salad. The most striking feature, though, was a great cloud of fried onions atop the steak – perfectly fried, almost greaseless, delicious by themselves but contributing to every bite of beef. The plate was completed with french fries, from a bag, not hand-cut, but another first-class frying job.
My lone complaint about the plate was oversalting – between the onions’ seasoning, the steak’s hearty coat of salt and pepper, and the blue cheese, I got Dead Sea parched. But after our plates were cleared and I spied a stray fried onion straw on the table, did I eat it? Yes I did.
Desserts ($6) included a strawberry shortcake built on a real biscuit, rich and crumbly if slightly underbaked. The apple cobbler offered a granolalike oat topping on thickly sauced apple slices and caramel syrup.
With precise cooking, a comfortable room and no entrées above $18, The Phoenix offers another good reason to come back to Black Rock.
Transformed neighborhood bar’s menu is another bright spot in Black Rock
WHERE: 269 Amherst St. (447-1100)
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, sides $5-$12; sandwiches, salads $6-$16; entrees, $12-$18.
PARKING: Lot next to building.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes, through rear.