Ex-Noca chef Chris Curtiss presides over a foodie-friendly culinary reboot at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess.
When chef Michael Mina opened Bourbon Steak in February 2008, he likely never envisioned serving pig ears at his $6.9 million restaurant in the AAA Five Diamond Fairmont Scottsdale Princess Resort.
But times change, and as more and more high-end steakhouses flooded the Valley, and the dining public’s appetite waned for $24 foie gras sliders and $175 Japanese Kobe filets flooded with red wine butter, Mina decided an update was due.
Welcome to Bourbon Steak 2.0. Chef Chris Curtiss took over the kitchen in May, unveiled his new menu two months later, and – voila! – there’s your Thai salad topped in crispy pig’s ear, peanuts and fried egg ($10), right in the middle of the small plates lounge menu. It’s just one star on an inventive lineup that also features an enormous goose egg scrambled with black trumpet mushrooms ($17), and Asian recipes like dashi-poached tiger shrimp and marinated cucumber noodle salad accented with earthy shiitake and tomato ponzu ($18).
Many of Mina’s impressive steaks remain, including the Japanese Wagyu A-5 New York strip, considered the highest-grade beef in the world and priced at market, which on my visits, was $29 per ounce (the standard portion size is two ounces, given the dense marbling, but more indulgent appetites are welcome to order as much as their appetites and wallets can handle). However, Curtiss has added plenty of seafood, more local produce, and a wonderful sense of whimsy.
It’s a welcome revival for a destination I hadn’t visited in years, but now have put back on my preferred list. The wit Curtiss demonstrated as chef at Noca when he opened that eatery in 2009 is everywhere – a whirl of culinary activity conjured gracefully by his elaborately tattooed arms and hands.
With specialties like Mina’s signature $68 lobster-truffle pot pie swimming in brandied cream, and a $22 prawn cocktail, Bourbon is clearly still a special occasion restaurant. Still, a savvy diner can score real bargains with the lounge menu, where all items are $10, and offered at half-price during nightly happy hour. Here, Curtiss amazes with small but meaty “K.F.C. Korean” fried chicken wings slathered in sweet-n-spicy gochujang red chile sauce and little dots of sesame and scallion; a clever Reuben sandwich
layered in velvety lamb’s tongue pastrami, coleslaw and spicy pickles; and that Thai salad, a colorful, crunchy toss of julienned carrot, sprouts, chiles, greens and nuts dressed in savory-sweet soy caramel and topped with a brilliant orange-yolk egg.
Because he cooks with the seasons, Curtiss regularly revises the menu. The goose egg, for example, disappeared during the heat of summer because apparently, local fowl don’t lay well when it’s 115 degrees outside. Fair enough. But when the egg’s on, it’s a must-order, the cartoonishly large shell cracked in half and spilling a sumptuous veloutè of silky scrambled egg, sprinkled with black trumpet mushrooms and English peas.
Chilled white corn soup soars above ordinary, too, thanks to crisp kernels in the puree and decorations of chewy chorizo croquettes, avocado and Spanish paprika ($15), while the Hudson Valley foie gras is some of the best I’ve had anywhere, the thick lobe creamy smooth, smothered in tart apricot jam and black pepper gastrique and set atop brioche ($25). Ahi tartare is a Mina classic, but this new version is the way I want it from now on, the ruby red fish gussied with a smidgen of fiery ancho chile, sweet Asian pear, mint and habanero sesame oil ($20). In fact, the seafood may represent the single greatest improvement at the new Bourbon, such as an excellent Thai snapper paired with baby shiitakes, poached shrimp and ramps over fragrant basmati rice ($35).
Naturally, I tried some of the vaunted steak, too. Slow-poached in butter and herbs to exquisite juiciness and tenderness, Bourbon’s red meat offerings are finished over a Mesquite wood-burning grill, searing in flavor and a bit of coveted salty crust. When I win the lottery, I’ll focus my weekly beef splurge on the Wagyu, best complemented with a bowl of blistered shishito peppers anointed with soy and shaved bonito ($11). Until then, I’ve found great satisfaction in the more humble skirt steak, a flat cut best known as fajita-fodder, but served here as a 10-ounce prime cut that practically hemorrhages flavor ($32). Add one of Curtiss’ enormous salt-baked potatoes served with all the fixings presented in little silver cups ($11), and some chilled asparagus for sharing and dunking in sauce gribiche ($11), and I’m a happy table of one with no plans to share.
Curtiss hasn’t monkeyed too much with desserts, and I’m fine with that. More specifically, I’m fine with the Bourbon Bar – a small but potent rectangle of shimmering dark chocolate brownie stuffed with peanut butter ganache and caramel chocolate mousse, then studded in a mosaic of candied cocoa nibs, pretzel, almonds and chocolate meringue. ($9). It’s a 10-megaton sugar bomb.
I’m less fine with the new dress standards, which lean toward casual, or perhaps even “optional.” Resort-relaxed, I appreciate, even for a fine dining spot that wheels out amuse-bouches like a gorgeous sashimi of glistening maguro laced around buttery hamachi and finished with a puddle of yuzu soy and a bit of caviar. But during one late summer visit, too many patrons slopped around the dining room in shorts, rumpled shirts and sandals, and – in one memorable instance – a lady wearing a bikini with glued-on cleavage rhinestones. Hello? Are we in Vegas?
Dress code or no, it’s impossible to not appreciate the skill of the servers, who offer inspired wine pairings, expertly course plates, and can recite the provenance of the nightly changing assortment of raw oysters and clams ($21 large order/$14 small).
Bourbon, you were good before, but now you’re better, and I toast you.
Cuisine: New American
Address: 7575 E. Princess Dr., Scottsdale
Hours: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-10:00 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Highlights: Crispy pig’s ear Thai salad ($10); scrambled goose egg ($17); lobster truffle pot pie ($68); Hudson Valley foie gras ($25); ahi tartare ($20); skirt steak ($32)