Cave Creek might as well be the dark side of the moon as far as this city mouse is concerned. I know, I know. It's scenic and all that crap, but in my book, any area so lacking in streetlights is the sticks. And as I wend my way up through the blackness of night, past inexplicable speed traps and the Carefree Sundial, it's like there's some God-awful classic rock station playing in my head, dropping such ditties as The Beatles' "The Long and Winding Road," Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere," and Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," with the lyrics changed to: "Hello, hello, hello . . . is there anybody out there?"
Now that I've pissed off everyone in Cave Creek, can I cop to being insanely jealous of anyone who resides in what I like to refer to as "javelina country"? That's because I like to think of myself as a chubby Chairman Kaga, that wacky Japanese dude who hosted the original Iron Chef TV show. You know, the fellow who takes a horse-drawn carriage to his "Kitchen Stadium," where he oversees the competition between visiting chefs and his "Ironmen of Cooking." Consider, then, my annoyance at finding my pick for Iron Chef, Phoenix, cooking up a storm in environs better suited for a remake of Blazing Saddles.
His name is Kevin Binkley, and the cozy, unpretentious eatery he operates with his wife, Amy, may be the best restaurant in the Valley. Indeed, Binkley's rigorously prepared, French-influenced modern American fare will perhaps one day be discussed in the same awed tones as is the cuisine at Thomas Keller's The French Laundry. That would be appropriate, as SCI grad Binkley, 32, honed his skills in Keller's renowned, five-star Napa Valley restaurant, as well as at Virginia's five-star The Inn at Little Washington. Such experiences, as well as Binkley's exacting, labor-intensive approach to all things alimentary, have made his corner of Cave Creek a place of pilgrimage for foodies with the highest of standards.
6920 East Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek
Veal tenderloin: $13
Bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin: $32
(Tasting menus offered from $50 to $65.)
480-437-1072, web link.
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.
Reservations are practically mandatory here, as even on a Tuesday night the parking lot is filled to capacity and every table seems booked. Amy Binkley acts as maître d', greeting you as if you were a long-lost friend as you enter. There's a simple charm to the space, with walls the color of eggnog, hung with the sort of decorative and forgettable art that's so popular in these parts. White linen, Riedel stemware, and serviettes tied with red ribbons make a good impression, as does a value-laden wine list that encourages you to buy by the bottle.
The service is attentive without being smothering, and there are little treats throughout your meal courtesy of the house to show that you are appreciated. Before anything else, you receive an amuse-bouche of a soup served in a demitasse, which, on the nights I was present, was a creamy sweet potato potage. As a palate cleanser between your apps and your main course, there are small scoops of grapefruit or green apple sorbets sprinkled with Pop Rocks, of all things! Brings back memories of trying to make my younger brother's stomach explode by encouraging him to down the dreaded combo of Coca-Cola and Pop Rocks: an urban myth that fortunately had no basis in fact. Finally, after you've polished off dessert and/or a plate of cheese -- the selection of which would please the fromage-obsessed Wallace of Wallace and Gromit fame -- comes a plate offering a guava petit four, chocolate truffle, and coconut macaroon. And after this they want me to leave? I'd rather camp out in my car to await the next meal.
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Aside from these lovely lagniappes, the menu itself scales pinnacles of culinary achievement, and I ain't talking about Pinnacle Peak, sport. Take for example the monkfish medallions, served with pattypan squash, polenta, and one sublime sliver of monkfish liver. I'd had monkfish medallions recently at the chic, and much-written-about, L.A. restaurant Providence, but Providence's take on this "poor man's lobster" was bland and boring compared to Binkley's, which was buttery and flavorful, prepared au poivre, with one side seared hard with peppercorns. I'd prefer the peppercorns applied with a lighter hand or omitted altogether, but otherwise it was as close to perfection as you could desire.
Other main courses I tried included the venison, the bacon-wrapped tenderloin, and the duck breast. I'd have them all again, which tells you how much I enjoyed them. For the venison you get cuts of chop and loin, both terribly soft and lean, with a juniper-gin, venison-veal jus that I loved swirling the deer flesh through. The bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin, with its maple syrup emulsion, and a side of puréed butternut squash topped with roasted Brussels sprouts and pearl onions, was sinfully satisfying. And the duck breast is worthy of a Ulysses-length novel full of praise, more for what accompanied these fatty, juicy hunks o' canard: an extra-creamy bowl of grits, and a white wine poached pear, cored and filled with a date and duck liver mousse, and rolled in pistachio dust. When you tear into the small Seckel pear, the duck liver takes you completely by surprise, its velvety richness pairing nicely with the sweetness of the fruit. Dear Santa, can I have a humongo-sized one for Christmas?
The hot and cold appetizers are all as intricately planned and executed as the larger plates. Standouts included the veal tenderloin and the squab. I wasn't crazy about the too salty saffron potato salad served alongside the thin slices of calf, but the vanilla-infused grape tomatoes on a leaf of endive were magnificent. And the veal itself? Cooked sous vide -- that is, in an airtight bag with a garlic-thyme-basil marinade, then seared and served chilled -- it was exquisite, caressing the pleasure centers of my brain as if my gray matter had been pickled in serotonin sauce. The squab had the same effect, besting even the squab I've savored at Zinc Bistro heretofore, and causing me to wonder how those pigeons outside my windowsill might taste. Hmmm.
Of the desserts I sampled, I most admired the pecan pie with butter-pecan ice cream and a tiny pecan cheesecake, mainly because Binkley's miniaturized pecan pie tasted a lot like those my Southern steel-magnolia grandma still makes on a larger scale. Proof positive that at long last, I've found my Iron Chef, Phoenix. Even if I had to venture to Planet Cave Creek to meet him.