…when you really start going out of your way to experience the best of what the world’s dining has to offer it is infrequent that you are shocked and amazed; In the era of food television, flickr, yelp, and any number of food blogs (including the one you are reading) chances are that going into a meal you at least know what to expect. Sure there are times that the meal will wow despite heaps of praise (Roberta’s and Alinea leap to mind) but those experiences become fewer and further between as time goes on and often, perhaps unfairly, lead the you to being jaded and searching for that next “wow” moment – a moment I honestly did not expect to find in the middle of the dessert, especially not during a meal serving as part of a job interview.
Having already noted the circumstances surrounding this review the night began when the practice I was interviewing with asked me where I’d like to eat and after a quick search of my typical spots I read of Binkley’s – perhaps Arizona’s most well thought of house of gastronomy (especially of the new age sort.) Not wanting to seem ‘greedy’ but knowing that the dining scene of a place I was considering as my future home was an important part of the decision I made the suggestion and the pair of interviewers gladly agreed. Explaining to them in brief that I’d have a camera in tow they learned a bit about my hobby and although not “foodies” by any means they seemed quite intrigued by the concept and with the reservations made by them all I had to do was arrive: 6:30pm, 9/29/11.
With expectations tempered given the circumstances but certainly higher than with a traditional “interview” dinner my arrival at Binkley’s was timely and finding the couple already present and waiting in the lobby we exchanged pleasantries before reservations were confirmed were quickly led through the spacious dining room to a table just out of view of the kitchen. With noise moderate and the front-of-house surprisingly smiley and professional yet whimsical and conversant from the moment we arrived I knew we would be in good hands (but little did I know HOW good.)
Seated at a comfortable four-top it would be mere moments after seating that our captain would greet us and after confirming water choices we were presented with a wine list and menus while the a la carte vs. 4/5/6 course tasting menu option was explained. With my co-diners having never experienced such a place and with many of the items on the menu rather novel to them we were left to decide and largely allowing them to dictate the pace we settled on the five course tasting…or so we thought.
Having heard much about Chef Kevin Binkley’s training as well as his propensity for amuses, mignardises, and all sorts of small bites it would be mere moments before the deluge of creativity would begin, but not before perhaps the most unexpected coincidence in all my dining experiences; a moment of mutual recognition when our captain realized that she and her husband (a Chef at Binkley’s) had sat directly next to me just one month prior at The Restaurant at Meadowood and I recalled their commentary about working in the industry (and the fact that she too had been photographing Chef Kostow’s beautiful food throughout the meal but had forgotten to snap a picture of the final savory.) With my potential employers thoroughly amused by such a chance occurrence and conversation freely flowing as our service remained perfect from here on out what followed would be a twenty-seven “course” three hour and forty five minute rollercoaster unlike anything either of them had ever experienced.
Beginning the meal first with bread, Binkley’s house made selection of the evening consisted of Dill Onion Brioche, Hickory Smoked Bacon and Thyme Baguette, Honey Wheat with Apricots, Yellow Raisins, and Walnut, plus standard Sourdough, and butter brioche all served with salted California Cow’s butter. From a man who dabbles heavily in the small plates I was appreciative to find the breads equally petit and sampled plenty throughout the meal with a particular affinity of the warm butter brioche, the hickory smoked bacon, and the honey wheat with fruits.
Having mentioned the myriad small bites, the first two plates to arrive at our table after the bread service would be Chilled Watermelon and Star Anise Soup with Lime Oil and Yellow Curry Pate a Fruit – two entirely different flavors and textures but each miraculously clean and well balanced with sweet, savory, and spice all present in spades opening the palate up fully and already making my dining partners say “I’ve never tasted anything like that.”
Arriving as another duo (or trio depending on how you look at it,) our second round of bites would consist of something traditional and something entirely off the wall – the first House made Brown Sugar Coppa with sourdough crostini, whole grain mustard, caperberry, pickled pearl onion, fried sage, red wine eucalyptus gelee, plus preserved lemon and fine herbes ricotta and the second Brioche Cinnamon Doughnuts with Bacon Butter. Beginning first with the charcuterie, everything was good though rather standard save for the ricotta and sage which were both quite tasty, the former particularly on the crostini. Moving next to the doughnut – piping hot and minimally greasy they were peerless, particularly when smeared with the umami-savory flavors of hickory smoked bacon.
Arriving as a solo the next dish, “Vanilla Poached Cantaloupe with Lardo and Cypress Salt” required a bit of explanation to my dining partners, but once they got over the concept that they were about to enjoy compressed melon topped with pork fat they quickly ate the bite and expressed a collective smile. A simple bite with mellow notes I personally did not note the lardo, but rather the cantaloupe and salt – a flavor that to me overwhelms everything in any situation.
When the next course arrived my dining partners showed some signs of recognition – apparently Chef Binkley had prepared it for a church group they belonged to – and with the announcement of “Miniature Sloppy Joe with Cornichon on brioche Bun and Banhmi with roasted Serrano Ham, pickled daikon, cucumber, carrot, pork aioli” we all dug in quickly to each of the one bite sandwiches and nodded our heads in agreement; the flavors were spot on.
