Chef-owner Justin Beckett's much-buzzed-about new eatery, Beckett's Table, focuses on upscale comfort food.
It must be a sign of the times that the most highly anticipated opening of 2010 wasn't for a high-concept, cutting-edge eatery, or yet another celebrity chef-owned steakhouse. It was for a neighborhood restaurant serving straightforward, unfussy comfort food. No matter how sluggish the economy is, Phoenicians still need a hot spot that gets everybody talking.
That "it" restaurant is Beckett's Table, which debuted in late October and already has captured the adoration of the same insatiable Arcadia folks who keep Chelsea's Kitchen, The Vig, LGO, and Tarbell's perenially busy.
I can't say that I'm with them, though.
Credit chef-owner Justin Beckett for the buzz. He's an enterprising and social media-savvy fellow who's managed to keep himself in the public eye pretty consistently since the demise of his last gig, a year and a half ago.
Once the executive chef at Canal, the splashy, short-lived, fashion-themed global fusion eatery at Scottsdale's SouthBridge development — where a catwalk cut through the middle of the dining room, and the menu featured such boom-time delicacies as an ostentatious but frankly delicious "30 Dollar Sandwich" (lobster, Boursin cheese, and vegetables on a challah roll) — Beckett now serves up homey dishes like grits, shepherd's pie, and matzo ball soup to a well-heeled 40-something crowd that packs his communal table and has turned the restaurant's bar into a lively local watering hole.
Before opening his own place with his wife, Michelle, and their friends Scott and Katie Stephens, Beckett stayed busy with regular posts on Facebook and Twitter, sharing recipes and photos of food prepared in his own home kitchen, as well as updating readers on the trials and tribulations of renovating an old building (he took over the former That's Italiano spot on Indian School Road). Cleverly, he built up a following for his cooking without actually feeding the public.
By the time Beckett's Table finally opened its doors after a long summer of "coming soon" — and few other high-profile restaurant launches — people were practically lining up to eat there, and the place has been bustling ever since.
With its handsome wooden ceiling trusses and cozy lighting, the dining room looks great. The aroma of a wood-burning oven welcomes you as soon as you cross the threshold, followed by the gracious greetings of front-of-the-house staff. Interesting craft cocktails and an eclectic wine list (half West Coast, half around-the-world) enhance the mood, and the food itself is decent. Indeed, Beckett's Table is a likable place.
But why am I yawning? I guess that, given the phenomenal buzz around Beckett's Table and the fact that this is still a chef-driven restaurant (despite its humble guise as just a place for the masses), I want to flat-out love it. I wish I could muster more enthusiasm for Phoenix's latest darling. Something's gnawing away in the back of my mind about it — one tiny, four-letter word:
Yes, it just strikes me as completely safe — not a sin, if you want to make money and all, and I do wish them much success — but my expectations are high because Beckett has put himself front and center, from the name of the restaurant to his prominent position in the open kitchen.
He's got our attention, and he's packing the house. Now what? I'm hoping Beckett will take things to the next level. He needs to figure out that sweet spot that both appeals to average tastes and also captivates the foodie crowd that's aware of his reputation.
This is pure déjà vu, of course. A little more than a year ago, I reviewed St. Francis, another new, chef-owned restaurant with a wood-fired oven and an insanely cool aura that got locals hot and bothered with buzz — and it didn't blow me away, by any stretch. These days, after ditching my hopes that it would somehow raise the bar in the Valley dining scene, I've come to appreciate it for staples like flatbread and roasted chicken.
One year out, how will Beckett's Table fare?
Hopefully, service will get much-needed improvements sooner rather than later. In two out of four visits, I had waiters who were embarrassingly inept. One managed to pour bubbly until my friend's flute overflowed and, later, missed my glass completely, spilling red wine on the table in front of me. Another night, a different server couldn't keep track of which dishes had already come out and concluded the meal with the most bumbling handling of the check. I was shocked when he actually counted out the cash payment and tip we'd left, right at the table, before dismissing us with, "All right, thanks, you guys."
Good thing I was done eating, because I wanted to choke.
I had no complaints with soft, warm bacon cheddar biscuits with apple honey butter, lipsmacking lobster and Boursin enchiladas smothered in guajillo chile sauce and served in a tiny casserole dish, petite grilled cheese and pancetta bites teamed with a dish of smooth roasted red pepper and tomato soup, and "Gaga's matzo ball soup," a family recipe featuring a fluffy, moist matzo ball and vegetables steeped in fragrant chicken broth. I also enjoyed chicken liver pâté, plated with cornichons, roasted tomatoes, tangy-sweet onions, and nut brittle — although the serving size demanded more than four meager pieces of grilled bread.
But the promise of creamy grits was overwhelmed by too much spicy sausage — the proportions were off. Mac and cheese was simply bland, even with the addition of crispy pancetta, while manchego and pancetta-topped roasted Brussels sprouts were undercooked and lacking the alluring caramelized sweetness I'd anticipated. Likewise, roasted root veggies with my pork osso buco confit weren't remotely tender.
The kitchen had better luck with salads, including a chopped salad whose champagne vinaigrette and bits of pumpkin seed brittle made ultra-fresh, organic vegetables sparkle. A composition of butter lettuce, toasted pecans, grapes, and candied lemon vinaigrette was simple yet craveable.
Back to that pork osso buco confit: It was impressively succulent, with a pile of buttery, lightly pan-fried homemade spaetzle that I couldn't stop shoveling into my mouth. Mustard-tinged sauce, braised lentils, and juicy meat made the cast-iron petite chicken appealing. Wood-fired mussels were another hit, swimming in a luxurious shallot and white wine broth with chunks of fennel. After eating every last bivalve and the garlic toast that came with them, I began drinking that savory ambrosia in earnest.
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Chicken and dumplings in herbed saffron cream were bright with carrots, celery, and fresh peas but needed a dash of salt, while short ribs with mashed potatoes and green beans needed more red wine reduction. Yes, they were fork-tender as described on the menu, yet with every biteful, I longed for a bit of sauce. Both of those dishes should've been stellar. Shepherd's pie, with lightly spicy, saucy beef bourgignon beneath a mantle of mashed potatoes, was more satisfying to eat.
Desserts showed more personality — especially the dense, sticky fig and pecan pie. The filling had the nostalgic taste of Fig Newtons (a plus, in my book), baked into a flaky crust and perked up with awesome homemade cream cheese and citrus zest ice cream. Seductive maple bourbon vanilla cream was the highlight of brioche bread pudding, which has since been replaced by a decent pear-blueberry cobbler.
Will chef Justin Beckett push the envelope, or will he stay in familiar and predictable territory?
The spotlight is all his. We'll have to wait and see.