In the heart of Phoenix, and tucked inside the ultra-hip Downtown Phoenix Renaissance Hotel, is Dust Cutter- a rustic, yet modern watering hole that offers delectable desert-inspired food and cocktails. The Mr and I were invited to have dinner there an evening not so long ago. We were seated at a four-top table near the glass fireplace and open windows. Once settled in, the manager-Austin and our waiter- Jose introduced us to the menu, and made some suggestions.
We started off with a few appetizers, and chased down the food with glasses of refreshing iced peach and ginger tea. We had the ‘Butter Lettuce Cups’- which had avocado, heirloom tomatoes, Crow’s Dairy feta, and lemon oil. ‘Mary’s Chicken Taquitos’- guajillo pepper sauce, lime cream, cabbage, pickled red onion slaw. ‘Roasted Pepper and Garlic Pork Wings’- Red Kitchen candied jalapeños, and Point Reyes bleu cheese. Lastly, the Avocado Fries with Chiltepin Pepper Aioli.
The lettuce in the ‘Lettuce Cups’ was buttery, soft and smooth. The mix of avocado, heirloom tomatoes, feta, with the lemon oil brought out a zesty twist to the dish. Ok, I broke away from my meat-free lifestyle so I could lightly sample the taquitos and pork wings, as they came HIGHLY recommended. For those brief bites, I savored the meat, mixed with amazing flavors. The bleu cheese was an unusual accompaniment for the pork wings, however, it just worked. The Avocado Fries were deep fried in a yummy batter. Luckily, it was just a fried crust, as when I bit into it, the green, soft avocado was inside. The aioli dipping sauce provided a magnificent finish to the dish.
For the main entrees, the Mr had ‘Mary’s Grilled Spicy Chicken Sandwich, which had Red Kitchen candied jalapeños, pepper jack cheese, butter lettuce, tomato, chipotle aioli and served on a brioche bun. He told me that it was the best chicken sandwich he’s ever had. It was perfectly marinated, with the perfect combination of sauces and flavors. The ‘WOW factor’ was pretty high in his eyes.
I had the ‘Veggie Burrito Bowl’. It had cilantro lime rice, beans, shredded lettuce, Pico de gallo, guacamole, southwestern quinoa, and drizzled with lime crema. It was definitely a burrito, but without the tortilla wrapping (and healthier). Staying true to any Southwest-inspired cuisine, the flavor was ridiculously powerful (in the best way possible), with a hint of spiciness.
The evening ended with ‘Sopapillas’ and a piece of the ‘Avocado Lime Cheesecake.’ The pillowy pastries were coated with a cinnamon/sugar mix, then had blue agave caramel sauce and powdered sugar drizzled on top. We dipped them in a tantalizing ancho chile chocolate sauce. The cheesecake had a pistachio graham cracker crust and topped with a raspberry compote. The crust was not crunchy and complemented the moist cake perfectly.
I didn’t have the chance to meet with Executive Chef Josh Murray that evening, however, I was able to sit down with him later. It was truly an unforgettable experience to meet with him and chat about the restaurant.
On growing up in rural Virginia and getting a penchant for food… “Growing up, going to the grocery store was an adventure. Not just from the sense of the food, but it wasn’t right down the street. I grew up in the middle of 50 acres. I was an avid outdoorsman. I always loved art and science. But the thing that was always a major part of entertainment for us growing up as a child, even when you didn’t have all the money in the world; we always had people that would stop by. We always broke bread around the table. My mom and dad are both fairly talented cooks, but it was that understanding that at a young age; that if you have nothing else, if you have the opportunity to break bread around the table with somebody, and put your heart and soul into whatever it is that you’re cooking, and put a smile on somebody’s face- that’s hospitality in its purest form. As I began to fall in love with food, I realized that all these aspects of working with my hands, entertaining people, and the art and science … all these different things really rolled up into food. I didn’t really know where it was going to take me. When I first fell in love with it, it was in middle school. But nevertheless, I just knew that’s what made me happy. What brought joy to me was that euphoric experience of sharing something that fills your belly, and sharing those moments with people. That’s pretty much been my driving force behind everything I do, whether I’m in the fine dining restaurants, or I’m cooking a hamburger for somebody at a BBQ out back. It’s about putting a smile on somebody’s face and creating that euphoric hospitality, and realizing that food is not to be rushed. It’s to be enjoyed, and it should be enjoyed with the people that you enjoy in life. ”
He went on to attend Johnson and Wales University – Virginia Beach. It was there that he immersed himself in the culinary arts. He competed nationally in the ACF (Arizona Culinary Federation), both in team and individual categories. He went to school full-time and had a full-time job. He goes on to explain, “My days would normally start at 6 am and wouldn’t end until 12 or 1 at night.”