At this point realizing that there was no real “progression,” per se, to the flurry of bites but rather a whole lot of whimsy that had my dining partners comparing this to a restaurant “adventure” and myself at the very least amused (and also somewhat taken with how much FUN I was having at a fine dining establishment) the next pair of bites to arrive would be Deep fried Padrones Chile with Romesco Sauce and Pinenut Froth and Fried Okra with Ranch Foam, the first a crunchy bit of heat balanced nicely by vinegar, garlic, and nuts while the second was quite literally the most flavorful okra I’ve ever tasted – equally crispy to the Chiles but vegetal and powerful underlying the smooth cream and dill notes.
For the next bite, at this point easily an hour or so into the meal, Popped Sorgum with walnut, Caramelized Onion, Romano Cheese, and Chive would be presented and with the texture of popcorn providing a light backdrop to the other flavors the dish tasted like suspended chip-dip, a single bite on the spoon that dissipated like a gougere with a single bite.
For the next dish, another that raised eyebrows in its description, we were presented “Deep Fried Butter” with Lobster Cream Cheese and Lobster Roe Powder, Chef Binkley’s take on Lobster Bisque created by dropping a butter cube into the fryer and subsequently injecting it with the cream cheese before dusting it with roe. Sweet, creamy, intense and just like the sloppy joe a faithful recreation of the chef’s intention…if this were served at the bar I’d go and order a dozen.
Moving next to another pairing, Puffed Polenta with caramelized tomato and goat cheese and Fried Chorizo with Honey, Mascarpone, Pumpernickel Powder would arrive nearly simultaneously and again focusing on something smooth and something salty, something crisp and something creamy both bites were tasty if somewhat unmemorable largely because of their placement between the “fried butter” and what would come next.
For the final two amuses of the evening it would seem that Chef Binkley had “saved the best for last,” the first a long acrylic tube carting “Individual Pommes soufflés with purple Peruvian and Kennebec potatoes served with honey mustard, Tonka bean BBQ, Sauce Vert, Rouille, Garlic Aioli, and White Truffle Ketchup.” Long, narrow, and well appointed with the aforementioned ingredients this 11-chip service piece was not only eye catching but also a veritable build-your-own-adventure of flavors with each of the toppings pure and flavorful (particularly the Tonka bean BBQ and truffled ketchup) and the potatoes all light, crisp, and barely oily. Having paid $10 for a vastly inferior supply of pommes soufflés in New Orleans a mere year earlier this dish as an amuse additionally seemed incredibly generous.
Now nearly ninety minutes into our experience and still with no sign of a course we’d actually selected from the menu the dish that would turn out to be our final amuse would be the piece de resistance and for myself perhaps the best bite of the night (though there were many contenders for this title,) a dish denoted as “Foie Gras Beignets with White Truffle Cream and Foie Gras Vanilla Milk Shake with Blackberry Swirl and Blackberry Whipped Cream.” Beginning first with the light balls of dough, each with a wispy crumb studded with whole cubes of duck liver torchon these bites were superlative on their own but even more so with the slightly sweet and ethereally aromatic cream. Taking a bite and then moving to the shake…yes, it was absolutely as good as it sounds – a smooth blend of blackberries and heavy cream with the gossamer of the liver always present yet slightly out of reach.
With the proper meal finally coming to light here more than fifteen plates and two hours into our “adventure” I honestly wondered what the team at Binkley’s could do to woo us further, yet what followed would prove that Kevin’s kitchen was every bit as inspired with their large plates as with their bites – the first of which was entitled “Bacon & Egg Custard with summer truffles, guinea hen egg, fingerling potatoes, English peas, brioche crouton.” Always one of my favorite items on any menu and here utilized to great effect, the “egg ” aspect of this dish would actually prove to be a poached yolk served over a creamy pork infused Chawanmushi, light in texture and smooth on the tongue. Not one to skimp on ingredients or presentation, the dish was additionally fortified with a hefty shaving of fresh Australian summer truffles, lightly cooked fingerlings teaming with butter, shelled English peas, as well as baked bacon and brioche to add some crunch.
Realizing next that not only did the amuses and small plates flow freely before the meal but also between plates the following dish would be another selection familiar to my hosts from their church group, a liquid nitrogen “dippin’ dots” exploration of Frozen red, green, yellow tomato salad with mozzarella anglaise, a light, smooth, and shockingly accurate representation of a caprese salad that reminded me of something that could just as easily come out of the kitchen of Andres or Cantu.
Continuing with our five course tasting my second option of the evening would prove to be every bit as delicious as the first and despite my myriad experiences with foie gras this was truly the first time I’d ever experienced it “crispy.” Entitled “Crispy seared Foie Gras with apple, raisins, pomegranate, spiced Brazil nuts, popover, chervil” and finished tableside with a spritz (literally from a spritzer) of cinnamon Ice Wine vinegar this preparation of duck liver would arrive as a linear stripe on a square plate and harkening the plating style of Michael Carlson the flavors would also compare favorably as the crackling exterior of the foie gave way to the melting interior and each bite lent itself to a new form of explanation with the accoutrements – most sweet, many smooth, and all interesting; particularly the popover stuffed with a creamy puree of liver, nuts, and aromatic spices.
