SSLB burger; photo by Rob Ballard

Second Story Liquor Bar

Written by Nikki Buchanan Category: Food Reviews Issue: February 2018
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With its fourth chef in as many years, the swank Scottsdale gastropub may have found a keeper.

Spanish octopus; photo by Rob BallardDon’t look now, but food lovers are buzzing about Second Story Liquor Bar. Yep, again.

Restaurateur Tommy Plato’s swank, second-floor speakeasy in Old Town Scottsdale is hardly new – it’s been sitting above The Gelato Spot, which Plato also founded, for four years now. But it does have a new chef in Chris McKinley (Atlas Bistro, The Local), whose playful streak and penchant for global flavors put him in the same league as the kitchen talents who came before him – namely, Josh Bracher, Nick Rusticus and Jason McGrath, each of whom made brief but noteworthy splashes at SSLB before moving on.  

It’s become something of modus operandi for Plato: discover and cultivate a hot new talent, then lose him, in short order. Still, I hope McKinley sticks around a while, which he’s likely to do, given that Plato has made him a partner. His food is good – sometimes great – and a little continuity is exactly what this identity-challenged place could use.

Though Plato wisely jettisoned the cryptic, chapter-themed menus from the restaurant’s early days, there’s still an air of intrigue at this not-so-secret “speakeasy,” where an unmarked entrance leads customers up a narrow staircase to an intimate, dimly lit dining room crammed with tables and banquettes. Near the bar, a sliver-thin balcony overlooks Scottsdale Road below.

Don’t be fooled by the name – SSLB is food-dominant, as evidenced by a menu featuring salads, veggie small plates and mains, not the casual, snack-y fare associated with a bar. Warm, buttery “WTF” biscuits – drizzled with sticky fermented honey and sided with airy crème fraîche butter, jam and a tiny pitcher of maple syrup, spiked with WhistlePig rye whiskey – are the exception, and so outrageously good I’m inclined to utter the very words for which the acronym stands.

Violette Reviver cocktail; phot by Rob BallardI also love McKinley’s bulging mess of a burger, the patty an unctuous mashup of ground chuck, brisket and short rib set atop a sunchoke aioli-smeared bun stacked with onions, tart-sweet house-made pickles and a melty yellow sliver of American cheese. Fantastic! Hand-cut fries are first-rate, too.

If their texture were better – looser and less like mini burgers – a shared plate of brisket and pork meatballs would be equally off the charts. Bathed in rich tomato sauce and ladled over crispy garlic crostini, which soften in the sauce, they offer up a touch of heat, nicely offset by bright basil vinaigrette and a creamy dollop of herbed ricotta.    

 House-made mafalde (ribbon pasta akin to curly edged lasagna strips) come tossed in an earthy mushroom ragout enriched with crisped confit chicken thigh and a dusting of truffle Parmesan, a comforting winter dish that’s even better as a leftover the next day. The best main, however, is surely McKinley’s Spanish octopus, flash-fried to a crisp and nestled in a creamy bed of cannellini bean ragout, then streaked with romesco sauce (red peppers, almonds).

Ironically, and oddly, the one arena where SSLB fails to meet expectations is the cocktail program. I generally found the drinks expensive and lackluster, and SSLB to be more like a regular fine dining restaurant than a “liquor bar” where one finds clever, affordable small plates and great cocktails. So maybe Plato needs to pick one or the other? If Second Story can find its identity and own it, it might be something more than a revolving door of young talent.

Second Story Liquor Bar
Cuisine: American
Contact: 4166 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-945-5555, secondstoryaz.com
Hours: Tu-W 4 p.m.-10 p.m.; W-Th 4 p.m.-11 p.m.; F-Sa 4 p.m.-2 a.m.
Highlights: WTF biscuits ($9); burger ($16); Spanish octopus ($23); chicken and mushroom pasta ($23)

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