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Matney Idol

Eddie Matney's Epicurean Trio, 2398 East Camelback, Phoenix, 957-3214. Hours: Fine-Dining Room--Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 6 to 10 p.m; Bistro--Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11:30 p.m.

For most of the 1990s, Eddie Matney, the chef behind Eddie's Grill, has been whipping up some of quirkiest, most creative fare in this time zone. Who else offered the likes of cioppino pot pie, shellfish in a spicy, fennel-scented broth topped with a puff-pastry canopy? Who else crusted a chicken breast with mango and peppercorns, and served it over roasted plantains and chile mashed potatoes? And who could resist Matney's signature dish, seared sirloin strip encased in a mashed potato crust and dusted with Italian cheeses, then lightly fried and coated with a cabernet demi-glace?

A few months ago, however, Matney boldly charted a new path. He split with his longtime partner and left Eddie's Grill. Plunging into the big time, he bought out Christopher Gross' old place at the high-profile corner of 24th Street and Camelback.

He also bought into Christopher's three-pronged restaurant concept. Matney has maintained the fine-dining room, right down to the multi-course, fixed-priced tasting menu. He's also overseeing the less-formal bistro, as well as the Wine & Cigar Club, a secluded, second-floor room given over to private dinners. This ambitious "Epicurean Trio," as it's called, opened last September.

The poet instructs us that "Man's reach should exceed his grasp/Or what's a heaven for?" And trying to shoehorn the Matney style into a Christopher Gross concept is definitely a reach. When Eddie pulls it off, it's wonderful. When he doesn't--well, it's never dull.

To my surprise, I found myself more impressed with the fine-dining side of the operation. Eddie's Grill certainly didn't offer this type of gastronomic experience--a seven-course, $70 meal ($120 when each course is paired with a glass of wine). But despite being new to the high-end game, Matney is a very quick study.

He's left the room pretty much the way it was. The huge floral centerpiece is gone, perhaps sent off to a gang-land funeral. The old-style paintings are gone, replaced by original art of no particular merit. Meanwhile, the background music is a little sprightlier; the lighting is a bit brighter; and the heavy curtains have been softened. It's all a tad less formal, less hushed than it was under the previous regime. Still, I'm happy to report that the heavy white linen, weighty silverware and the right glass for every wine remain.

Although you can order a la carte, it makes the most financial and gastronomic sense to go with the seven-course tasting menu. Make sure you come armed with an appetite, and plenty of conversational topics--you'll be here for close to three hours.

The bread basket is pure temptation, and it's hard not to yield to it. The flatbread, flecked with zaatar, a blend of Middle Eastern spices, is particularly alluring, especially if you spread on the super-rich Camembert/Gorgonzola blend that comes along.

But it pays to defer gratification. The meal started off with a marvelous spoonful of sauteed lobster between two homemade tortilla chips, complemented by a glass of bubbly Veuve Clicquot. Under such circumstances, life can seem very good, indeed.

The good feeling persisted into the second course, lovely smoked salmon burnished with a dollop of lemon-fennel creme frache and a zippy bite of wasabi-spiked caviar. Kudos, too, to whoever paired this with the terrific Domaine Schlumberger Pinot Gris, an exceptional varietal from Alsace.

Next up was a wintertime consomme, an intriguing wild-game broth fashioned from boar, pheasant and venison. The best parts of the bowl, however, were the two strips of spicy, seared rabbit loin at the bottom of it. Eddie might consider casting this rabbit in a starring role--it's too good to be a supporting player.

In baseball, your best player usually bats fourth. It only took one bite of gorgeous, melt-in-your-mouth ahi tuna to see why this dish is hitting cleanup on the tasting menu. It's suavely teamed with a disk of mashed Peruvian blue potatoes, as well as celery root and parsnip, two hearty winter veggies. The heady glass of Bear Boat Pinot Noir, from California's Russian River, helped accentuate this dish's charms.

The next course, beef tenderloin, was in the same league as the ahi tuna. The meat was drenched in a high-octane wild mushroom ragout, and enlivened by wine-soaked pears. A Grgich Hills Zinfandel stood toe-to-toe with all these strong flavors.

Dinner begins to wind down with a trio of cheeses. The star of the group was clearly the explorateur, one of the world's best, a soft, triple-cream French beauty that's as flavorful as it is rich and smooth. Unfortunately, in the only wine misstep of the evening, we had to wash it down with a one-dimensional Merlot from Domaine Montesquieu.  

For dessert, Eddie produced his version of Boston cream pie: a layer of banana cake on the bottom; soft chocolate cake on top; and a layer of peanut butter ice cream in between. What's not to like? I didn't have any complaints about the dessert wine, either, a luscious 10-year-old malmsey, the sweetest of the Madeira wines. (The duke of Clarence, younger brother of King Edward IV, is said to have been drowned in a barrel of malmsey. He must have died happy.)

The fine-dining menu shows commendable restraint. Chef Eddie wisely lets the quality ingredients stand out, and the skillfully crafted fare really shines. The presentation, artfully understated, adds subliminal pleasure. So I have to scratch my head in wonder at what he's doing in the bistro. There doesn't seem to be much of a guiding culinary philosophy here. A perceptive friend of mine put her finger on it. She called the bistro menu "50 ingredients in search of an idea."

