Brunch Boss

I love Robert McGrath. He is and always has been Arizona’s best culinary ambassador for the New American West: a ruggedly handsome Marlboro Man who loves the Great Outdoors, walks like he was born in cowboy boots, fishes, drinks, cusses and treats women with the courtly good manners of a real cowboy. Women openly adore him, but I suspect plenty of guys harbor their own little man-crushes too. McGrath is just that charming, a larger-than-life personality who offers up romantic glimpses of a world — and a West — that’s rapidly fading away.

Wall of Renegades

It’s also safe to say this James Beard Award winner and classically trained chef is a bit of a rebel, an outlaw and a renegade (which is how the name of his new Restaurant, Renegade Canteen, was chosen). With his CIA Hyde Park and Le Cordon Bleu background, he could so easily be toqued out in a high-dollar resort restaurant somewhere. Instead, he prefers using his mad skills to transform the traditional cooking of the Old West into something modern, sophisticated and completely accessible. And he does it all in an elegantly rustic environment that says, “Relax. Enjoy. No need to prove your worldliness here.” And by the way, who else so seamlessly melds disparate design/décor elements such as a giant vase of fresh flowers and a center-stage, glass-enclosed wine cellar with rough-hewn wood and cowboy art? Nobody.

In late January, Renegade began offering a weekend brunch (Saturday and Sunday, 10am-2 pm), and  it’s fantastic. I’ve been twice so far, but I won’t be happy until I’ve worked my way right down the menu, which, like McGrath himself, is anything but conventional.

The most interesting section, called Odd Things, features four terrific dishes — odds and ends that don’t fit anywhere else — each priced at $10. It’s here you’ll find bourbon and honey-glossed pork belly with cheese grits, duck confit quiche, green corn tamale with huevo and the Saloon Hot Brown — McGrath’s riff on a sandwich invented at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky back in the 20s.

The Hot Brown

Forced to pick a favorite among them, I’d probably go with the straightforward but ridiculously good Hot Brown, a towering open-face sandwich built on a foundation of Texas Toast and stacked with great drifts of mashed potato, thick slices of moist turkey breast, beefsteak tomato, Mornay sauce and a topper of crisp onion strings. Actually I’m torn between this one and the pork belly, which has a lusciously fatty, sticky quality that pairs especially well with creamy golden grits. The presentation is simple but stunning, the ingredients humble but haute — a classic case of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

Pork Belly and Grits

The green corn tamale possesses the silky texture, pale color and banana leaf wrapper that characterize tamales of Southern Mexico. Stuffed with panela (a mild white cheese), sided with hot-sweet pineapple salsa and topped with an over-easy egg, it packs a chile wallop.

Tamale and Egg

By the time I get to the springy quiche (so rich with duck confit it seems more like a crispy duck cake), I’m reminded why I’ve loved McGrath’s cooking from Day One. He understands the yin and yang of food and balances the rustic with the refined in a way few others can. He makes guy food women love and pretty dishes that don’t make men feel like eunuchs for liking them. The quiche, accompanied by a spinach, pear and candied pecan salad, lightly coated with bacon-honey dressing, proves my point.

Duck Confit Quiche & Salad

I’ve had so many lousy flatbreads in my life that I wasn’t at all convinced a breakfast version, with a fried egg at its center, would be any different (then again, my friend says I’m a sucker for anything with an egg on top). I ordered it because it came highly recommended and because I wanted to be polite. And man, was I glad to be wrong! Topped with smoked chicken, spinach, roasted green chile, mild cheeses and cilantro, this thing is outrageous. Dunked in egg yolk? Just crazy, crazy good ($14).

Chicken & Spinach Flatbread

Classic Eggs Benedict are flawless too, layered with “peameal bacon” (another word for the ham-like back bacon we call “Canadian bacon”) and poached eggs, then smoothed with a lustrous, lemon-edged hollandaise ($12). Ditto for crunchy chicken fried steak,  ladled with creamy-chunky sausage gravy. Would I order them again? Tough to say with so many other interesting and more unusual dishes vying for my attention. But that’s just me.  Always looking for the next cheap thrill. Next time, I plan to try the fried chicken and waffles and maybe the fried egg sandwich, which, like the Hot Brown, is asterisked as “officially certified hangover cuisine.” Good to know.

Classic Eggs Benedict

Chicken-fried Steak

Technically, the Bananas Foster Waffle isn’t a dessert, but my pals and I treat it like one, saving it for last and eating far too much of it, given all that’s gone before ($11). I love that the bananas are fresh (not caramelized and sickeningly sweet) and that thick whipped cream and caramel sauce are generously applied.

Bananas Foster Waffles

This is the best brunch I’ve had in ages. I loved the live music, a mellow, bluesy trio who covered Van Morrison, Bill Withers, Greg Allman and a bunch of other good stuff I’ve already forgotten. Eating at the bar (the cozy booth was nice too) and sipping Steve Douds’ inspired cocktails (had a screwdriver with Champagne in it, which made it light but no less potent) was also a big part of the fun. But most of all, I thought the food was terrific.

Soulcatcher

The weekend can’t get here soon enough!

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