It really doesn't take much more than fresh, handmade pasta to convince me to stop into a restaurant, but there's more to Proper than a great bowl of Cavatelli Bolognese. Flavorful sauces, handmade sausages, and expertly prepared cuts of meat make Proper's offerings decadent, yet familiar and approachable.
Headed by chef Kris Vrolijk, Proper's menu is a straightforward set of big and small plates, accompanied by a modest list of local beer and wine, as well as a few craft cocktails. Although, for the most part, Proper's cocktails tend to be on the sweet side, refreshing glimpses like the Garden Party ($9) blend tequila, lime, cucumber, and mint for brighter, herbal flavors. Still, the cocktails almost all feature the sweeter spirits like whiskey, tequila, or rum as the base. It would be nice to see the bar switch it up a little and play with drier and bitterer flavors for more variety.
To start, small plates, which are, for the most part, half off during happy hour, display a range of flavors from Spain to Italy to the ubiquitous "New American" cuisine. Velvety ricotta gnocchi with tart and savory flavors like lemon oil and mushrooms ($10), a charcuterie board with house cured meats and pickled vegetables, and tender pork shoulder sliders ($9) are filling enough to be a meal for one. The light, bright Spanish-style bocadillo ($8) pairs Jamon Serrano, buttery manchego, and spicy watercress for a well-rounded afternoon snack or pre-meal bruschetta alternative.
Salads, such as the chilled Brussels sprouts Caesar ($9) with thinly sliced anchovy fillets and cheddar crisps in place of croutons, as well as the roasted beets with bleu cheese and arugula, display the chef's ability to prepare vegetables simply and pair them with complimentary flavors to let their natural flavors shine.
However, the real winner of Proper's starters is the shank stew ($12). Tender lamb, halved dates and chopped carrots contrast each other in a smooth gravy. Expertly spiced to accentuate both the sweet and more substantive components, that gravy will have you repeatedly dipping and licking your spoon like a kid with a lollipop. Similarly, the light, fluffy Hayden Mills polenta ($7) was so creamy and soft that it wins you over on texture with the first bite and the tomato and ricotta add enough flavor to keep you interested in the ensuing bites. Admittedly, the comparatively bland frisee added little to the dish.
Moving on, the big plates feature a varied selection of meat, fish, and pasta dishes. As I said before, you should most definitely try the fresh and perfectly al dente pasta coming from Proper, but meat lovers will also find a lot to love about the entree line-up.
Although the Merguez lamb with herby chimichurri on the small plates shows the restaurant's ability to make their own sausage, the local chiltepin chile sausage ($16) shows that, when done right, it certainly is worthy of its own main course. With green apple and kimchi for tartness and acidity and scallion for brightness, the dish had the elements it needed for balance. However, since the sausage and components rested on a bed of beans, the single large piece of kimchi could have used a rough chop before plating so that the entire dish could benefit from its flavor elements. Instead, the beans were left lacking what the kimchi, combined with the apple and scallion, could have given.
Traditional cuts like an NY Strip, bone-in chop, or roasted Cornish chicken are elevated at Proper with a variety of fresh, seasonal produce that, like the salads, focus on promoting the natural goodness of the ingredients, without overcomplicating them. The chili roasted duck ($23) was prepared perfectly at medium rare—tender, moist, and pink in the middle with a lightly crisp skin. The lightly gamey flavor of the meat benefitted from the drizzle of raspberry balsamic syrup. Lending a fruitiness to the dish, the dish's flavors felt familiar like a 21st century duck à l'orange. Resting on a browned bed of potato and celery root puree and fried Brussels sprouts, the dish was filling and substantial overall, while looking delicate and polished.
Much like the rest of the menu at Proper, this dish shows what the restaurant does best, which is hearty dishes that conjure a meat and potatoes vibe without being so obvious as that. Sure, most winter menus skew for the hearty, but there's something about Proper's current menu that's so distinctly, well, masculine—mixing upscale burgers and wings with more sophisticated dishes that garner inspiration from cuisines around the world.
Owned by Flagstaff-based restaurateurs SLO Restaurant Concepts, the space will soon be joined next door by a boutique butcher shop featuring those in-house made sausages and cured meats that make the restaurant shine. Chef Vrolijk even said, once operational, the meatery next door may begin carrying fresh pasta.
Until then, you can stop into the restaurant to sample some of those great handmade goods. If you're on a budget, Proper even offers farmer market inspired $35 prix fixe meals the first Monday of the month, as well as a $40 date night dinner special for two, in addition to a weekend brunch menu.