Matney Idol

Eddie Matney's Epicurean Trio, 2398 East Camelback, Phoenix, 957-3214. Hours: Fine-Dining Room--Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 6 to 10 p.m; Bistro--Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11:30 p.m.

For most of the 1990s, Eddie Matney, the chef behind Eddie's Grill, has been whipping up some of quirkiest, most creative fare in this time zone. Who else offered the likes of cioppino pot pie, shellfish in a spicy, fennel-scented broth topped with a puff-pastry canopy? Who else crusted a chicken breast with mango and peppercorns, and served it over roasted plantains and chile mashed potatoes? And who could resist Matney's signature dish, seared sirloin strip encased in a mashed potato crust and dusted with Italian cheeses, then lightly fried and coated with a cabernet demi-glace?

A few months ago, however, Matney boldly charted a new path. He split with his longtime partner and left Eddie's Grill. Plunging into the big time, he bought out Christopher Gross' old place at the high-profile corner of 24th Street and Camelback.

He also bought into Christopher's three-pronged restaurant concept. Matney has maintained the fine-dining room, right down to the multi-course, fixed-priced tasting menu. He's also overseeing the less-formal bistro, as well as the Wine & Cigar Club, a secluded, second-floor room given over to private dinners. This ambitious "Epicurean Trio," as it's called, opened last September.

The poet instructs us that "Man's reach should exceed his grasp/Or what's a heaven for?" And trying to shoehorn the Matney style into a Christopher Gross concept is definitely a reach. When Eddie pulls it off, it's wonderful. When he doesn't--well, it's never dull.

To my surprise, I found myself more impressed with the fine-dining side of the operation. Eddie's Grill certainly didn't offer this type of gastronomic experience--a seven-course, $70 meal ($120 when each course is paired with a glass of wine). But despite being new to the high-end game, Matney is a very quick study.

He's left the room pretty much the way it was. The huge floral centerpiece is gone, perhaps sent off to a gang-land funeral. The old-style paintings are gone, replaced by original art of no particular merit. Meanwhile, the background music is a little sprightlier; the lighting is a bit brighter; and the heavy curtains have been softened. It's all a tad less formal, less hushed than it was under the previous regime. Still, I'm happy to report that the heavy white linen, weighty silverware and the right glass for every wine remain.

Although you can order a la carte, it makes the most financial and gastronomic sense to go with the seven-course tasting menu. Make sure you come armed with an appetite, and plenty of conversational topics--you'll be here for close to three hours.

The bread basket is pure temptation, and it's hard not to yield to it. The flatbread, flecked with zaatar, a blend of Middle Eastern spices, is particularly alluring, especially if you spread on the super-rich Camembert/Gorgonzola blend that comes along.

But it pays to defer gratification. The meal started off with a marvelous spoonful of sauteed lobster between two homemade tortilla chips, complemented by a glass of bubbly Veuve Clicquot. Under such circumstances, life can seem very good, indeed.

The good feeling persisted into the second course, lovely smoked salmon burnished with a dollop of lemon-fennel creme fra”che and a zippy bite of wasabi-spiked caviar. Kudos, too, to whoever paired this with the terrific Domaine Schlumberger Pinot Gris, an exceptional varietal from Alsace.

Next up was a wintertime consomme, an intriguing wild-game broth fashioned from boar, pheasant and venison. The best parts of the bowl, however, were the two strips of spicy, seared rabbit loin at the bottom of it. Eddie might consider casting this rabbit in a starring role--it's too good to be a supporting player.

In baseball, your best player usually bats fourth. It only took one bite of gorgeous, melt-in-your-mouth ahi tuna to see why this dish is hitting cleanup on the tasting menu. It's suavely teamed with a disk of mashed Peruvian blue potatoes, as well as celery root and parsnip, two hearty winter veggies. The heady glass of Bear Boat Pinot Noir, from California's Russian River, helped accentuate this dish's charms.

The next course, beef tenderloin, was in the same league as the ahi tuna. The meat was drenched in a high-octane wild mushroom ragout, and enlivened by wine-soaked pears. A Grgich Hills Zinfandel stood toe-to-toe with all these strong flavors.

Dinner begins to wind down with a trio of cheeses. The star of the group was clearly the explorateur, one of the world's best, a soft, triple-cream French beauty that's as flavorful as it is rich and smooth. Unfortunately, in the only wine misstep of the evening, we had to wash it down with a one-dimensional Merlot from Domaine Montesquieu.

For dessert, Eddie produced his version of Boston cream pie: a layer of banana cake on the bottom; soft chocolate cake on top; and a layer of peanut butter ice cream in between. What's not to like? I didn't have any complaints about the dessert wine, either, a luscious 10-year-old malmsey, the sweetest of the Madeira wines. (The duke of Clarence, younger brother of King Edward IV, is said to have been drowned in a barrel of malmsey. He must have died happy.)

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