He compressed so much in such a short amount of time. After finishing school, he went to cook at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. “I was just a cook, but had a great experience.” He then ventured back to Virginia Beach, then on to D.C. (where his Marriott Career started) then Ft. Lauderdale (Harbor Beach Marriott) in restaurants and banquets – “Where we had the chance to be a part of opening up one of the largest revenue -grossing restaurants in the entire Mariott portfolio.” He left there, then went to J.W. Mariott Desert Palm Springs and got a chance to run all their restaurants. It covered the full spectrum of fine and casual dining, to a Japanese steakhouse. He then took his first Executive Chef position at Renaissance Sonoma, and then it was on to Downtown Phoenix Renaissance. “This place is special because it’s allowed me to a part of the process from sitting down at the architecture firm and putting pen to paper, to the complete pull-through.”
“When Joey Schulz and I set out to concept this place, I had this vision in my mind of one, wanting to pay tribute to the Sonoran Desert. There’s been a lot of great things that have happened in Phoenix over the last 100 years, but it turned into a very interesting mixing pot of a lot of different things. I really felt like the identity of what it meant to harvest the Sonoran Desert had been lost. There’s just an unbelievable bounty here: when it comes to the Chiltepin pepper that is used in the aioli of the avocado fries, the mesquite smoked flavors, it’s laced all the way through the menu. It was absolutely critical to the cocktail and food programs that we basically reverse-designed this place backwards from that. When we did that, we started off by looking over the landscape of Downtown Phoenix. What’s down here, what’s working, what’s not working. What are people looking for, and how do we take gathering the Sonoran Desert, and make that translate so it makes sense and pulls people in. As we went through this process, you’ll notice that the craft cocktail program with the food is really all about paying tribute to what Arizona is. We have the cheese crisps. We pull as far out as Southern California, Colorado, and New Mexico. We wanted to approach things the way people understood from a food and beverage standpoint- that wherever you came from around the country, you could understand it. We wanted to expand your experience by pulling these different elements of tones and textures through. Everybody knows what a chicken wing is… pork wings… The dry rub that (is on the wings) is something I’ve worked on for the past 15 years of my life. The amount of care that goes into how we prepare getting ready for executing these dishes is just paramount, so we can execute at a high volume as fast as we can. When we got into this space, Tammy Lowen was the person that picked out all these finishes. Collectively as a hotel, we sign off on all these things together. But is was really important for us to have this edgy elegance. We didn’t want to have a whole lot of barriers to the space. We want to be able to bring that feel of the desert inside the building, but we wanted to do it in a way that still maintained this elegance. We wanted that rustic beauty. So the idea with all these names started kicking around, Dust Cutter came up. Dust Cutter is really a tribute to a strong drink. So when you’re out riding the trails all day long back in the day, you can imagine how this place was founded, and how it was developed. Then we have the haboobs. So the idea of coming to your favorite spot and having a nice strong cocktail to wet your whistle after being out on the trails and tying that into the haboobs, seem like a really logical choice for a way for us to pull it all together. So the traditional sense of gathering the Sonoran Desert, the idea of riding through the Sonoran Desert, the idea of needing a place to replenish your body after being out in all of those elements. It just seemed like a great idea. The cool thing about this space too, is it’s not just about the menu, it’s not just about the decor .. but these little nuances that we used pull through these other elements. It’s just really important for us not to stop with the concept…to make sure it was pulled through on every last piece of how it gets to the consumer. Conceptually, this restaurant was predicated on the idea of gathering. You notice there’s a fairly large ‘shareables’ portion of the menu. Let’s say you and I come to the restaurant. The idea is that you’d order a couple things a person, and the price points match that. But we order a couple things a person, and a cocktail, and we share and discover together. That whole ‘shareables’ portion is all about evoking that community feel.”
