Climb aboard a dining experience like none other in the Valley, where chef Sacha Levine’s dim sum program is almost as transportive as the ticklish Prohibition-era train motif.
Last fall, when I was writing a glowing blurb about Century Grand, the Prohibition-inspired, locomotive-themed restaurant, bar and whiskey shop that landed near the top of our list for best new restaurants of the year, I was struck by a comment head chef Sacha Levine made to me. “We’re a bar with food,” she said, a statement I’ve used myself about other places on occasion, typically as a putdown.
In this instance, however, the venue in question is the brainchild of mixologist-restaurateurs Jason Asher and Rich Furnari of Barter & Shake, the same pair who created tiki-themed UnderTow (the Valley’s first truly immersive cocktail playground) and now-defunct Counter Intuitive, where the notion of themed cocktail joints first took root in the Valley. In short: This is no average bar-with-food scenario, because the talent operates at a distinctly elevated level.
Levine’s point, simply, is that cocktails are the hook on which Century Grand hangs its fedora. While I admire her modesty and readiness to play second fiddle, I’m just not sure I agree. For me, it’s the whole ball of wax that makes this place so fun – from the bustling train station ambiance in the main restaurant, called Century Grand, to the reservations-only, cocktails-only replica Pullman railcar called Platform 18, located just beyond the main dining room and filled with the sights and sounds of a racing locomotive, including hi-def TV screen “windows” showing a pine wilderness zipping by. Social media has made endless allusions to Disneyland for adults, and the analogy is not far off. It’s a brilliant put-on.
That being said, Levine’s lovely food in Century Grand is as authentic as it gets, ordered from a short seasonal menu of a dozen small plates or plucked from dim sum carts that come around in waves.
The narrow Art Deco dining room features a full-length bar and a row of round café tables cozied up to a long banquette. The seating is perfect for date night, tricky for parties larger than two. The small tables also make it somewhat tricky for the plates of dim sum that begin to arrive soon after settling in. Say yes to three or four dim sum dishes at once – as I can never resist doing – and your tabletop will be crowded in no time. My advice: Begin with lighter dishes and progress to heavier ones. You might get fantastically plump, fresh oysters on the half shell (offered singly and sourced from Nelson’s Meat + Fish down the street) or a bowtie-shaped crackle of crab rangoon, stuffed with Dungeness crab, a smidge of cream cheese and a dash of Chinese XO sauce. On one of my visits, there’s also an odd but likable seafood toast situation, the crisped seeded bread smeared with white bean purée and heaped with a pretty arrangement of smoked oysters, chunks of delicate, mild cod, fennel salad, Meyer lemon-splashed tomatoes and fresh parsley and dill.
All told, you’ll choose from about 15 different dishes during the week, and 20-25 on weekends. The menu is in constant flux, speaking to Levine’s well-documented lust for seasonal sourcing.
The chef, who cut her teeth at the dearly departed tapas restaurant Sol y Sombra, resurrects its signature piquillo peppers here – small and sweet, stuffed with albacore tuna and nested in a puddle of smooth Spanish romesco. I still love them. Steak tataki, a much heavier dish, is an umami bomb, bringing together lightly seared slabs of prime domestic Wagyu with pickled mushrooms, fresh tomato and shaved Parmesan. The only miss I registered in three visits to CG is a dish of chilled Szechuan noodles that felt sticky and fell flat despite garlic, chile oil and tahini.
In keeping with the Prohibition theme, Levine riffs on dishes popular in the ’20s. Crunchy, fried oyster Rockefeller, for example, retains the essence of the dish with spinach and Pernod, but forgoes the rich goopiness for which it became famous. (Then again, it has bacon, always a plus.) Levine’s fall-fruits-and-fennel Waldorf salad outstrips the original for being lighter, prettier and far more sophisticated. It’s a gorgeous composition of fruit, bitter radicchio, goat cheese mousse and brown butter hazelnuts, brightened with a splash of apple cider gastrique. Gelatinous aspic, another Gatsby-era favorite you never see anymore, shows up in tomato form in another beautiful dish, a sort of avocado toast salad, set on grilled seeded bread strewn with shaved strips of cucumber, slivered radish, fresh herbs and dribbles of black garlic olive oil.
But the crowd-pleasers, the deliciously straightforward dishes you shouldn’t miss, are the sweet potato dumplings – airy puffs of fried dough stuffed with sweet potato, offset by creamy clumps of farmers’ cheese as well as juicy pomegranate and crunchy pumpkin seeds, all of it deepened with a drizzle of molasses – and the sesame seed-studded baby back ribs, little slats of sweet, Asian-inspired goodness.
On the topic of dessert: You could order Levine’s wonderful persimmon upside-down cake, or you could simply find confection in liquid form in Platform 18, with its clackety-clack railcar energy and wintry video motif. The cocktails, naturally, are beautiful and crazy creative. For proof, check out the Pocket Full of Coins, served cold in a floral teacup with an orb of ice. Reasonably, Asher and Furnari give you 90 minutes to drink your fill before clearing out the car for the next group of passengers.
But now the gushing is over, and it’s time for a bit of well-intentioned criticism. The wine program, which focuses on so-called “natural wines,” needs work. If there’s a wine list, I never saw it. I was simply asked what I liked to drink and given suggestions, an approach that seems maddeningly limiting and overtly condescending to any avid wine drinker. I also think some of Levine’s dishes are overwrought and not particularly well-suited to Century Grand’s fun, informal format. Simpler, sexier, snackier food, less frilly and fussy, offered from a smaller, less ambitious list would win the day. After all, this is a bar with food, right?
Cuisine: New American
Contact: 3626 E. Indian School Rd., Phoenix, centurygrandphx.com
Hours: Su-Th 4 p.m.- midnight, F-Sa 4 p.m.-2 a.m.
Highlights: Sweet potato dumplings ($12); oyster Rockefeller ($5); Waldorf salad ($13); avocado toast ($15); baby back ribs ($12); Pocket Full of Coins ($17)