"Give me the luxuries," said Oscar Wilde, "and I will dispense with the necessities."
We recently put Wilde's theory to the test at two of the Valley's poshest eateries. Each features an entrepreneurial young chef with a national reputation. And both will inflict a king-size beating on your wallet.
At Vincent Guerithault on Camelback, the food is elegantly presented without the hushed tones and obsequious service that often accompany a budget-busting meal. The rustic Southwestern la franaise look gives chef Vincent's showcase restaurant an air of informal conviviality. The Friday night we dropped in, patrons sported everything from jeans and polo shirts to pearl-laden gowns and Italian suits. Vincent's wasted no time softening up the customers. It launched a blitzkrieg appetizer attack so outstanding that any future resistance was unthinkable. Our surrender was so complete, and so abject, that after only the first course we actually considered sending the kids to camp for one week less just so we could afford a return trip. First the kitchen lobbed in smoked salmon on potato pancake with a sour-cream-and-dill sauce. The salmon wasn't thin-sliced lox, but several thick hunks of fillet on a crispy, sizzling potato pancake my grandmother would have been proud of.
Then the kitchen fired a fragrant olive-bread pizza with grilled shrimp. With eight pieces, there was enough for everyone in our foursome to get more than a taste. Next came two blue crab cakes, bursting with flavor, accompanied by avocado corn salsa, with an artfully drawn saguaro drizzled in the orange sauce. Finally, we got blown away by rich duck tamales, stuffed with chiles and raisins. At $8.95 each, these taste-teasers didn't come cheap. But the portions were large enough for plenty of sampling. And our consumer-satisfaction index would have pleased even a Japanese carmaker.
The main dishes were hardly a letdown, but not nearly as eye-catching or inventive.
A hefty slab of fresh Canadian halibut came sauted with diced tomato and a mild lime sauce. It was the healthful equivalent of a New York steak--meaty and tender--without nearly the fat or calories.
And Vincent's knows to leave well enough alone with grilled swordfish, cooking it just right to moist and flaky perfection.
Best, though, I thought, was grilled breast of pheasant with sweet, braised cabbage, apple and chipotle-chile chutney. The pheasant, juicy and fork-tender, had a taste and texture somewhere between meat and fowl. The rich accompaniments highlighted the flavor without overwhelming it. The main dishes also sported carefully arranged vegetables: two baby carrots, two pea pods, two asparagus, two turnips. It looked like Noah was working as sous chef. Then some unscheduled entertainment got under way. Throughout the evening, a raucous table of underdressed, beer-swilling bozos had slowly raised the pitch of its behavior from loud to obnoxious. Finally, to everyone's delight, they left. But the couple dining next to them called the manager over, apparently seeking some explanation or recompense for its ordeal. Whatever the manager's answer, it did nothing to mollify the gentleman of the party. "You pompous asshole," he shouted, rising to his feet in righteous indignation. As diners dropped their forks in surprise, the staff surrounded the indignant customer and eased him toward the door. But we could hear the muffled dispute continue outside for some time. Vulgar tantrums by the upper classes always excite my appetite. I looked forward to dessert.
Like everything else (including the preceding performance), desserts here are beautifully presented. Smart restaurateurs know that Americans love desserts, so they make them big and give us lots to choose from.
From the ten or so desserts offered, my wife picked the chocolate hazelnut cake, topped with a praline mousse and two small scoops of caramel ice cream. She couldn't come close to polishing it off.
And don't be fooled by the word "mousse" in the chocolate macadamia mousse. It's dense and heavy, studded with a half-dozen whole macadamia nuts. If you can't face a heavy dessert, the choice is a terrific cräme brle. Three thin cookie tulips hold vanilla, coffee and coconut custard: less filling, tastes great.
But I could easily have skipped dessert and satisfied my sweet tooth on the plate of complimentary goodies that came with our espresso: miniature truffles, a strawberry dipped in chocolate, dollhouse-size palmiers.
Even if you order ten desserts, Vincent's doesn't come close to being the Valley's biggest splurge. Someone once gave a rule of thumb on the difference between a gourmet and gourmand. The first enjoys exquisitely prepared dishes, while the second likes plenty of 'em.
At Christopher's, you'll straddle that line.
