One year after debuting in Midtown Phoenix, Kevin Binkley’s reconceived and reinvigorated flagship restaurant is ready for its national close-up.
After legendary Valley restaurant Mary Elaine’s at The Phoenician resort closed in 2008, it became trendy in food writing circles to sound the death knell for fine dining in Phoenix. In subsequent years, the phrase “white tablecloth” became a sort of sad benediction for the city’s dwindling inventory of expensive, stuffy restaurants.
At least we still had Binkley’s. Despite a recession and a public mindset that favored cheap eats, chef Kevin Binkley stayed the course at his famous Cave Creek food lab, offering molecular gastronomy, tasting menus, formal service, white tablecloths – yes, the whole fine-dining shebang – to a shrinking audience for one simple reason: Fine dining is his passion, the only
restaurant genre in his DNA.
Binkley and his wife and co-owner Amy dabbled in other things, too, opening a trio of more accessible eateries to tap the casual-upscale market. But the magic wasn’t there, so the Binkleys did something truly gutsy: They downsized. That meant leaving Café Bink to a trusted partner, and closing Bink’s Scottsdale and Bink’s Midtown. They also shuttered the original Binkley’s and moved it into the Midtown space, reopening their flagship restaurant in December of 2016 as a multi-course, fixed-menu odyssey so pricey it stretches the “special occasion restaurant” paradigm to mortgage-busting extremes.
Yes, the new Binkley’s is expensive – $700 minimum for two people if you do it right, which is to say, spring for wine pairings – but it’s also a sensual experience unlike anything else in Phoenix. With three visits under my belt since its opening – one when it opened last winter, another last summer and the third this past fall – I believe it to be the Valley’s premier restaurant, and an evolutionary improvement over its predecessor. It’s more personal, more immersive and, ultimately, more down-to-earth, despite the sticker shock. Gone are the deconstructed plates and amuse-bouche shots on disco-light coasters. No more tablecloths either, though the service is more gracious and professional than ever, thanks to manager Christian Giles, a fine-dining restaurant veteran who spent 16 years working with chef Charlie Trotter in Chicago.
Gone, too, are the days when you could snag a seat at the bar with no reservations on a slow weeknight and graze your way through a few à la carte dishes. The new Binkley’s offers a formidable, always-evolving 19- to 28-course tasting menu... and that’s it. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition.
Like any event for which you buy a ticket, the show begins promptly (6:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday), no waiting for lollygaggers. In cool weather, the event begins on the patio, where diners are offered a nibble and a light cocktail. On my most recent visit, it was a fusion-y mule containing shiso-infused vodka, fresh lime juice, ginger beer and tomatillo-infused ice, paired with crispy prosciutto-provolone chips and peach-sweetened mustard dip. Tasty, both.
After cocktails, diners move inside to the lounge for a series of bar snacks that reveal Binkley’s playful side. A sticky, candied-salmon slider, the fish slow-smoked and basted in maple syrup, is fabulous, its sweetness offset by a frothy drift of dill-yogurt mousse, tailor-made for dredging.
The second bar course – yellowfin tuna, out of the water just 18 hours before it’s filleted, frozen to minus-10 degrees and shaved into snow – reflects Binkley’s abiding interest in molecular gastronomy. Crunchy with pistachio crumble and sesame seeds, the tuna snow is nestled alongside a tiny scoop of crème fraîche dotted with yuzu kosho, a Japanese condiment/flavor bomb composed of citrusy yuzu, garlic, salt and chiles. It’s delightful and perplexing all at once, as your brain whirs to sort out the unusual combination of textures and flavors.
Round three brings a mini parade of charcuterie, dropped off by tong and in waves, beginning with coppa (Italian-style ham from Iowa) and ending with dreamy Ibérico ham, famously sourced from acorn-fed Spanish pigs. Essentially, it’s a heady extension class in the world’s finest cured meats. Accompaniments include ultra-sweet gumdrop grapes, figs, crispy crostini (more air than bread) and apricot-horseradish jam for a hot-sweet counterpoint.
The last bar course is the only disappointment of the evening – an Indian pakora (think lentil fritter) whose spicy flavor is meant to echo Buffalo wings. Served with blue cheese dipping sauce, it’s undercooked and overwrought.
That minor mistake is soon forgotten, however, as we enter the dining room, an intimate, rustic space furnished with round wooden tables. For parties of two, both chairs are arranged to face the kitchen, whose fourth wall has been removed to create a brightly lit, fully animated stage. Binkley, soft-spoken and gracious, steps forward to properly welcome his guests, encouraging us to see the restaurant as an extension of his home, a place where we are free to hang out in the kitchen, ask questions and watch the staff at work.
