Updated March 30, 2012: The Strand has recently become a full service restaurant and has updated its decor and menu.
Late last year, Downtown Phoenix enthusiasts got just a little excited when there was speculation about an urban Target store coming to the vacant lot, now underutilized as surface parking, between the Collier Center and CityScape. For now, it appears the buzz was just that — a sort of wish list item not associated with any concrete plans. Still, if there’s a prospect of a big red store in the downtown core, new Italian restaurant the Strand seems to have gotten a head start with its own all-red color scheme.
|exterior from First Street|
The Strand is about a red as possible — not only in its marinara sauce and roma tomatoes, but also in its sleek, contemporary decor. The signs, the tableware, and the metallic booths are all in the same bright color. The red restaurant occupies space in CityScape and, like its neighbors, has been assigned a confusing address. Ignore the “2 East Jefferson” designation and instead look for the restaurant entrance on First Street between Jefferson and Washington. The location is easily reached via multiple light rail stations.
Fast casual is the service model here. Menus are displayed on big screens near the entrance. Beyond those screens lies a counter where customers place orders. Diners then receive numbered magnetic discs. Stick the disc on the metal rail (red, or course) of a booth and wait for delivery of the food. The booths are all the same size. They work well for groups, but are awkward for solo diners. It seems silly for one person to take up so much space, but, unlike a counter or community table, a booth is too intimate to share with a stranger.
The food usually arrives within just a few minutes, but if there’s a need to pass the time, the Strand offers free wifi. The signal is clear inside the restaurant but imperceptible on the patio. Take that into account when choosing among the otherwise identical seating options. Like so many other places around town, the Strand offers bruschetta as a starter. Three toppings are available: tomato and basil, eggplant caponata, and artichoke and spinach. Unfortunately there’s no mix-and-match option to allow variety among the six pieces served.
Other dishes suitable for sharing are the salads, all of which are enormous. One of them, the caramelized pear salad, strikes a suitable balance among sweet, tart, and salty flavors. Smooth, creamy goat cheese contrasts in texture with crunchy walnuts. The Caesar salad is fresh and crisp. Aficionados may notice a lack of strong anchovy taste, but most diners will probably be content with the mix of romaine, shaved parmesan, and croutons — thankfully not overdressed as so many versions of this crowd-pleaser can be.
Minestrone soup is a constant on the menu, offered as a full bowl or in a smaller version as a side. It’s a fairly standard version of the classic and, unlike so many restaurants soups, nicely restrained in saltiness. It’s a good accompaniment to any of the panini on the menu, all of them gently toasted (no grill marks from the press, for better or worse) with varied fillings. The grilled veggie panino boasts an abundance of produce, the caprese version contains generous slabs for fresh mozzarella and tomato, and the chicken one features a nice mix of peppery arugula, smoky bacon, and buttermilk dressing.
|chicken panino with parmesan fries|
As expected, pasta occupies its own section of the menu. The puttanesca is a strong version of this assertive classic full of olives and tomato. The primavera pairs al dente penne with generous chunks of vegetables like broccoli. Alfredo and marinara, two of the sauces offered might overpower such a dish. The creamy pesto is probably the middle ground, although it’s more like cream than pesto. Penne is also used skillfully in a pink vodka sauce. Pasta dishes can be accessorized with chicken, meatballs, or shrimp for an additional charge.
Pizzettes are the name given to the Strand’s individual pizzas. They’re advertised as being 10 inches in diameter but appear to be a foot wide. In other words, they’re a good option for two people to share along with a salad or a side or two. The bianco is the most original pie on the menu with a pleasing blend of toppings that includes smooth ricotta, sweet tomato, red onion, and crisp pepitas. The crust is impressive — generally thin with a little chewiness and char in all the right places.
There are a few entrees on the menu, and all three involve chicken. They’re perfectly fine, but the reliance on poultry to the exclusion of veal and seafood shows that the Strand isn’t trying to push Italian authenticity too hard. In some ways, that may be a smart strategy given that most of the restaurant’s clientele appears to be office workers, convention attendees, and sports fans — all looking for hearty meals, but not always a culinary adventure. Predictably, the restaurant is crowded during lunch but already scaling back weekend and evening hours.
|caprese panino with side salad|
The Strand has a liquor license, but the bellinis are frozen slush from a machine. The wine selection is a better option, but it’s frustrating to have to squint to see the bottles behind the counter. For dessert, a bag of the zeppolini, essentially miniature donuts, is great to take back to the office or to a nearby event. Just like a coveted urban Target store, the Strand offers a blend of chic modernity and down-to-earth familiarity. Enjoy a meal in the restaurant’s red decor while contemplating the prospect of even more red that may one day arrive across the street.
2 E. Jefferson St., Phoenix AZ 85004
Washington / Central (westbound) and Jefferson / 1st Avenue (eastbound) stations