The Gist: http://christophersaz.com/
The Why: I guess I could pretend that the fact that Christopher Gross is a former Food and Wine Best New Chef winner and Beard Award winner for Best Chef Southwest were the primary reasons for my interest in his “Christopher’s and Crush Lounge” at the Biltmore but in all reality these things were only secondary in importance to the fact that Chef Gross’ restaurant has no less than a half dozen dishes featuring foie gras on the menu. Add in the fact that Chef Gross, probably the only chef in Phoenix to actually cook with Julia Child, was offering a special prix fixe menu celebrating Ms. Child’s 100th anniversary plus the chance to dine with my friend Aileen and her sister (thus sampling the majority of the menu) and I couldn’t really think of a better way to spend the evening.
The Reservation: Made by Aileen via opentable two days prior for 3 people at 6:30pm.
The Space: While I have heard some complain that Christopher’s is inside a swanky shopping mall I counter that commentary by noting that the best restaurant in the United States shares the same dubious distinction and with Chef Gross visible front and center of the open kitchen with wrap around bar I was impressed by Christopher’s the moment I walked in. Bathed in light from the outside at first and then dissipating to a romantic glow as the sun set both the lounge and the dining room at Christopher’s have a modern but refined feel with white tablecloths, fine service ware, and comfortable seating abound while the walls are minimally adorned with single flowers, wooden art, and mirrors. Full throughout most of the evening – largely a middle-age or older crowd – but with good spacing between tables the noise level was modest and even seats juxtaposing the kitchen and restroom area (complete with fantastic waterfall sink) were spared excessive noise.
The Service: Arriving moments after the two ladies who were already seated when I walked in the doors I was led promptly to the table and handed off to our captain, James, en route and as soon as I met him I knew we were in good hands. Pleasant, descriptive, whimsical, and efficient James did a great job of working with my friend’s allergies while additionally being sure water was always filled and bread was replenished as necessary – an admirable feat as he was probably the only captain on our half of the dining room thus quarterbacking at least four back servers working perhaps twenty tables without ever missing a beat.
The Food: Three 3-course prix-fixe meals, bread service, plus an a la carte appetizer, side, and dessert.
Baguette and Salted Butter: Present on the table before I even arrived the bread was as good as one would expect at a French bistro in France, though not quite as lovely as a warm baton from one of Paris’ best bakeries. Crusty and thick on the exterior with a medium crumb the butter was also quite excellent – a soft and smooth cow’s milk blend with subtle sweetness topped with sea salt.
Wood Oven Pizza with Foie Gras, Andouillette, Boudin Noir & Goat Cheese: An 8-slice oblong pie clearly focused on decadence I must say that I was hesitant to order pizza in a French restaurant but much like some of the shock and awe creations at Picard’s Au Pied du Cochon in Montreal this $26 dish worked astonishingly well. Beginning first with the lightly charred crust – sturdy and smoky with a great chew – and moving next to rich and lightly brined chevre I was immediately impressed by the quality of the base and moving on to the trio of offal things only got better as the creamy melting liver, briny blood sausage, and onion-laced crumbly pork all melded into a complex flavor that was at once mineral and pungent but also slightly sweet thus preventing it from being overly rich (even if it was entirely audacious.)
Terrine of Mousse of Foie Gras served w/ Brioche: My first course of the prix fixe was a nearly 2 ounce slice of creamy foie gras topped with Hawaiian black sat served with golden brioche, greens lightly dressed in vinaigrette, and three dots of reduced Balsamic. A very traditional preparation, particularly next to the pizza, this was my third foie gras course of the day and although the least ‘unique,’ a very smooth and well sourced product served in surprising portion for a $40 prix-fixe.
Escargot en Croute w/ Garlic Herb Butter: Another appetizer selection and as a lucky recipient of one of the six snails this was my favorite of the three first courses we received as the rich burgundy snails were cooked to a melt-in-the-mouth texture while an ample topping of thyme and rosemary tinged garlic butter sat beneath crispy puff pastry adding a more butter, but also a lightly crunchy textural element. Another French Bistro classic done very well – Julia Child would have approved.
Frogs Legs with Garlic Herb Sauce and Sauteed Spinach: The third appetizer, and another shocking portion given the price, this plate consisted of three large and plump amphibian hind-quarters lightly coated with egg and flour before a pan searing rendered them slightly crisp yet entirely juicy. Suffering neither from too much salt nor too much of the oily sapor that sometimes maligns frogs legs and served over sautéed spinach with garlic, parsley, and white wine there was a lot of balanced flavor on this plate and all of it was excellent.