The new proprietor hasn't fiddled much with the decor. The bistro is still smart-looking and sophisticated, with its marble floor, polished wood and beribboned glass vases filled with fresh blooms on the tables. The only changes I detected: new art on the walls, celebrating European scenes; and new music, featuring an annoying mix of elevator jazz and thumpa-thumpa rhythms.

In the bistro, the chef is a culinary Jekyll and Hyde. When Dr. Matney is in control, the imaginative fare can get you grinning with delight. When Mr. Eddie takes charge, though, the weirdness can stop you in your tracks.

The kitchen clearly has its act together with the riveting oyster appetizer. A half-dozen Wellfleet bivalves are baked with a vibrant mix of pancetta, goat cheese and grilled corn. The dish also comes with a generously poured tequila shooter, which should keep your insides warm until Memorial Day. Crab cakes are also deftly done, two small disks tarted up with a maple vinaigrette that furnishes just the right touch.

Toasted ravioli are more problematical. I loved the rock shrimp and mascarpone filling, as well as the offbeat apricot dipping sauce. But the ravioli were buried under so much batter that the only sensation I got was crunch, crunch, crunch. Two sumac-flavored baby lamb chops teamed with hummus, meanwhile, seems to me an odd way to edge into dinner. (Sumac is a tart Middle Eastern spice.) I just don't see starting dinner by alternating between gnawing meat off the bone and scooping hummus on flatbread. But if you do, I'm willing to defer to your and Eddie's judgment.

I will, however, take a stand against the mussels. I applaud the decision not to douse them in a wine-and-garlic broth--you can get that anywhere. But I don't know what possessed Eddie to put a dozen black mussels in an eggroll wrap "bowl," heap on a pile of scallions and drench everything with a heavy-handed Asian barbecue sauce that's way too strong for its own good. This dish needs to be rethought.

Meals come with soup or salad, which adds real value. The soups are good enough to pay for: a fetching chicken broth, touched up with cinnamon; and the same wild game consomme I had in the fine-dining room, this time stocked with beef, veggies and a dumpling. The salad is also first-rate: It's fatoosh, a Lebanese mix of greens and toasted pita bread, invigorated with mint and sumac.

Dr. Matney shows his entree ingenuity with the East Meets West Seafood Medley. He sends out a perfect, sesame-crusted hunk of rare ahi tuna over braised bok choy, along with Parmesan-tinged sea bass resting on asparagus risotto. This platter is a riot of bold flavors, and it's one riot you won't want to put down.

A mix of scallops, crayfish and andouille sausage, tossed with spicy chipotle fettuccine in a rich dijon sauce, holds your interest to the last bite, and beyond. And the grilled veal T-bone is notable for tender meat, a perky cranberry chipotle sauce and the side of spaghetti squash thickened with cambozola cheese.

But when Dr. Matney gives way to Mr. Eddie, something strange happens. What are we to make of a dish called--I'm not making this up--Meatloaf on a Stick? It turns out to be four little wooden skewers threaded with highly seasoned ground beef, a version of Lebanese kafta that can't compare with the original. I don't believe anyone who ordered this once would ever order it again.

I feel the same way about lamb osso buco, lamb shank wildly mismatched with a cambozola-white-bean ragout. If you want to know why you rarely see lamb paired with cheese, one nibble of this is all the explanation you'll need.  

Mr. Eddie's strangest dish has to be the Southern Fried Chicken Breast Wrapped in Yukon Gold Mashed Potatoes in a Parmesan Thyme Crust. It's actually a take on the signature dish at Eddie's Grill, made with poultry instead of beef. But I didn't know whether to eat it or throw it. That's because it's big and round, about the size of a shot-put and almost as dense. When the waiter set the dish down, the entree started rolling dangerously toward my lap before coming to rest at the edge of the plate. For a few seconds, I wondered whether I'd be eligible for workers' compensation if it landed on me.

By far the best dessert here is the yummy apple-cheddar tart, a clever twist on the classic apple pie with cheese. The ingredients taste like fall in New England, done up in puff pastry and topped with maple ice cream. I'm also smitten with the trio of creme brulees--vanilla, chocolate, peach--in little phyllo cups. Sure, Vincent Guerithault has been doing this for a decade (he uses taco cups), but at least the pastry chef had enough sense to borrow a good idea.

But I'm less impressed with the leaden cappuccino bread pudding, which puts an anvil-like exclamation point on the meal. The Just a Great Chocolate Cake, meanwhile, isn't.

In a town full of copycat chefs, Eddie Matney is an original, a man at home on the range. Even his failures are more interesting than most everyone else's successes. He's already at 24th Street and Camelback. If he can ever harness and focus his culinary imagination, there's no telling how far his talent can take him.

Eddie Matney's
Epicurean Trio:
Fine-Dining Room:
Fixed-price menu $70

Crab cakes $7.95
Scallop and crayfish pasta 18.95
Seafood medley 21.95
Apple-cheddar tart 7.

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