Like some enchanted upscale reimaging of Pita Jungle, this spot-on Mediterranean import from L.A. could ignite a dining renaissance at the beleaguered Esplanade.
With few exceptions – the fabulous Roka Akor in Scottsdale being one – popular restaurants imported from other cities just don’t ring my bell. I like hyper-local originals, not watered-down copycats that seldom seem as energetic, sincere or together as their progenitors.
That said, I’m super excited about FLINT by Baltaire, a glitzy Mediterranean-accented restaurant in The Esplanade that constitutes a massaged version of L.A.’s super trendy Baltaire, which made a Sea of Galilee-size splash in Brentwood when it opened in 2015. And although Hollywood power players probably won’t be regulars here, FLINT’s menu is – to my possibly plebeian mind – vastly superior to Baltaire’s, combining the smoke and char of a classic American steakhouse with boldly flavored Middle East dishes and light coastal preparations from the Mediterranean. It’s like one of those rare Hollywood sequels that outclasses the original – lighter, snackier, less predictable and altogether more fun.
Executive chef Chris Mayo (J&G Steakhouse, LON’s at The Hermosa Inn) – recruited by Baltaire partner Travis Strickland, himself a chef – also fills a void in Valley dining few of us perceived before FLINT came along: that of a sexy, high-end alternative to the humble Middle Eastern mom and pop.
FLINT’s charm begins with its aesthetics. Housed in the long-vacant Esplanade space first occupied by Houston’s and later by ill-fated Del Frisco’s Grille (a Texas chain), the bi-level restaurant – with its center-stage bar, glass-enclosed wine room and stunning views of the kitchen – looks fantastic. It smells nice, too, thanks to the smoke emanating from the imported wood-burning hearth and custom Santa Maria-style grill that dominate the kitchen.
As an inveterate grazer, I could happily eat here every week, dipping into every dip on the menu. Hummus mantled with harissa-spiced short ribs, juices seeping into the creamy chickpeas, is an early favorite, wonderful with crisp fried shallots. The smoked eggplant spread is also stellar. Imagine the smokiest baba ghanoush you’ve ever eaten, strewn with fresh mint, pine nuts and juicy, jewel-like pomegranate seeds that burst with tangy sweetness. House-made pita makes a good scoop, but one puffy little disc isn’t enough; the kitchen should send out two. (Sometimes they do, if they see you’ve run out.)
Wood-grilled kebabs of juicy marinated filet mignon, charred at the edges, arrive on a glowing brazier, sided by velvety house-made steak sauce, brighter and rounder-flavored than any bottled version. Grilled artichokes, sprinkled with hand-harvested sea salt from Oregon, take best in class as well, each flame-licked leaf still moist and tender, each cup-like center rich with butter and lemon. Meyer lemon-tarragon aioli puts them over the top, rendering them the best artichokes in town.
For me, bone marrow has always been a bit overrated. (Too much work for a few morsels of greasy fat.) Not here, where the bones are huge, and the savory marrow stands up like gelatin, tasting of beef and smoke. Smear it on grilled country bread, sweeten it with a dab of Medjool date jam or sharpen it with herbaceous salsa verde. Every component is first-rate. Then we’re back to the Middle East with spicy lamb meatballs, nested in a cast-iron skillet brimming with thick braised tomato sauce, each toothsome orb spooned with cumin yogurt and strewn with parsley and dill. I could go years without craving a meatball, but FLINT has converted me.
The first disappointment – and it’s a mild one – is wood-grilled Spanish octopus with peperonata, salsa verde and a smear of romesco sauce. It’s good, but not in the same realm as Gio Osso’s stellar version at Virtù. Then again, what is?
Here’s one of the many things I love about FLINT: You could do it up with a $55 prime rib-eye – served with bone marrow, no less – or you could just slide in for a wood-fired pizza, built upon a charred and agreeably chewy crust, and get out for 20 bucks. From the pizza selections, I loved both the spicy fennel sausage (with spring onions, Calabrian chile and fennel pollen) and the lighter, more feminine prosciutto di Parma (with mozzarella, baby arugula and Arbequina olive oil). On my to-eat list: roasted mushroom with caramelized onion, Taleggio and fresh thyme.
From the entrée section come wood-grilled lamb chops, tender and perfectly pink, albeit a bit under-charred. Still, they’re terrific paired with elevated versions of Middle Eastern standbys: earthy hummus and a lemony Lebanese salad of minced tomato, cucumber, red onion and mint. The dish sings with flavor.
Although I’m less impressed with whole grilled branzino – a Mediterranean version of sea bass that’s trending mightily these days – I’m pretty sure my reaction is akin to the old relationship-ender, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Split along its side and stuffed with lemon slices, the fish is light, delicate and perfectly cooked. Bagna cauda (an Italian dipping sauce made with garlic and anchovies) adds salty punch. This is the dish for people who “eat clean.”
As for me, I’m happier with burnt Basque cheesecake, a 2019 dessert craze created by Santiago Rivera in San Sebastian, Spain. Some say the interior should be oozy, like Époisses – the king of funky French cheese – but FLINT’s rendition is simply moist, airy and utterly delicious. Fresh berries marinated in bourbon barrel-aged sherry vinegar add sweet depth.
Dozens of well-intentioned, upscale restaurant imports have bombed in this town – remember Bistecca? Sfuzzi? Searsucker? – but FLINT isn’t destined to be one of them. The food is too good, the space too stunning. Obviously, it lights my fire.
FLINT by Baltaire
Contact: 2425 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-812-4818, flintbybaltaire.com
Hours: M-F 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sa-Su 3-10 p.m.
Highlights: Spicy short rib hummus ($15); wood-grilled artichokes ($14); smoked eggplant dip ($13); smoked bone marrow ($21); wood-grilled filet mignon kebabs ($16); wood-fired pizza ($17-$21); burnt Basque cheesecake ($10)