On signature dishes… “The Avocado Fries are definitely popular. My personal favorite dish is the House Smoked Pork Belly. It doesn’t sell as much as I would like it to, but every time it’s ordered it’s like this euphoric experience for the people that eat it. The care and time that goes into that dish… That pork belly is dry rubbed for 24 hours, then it’s smoked at 250 degrees for another six hours. Then it’s taken out and pressed with 30 lbs of weight for another 24 hours in order to get that gelatinous -like experience that a lot of people can be turned off..it presses all that fat out. So you have this beautiful mesquite smoke. It’s got just the right amount of fat to be delicious. So I call it the good fat. But it’s not overbearing… Then we have to cut it into portions. Then to order, it’s flash-fried and then it gets tossed in this beautiful Copper City Bourbon date glaze, which gives off this peppery bite to it. It also has candy pistachios, pickled watermelon rind that’s got a lot of nice spice to it. It’s just a really complex dish that has a tremendous amount of care put into it, and I love it. The burrito bowls sell like crazy. The cheese crisps are a fairly simple item to make. Everyone seems to want flatbread, and this is our opportunity to pay respect to Arizona; then I expanded on that. I wanted this ‘flatbread diversity’ to what the cheese crisp was. You get the Toy Box Mushroom- brie with arugula and caramelized onions on it, or the Fig and Prosciutto, and Tomato Onion Jam. So when you talk about using things like Copper City Bourbon, that’s a local distillery. The dates that are laced throughout the menu, the tender belly bacon-wrapped dates – tender belly bacon being from Colorado, dates out of Northern Phoenix. We’ve got the Chiltepin peppers. We’ve got Crow’s Dairy laced throughout the menu too, in the cheese curds, feta, avocados that we pull, and the enormous citrus. You look at the quinoa bowl. We have the ability to put a nice southwest spin on a vegan and gluten-free dish that we’re not afraid to have big bold flavors on. From top to bottom, there’s not one single dish that doesn’t have a local component to it.”
On sustainability in the kitchen…”In terms of the actual produce, we try to focus as much as we can on that organic aspect to things. There is a future idea to grow a little bit more of our produce on the property. Based upon the interesting dynamic of where we are as a hotel. I am using as much local produce as I possibly can. The sustainability measure that we go through here as well, for example, the Wild Aisle Salmon that’s in the turbulent waters of the Northern Pacific, that’s got a 99% to 1% ratio of habitat vs fish. What we get with this type of salmon is that we’ll have a consistent yield, but the fat to muscle ratio of the salmon because of the habitat in the turbulent waters they live in, really produces a desirable fish. That Wild Aisle Salmon, while it’s not caught in the Salt River, it is a very sustainable fish that we use. Then that sustainability goes another step. a lot of times, we talk about sustainability as a chef or as about a food and beverage component of what we buy, but then what you do with it. So a lot of times you see a $25 fish on a menu and it’s a 7 oz portion of salmon. People are like ‘oh, that’s 25 bucks, that’s a little bit more than what I want to spend,’ but then regardless of how delicious it is, there’s a lot of times where you see a couple ounces of that fish come back because the people are just full. So that sustainability measure turns into the fact that I take my salmon price down south to 20 bucks and I take that portion size to a 5 oz portion. So I try to feed you, not fatten you, and do it at a price point that goes along with this ambiance in a way where we want to be, and then the plate comes back clean. So not only are we buying a sustainable product, we’re treating it in a sustainable fashion, and delivering a portion size that doesn’t allow for a whole lot of waste. The Kobe that we use for the fish tacos is from an open blue program, the shrimp that we are using for our Shrimp and Grits (another amazing dish) that’s a Celba Tiger Shrimp. We’re trying to take on a bigger responsibility in terms of supporting the local community in terms of the items that we buy, and the bounty of the Sonoran Desert. But we’re also trying to be respectful in terms of where we purchase our meats, and in terms of how we deliver those portion sizes of a price point that allow us to carry that sustainability model all the way through to the end.”
On community…”We at Dust Cutter, and the hotel are so invested in this community, and giving back to this community. The culture of this hotel is about family and giving back. It’s about loving one another, and we do that every single day. We do that with each other, with the community. We do Grace and Mercy, which really takes care of the homeless in Downtown Phoenix. We do Hope Kids, Children’s Miracle Network, the list goes on… We just do as much as we possibly can to take the avenues that we have as a hotel and as a restaurant to really give back to the community. Our success only allows us to continue to do that further and further every single day. This isn’t just a hotel, this is a footprint of the embodiment of being part of Downtown Phoenix; being a part of the re-birth, the growth, and investing into tomorrow. I feel like being that kind of player in downtown and sometimes we’re just looked at as a hotel. I think that’s what really differentiates us, and it’s fun to be a part of. I look forward to continued growth. We are not done. We have more things that are coming, and it’s exciting. Steve Cohn- the owner of the hotel has put up a lot of money to be the first person in this corridor that has stepped up to make this what it needs to be. I think this place is going to be special.”
Dust Cutter is indeed a great new addition to the downtown scene. I’m so excited to have this as an option for lunch or dinner. In fact, just looking at the photos makes me want to go back for some Avocado Fries!
NOTE: We were hosted that evening at Dust Cutter, however, ALL opinions are my own!