For two weeks this spring, city staff, outside consultants, and community activists gathered in the iconic, midcentury Phoenix Financial Center for events in the Reinvent Phoenix process. The goal is to remake the Midtown, Uptown, and Solano (aka Christown) areas along the light rail corridor into more walkable districts. Even with those plans, it’s important to remember that some aspects of Midtown are unlikely to change. Alexi’s Grill, popular in Midtown for two decades, seems on a course to stay much the same even as the neighborhood is transformed.
Alexi’s is located in a mid-rise office tower across from the Phoenix Financial Center and a short walk from the Obsorn / Central light rail station. There’s a big sign identifying the restaurant along Central Avenue, but the entrance faces the restaurant’s circular parking lot, a use of land that is likely to persist even as new apartments are proposed for vacant land nearby. Keeping with the car-centric design, there’s nary a bike rack outside the restaurant or the office building it occupies, but some inverted Us can be found on both sides of Central just south of Osborn.
Twenty years of continuous operation is impressive, but isn’t all that old in the scheme of things. Even so, Alexi’s has had a bit of an old-school feeling ever since it first opened in 1994, and most of the clientele, which often includes business and government leaders, seem content with that. The cuisine has Italian and Greek influences but might be most accurately described as “continental, “ a classification seldom seen in 2014, but still an apt way of describing a mix of cuisines from Europe, usually presented in a non-threatening, semi-Americanized format.
Alexi’s entrance leads immediately a host station with dining rooms on each side, each decorated in muted tones. It’s a look that has more to do with classic comfort than cutting edge design, although the patio can offer a more urban feeling with its view of passing trains and punchcard-looking Financial Center across the street. The patio, along with the small bar inside, is the place to enjoy the restaurant’s happy hour bargains, including both glasses of wine and selected appetizers and small plates for $5 in the late afternoon and early evening.
The wine selection, like the food, draws heavily from western Europe and Mediterranean. Smooth, medium-bodied wines like a Principato merlot-cabernet blend exemplify the wine list. Beer isn’t a big emphasis here, but there are a few draft choices and about dozen more bottled options with New Belgium brews the most interesting on the menu. Among the appetizers, the most easily shared option is the bruschetta, a mix of two traditional slices with basil, garlic, and tomato and two slices of “Alexi’s special” with roasted red peppers and feta cheese.
Beyond the $5 items at happy hour, Alexi’s adds value to lunch and dinner entrees with a choice of soup or salad. The soups are a rotating selection, but always among the familiar. Recent choices have included beef barley and minestrone, both serviceable versions of classics with hearty tomato base. The house salad is a standard mix of lettuces, mostly romaine, with wedges of tomato and a simple vinaigrette. A Caesar with blackened chicken has a mild barbecued sauce taste — one of several American touches that coexist with the Mediterranean influences.
Entrees at Alexi’s include a few steaks but emphasize chicken and seafood. Look for poultry in classic preparations such as picatta, marsala, francese — sauces that combines wine, herbs, and some butter or oil. Chicken cacciatore is a hearty dish not found often enough on local menus. Its zesty sauce of tomatoes, mushrooms, and bell peppers is satisfying, but the dish would be more authentic and even tastier with some dark meat rather than just a boneless breast. That choice is probably more an issue of diner preferences than kitchen talent.
Fish availability varies, but salmon, trout, halibut, and sea bass seem to be almost always available with some guest appearances by the likes of red snapper. Whichever species is designated “catch of the day” is available with either a Mexican-influenced Veracrusano sauce or fra diavolo, the spicy variant of marinara found in Italian-American cooking. On any given day, other types of fish are offered as specials such as sea bass with a sauce of red pepper, cilantro, and lemon. Most of these come with rice, potatoes, or a standard vegetable assortment.
Pasta is also abundant at Alexi’s. Often, noodles form a bed on which the chicken and seafood dishes rest, but others bring the pasta out front with various parmigiana dishes or linguine with clam sauce. Vodka tortellini leans in a Southwestern direction with black beans and a jalapeno-tinged alfredo sauce. If pastas are among the more affordable entrees, there’s a selection labeled “specialties” at the other end of the spectrum. These are the hallmarks of continental menus — classic dishes such as rack of lamb, veal chop, and roast duck.
Desserts are also in a classic vein. There’s an airy and rich chocolate mousse, and a denser and equally decadent flan. With this much tradition in the menu, it might be tempting to wonder how Alexi’s might fit into an eventually transformed Midtown. Chances are it will continue as it has. Over time, Midtown may adopt a more pedestrian scale and attract young professionals to new apartments and condominiums, but there will always be ties to the past, whether the midcentury architecture of the Phoenix Financial Center or the continental cuisine of Alexi’s Grill.
3350 N. Central Ave., #120, Phoenix AZ 85012
Osborn / Central Station