Welcome Diner, Guerrilla Gourmet style!
For some time now I had heard rumors of an absolutely MAD Chef by the name of Payton Curry brewing up a wickedly delicious seasonal menu in a slightly seedy section of Downtown Phoenix. In a tiny restaurant (and I use that term generously) called the “Welcome Diner,” Curry breaks from the constraints of working for someone else (Caffe’ Boa in Tempe, Arizona), and boldly does food exactly the way he wants to.
Sit at the counter (as you truly must), and you become a part of “The Payton Curry Show” where you as a guest are treated to masterful culinary creations while Curry entertains himself, his wife and everyone within earshot with his sharp brand of humor that keeps you wanting more; “He’s Payton F***in Curry” she says, “NO! She’s F***ing Payton Curry” he replies!” The repartee between Chef Payton Curry and his beautiful wife, Shantal Alessa Abdo-Curry is quick, often blue, hilarious and sincere. The food being prepared three feet away is elegant in it’s simplicity and flavorful beyond words.
Open only Sunday thru Tuesday from five until “there’s nothing else to serve,” with fluidly changing offerings based mainly on availability of hand selected local produce and Curry’s sneaky three am calls to his fish monger (more on that later), Welcome Diner puts on a culinary showcase of color, flavor and textures normally reserved for the very best of restaurants in the country.
First before me, a salad pairing impossibly juicy watermelon and Dungeness crab tossed with Nepitella, olives and salty capers which Curry says he came up with when “baked out of his f***ing mind!” ”Watermelon and crab, RIGHT?” he says, “it just doesn’t seem to make any sense but it’ll change your life,” and so it has. Splashed with citrus in the form of grapefruit juice, this dish is just plain amazing. It’s simple, colorful and allows each individual flavor and texture to be conveyed both singularly and as part of a larger whole. (it needs to be said, I generally avoid watermelon as I just don’t like it but in this one dish, my outlook has been completely changed).
Next up, Curry’s breathes life into what has become a culinarily mundane, often overly fussy dish beloved by residents up and down the Eastern seaboard. I speak of course of the crab cake! I don’t know what’s gotten into him here…There’s scarcely any breading, doesn’t Curry know his profit margin will be much better if he stuffs his creation with bread rather than lusciously flavorful jumbo sized lumps of crabmeat?? Crunchy bits of fresh celery, capers and herbs make this dish a poor choice to skip to the protestations of your straining belt.
What would you do with 144 grams of grade A Foie Gras? Well Curry (clearly having had a serious case of the “munchies”) would and has pan seared it with Rosemary, paired it with a bright, rustic and slightly tart jam between two pieces of buttery Essence Bakery brioche and called it his “FB&J sandwich,” elegant concept, simply executed.
The main course arrived in the form of Duroc tenderloin served over heirloom sungold tomato, a cold bean salad and a splash of salsa verde. This is the best pork dish I have ever eaten, period, end of story! As a card carrying member of the Pork Lovers Society of America, I’ve eaten more than my fair share of pork but there is nothing that prepared me for the tender, well balanced combination before me.
On a subsequent visit Curry threw together a little Halibut and crab Ceviche, light, delicate and perfect with the addition of a sprinkle of sulphur rich Hawaiian black sea salt that was almost too beautifully presented to eat.
Next, a decadent Summer Bolognese with fettucini and Salmon Belly Raviolo that absolutely must not go un-mentioned…Beautiful, texturally perfect and put together with flair, this pasta dish is a must eat!
A salad of yellow heirloom tomato and “a type of mozzerela” with nepitilla and a little saba (who knew tomato could taste so good?), again display Curry’s ability to elevate simple, honest ingredients to food worthy of praise.
Lest I forget the show stopper….Sitting at the counter on my second visit, enjoying the “Payton Curry show” and drifting ever so slowly into a food coma, I noticed a plate of pastel pink Langoustine that looked out of place both in the Welcome Diner and in the Arizona desert in general. Asked where he came across fresh langoustine, Curry grinned and said “there’s a funny story.”
Apparently Curry, having had a spontaneous spark of brilliance, slipped out of bed around three in the morning (told you I’d get back to this) for a clandestine phone call to his fish monger, clandestine because his wife was unawares until she awoke to find him whispering into the phone and demanded to know who he was talking to. Curry, like a young boy caught with his hand in a cookie jar meekly replied “baby, it’s the fish guy” to which she responded “yeah right” and promptly grabbed the phone, after a brief exchange, she said “she sounds pretty rough” and went back to sleep.
Succulent langoustine, smashed baby fingerlings, fresh chopped herbs, onion and tomato all brought together with a broth I’m almost ashamed to admit, caused me to lift my bowl and slurp loudly like a heathen to make sure I didn’t miss a drop. (Sure, I looked around like a drug fiend about to have a fix, making sure no one was looking my way first, but in the end, I could have cared less as it was so decadently delicious).
In the end, if you blink too long you will have missed one of the most important things to have happened on the Arizona culinary scene as Curry, wife Shantal and the show that truly makes you feel a part of what’s happening rather than a mere customer, will be no more. Welcome Diner goes dark after the Independence day fireworks fade from view. If you love food, make it your sole mission in life to get a seat at Curry’s counter before he’s done, tell him Tony sent you!