Valley super chef Christopher Gross emerges from a three-year hiatus to lead a wildly decadent multi-course dining odyssey.
Whether Phoenix is an exciting food town worthy of national attention has been debated for decades, but even our harshest critics would surely admit we have our fair share of elite destination restaurants. Binkley’s, Kai and ShinBay spring to mind, as do a handful of other Michelin-caliber creations boasting both the polish and edge to thrive in, say, San Francisco or Chicago.
Now that chef Christopher Gross and his life and business partner Jamie Hormel have opened Christopher’s at Wrigley Mansion, the ranks are more swollen still. Sleek and surprisingly intimate, the space – designed by local architecture luminary Wendell Burnette – occupies a purpose-built new wing of the sublime 89-year-old mansion, offering breathtaking 180-degree views of mountains and city lights. It’s a glass-enclosed, drop-dead knockout, accurately portraying Gross as the forward-thinking classicist he’s always been, an early James Beard Award-winner universally respected for the modern, French-inspired cuisine he served for decades at Christopher’s, Christopher’s Bistro and Christopher’s Fermier, all in or near Biltmore Fashion Park.
Social media is abuzz with his latest concept, a multi-course, three-hour mega-meal worth every penny of its $250-per-head price tag. Valley dining heavyweight Mark Tarbell opined on Instagram that Gross has elevated local dining to an “international level,” and I agree. Recalling most strongly the luxe, formal fare he served at the original Christopher’s, his cooking is more global now, with a greater emphasis on impeccable sourcing, but with the same effortless elegance. Returning to action after a three-year hiatus, the guy doesn’t miss a beat.
The evening begins with an amuse-bouche of wispy, chive-dotted gougères, glazed with melting Parmesan, followed by a tiny, crispy potato croquette, nestled in a brilliant blue replica of Hormel’s upturned palm. So far, so fun.
Course three, named “egg in egg in egg” and an homage to Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s famous egg caviar, arrives covered with a ceramic ostrich egg-shaped cloche, lifted off to reveal a hollow eggshell filled with gently scrambled eggs and a glistening overlay of golden-brown Osetra caviar, itself adorned with a sprinkle of gold leaf that glitters in the table’s lamplight. A simple, luxurious course – creamy eggs, pearly pops of briny roe – that outshines the cleverness of its presentation.
The first entrée of the night – crisp, meaty-textured seabream – evokes Nouvelle Cuisine and the kind of austere, beautifully composed plates for which Gross is famous. It’s the velvety butter-yellow sauce, however, chunky with a colorful brunoise of still-crisp vegetables, that makes me swoon. A sprig of seagrass adds a marine note to the forest-floor flavors of morels and wild mushrooms.
Courses get richer and heavier as we go. Roasted carrot agnolotti floats in sauce meunière (brown butter), accompanied by asparagus spears, the perfumed truffles of early summer and crispy sticks of squid ink-infused angel hair, an ocean-y garnish that makes another subtle nod to land and sea.
A filet of Miyazaki A5 wagyu (Japan’s most esteemed cut of beef) is rubbed in clay-like koji (the spent yeast cells used in sake-making), which lends the flavor of dry-aging to the meat. Served sizzling hot on a black rock, it’s ultra-rich and beefy, worlds better than wagyu ribeye, which often tastes like fat on fat. An oversize bowl of béarnaise, the classic French accompaniment to steak, contains a raw quail egg to stir into the sauce for extra richness, an allusion to sukiyaki, which also uses a raw egg for dipping.
Gross sources premium grass-fed lamb loins from Anderson Ranches in Oregon, mildly curing them in a salty wrap of pancetta and serving with lemon-thyme jus, a spring-green puddle of aerated watercress sauce and roasted root vegetables to drag through the sauces. Excellent, but not quite as mind-boggling as previous courses. The pace slows with a sublimely simple presentation of creamy Rogue River blue cheese, named the best cheese in the world by a panel of connoisseurs in 2019. Not hard to see why. Sweet, sharp and nutty at once, it needs nothing beyond the black pepper tuiles that accompany it.
A relentless series of sweets follow, each richer than the last. First, a palate-cleansing peach sorbet, served with an exotic sesame seed financier; then a berry tart lidded with a waffled honey tuile; followed by a chocolatey opera cake — France’s elegant answer to tiramisu – served with a chocolate disk and vanilla-flecked crème Anglaise; and finally, mignardise, tiny, beautiful confections that coax you into another bite or two. These include crisp, chewy, strawberry-rhubarb macarons; an airy mini-cake of passion fruit bonbons; tiny cubes of fruity pâté (think gummy bears); and brilliantly colored, marble-like chocolates that gush with Grand Marnier at first bite.
Exhausted yet? After the $230-per-person wine pairings, and a goodie-stuffed swag bag at the end, it may seem too rich an experience in more ways than one. In anticipation of this reality, Gross will begin alternating the prix fixe dinner with a more traditional à la carte menu of his greatest hits, dubbed Christopher’s Classics, offered weeknights this summer.
Either way, Gross says this will be his last restaurant, and it’s certainly his best, the place where his Renaissance-man freak flag freely flies. Let’s hope retirement is years away.
Christopher’s at Wrigley Mansion
Cuisine: French-inspired Modern American
Contact: 2501 E. Telawa Trail, Phoenix, 602-522-2344, wrigleymansion.com
Hours: Tu-Sa 5-10 p.m.
Highlights: Everything except the lamb.