Pied du Cochon with Brussels Sprouts, Mustard Seed, and Smoked Bacon: For our main courses Aileen opted for the Steak Frites while her sister chose the Dover Sole Meuniere and while I didn’t taste the former but quite liked the simplicity of the later I was more than happy with my choice of two flaky pastry shells stuffed full of crispy trotters alongside caramelized sprouts and a sauce of smoked bacon and fresh mustard seeds. Intense and savory, well balanced with the pungency of the sprouts, and just a touch of earthy heat from the mustard this was another bistro style dish slightly reimagined that impressed even despite my overall distaste for mustard, an ingredient that here acted to enhance the salty pork rather than mute it as is sometimes the case.
Daily Gnocchi with Onions, Belly Bacon, Taleggio, and Cream: For $8 this was an absolute steal of a side dish as there were no less than fifteen tender dumplings swimming in a pool of bubbling cheese and cream tinged with bacon and onions. Admittedly getting full at this point in the day, particularly as I’d eaten 3/4 of the pizza myself plus a few slices of bread I made sure I finished each dumpling, particularly those where the cheese had browned to form a bit of crunch, but I still regret sending a good portion of the creamy cheese mixture back to the kitchen rather than applying it to another slice of baguette.
Gateau Marjolaine with Dark Chocolate Sorbet: For Aileen’s dessert she opted for the Gateau Marjolaine after confirming no allergens and paired with a tuille sporting impressively bitter dark chocolate sorbet and a fresh strawberry the cake featuring alternating layers of chocolate ganache, almond meringue, milk chocolate, vanilla, and coffee cremeaux would be no less impressive than the sorbet. At times sweet and at others bitter with a creamy mouthfeel punctuated by a slight crunch from the meringue this was simply a delightful dessert that would have only been better if it had been paired with coffee.
Profiteroles with Vanilla Bean Gelato, Chocolate Ice Cream, and Dark Chocolate Sorbet plus Chocolate Sauce: Another high quality interpretation of a bistro classic, the other lady at the table opted for the profiteroles and with the chocolate ice cream I tasted nicely textured and closer to milk chocolate than the sorbet while the chocolate sauce was thick, rich, and intense I personally felt the choux itself could have been a little more crisp, though perhaps some of the ‘sog’ was related to being in Arizona where even in a nicely air conditioned restaurant ice cream tends to melt quickly.
Tarte Tatin with Vanilla Bean Gelato: My prix fixe dessert, and another enormous portion, was this rustic apple tarte tatin with buttery caramelized apples juxtaposed against a crisp pastry shell alongside drizzles of crème anglaise, salty caramel, and a tuille cup filled with rich vanilla bean gelato. Now three for three in the frozen confection department this was a lovely representation of “French Apple Pie” and while I still prefer America’s take on the dish this was certainly a memorable dessert teaming with butter and not overwhelmingly sweet.
Chocolate Mousse Tower with Berries, Espresso Crème: Having joked with James that it seemed odd not to serve the dish that Chef Gross prepared with Julia Child as part of her tribute menu he had to agree but for $10 extra it would have been foolish to pass on this lovely cylinder of white and dark chocolate stuffed with light chocolate mousse and berries as a supplemental dish. Topped tableside with a light espresso cream and nicely balanced with fresh blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries against the lightest chocolate tones of the evening I can certainly say this dish is worth the praise it receives and a great deal of impact on the palate for something that sits quite lightly on the stomach.
The Verdict: A truly outstanding meal with great dining buddies, excellent service, and pleasant environs I must say I remain shocked to this day that Christopher’s does not garner more praise from local gourmands, epicures, and ‘foodies.’ While perhaps not as whimsical as Binkley’s or refined as Kai nearly everything we had at Christopher’s that evening was executed with skill and style while portions and quality far outshined the price point. Certainly we dined on a ‘special event’ budget with the Julia Child menu but all things being equal the menu is no more expensive than many high end steakhouses and satellite outposts in town where the “chef proprietaire” has likely not entered the kitchen in years. All things being equal Christopher’s far exceeded expectations and I have no doubt I’ll be back – ideally with friends in tow to tackle the sous vide lobe of foie, duck two ways, mimolette and mushroom pizza, and perhaps a soufflé or three.