By Heather Hoch
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Pardon me for saying so, but I'm beginning to wonder if some folks in this town need their craniums checked for nests of field mice. Of course, by now, I'm sure quite a few of you are thinking the same of moi -- at least if one's to judge by the grouches who write in to me on a regular basis. However, the longer I live in this arid Athens, the more I grok that its self-appointed hip contingent has little more aesthetic refinement than Jethro Bodine. (Quick, someone cue up Flatt and Scruggs.)
Par exemple, "Movies on Central" was the mantra when I asked about a good video store in this town, an alternative to corporate goliaths Hollywood Video and Blockbuster, but to my chagrin, I discovered Movies on Central's cache of classic films to be paltry and its inventory of foreign titles barely adequate. David Lean's Hobson's Choice or Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face? These, they don't carry. But should you crave gay porno, their assortment could slake the staff of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Fortunately, I discovered that the Valley's best video outlet is at Burton Barr Central Library, which has a superior selection of foreign and classic flicks, all gratis with a library card.
I mention the video store situation to illustrate a pattern that extends to this city's culinary arts as well, specifically, for this week's purposes, its wine bars. Postino Wine Cafe on East Campbell is the place Phoenix's cognoscenti point to if one's in the mood for a goblet or three of fermented grape juice, but though Postino is a chichi place with some interesting vittles on its menu, it's hardly a wine bar. By St. Bart's loincloth, its list of reds by the glass could fit neatly on a cocktail napkin! You call that a wine bar, people?! To quote the great Kurt Cobain, "I wish I were like you, easily amused . . ."
1326 N. Central Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85004
Region: Central Phoenix
602-307-0022. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight; closed Sunday.
Imagine, then, the tingling in my tonsils when I heard that state Senator Ken Cheuvront was opening a wine bar right across from Burton Barr on Central Avenue. Actually, Cheuvront Wine and Cheese Experience aims to satisfy not one, but two insufferably snooty camps -- cork dorks and turophiles -- and do so in an area where the Old Spaghetti Factory reigns supreme over palates. Sure, the establishment is in the senator's district, which probably doesn't hurt his standing with constituents. But I still have to give the guy a Brownie point for trying to make the concept thrive in what are hardly inviting environs.
This said, Cheuvront's will need some scutwork before it can realize its full potential and begin to draw a younger, more vibrant crowd -- the sort of crowd Postino gets almost every night. Because what Postino lacks in wine snobbery, it has in energy and ambiance; a happening, see-and-be-seen vibe that's the envy of many a restaurant owner in this town. True, Cheuvront's offers an extensive roster of wines by the glass and cheeses by the slice. Unfortunately, one has to take a long, boring trip to Planet Old to sample either. That may be okay if you're some stuffed shirt who works at the Legislature on tort reform or a lobbyist trying to kiss up to Ken, but for the rest of us, it's an hour or two closer to death with precious little to show for it.
Cheuvront's interior is an airy, modernist expanse with all the warmth of a museum cafeteria. Two of the main walls are curtainless windows looking out onto Central or to the parking lot the joint shares with a rent-a-car business. Toward the back, there's a square, onyx wine bar where patrons can be seated on tall silver chairs, and in the far right-hand corner are a few tall tables enclosed by sheer scrim. To the extreme left, there's a space with couches and chairs where Cheuvront projects James Bond films onto a wall with French subtitles, minus any sound.
Between these two pockets, the majority of Cheuvront's space is filled with plain, low wooden tables and chairs, so that one is overwhelmed with a general feeling of sameness and ennui that even Agent 007 cannot overcome. Also, Monsieur Bond is misused here, I believe. It may be more interesting watching Sean Connery kick Goldfinger's kahuna than Animal Planet or NASCAR, but it's not quite enough if you want to avoid slipping into a coma. James Bond flicks with French subtitles are amusing for about 10 seconds, but then what? Throw on a copy of Eraserhead, Kenny, or even some Roger Corman schlock. In fact, it'd be best to do what a club owner friend of mine in L.A. does, which is create loops of all of these different clips of everything from Fatty Arbuckle and Kenneth Anger to biker films and vintage erotica. Mix it up, man! Or if you can't, get someone with imagination to do it for you.
Though Cheuvront's is blessed with a solid crowd on First Fridays, on other nights you can almost hear the cicadas chirping. Some live jazz might help fill the seats, or maybe a performance painting with a DJ spinning some tracks in the background. The reason I'm harping so much on atmosphere and entertainment is that by itself the menu does not at this time offer much of a reason for a return visit. As mentioned, Cheuvront's grants a choice of a number of wines by the glass, but with one or two exceptions, the list seems uninspired and has not altered much since it opened in November.
Personally, I'd like to see some change from month to month, and there are several wines written up by Wine Spectator in its 100 Best of 2003 list which I'd like to try before I blow my wad on a bottle, so why not have several of these by the glass? Also, where's the 2003 Beaujolais, which everyone agrees was so good? Cheuvront says he's planning to make Wednesday night the evening at which he presents wine and cheese pairings, but why not make specific pairing suggestions a regular part of the menu, rather than the few vague ones he has?
As for the cheeses themselves, flown in from Artisanal Cheeses in New York, Cheuvront offers samples of three for $13.50, which are served on a square, white plate along with nuts and dried fruit. Believe me, folks, I'm a fromage fetishist from way back, and Cheuvront does have some goodies -- from the funky Bleu de Basques to the buttery Epoisses and the slightly nutty Tourmalet. But what, no Italian Gorgonzola, British Stilton or German bierkase? And though the French are heavily represented curd-wise, why no heavenly Gourmandise for us to spread on our crackers? And where's my favorite French cheese of all, the double-cream Pave d'Affinois, which tastes like a smooth cheese pudding encased in rind?
A little exotica wouldn't hurt, either. I've heard tell of camel's cheese, made from the milk of dromedaries, and dang-it-all, if the senator can acquire some of that delicacy, I might change my tune. Basically, Ken, I want you to succeed, but any of us can walk into Trader Joe's and walk out with a bag of cheeses to rival most of what you're offering. When I go out and spend some of my boss's hard-earned dolo, I want to be surprised, enchanted, intrigued. Despite its faults, Postino, for instance, knows how to upend expectations, whether it's with their bruschetta or how it's served on cutting boards. Not that I mean for you to copy the competition, but that element of surprise is admirable.
I should make a point of saying that the service I've received from Cheuvront's staff has always been first-rate, and there are items on the menu that stand out: The lamb roulade nosh is exceptional, with port-drenched lamb wrapped around a fig filling; and as far as desserts go, I'd rank Cheuvront's warm pumpkin bread pudding with caramel sauce very highly, save I'd prefer it with some vanilla ice cream on top. As for their lack of an espresso machine, I found this troubling, to say the least.
My fervent desire is that Cheuvront's endures; that the senator maintain it as a genuine wine bar with atmosphere, entertainment and a cheese selection swell enough to satisfy the most jaded of fromage aficionados. He's not there yet, but he's trying. And in hopes that he makes much-needed changes, I'll lend him my qualified recommendation. After all, after dropping off my videos at Burton Barr, I'd like to have a place nearby where I can enjoy a glass of wine and a leisurely cutting of the cheese.