When the DeSoto Central Market, Phoenix’s experiment with an indoor food hall and market, closed abruptly in the summer of 2018, it was a disappointment to fans of culinary innovation, community space, historic preservation, and small business startups. All was not lost, however, because one of DeSoto’s best eateries, known as the larder + the delta (stylized with small letters and a plus sign), had already struck out on its own. With DeSoto having fulfilled its role as an incubator during its short life, its progeny now stands on its own a few blocks away.
The larder + the delta is a modern Southern restaurant under the direction of Stephen Jones, an accomplished chef who has been active in the downtown culinary scene for nearly a decade. After stints heading the kitchens at both Blue Hound at the Kimpton Hotel and the DeSoto Central Market, Chef Jones has now taken his most personal creation and elevated it from a stall inside a market to a stylish, full-service restaurant occupying a prominent ground-floor retail space in Portland on the Park, a new condominium tower overlooking Hance Park.
The larder + the delta’s new home is about as close as can be imagined to its birthplace. The location is just a block west of the Roosevelt / Central light rail station. Customers who were used to walking diagonally across the street to reach the DeSoto Market can now walk a short distance to the northwest, rather than the southeast, to find the new home of some of their favorite dishes, along with some new additions. Bike racks are hidden inside Portland on the Park’s parking garage with many more scattered along Portland and intersecting side streets.
The restaurant’s space is compact with seating for only about 30 people, but the high ceilings and expansive windows make it feel open, not cramped. Of those 30-odd seats, about half are found at an L-shaped bar that faces the open kitchen, a dozen more are at a row of tables, and the remainder are at a small second counter that faces outward with a view of the verdant parkway on this block of Portland. A space situated outside, a bit to the back and to the right relative to the restaurant’s entrance, suggests the potential for outdoor events and dining.
The menu, like the restaurant, is small. Its stated focus is on vegetables with numerous plant-based plates available to fulfill roles as starters, small entrees, or shared sides. Because there’s an emphasis on fresh produce, items come and go in response to seasonal fluctuations in ingredient availability and customer demand. One perennial menu favorite carried over from the Desoto Market is the larder + the delta’s signature cauliflower dish, prepared in a manner reminiscent of Buffalo chicken wings with a crisp coating, hot sauce, and bleu cheese.
Vegetable dishes new since the move to Portland have included a collard green salad adorned with roasted peanuts and dehydrated corn. While kale salads are everywhere these days, it took a deft approach to make kale’s cruciferous cousin, collards, work in a barely cooked format. Collards are typically boiled into submission in traditional preparations, but somehow the larder + the delta has coaxed tenderness out of them with only minimal intervention. Equally inventive dishes have appeared such as savory beignets with mustard seed and vegetable ash.
Rice is prominent at the larder + the delta, specifically Carolina Gold, a variety that was popular before the Civil War and has recently been resurrected after nearly becoming extinct. The delicate long-grain rice appears in Hoppin’ John, a classic southern mix of legumes and grain in which red peas are cooked with rice. A bit of crunch comes from the grains scraped from the bottom of the pot. The version here omits the pork found in traditional versions, but diners have the option to add shrimp, chicken, or any other meat on the menu for an added charge.
Meat and seafood haven’t been forgotten here. In fact, a signature dish from the DeSoto days has been upgraded with the move to the new location. Low country perlou, another dish built upon a base of Carolina Gold rice, recalls a paella with its own touches from Southern traditions. Shellfish and sliced sausage intermingle with grains of both soft and crisp textures. A lunchtime favorite, the KFC sandwich, features a flattened chicken breast perfectly fried and topped with a generous amount of slaw, all of it barely fitting within the confines of the bun that encloses it.
The one-page menu at the larder + the delta features only one or two desserts at a time. On one occasion, it might be a take on a Southern tradition such as sweet potato pie, augmented in this case with a garnish of crispy sweet potato skin. At other times, it might a comfort food classic: two giant M&M cookies served with a glass of cold milk. For those who want something stronger to drink, the restaurant has beer, wine, and its own numbered cocktails. #5 augments Tito’s vodka with a kick from Cutino jalapeno sauce, and #7 combines mango with rum.
Even during the good times when the DeSoto Market seemed bustling, it was clear that this “yardbird” (part of the restaurant’s original name) would eventually fly the coop. Thankfully, that happened at just the right time. At its new location, the larder + the delta has been upgraded just enough to work in a full-service context while retaining its playful feel. A reservation might be a good idea at peak times on weekend nights, but with culinary sophistication and a lack of pretense, the restaurant remains as approachable as the food hall counter where it all began.
1/29/2018 Update: Since the publication of this review, the larder + the delta has eliminated weekday lunch service.
200 W. Portland St. #101, Phoenix AZ 85003