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Phoenix
****
Out of a possible five
$$$
The roasted stuffed chicken at Phoenix on Broadway. It was filled with goat cheese, sun dried tomatoes and spinach with a mushroom cream sauce.

Food, art and song make Phoenix soar

It is rare for me to get really excited about a new restaurant.

But when Phoenix opened along Broadway in September, its combination of good food, gorgeous atmosphere and, most importantly, its commitment to doing something no other place in Fort Wayne was doing was something to behold.

Located in a venerable old space that was once home to Three Rivers Co-op, Phoenix prides itself on being a place for food, drinks, music and art. All were well represented.

It has all the little idiosyncrasies that make it the kind of place you want to explore. The entrance is nicely decorated with objects from the past so you wonder whether you are walking into an antique store instead of a nightspot. There is a nifty little hallway leading to the main room with a lounge area nestled in halfway.

Then it opens up into one of the most impressive spaces in the area for live music. The stage is in the back of this gray carpeted room with burgundy walls. The tables and chairs are cherry wood topped with black iron legs – some barstool-style while others standard. One wall has aged exposed brick dotted by big, old, wooden window frames with black and white photos mounted on the bottom. The walls are also home to paintings from local artists, all of which are for sale.

If you are planning to visit Phoenix, you better be prepared to hear live music. If you threw out the stage, it would be a fine restaurant, but that stage isn’t going anywhere, and that is a good thing. On the night I dined there, it was all restaurant business for the first hour or so until 8 p.m. when a band started playing Stevie Ray Vaughan-style blues and playing it loud.

Was it too loud? Perhaps. I think some work with the sound mix could have made it a bit less obtrusive and at least allowed my party to hear what we were shouting at one another. But, again, this is a live-music place, so I was not upset that it was so loud.

Pretty much everyone was eating, the dance floor near the stage is small, and nobody was dancing. So it is more restaurant than bar, but looks and feels very much like a bar.

If you want to eat and converse, arrive early. If you just want to hang out and listen to the band, arrive late so you don’t feel pressured while there is a line of people waiting to get a table.

But really, you will want to eat because the food is worth it.

The best entrée was the roasted stuffed chicken. A breast was stuffed with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and spinach, and accompanied by a mushroom cream sauce. The chicken was perfectly roasted to be brown and crisp outside, but still tender and juicy. The sauce was rich and creamy, and the only drawback was the mushrooms, which were canned instead of fresh.

The dinner menu also includes “rustic hand-tossed pizzas.” The one I tried, The Shelley Long, named after one of Fort Wayne’s most famous, fell as flat as the star’s film “Troop Beverly Hills.” Topped with free-range, apple-chardonnay chicken sausage, red onion and mozzarella, there was too little sausage and that sausage was in such tiny bits it was hard to savor. The hand-tossed crust rose quite a bit and was soft and chewy. It was OK, but nothing special.

All of the appetizers I tried were great, so opting for a few of those and a cocktail or two would be a great way to go.

The Greek Skins were my favorite starters. These hollowed-out potatoes formed tubes that were standing on end and filled with spinach, feta cheese, red onion, kalamata olives and tomato with a side of tzatzki sauce. There was a lot of potato, which was nice, and their unique shape made them fun to eat.

The sesame-wasabi chicken wings were almost too pretty to eat, glistening in a sweet sticky sesame sauce with the bright green wasabi sauce drizzled over and black and white sesame seeds dotting every one of them. They were nicely fried to be crisp, and the flavor combo was just right with the wasabi tamed.

The Springsteen Rolls from the lunch menu – a spin on spring rolls – were crisp, clean and stuffed with shoestring-cut carrot and cabbage, chicken breast and cilantro. They came with spicy mustard and a sweet version of duck sauce that was the better of the two.

The burger I tried at Phoenix proved to be a winner. The Prime Chop House burger had a one-third-pound Angus patty made from chuck, brisket and short rib that was juicy with the strong beef flavor an upscale burger should have. It was topped with sautéed mushrooms and onions, provolone, crispy onion straws and dressed with fresh horseradish and a house-made steak sauce. The horseradish worked nicely with the sauce, which scared me but ended up being tasty.

The best sandwich – actually one of the best sandwiches in this city – was found only on the lunch menu.

The Gouda Sel Grilled Cheese had smoked gouda, thick cut bacon, roasted red peppers, fresh spinach and a pineapple-ghost pepper jam sandwiched between thick, well-done slices of Texas toast. The jam was more sweet than hot – a surprise given ghost peppers were used – the cheese oozed out and it was simply perfection.

That grilled cheese also was accompanied by some wonderful fries. These thick taters were super crispy from what I believe was a double frying, and the potatoes inside were so light and fluffy they were almost like mashed potatoes. I don’t know how they were made, but I wish I did because I could eat like 100 of them.

I did not like the only entrée I tried from the lunch menu – the Sven Pasta. Angel hair was tossed in a creamy lemon-dill sauce with smoked salmon, capers, diced tomato and red onion. The traditional combination worked well in terms of flavor, but the sauce was really thick, almost like Alfredo. I just found it too heavy for a noontime meal.

I fear the lunch hours, which just recently started, may struggle to survive at Phoenix. Service was deliberate. My meal took nearly two hours, and that was without dessert. The place was as quiet and empty during the day as it was full and lively on Friday night, so it just didn’t feel right as a lunch spot.

The restaurant also hosts a brunch with live music on Saturdays starting at 10 a.m., so that might be the best day to try it early.

I should have taken time for dessert during lunch because the only one I tried at Phoenix was fabulous. The lemon meringue pie had huge peaks of light, creamy and sweetened meringue that was well browned on top. The custard was tart, acidic and not too thick. The crust was top notch, and it was simply a perfect way to end the meal.

My first two visits to Phoenix will not mark the end for me, that is for sure. I loved the atmosphere, loved the food and simply loved what the folks there are trying to do. And, if that wasn’t enough, the service was exemplary as both of my servers seemed experienced, knowledgeable, helpful and accommodating.

I guess you could say it hit on all the right notes.

Restaurant: Phoenix

Address: 1122 Broadway

Phone: 387-6571

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight Wednesday and Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday

Cuisine: American

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Not really

Menu: Greek Skins ($6), Springsteen Rolls ($7), wings (8 for $7; 15 for $12), Prime Chop House Burger ($11), roasted chicken ($16), The Shelley Long ($11), grilled cheese ($10), Sven pasta ($10), lemon pie ($5)

Rating breakdown: Food: ** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.

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