There are two trends in restaurant branding that have been apparent for at least a decade. The first is the use of an ampersand to join two words, with bonus points if there is alliteration involved. The second is the use of taxidermy as a decorative element in dining rooms. Perhaps it’s an effort to present a more attractive vision of meat than images of factory farming. Regardless of the motivations behind the trends, Wren & Wolf combines both of them to create its own identity as a recent arrival in the core of the downtown Phoenix business district.
Wren & Wolf occupies a large space in the ground floor of the Renaissance Square office complex with its twin office towers and retail plaza at street level. The location is just a block from the Washington / Central (westbound) and Jefferson / First Avenue (eastbound) light rail platforms, and the new downtown transfer hub is under construction right outside the restaurant’s main entrance, which faces Washington Street despite a Central Avenue address. Bike racks are found throughout the surrounding blocks on First Avenue, Monroe, and Central.
There was a frozen yogurt shop at the corner of First Avenue and Washington for years, but the new restaurant has taken over not only that space but also a much greater expanse. At this point, most of the establishment’s capacity in multiple dining rooms is hidden from the street by the construction. Until that is complete, customers find their way past barricades to the entrance and only then see just how deep inside the building Wren & Wolf extends. Past the host station lies a bar with a DJ station and then a cavernous dining area with yet another bar on the side.
It’s in this environment where the taxidermy theme appears. Stuffed birds look down from the walls, and pelts are found draped across the back of at least one chair at each table. Large murals depicting wildlife adorn several walls, a wolf maintains a vigil in the center of the space, and giant light fixtures hang from the ceiling only to be dimmed around sunset most nights. Other decorative touches seem more random, like portraits of people, some famous and some unknown, leaning against columns and visible to customers sitting at nearby banquettes.
In keeping with the taxidermy decor, Wren & Wolf has somewhat of a steakhouse vibe, but its menu also incorporates a variety of global influences, resulting in a succinct but diverse array of pasta, seafood, and meatless dishes to match the meat that leads the menu. Before those items arrive, however, the restaurant offers some worthwhile starters. Individual orders of focaccia, Noble country loaf, and Asian-influenced bing bread are available, or the three can be combined into a “bread service” presented on a fancy three-tiered silver tray with accompanying spreads.
An optional upgrade to the bread is to order some bone marrow, which can be scooped with a small spoon and slathered onto toasted Noble slices. Additional appetizers with a focus on raw protein include a tuna tartare, hiramasa crudo, and beef carpaccio. More vegetable-oriented choices include avocado Caesar salad, satisfying if not terribly adventurous, as well as another salad that combines beets and burrata. Perhaps the most indulgent of all items is a duck confit poutine served over French fries with mushroom gravy and mozzarella cheese.
Entrees begin with a selection of steak and chops presented in cast-iron skillets with the option to add seafood (currently king crab, previously scallops). These come with whipped parmesan potatoes, roasted baby carrots, and charred cipollini onions. Seafood options include salmon, now offered with delicata squash and fingerling potatoes and at other times served on a bed of arugula with curried potatoes. Scallops and shrimp are also available with big prawns or plump mollusks paired with grains like risotto or polenta and vegetables such as purple cauliflower.
The Moroccan spiced chicken entree is presented airline style with a bone-in breast and partial drumstick protruding. It is, as expected, a relatively tame entree, but the poultry is given some dimension and nuance thanks to couscous, apricots, marcona almonds, and mind. Two pasta entrees complete the menu. One is a bowl of garganelli with wild mushrooms and crumbled Schreiner’s Italian sausage. The other is a wild boar ragu with fresh basil. The meatless entree, also good as a shared appetizer, is romanesco cauliflower cooked in a pipian mole with pepitas.
Wren & Wolf currently offers three desserts: a key lime tart, a flourless chocolate torte with cherries, and a slice of “BBC.” The final item and the most impressive of the three is not the venerable broadcaster but instead a big bourbon cake with frosting, pecans, and bananas on top and pool of rich whiskey sauce on the bottom. The beverage selection from the two bars includes cleverly named and assertively flavored cocktails like “Have you Met Mezcal” and “Shisito out of Luck,” along with wines from all over and craft beers of predominantly local origin.
At this time, Wren & Wolf is focused primarily on dinner service, but it does use one of its bars to offer espresso drinks and pastry during daytime hours. Lunch is a possibility in the future as more workers return to the offices at Renaissance Square and other high-rises in the surrounding blocks. Even with two well-established trends in its name and decor, Wren & Wolf has proven itself to be sufficiently distinctive to enrich the downtown restaurant mix, offering the kind of high-end dining destination that would have been unlikely just a few years ago.
2 N. Central Ave. #101, Phoenix AZ 85004