Chef Christopher Gross is well-schooled in the arts of both French cuisine and self-promotion. From his massive press packet, I learned more about his past than my wife has ever revealed about hers. His restaurant is luxurious, but not intimidating. Dominating the center was a massive flower arrangement, big enough for a gangland funeral. Heavy brocade curtains with matching fabric on the chairs, piped-in Chopin and gilt-framed oil paintings showed an appealingly old-fashioned insistence on the proper atmosphere for elegant dining. Unswept breadcrumbs on the floor by our table added a plebeian touch. This evening we put ourselves in Christopher's hands, dining from his sybaritic "menu prestige." For $115 per person, you get six courses, each carefully matched with a glass of French wine. (Without wine, it's $75 a person. A five-course "menu gourmand," $90 with wine, $60 without, and la carte selections are also available.) Don't even think of moving for the next three hours.
We called the sommelier over to talk about the wines. He was hardly the sinister snob of our nightmares--he affably admitted, as he massacred the French names of the wines, that he couldn't speak a word of the language. (The menu has several errors in French, too.) But he obviously enjoys wine, and he lovingly described what we'd be sampling. The wine list itself, with more than 700 offerings, is extraordinary in range and depth. The fat volume actually has a table of contents. While grazing on a gratis plate of house-smoked salmon and cräme frache on toast, a goat-cheese puff pastry and a Lilliputian skewer of beef on a toothpick, we scoped out the other diners. A distinguished, gray-haired gent with a perpetual scowl had little to say to his young blond trophy wife. A couple of prombound teenagers--outfitted with corsage, blue suit and daddy's credit card--held hands. A handsome African American couple were proudly entertained by their twentysomething son, who looked as if he'd just been accepted by a top Wall Street firm. And the usual assortment of businesspeople was dining at taxpayer and shareholder expense.
But just as moral cynicism and class envy threatened to overwhelm me, the food began arriving. Our first course, an asparagus salad with lightly dressed greens, was just a warm-up for the heavy hitters to follow.
Lightly sauted sea bass, seasoned with chives and basil, was tender and juicy. It sat on a nest of cooked, grated turnips--a choice that was just as tasty as it sounds unappetizing.
Our third course melted all my critical faculties. It's one of the best things I've tasted, ever. Foie gras (duck, not goose) arrived not as a pt, but as liver itself. It sat on top of a corn cràpe a bit thicker than a tortilla, accompanied by outstanding crispy, shredded carrots. The foie gras was so rich that the few bites we got were just enough. The sommelier also held up his end with a well-chosen Trimbach Gewrztraminer.
Our main dish was no slouch, either. Six small lamb medallions came wrapped in pancetta, an unsmoked Italian bacon. The sauce was good enough to eat with a spoon. We asked for a brief respite to recharge our sated and wine-soaked batteries. Fifteen minutes later the cheese course came out.
Besides generous chunks of Brie and Port Salut, there was a delicious, paper-thin fan of cheese that our waiter identified as tàte de moine (monk's head). If you place some on your doorstep, it's strong enough to keep all but the most determined visitors away. Again the sommelier's choice was superb, a heavy-duty red Chateau Haut-Serre from Cahors. Before the desserts, we were given some palate-clearing sorbet--three small scoops intensely flavored with strawberry, raspberry and champagne. By now, we were pretty much ready to call it a night.
But the menu-prestige desserts began arriving with the inexorability of the tides. Somehow I mistakenly assumed that we were to choose one of the four desserts listed on the menu. Quelle erreur! We were entitled to all four. The border separating gourmet from gourmand had fast receded; now we were approaching the frontiers of gluttony. These weren't bite-size desserts, either.
First came tuiles aux amandes, two thin, cookielike crisps made from almonds, sandwiching strawberries and cream.
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Too stupefied to speak, we next found before us an incredible concoction called chocolate hot and cold. On a base of cool, dense chocolate mousse sat warm chocolate cake drenched in hot chocolate sauce. It was chocoholic heaven and could easily have starred alone in the dessert category.
In fact, at this point, I was no longer capable of eating one for the Gipper. We waved off our last two desserts and called for some coffee. Heading home, we ruminated on the architectural dictum, "Less is more." It's not a bad philosophy for menu builders, either.
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