Cafe Reviews

Chef Michael Mina starts the local conspicuous consumption trend with Bourbon Steak

Considering everything that's made a cultural splash so far in the 21st century — from extreme sports to religious extremism — it's fair to say that these are pretty extreme times we're living in, and cuisine is no exception.

"Celebrity chef" has supplanted "rock star" as the most glamorous profession. Everyone's a gourmet, and thanks to the Internet, everyone's a food critic, too. Meanwhile, high-end restaurants are constantly trying to outdo each other in the quest for more exquisite, exotic fare to please adventurous diners. A lot's been said about the desensitizing effect of violent entertainment, but has anyone ever considered how our increasingly food-centric culture might have made us ever more jaded? Just watch a few episodes of Top Chef and see what that does to your attitude.

At Bourbon Steak, the ultra-high-end steakhouse that recently opened at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, managing chef Michael Mina and executive chef push fine dining still further into the far reaches of excess — for Phoenix, at least.

The food preparations are utterly decadent — premium cuts of meat poached in butter, bacon fat, or olive oil, accompanied by an orgy of lobster and foie gras and roasted marrow bones — and so are the prices. Here, the steaks go for double, if not quadruple what you'll pay for your protein fix at other high-end steakhouses in town (so far none of them are quite this upscale). You'll find a jaw-dropping variety of three- or four-figure wines on the menu, 55-year-old Macallan single malt Scotch whiskey for $2,500 a shot, and limited-edition Louis XIII Black Pearl Cognac for $23,000 a bottle. No, those extra zeroes aren't a typo.

This is the new wave of luxury dining in the Valley. And Mina — a James Beard Award-winning chef whose San Francisco-based restaurant-management company operates more than a dozen upscale eateries (including two other Bourbon Steaks, in Detroit and Miami) — is riding that wave to success.

Soon, Mina won't be the only celebrity chef to make a splash in the Phoenix area. Upscale steakhouses are replacing legendary fine-dining spots at some of our most high-profile resorts, and Bourbon Steak is just our first glimpse of the trend.

At the Princess, Bourbon Steak filled the void left by Marquesa, a AAA Five Diamond restaurant. Forty-year-old Chaparral, at Camelback Inn, closed its doors to make way for chef Laurent Tourondel's BLT Steak, set to open this summer. And at the Phoenician, legendary Mary Elaine's closed a little over a month ago. By October, it will be transformed into J&G Steakhouse, a new concept from chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Certainly, they've all set their sights on prime real estate. Last week, the results of an annual study by market research firm TNS Global revealed that Maricopa County, with more than 126,000 millionaire households, ranks third in the country for the highest number of millionaire residents (behind Los Angeles County and Cook County, Illinois). With so much talk of recession, restaurants geared to the shrinking middle class may be struggling, but the growing divide between the haves and have-nots could actually benefit restaurants that focus on the upper echelons of the dining public.

It's beside the point to talk about the obscene prices at Bourbon Steak, because when I visited, the well-heeled customers — many who looked to be in their late 30s and 40s — didn't seem to mind. Anyway, if you make a reservation at a place like this, you likely already know what you're in for.

But what's the big deal about steakhouses, you might ask? I'd wondered the same thing, too. After all, it's not like there aren't enough places in town to find a filet mignon.

It made much more sense once I got a look for myself. Forget about the masculine image of a traditional steakhouse, where fat cats smoke cigars and swill martinis in a den of dark wood and leather. This place was more unisex — and sexy. Think sleek black and white furnishings contrasting with concrete block walls, dramatic lighting, and an intriguing variety of seating areas, including an outdoor patio and a stylish bar/lounge. A soundtrack of New Order and The Psychedelic Furs added a Gen X appeal.

Service was polished and efficient, although quite low-key. I wouldn't call it exceptional — I was surprised our server was nowhere in sight when a couple of my dining companions and I had empty wine glasses.

A few other things distracted me. My table, in particular, was oddly positioned near an entrance to one of the dining rooms, which made my friends feel exposed and uneasy. If Bourbon Steak had been packed, I wouldn't have minded as much, but seeing how many empty tables there were, it was a curious choice for them to seat us there. The lighting was so poor in that spot that it was difficult to read the tiny print on the menu. And when a janitor lugged his gear into a service room, the stark light shining from the doorway put him in full view of most of our table. For the moment, it killed the special-occasion aura for me.

I have to admit, I forgot all about that when I got my Kobe "A5" New York strip, the most finely marbled beef I've ever tasted outside of Japan. (This is one of the few places in town that get real wagyu from Japan.) Actually, to call it marbled doesn't really explain how thoroughly the fat is incorporated into the beef. It's not juicy, but sublimely buttery, accented by a caramelized, deliciously seasoned crust. It was served with homemade ponzu sauce, half of a tiny fresh lime, and a dab of fresh grated wasabi. All were fine accompaniments, but for the most part, I was content to savor it plain, imagining that each piece would dissolve if I kept it on my tongue for more than a moment (an impossible thing to do, of course).

Some of my dining companions chose a whole fried organic chicken to share. A staffer presented the golden bird to the table before whisking it off to the kitchen to be carved up and plated, along with baby carrots, truffled mac and cheese, and a few thin onion rings. The mac and cheese didn't impress — it had an overbearing taste, and the texture just wasn't luscious — but the chicken was notably moist and flavorful. I appreciated the playful take on soul food, although I can't say I'd go out of my way for it.

Tapioca-crusted snapper was much more dazzling, with a light, crunchy crust and tender, very fresh fish. It was served on a bed of tropical fruit basmati rice, with chile-lime vinaigrette and a garnish of microgreens. A grilled foie gras starter, teamed with crispy shallot rings and rhubarb-ginger preserve, was also nicely prepared.

Along with perfectly cooked meats, another Michael Mina signature is trios, which was apparent on the appetizer menu. Everything had three options, from three different salads (I'm glad I chose the one with roasted baby beets, arugula, aged balsamic, and two milky domes of fresh burrata cheese), to three lobster dishes (I wasn't nearly as thrilled with petite lobster corndogs, whose lobster flavor was lost amid the corn batter). As a complimentary appetizer, we got a trio of French fries — paprika with barbecue sauce, truffle with truffled aioli, and herbed with spicy ketchup.

The house bread was a warm pan of truffle-potato focaccia, served with softened butter — scrumptious. I'd also ordered side dishes of roasted asparagus and a trio of potato purées, but when it came down to eating them, I realized I'd already filled up on that focaccia.

Desserts were some of the biggest surprises (and highlights) of the evening. A cylindrical chocolate cake, filled with molten chocolate, was arranged with tiny cubes of chocolate, a fudgy square of chocolate smeared artfully across the plate, and a scoop of malted milk ice cream — as decadent as you'd expect. Velvety mascarpone cheesecake, with a crumbly streusel crust and whipped cream on top, was teamed with bite-sized apple fritters, dusted with powdered sugar. And tropical fruit panna cotta, topped with pineapple chunks, lemongrass consommé, and coconut ice cream, was a dynamic mix of flavors, like a psychedelic trip for the taste buds.

The morning after I ate that $175 Kobe New York strip steak, I was wide-awake at the crack of dawn. I'm not sure if my heart was racing from my stratospheric cholesterol levels, from panic about ransacking my budget, or from the notion of feasting on meat that traveled almost 6,500 miles to reach my dinner plate.

No matter how I looked at it, it was absurd — and I felt a little guilty for enjoying it so much.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig