Review: Nothing prim at original, fresh Proper

2014-03-13T00:00:00Z 2014-05-21T15:24:15Z Review: Nothing prim at original, fresh ProperBy Kathleen Allen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

There’s a delicious restaurant in Flagstaff named Criollo. There’s much we love about the laid-back eatery in the quaint downtown area, but this is at the top of our list:

Churros and chocolate. We had the sweet meal ender there a few years back and the memory has lived long.

Criollo owners Laura and Paul Moir apparently know not to abandon a good thing.

The dessert is on the menu at their downtown Tucson restaurant, Proper, which opened in May. Three long, warm cinnamon churros ($6) are served with a side of hot sauce made with Venezuelan chocolate, a gorgeous dark tan chocolate with a pure taste that lingers. The churros are the ultimate in comfort desserts. And enough to bring us back again and again.

But we found plenty of other reasons to revisit Proper:

  • Locally sourced and sustainable ingredients are key to the menu.
  • The size of dinner entrees is modest — enough to satisfy a hunger, rather than stuff it. (Granted, a hungry twentysomething college student on a low budget wanted more, but what hungry twentysomething college student on a low budget doesn’t?)
  • The food. The glorious food, looking as good as it tastes thanks to executive chef Kris Vrolyk.

The ambiance is a touch hip without being self-consciously trendy: cement floors; bare, wood tables; milk canisters converted to light fixtures; exposed pipes; an open kitchen, and a wine room walled in with wine racks made of rebar. An expansive bar looks out on East Congress Street, tables are cozied next to a big window along North Fifth Avenue. People watching is primo at Proper.

Of course, those cement floors mean sound bounces; an intimate tête-à-tête isn’t really possible.

But once the food is served, conversation sorta stops.

Honestly, it seems almost disrespectful to chat while sipping the creamy butternut squash soup ($7) spiked with Pernod, kissed with cayenne, and sprinkled with hazelnuts. It was served in a too-shallow bowl (this is one dish we wish there had been more of), and it tasted of eloquence and thoughtfulness.

A kale salad ($8) was bountiful and beautiful. And the taste followed suit: the kale was massaged, which brings out the shiny green color and somehow seems to wipe away the bitter taste kale can have. Sweetened with raisins, dusted with the grain farro, crunched up with almonds, and crowned with a garlic and lemon dressing and fresh Parmesan Reggiano cheese, the salad had layers of textures and taste.

The entrées did not disappoint.

The pork belly ($16), for instance. It may be the most unhealthy piece of meat in existence — all that fat — but we’re willing to bet it’s also one of the richest and most complex. Proper’s pork belly, crisp and served on top of a butternut risotto with sweet cherries, melted in the mouth. Think butter with a bacon flavor — it’s that tender.

The duck breast ($18) satisfied, as well. Pan seared to the requested medium rare, the slices of duck were juicy without being greasy — duck can be a fatty dish, and not in the tasty way the pork belly is. On the side: a sweet orange marmalade to complement the meat, and cloud-light mashed potatoes made with Yukon golds, which are creamy and seem bred to be mashed. A touch of goat cheese, cream and garlic added interest and a velvet touch.

On another visit, the wild striped bass ($30) — a fish special for that day(it changes regularly) — was a wonder to behold: a chunk of the flaky fish seared to a perfect moistness was bookended by a puree of Anaheim chile and chervil on the bottom, and sprigs of frisée on top. In between: a lemony, not-too rich hollandaise sauce over the fish, and under it, a bed of potato pave — think scalloped potatoes in a crispy rectangle. There was nothing dull about the preparation, nor about the taste. The fish was so fresh it was practically flapping, and it was cooked with expertise, ensuring that it was moist. The hollandaise and puree proved to be a luxurious addition to the mild bass.

More traditional was the ribeye ($32), a hefty chunk of the nicely marbled, fork-tender steak topped by wild mushrooms sautéed in a simple beurre blanc and served with crispy Brussels sprouts. Sometimes tradition is the way to go, and that is certainly true with the hefty, succulent steak.

Attention must be paid to desserts. We’ve laid out our opinion of the churros, but we had to sample another.

The chile and chocolate ganache tart ($8)beckoned. More like a warm soufflé than a tart, the chocolate was topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. The addition of the chile added a whiff of heat that slowly burned but never scorched. It was, quite simply, sublime.

Yelp reviews have groused about the service at Proper, and the small portions. After four visits over a couple of months, we have no complaints about the service, which was gracious, knowledgeable and timely.

As for the small portions we found ordering from the “big” portion of the menu was satiating without saturating.

Except for those churros — three is a perfectly reasonable serving. Still, we would have loved some more of those.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@azstarnet.com or 573-4128.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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