Oop du Jour

Valentine's Day diners paid top price for a less than loverly experience at Vincent's

Chef Vincent Guerithault is a hero among Valley foodies. The charming French fellow is considered the restaurateur who put Arizona on the culinary map when, back in the '80s, he opened his eponymous bistro at 40th Street and Camelback. Thanks to Guerithault, the Phoenix food scene entered the big leagues, with his name spoken in the same breath as those of celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck.

More than 15 years later, Guerithault is still famous for his groundbreaking blending of Southwestern ingredients and classic French preparation.

But even an outstanding operation can have an off night, when things go horribly wrong. That's why reviewers never base their opinion of a restaurant on a single visit.

While I'll never tire of such Guerithault signature dishes as smoked salmon quesadillas with horseradish-dill cream or duck tamales stuffed with Anaheim chiles and raisins, a recent visit did find a Vincent's I didn't recognize. On this evening, the restaurant was disorganized, flubbing dishes and treating guests brusquely.

At neighboring tables, diners were grumbling, wondering if this really was how a James Beard Award-winning establishment was run.

No, it's not. To these diners, I would point out that it was Valentine's Day, a hectic holiday that can challenge the most polished kitchen. While there are no excuses for a poor experience, special events often don't give a fair view of a restaurant's true capabilities.

Vincent's is known for its gracious, French-inn ambiance. For this dinner, though, guests were crammed in so tightly that many of their chairs touched back to back. Rental tables with tall, curved legs made exiting our seats an acrobatic feat.

The service gaffes were remarkable. My party sat ignored for half an hour before appetizer orders were taken. Forty-five minutes later, a second round of starters landed on our table -- someone else's spinach salad and soup. Fifteen minutes after that, entrees arrived. It was inconceivable that it took 40 minutes for the coffee we'd ordered to show up, plunked down by a server who barely paused as he sped by, the cups rattling on their saucers in his wake. We were unable to flag down anyone to serve us the last of our champagne, the bottle placed in an ice bucket next to another couple's table. Even as we requested the bucket be moved to our side, the server laughed and said, "What, pick it up?" There it sat for the entire evening.

And where were the spectacular creations that have made this restaurant a state treasure? Lumpish mini croissants were dumped into baskets instead of Vincent's usual individually plated service of picture-perfect breads. Lobster-and-tomato bisque was distinctly fishy. A veal chop was ringed with virtually raw meat under an inelegant mushroom cream sauce, while a signature grilled rack of lamb came puddled with more distracting sauce -- a first I've ever seen with this plate. Vincent's food is remarkable for its refined simplicity; no goopy sauces required. Coffee was barely lukewarm.

For the first time in countless visits to the restaurant, I declined to order dessert. As spectacular as the chef's hallmark crème brûlée is, waiting any longer for what had crawled into almost three hours for a two-course meal was more than I could bear.

The final insult? Endless temperature swings so extreme that it should have been raining inside. Heat waves had guests tugging uncomfortably at their collars, to be followed by sudden gusts of chill so frosty a woman nearby begged her companion for his jacket to place over her legs. Staff spent much of the evening hovering over an unfortunate guest's table, as they fiddled with the thermostat on the wall above his head.

I never would have imagined that above what's always been a dignified hum of conversation here, I would have heard fellow diners calling out to servers, pleading for food and attention. Or a neighboring couple commenting that if this was special-occasion treatment, then visiting Vincent's only once a year was more than enough.

We had to ask two different servers for the check (almost $200). The traditional finishing touch of a complimentary offering of petits fours never showed. And as we made our way out, we had to wrestle past a dessert cart parked squarely in the doorway separating dining rooms.

I eavesdropped on a pair of departing diners who, as they stood waiting for the valet to bring their car around, joked that finally they might receive prompt service.

Bad things can happen at even the best places. This is much too fine a restaurant, and Guerithault is much too talented and committed a chef, to repeat such a weak performance on a regular basis. When told of the evening's mishaps, he said he was sorry for the confusion. I'll be back soon, happy to give it another go on a less frantic evening.

I only hope that other diners -- those who may have experienced Vincent's for the first time this Valentine's Day -- give the restaurant a second chance, too.

 
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