Full disclosure: Over the years, I’ve become friendly with the Binkleys, but I don’t believe that alters the Binkley’s experience reviewed here one whit. Kevin and Amy have a graciousness and zeal for food that they share universally, and you get a lot more of them with this new format. As much as the food, they inform the unique energy of the place.
Our first dining room course, a trio of lollipop skewers arranged like flowers in a vase, marks the bridge between the whimsy of the bar snacks and the labor-intensive, food-geeky courses that follow. The skewers, we’re told, are to be eaten in a particular order (light to heavy): first a knob of lobster smothered in curry butter; then a cube of butternut squash, glazed with maple syrup and crunchy pork rind; and finally, a small, luscious slab of cold, lightly seared foie gras, dipped in passion fruit gélée. Oh, I could live in this world a while.
Binkley spent time in Japan this past summer, his third visit there in recent years, and many of his dishes on the current menu are influenced by those experiences. Chilled wasabi soup, for example, bears the taste of classic Japanese stock, made with dashi, soy, mirin and sake. Afloat in this heavenly broth are tomato, basil, junsai (akin to sea beans, but less salty) and a fresh, briny plug of creamy West Coast uni. The Japanese bowl in which it’s served is just as pretty as the soup itself. Meanwhile, ultra-tender abalone, braised in that same classic broth, takes the flavor profile a notch deeper and richer, offering up one of the most memorable dishes of the evening.
There are many excellent courses, to be sure: a pretty, pomegranate-studded baton of miso-glazed eggplant that riffs on the Japanese classic called dengaku; a trio of wild mushrooms (matsutake, chanterelles and lobster), each given a different preparation; an add-on of osetra gold caviar, farmed in Uruguay from a Caspian Sea harvest of sturgeon made a decade earlier served in its tin with an accompaniment of chive-topped, crème fraîche-stuffed vol-au-vent (tiny rounds of flaky puff pastry), offers a salty, nutty pop. Then comes the absolute show-stopper: a gorgeous, pale pink slab of hazelnut-fed pork from the Pacific Northwest, slow-cooked with sage and thyme from Binkley’s garden, then finished over pecan and oak for a few more hours, the lily gilded with sweet, rich guanciale (cured pork cheek) and date relish, mirin-balsamic reduction and spicy chile oil.
A lovely hibiscus-ginger tea infusion serves as a digestif, but I’m running out of wiggle room by the time dessert approaches. There are three courses, all lovely. I especially like the elegant green tea panna cotta with milk jam and gingerbread crumble, but there’s just no room at the inn, barely enough to get down one sliver of licorice-y Hungarian truffle, shaved over our upside-down vanilla ice cream cone.
Three hours and change later, I can safely say the experience has been otherworldly, a perfect blend of everything I want in a stellar meal – lovely but casual surroundings, service that strikes the perfect balance between friendly and formal, rare ingredients, gorgeous presentations, unique dinnerware and plenty of time to relax and enjoy it all. Which is why I’ll argue the $700-plus bill is not entirely unreasonable, given the context. After all, the dizzying amusement park effect of Binkley’s is akin to the mind-blowing meals you’d find at The French Laundry in Napa Valley or The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia – two venerated restaurants that just so happen to be on Binkley’s résumé, and where you’d pay even more.
I have a feeling Binkley, perhaps the most celebrated chef never to win a James Beard Award, will break bigger than ever on the national stage this winter when the Valley’s high-season population returns. While ridiculously loud restaurants slinging mediocre cocktails and indifferent small plates have become the new normal, Binkley is fighting the good fight, preserving the Old World graciousness and exquisite attention to detail that many of us so sorely miss.
Still balking at the price point? Well, think of Binkley’s multi-course extravaganza as a sort of designer antidote – expensive, impractical for everyday use and most assuredly not covered by your health plan – to the banality of the modern mid-priced restaurant. One dose should go a long way.
And the tablecloth: no longer included.
Cuisine: Modern American
Contact: 2320 E. Osborn Rd., Phoenix, 602-388-4874, binkleysrestaurant.com
Hours: Dinner W-Sa 6:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
Highlights: Prices are set at $165 per person, plus add-ons such as Wagyu ($42) and caviar ($72); wine pairings offered in three tiers: basic pairing ($90), sommelier pairing ($135) and chef pairing ($190)
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