Story and photos by Mark Sterling-Ogle, Sept. 11, 2014.
At long last, the cavernous ruin of the iconic Beefeater’s restaurant in central Phoenix has taken on a new life. Named “The Newton” after the founder of the original restaurant, Jay Newton, the complex is already home to a Changing Hands Bookstore, First Draft Book Bar and Chef Justin Beckett’s newest venture, Southern Rail.
The opening of the project at Camelback Road and Third Avenue, mere steps from a light rail stop, took longer than expected due to architectural issues that kept cropping up. They were, however, able to keep some of the original 1961 adobe bricks from Queen Creek blended into the new structure.
My partner and I arrived earlier than our 6:30 reservation to take advantage of the “social hour” specials, available only to those seated at the ten barstools or the large community table. The social hour menu is comprised of small plates for noshing and discounted specialty cocktails.
We each picked out a small plate option to share as we waited for our friend, a true Southern Belle, to arrive. We started with the fried green tomatoes and the fried okra ($6 each). The tomatoes were perfectly fried to a golden brown and sliced to a thickness that allowed us to slather on the pimento cheese spread that accompanied them; a beautiful paring that brought forth the fruit’s tartness. Next the okra arrived with a dill relish dipping sauce. The downfall with this small plate was that it was truly small. The tiny handful of crunchy morsels lacked perceived value, even at the discounted happy hour price.
Southern Rail offers half priced bottles of wines produced right here in Arizona every Sunday and Monday. I opted for the Pillsbury Wild Child white blend ($45), finding it light and full of fruit, as well as “Z” ($49), a zinfandel produced by Sand Reckoner that was bold and spicy with heavy tannins—just what I was craving.
I decided on a couple starters to get things going. Dirty rice croquettes ($7) came served with a smoked onion cream and a corn relish. A croquette is a small bread crumbed fried food roll, usually comprised of mashed potatoes and/or ground meats. In this instance, a thick risotto style of the dirty rice was lightly breaded, then flash fried, providing a crunchy contrast to the creamy center.
The House Smoked Trout ($12) was perched atop a sweet pea cake in a pool of spiced tomato jam. While the trout was a hit, it was the sweet pea cake that took center stage on this plate. Crispy on the outside with a velvety-textured interior, the cake married pleasurably with the sweet and savory tomato jam.
Deciding that we needed one more, my partner asked that our dutiful server also bring out the tomato tart ($9). Roasted cherry tomatoes, paired with bacon and onion, arrived in a tiny, flakey pastry boat. This superb flavor combination was almost tasty enough to override the fact that the pastry was overcooked and nearly burnt around the edges.
For our salad course I selected two of the more interesting offerings; grilled watermelon salad ($11) and the B.L.T ($10). The ripe watermelon was seared with grill marks, caramelizing some of the natural sugars and was complemented with thin shavings of ripe peach. The B.L.T. was a version of an iceberg wedge salad garnished with lardoons of bacon.
Out next were the entrées. Our friend with Creole roots declared her selection, the New Orleans-style “peel & eat” head-on barbecue shrimp ($20), to be as authentic as any she has had away from home. Swimming in a creamy butter based-barbecue laden with spices, the crustaceans were literally finger-licking good and we all appreciated the supplementary hot towels provided.
My partner went the safe route and ordered the Cider Brined Pork Loin ($24) that was cooked to a perfect medium with striking criss-crossed grill marks. Brown butter-whipped sweet potatoes flattered the moist and tender pork that, seemed to melt in our mouths.
I spied one of my favorite dishes: crispy duck leg confit ($25). Confit is a term meaning cooked in fat. In this case, duck leg quarters were salted and submerged in rendered duck fat before cooking at a low temperature for an extended period. The result is an even deeper richness to the already-succulent fowl. My only concern was that the collard greens, served alongside the duck, had not been granted the same careful preparation and were not as tender as they should have been.
For dessert, the beignets ($8) were dense and doughnut like rather than light and airy as anticipated and the red velvet cake ($7) came out looking like a two-inch square of sheet cake with cream cheese frosting only adorning the top, instead of layered and piped out on the white plate.
Southern Rail is no Beckett’s Table, where I have thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of my dining experience, but I hope Justin continues to fine-tune the menu to match the excellent southern hospitality of the staff and the charm of the revitalized structure.
300 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix
11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon-Fri (lunch)
3-6 p.m. Mon-Fri (social hour)
5-10 p.m. Mon-Sun (dinner)