For one historic building in Downtown Phoenix, it has taken over a decade to arrive at happy ending. The Professional Building, formerly the headquarters of Valley National Bank and home to several floors of medical offices, languished for years in a state of disrepair without tenants or a clear future. After a false start derailed by the collapse of Mortgages Ltd., the 12-story Art Deco tower has finally been reborn as a Hilton Garden Inn hotel, and its ground-floor restaurant on the corner of Monroe and Central Avenue is known as Nook Kitchen, or just Nook for short.
From an architectural point of view, the Professional Building is more interesting than a standard outpost of a mid-priced hotel chain. Likewise, from a culinary point of view, Nook has more to offer than a standard mid-priced hotel restaurant. Nook is not operated by the hotel per se; instead, it’s a second location for a restaurant that has already cultivated fans at its original quasi-Arcadia site on Indian School Road. With Nook now operating Downtown, it’s an opportunity to introduce an expanded audience to what the restaurant calls “modern American with Italian roots.”
The restaurant directly addresses the corner of Monroe and Van Buren with a partially shaded patio, but the host station is most easily reached via the Central Avenue entrance to the hotel lobby. That door is one block south of the Van Buren / Central (westbound) and Van Buren / 1st Avenue (eastbound) light rail stations. One oversight at the new hotel is the lack of a visible bike rack. The nearest alternative is the loop bike racks built into some of the parking meters on Monroe just west of Central Avenue.
While Nook is by no means a formal restaurant, the decor suggests some of the seriousness that would be expected in a classic bank building. Grates recycled from the building’s original elevators decorate the entrance. There’s a wine tower that separates the main dining room from a smaller, more intimate section. In the center of it all is an octogonal bar with a marble counter. There’s plenty of natural light from windows facing both Monroe and Central. For seating, there are some high tops between the bar and open kitchen and some cozier banquettes behind the wine tower.
Served in enough varieties to merit its own menu section, bruschetta works as a shareable starter. The slices of bread are served in full orders of four or half orders of two. There’s a classic caprese of tomato, mozzarella, and basil. Beyond that obvious choice, the bruschetta offerings become a bit more inventive with toppings such as eggplant parmigiana, lightly breaded slabs of aubergine with mozzarella, basil, and some tomato sauce. Meatier choices of toppings include pork butt and short rib, no doubt adapted from some of the more substantial entrees on the dinner menu.
The Italian roots that Nook claims are obvious in the appetizer menu. Arancini, or Italian rice balls, begin with a crunchy outer layer of rice and finish with a yielding interior or cheese. Olives and charcuterie are good accompaniments for cocktails from the bar, while the meatballs are better paired with a robust red wine. Salads include a grilled romaine in which crunchy leaves are briefly fired, resulting in a bit of crisp char, and then presented as two “boats” suitable for eating by hand. One is full of hard boiled egg, and another contains gorgonzola, lardons, and cucumber.
Frisee and radicchio salad, which definitely favors the former type of leaf over the latter, is topped with goat cheese, cucumber, tomatoes, pomegranate arils, with a tower of rolled prosciutto in the middle of it all. Among all the salads, the one that comes closest to a complete meal-in-a-bowl is the chicken chop salad with grilled poultry, mesclun lettuces, croutons, grape tomatoes, cucumber, avocado, and bits of corn and crumbled cheese. A basic green salad is less exciting but a pleasant, light choice. It’s one of the side dish choices with the panini served at lunch.
French fries with bits of potato skin on the end of each piece are the other choice of side dish. The sandwiches themselves have fillings such as beef and pork meatballs with melted cheese and plenty of tomato sauce all melded seamlessly into one package. A vegetable panino is a lighter combination of spinach, tangy tomatoes, and cheese. The Monroe Burger is the most indulgent of the lunch offerings. It’s a big beef patty with a smaller spicy sausage patty on top. Some butter on the griddle, along with the addition of different onion toppings and some cheese, puts it over the top.
Pizza is a large part of the menu here, with pies divided into rosso (with tomato sauce) and bianco (without) sections. All have a thin, almost cracker-like crust, and many have multi-faceted assemblages of toppings. The giardino pizza is a hearty meatless meal of house-pulled mozzarella, parmesan, spinach, caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes, sherry mushrooms, garlic, basil, and extra virgin olive oil. While pizza is served at all times, it’s in the evening that entrees such shrimp fra diavolo, chicken marsala, and even decidedly non-Italian carnitas are offered.
Desserts are primarily outsourced to Tracy Demsey Originals. From that quality purveyor, the restaurant offers a tres leches bread pudding and a butter cake with cream cheese filling and a blueberry compote. With Valley National Bank now part of Chase and situated in the much taller tower across the street, the Professional Building was ignored for too long. Overnight guests can now sleep in the hotel rooms upstairs, but anyone can come Downtown for a meal at Nook that playfully combines casual Italian-influenced dining with the gravitas of a vintage bank building.
15 E. Monroe St., Phoenix AZ 85004
Van Buren / Central (westbound) and Van Buren / 1st Avenue (eastbound) stations