Returning to the mg stylings of the previous intermezzo “Cherry Bomb encapsulation with verjus and extra virgin olive oil” would be straight from the book of Adria and served on similar porcelain spoons we were instructed to consume the bubbles in one bite – a swash of pungent cherry that reminded both myself and one of my co-diners of an intensely sweet yet slightly medicinal Luden’s Throat Lozenge.
As if anticipating the overly sweet numbking effect of the Cherry Bomb, a second intermezzo arriving before our third course was described as Yuzu Cucumber Soda and with the topnotes clearly lemon the base of cucumber was readily apparent on the finish washing the palate clean and making me think that perhaps Binkley was on to something with these small bites between meals, particularly for those of us who do not refresh between plates with wine.
For my third course of the evening, Duck with bok choy wrapped breast, confit leg, matsutake mushrooms, daikon, pickled ginger, foie gras-port vinaigrette, and sherry duck consommé would be my third round of foie gras for the evening and although the most conventional of the three still an excellent presentation with the breast and crystal clear consommé served in a bowl teaming with mushroom umami while the confit was plated centrally atop the ginger and daikon with a dusting of five-spice adding a pleasant aromatic note. If I had one quibble about this dish, I rather wish the mushrooms on the plate would have been warmed…nitpicky for sure, but just a personal preference as all else was room temperature or warmer.
Opting against the nightly fish preparation in favor of cheeses there would surprisingly be no treats between course three and four as our server would arrive with the night’s cheese board suggesting I should select three from the eight available – a difficult choice given the quality of the collection, but a decision eventually leading to Boschetto, Lamb Chopper, and Castell de Morella landing on my plate. Served alongside house made fruitcake, pitted prunes, spiced pecans, and crostini all three were nicely aged but I particularly loved the Boschetto, a mixed cow/sheep selection from Italy whose semi-firm texture and notes of white truffle and sweet rind were both new and unexpected to my palate.
Moving towards dessert as we chatted about the meal that just was it seemed obvious that Binkley would transition from savory to sweet with style, but little did we know it would be with style befitting a college dorm room more so than fine dining in the form of “Jello Shooter Lava Lamp with Strawberry Consommé and pineapple, guava, ginger, lychee gelee.” Served on a lighted platform and alongside Elderberry-Elderflower Lollipops this slurpable delight and its accompanying candies would prove a surprisingly restrained one-two punch of flavors, both clearly sweet but not overly so like the cherry bomb and again a bit of whimsy that I personally found as refreshing as the flavors.
For the next intermezzo all I can call it is a tease – a bit of dining refinement between novelty desserts that absolutely wowed – a two-bite Peanut Butter Souffle with Raspberry Jam every bit as “soufflé” as the sloppy joe was its namesake and along with the foie gras beignet perhaps my favorite bites of a great meal. Really – if this was offered on the menu I’d have ordered a full sized one in a heartbeat.
With the dining room now dwindling and just passing the three hour mark in our experience the final desserts would soon arrive and for myself it seemed only appropriate that this dessert would be a collection of small bites from a team that has seemed to master the art; a dish entitled “Horchata in Forms” featuring cinnamon rice pudding, horchata milk shake, sweet milk panna cotta, caramel beignet, and a sugared almond; each tasty, each true to its namesake, but none save for the flawless quenelle of rice pudding even close to on par with the sorbet that had preceded them.
Opting for coffee while we sat and conversed a bit more whimsy arrived with the hot but rather nondescript brew in the form of warm cream in a vessel shaped as a cow. With our captain and one of the female servers next stopping in to see if there was anything else we desired I requested a copy of the night’s menu and received not only that, but also a complete detailed listing of each and every small bite served along the way – a wonderful touch I’ve honestly not seen done anywhere in the past – and along with the menus we additionally received a trio of mignardises; Coconut Meringues, Blackberry Pate A Fruits, and Double stack brownies with milk chocolate ganache – none particularly memorable but all tasty just the same.
With the bill paid and our captain stopping by one last time to chat about what I’d thought of this meal and where else I’d been both in The Valley and during the previous month in The Bay one of the ancillary servers would stop by with one last treat – a bite I fully anticipated to be jolting to my dining partners but something I’d experienced a few times before; Passionfruit “numb” with Sancho Button, an intensely sweet with all the anticipated ‘wow’ that left my colleagues fully convinced that they had definitely never experienced a meal quite like Binkley’s before.
Standing up and making our way to the door as I suddenly realized just how full I was after a long day of eating topped off by such extravagance Chef Binkley made his way quickly from the kitchen to shake hands and bid us farewell – a nice gesture to be sure – and with menus in the left hand my right was filled by the hostess with an admixture of Cinnamon Nuts wrapped in plastic and a Binkley’s ribbon to take home for the next day; one last small treat from a place that had already given us so many, a place that would dominate conversation in clinic the following day, a place that no matter where it was located would be special, and a place that I’ll undoubtedly return to with frequency if my career path should indeed land me in the desert long term.