By Heather Hoch
By Lauren Saria
By JK Grence
By Eric Schaefer
By Robrt L. Pela
By Eric Schaefer
By Laura Hahnefeld
By Laura Hahnefeld
Bistro 24 executive chef John Johnstone has been one busy fellow lately. Over the past several months, he's packed up his pots and pans, relocated from New York's Tavern on the Green, dismantled and rebuilt the Phoenix Ritz-Carlton's kitchen, brought in a new staff and introduced new lunch and dinner menus.
All his effort has been aimed at bringing a simplified, more relaxed dining experience to the classically inspired French restaurant that is the Ritz's flagship eatery. Sad to say, he might have saved himself a little work. For these prices, and for what we've come to appreciate at the cafe, dining here is now a largely boring, and entirely uneven, experience.
Gone is the lengthy menu with very bistro-like stars such as escargot, filet of beef à la Bourguignonne, pâté du jour with Cornichons, croque monsieur, goat cheese omelet and plats du jour of coq au vin and bouillabaisse. Instead, the condensed offering emphasizes mostly familiar flavors like ahi tuna, filet mignon, lamb chops and chicken. Sauces have been lightened, and complicated dishes deconstructed to accommodate, we're told, a professional clientele's time constraints -- less fuss, less muss means less time spent sitting at the table, I guess.
2401 E. Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Region: East Phoenix
Scottish smoked salmon: $12.50
Duck confit: $11.50
Crispy striped bass: $22.50
Steak au poivre: $27.50
Herb lasagna: $19.50
Anjou pear tart: $8.50
Hours: Breakfast, daily, 6 to 11 a.m.; lunch, daily, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; bar menu, daily, 2:30 to 5:30 p.m.; dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
It's unfortunate, because the best things here remain the lusty, Gallic fare that had us flocking to the eatery in the first place. This new Bistro's been beaten down.
The change was necessary, Johnstone says, to appeal to the "wide variety" in tastes of the everyday diner. In restaurant lingo, that means guests wanted more of the standard stuff, less of the fancy fare. That's economics. In the shakeup, however, I'm afraid we've lost much of the character that's made Bistro 24 stand out from the sea of pricey steak, fish and chicken houses constantly springing up across the Valley.
This isn't the first time the hotel eatery has been dumbed down -- the resort got rid of its highly formal concept, called The Restaurant, in the late '90s in an effort to appeal to a new breed of movers and shakers with less inclination to dress for dinner. Then, the change worked to a wonderful degree. While the evening crowd continued to be largely hotel guests, Bistro 24 emerged as one of the prime places in the Valley for an executive lunch -- last year, in fact, Gourmet magazine designated it one of the top spots in North America for a business noontime nosh. Its reservations list reads like a who's who of folks taking a little break from playing lord and leader of our economic, political and social scenes.
Many of the renovations were done then and continue to be winners. The decor is still brilliant. The Restaurant's severe black-and-brown motif was overthrown for gold-and-green-striped silk booths, comfortable rattan booths, sophisticated crown moldings, country French accents and a cozy, eat-in bar at the restaurant's entry. Even though we're in a posh hotel, the bistro's atmosphere is so inviting, it makes me want to curl up and take a nap.
I love the live piano music that's played during the evenings. Even where tables are crammed too close together, excellent acoustics absorb any corporate secrets being traded over bites of salmon paillard. It's an excellent environment in which to impress guests, with expert, unobtrusive service and all things we expect from the Ritz.
So what happened to variety on the menu? I'm a fanatical fish fan, but Bistro 24's new starter choices have me somnolent by my second visit. There's a jumbo lump crab meat plate at lunch. Ahi tuna tartare. Smoked salmon. Spicy shellfish gazpacho stocked with shrimp, lobster and crab. We can also select from evening appetizers of lobster bisque, oysters on the half-shell, chilled gulf shrimp and two sampler platters boasting bits of shellfish plus mussels, seafood of the day, clams and, on the large platter, a half-lobster.
A few soups, salads and duck dishes aren't nearly enough to balance the appetizers, particularly when I turn to entrees and find yet more swimmers: sole, bass, tuna, salmon and lobster ravioli.
Most disheartening, though -- the fish we get doesn't register on the Ritz-er scale of taste. Ahi tuna tartare has me salivating with its description of avocado cream and grapefruit ginger vinaigrette, yet ultimately, the condiments are the best thing on the plate. The dish certainly looks pretty, molded in small heaps like fish cupcakes topped with greens. It follows the current fashion of appetizers the size of small vehicles. But the fish is blemished by too much connective tissue for its $13.50 price tag, and the tuna is surprisingly tasteless. Too bad -- the silky guacamole-like topping is a nice touch, and I really like the citrus bite of the grapefruit segments served alongside.
Scottish smoked salmon roulade is equally oversize and well-groomed, looking, as our server jokes, like a Chia Pet under its mantle of ubiquitous greens. The idea is excellent, rolling thick slabs of salmon with boursin cheese and serving it atop a cold, cheese-stuffed pumpernickel finger sandwich. The triple-cream, herb-flecked cheese would make a wonderful partner with its buttery goodness, but there's so much of it that the firm fish ends up completely overpowered. It doesn't help that the salmon tastes like it's spent too much time prestuffed in the refrigerator; it's waterlogged and flat-flavored.