Meet the Christopherians
Christopher's, 2398 East Camelback, Phoenix, 957-3214. Summer hours: Thursday through Saturday, 6 p.m. to close.
The enormous floral centerpiece at Christopher's--large enough for a gangland funeral--looked way past its prime, the flowers worn and faded. But my nose picked up the scent of a metaphor: Perhaps, I thought, the tired, drooping blossoms could stand for the whole restaurant operation, a symbol of its worn, faded glory?
The metaphor might have given me a solid hook to hang this column on. But after a three-hour feeding marathon, consisting of 10 courses and six glasses of wine, I realized the botanical analogy just didn't work--it was a little too simple, a little too neat. Reality, unfortunately, almost always turns out messier and more complicated than we'd like.
Every diner in the Valley with an expense account or a trust fund knows that after a phenomenally successful seven-year run, partners Guy Coscas and Christopher Gross split last December. The breakup wasn't amicable: Coscas thought his award-winning chef spent too much time on self-promotion, and not enough time in the kitchen. He also wanted Gross to tweak the menu, adding other notes to the contemporary French cuisine. And he couldn't stand Gross' wife, Paola, who managed the restaurant's wine operation, and whom Coscas blamed for most of the discord. Not surprisingly, Gross saw things very differently.
The two men began communicating through their attorneys, trying to arrange a settlement. But one thing was legally indisputable: Coscas owned the name "Christopher's." And that's what he continues to call the restaurant.
Is Christopher's still Christopher's without Christopher? Yes, it is. But no, it isn't. How's that possible?
A 19th-century German scholar figured it out. Max Weber asked himself why some religions grew and prospered, and others didn't. He concluded that successful groups found a way to "routinize the charisma."
What does that mean? It means the initial burst of devotion inspired by charismatic religious founders--like Jesus and Mohammed--was, after their deaths, channeled into powerful institutions. The first Christians organized the Church, the first Moslems took over the State, and both Christianity and Islam flourished. Over the centuries, prayers, beliefs, obligations and customs all became regularized, or, as Weber put it, "routinized." Though the founders are long gone, religious leaders, operating through the Church or State, continue to reassure true believers that they are in tune with God's commands.
"Routinizing the charisma"--that's the task facing a Christopher-less Christopher's. Coscas insists that under the direction of Gross' sous chef, who now directs the kitchen, the restaurant can maintain its excellence. After all, he studied under the master. The quality ingredients, the recipes--they're still around, even if the founder isn't.
And on one level, that kind of thinking has some merit. There's no intrinsic reason this kitchen can't reproduce Christopher's terrine of foie gras or his hot and cold chocolate.
But without the founder's vision, energy and creativity, restaurants (and religions) can ossify and go lifeless. By continuing to call this place "Christopher's" and reproducing the former chef's menu, Coscas risks turning something that was once new and fresh into something old and stale.
For the most part, today's Christopher's seems content to be a shrine to the past. From a short-term business standpoint, it may be the right decision--it's probably what the regulars who still come here want. But it's a dubious long-term strategy. (Coscas himself once told me that in the restaurant business, "not to change is to die.") However, there are a few unexpected touches that suggest the kitchen might be inching--very, very tentatively--into the future.
The 10-course, fixed-price "Menu Prestige" (it includes two off-the-menu courses) is the culinary centerpiece of Christopher's. It's hard to generalize about the sumptuous fare. But, overall, I was more impressed when the chef flashed his own occasional touches than when he demonstrated his skill at rigorously duplicating his former boss's dishes.
One touch was apparent in the evening's first course. The thin-sliced sliver of barely seared ahi tuna came coated with a luscious raspberry sauce. This, I imagine, was the kind of Pacific Rim touch Coscas is probably urging on the kitchen.
Next up was the superb wild mushroom soup, a holdover from former days. It's a demitasse of fungi, bathed in a staggering broth fashioned from cream and port. This has the kind of flavor that can stop conversation in midsentence.
The terrine of foie gras used to be the single best item that ever came out of Christopher's. Paired with a glass of Sauternes, it produced the kind of high that Timothy Leary could only try to simulate in his lab. Not anymore. I don't know who's responsible for the fall-off, but the foie gras just didn't have the rich lustiness it used to. Those with gourmet palates may think it absurd, but I found myself more interested in the garnish of greens.
I don't remember Chef Gross ever working with rabbit. The fourth course showed what we might have been missing. It's an eye-opener, two slices of seared rabbit saddle, moistened in a vigorous mustard-seed sauce aromatically freshened with tarragon. But I wasn't quite sure what to make of the mound of chopped herbs--tarragon, dill and chervil, I think--that came alongside. It seemed better suited to feeding the rabbit than accompanying it.
Striped bass was one of those dishes that sounds better in the abstract than it tastes in reality. The fish gets overpowered on two fronts: from cepes and shiitake mushrooms, and from a lemon-scented, veal-powered jus de viande. If you're going to offer a fish course, you should let it taste like fish.
In a 10-course meal, each one offering only a couple of bites, it doesn't make sense to speak of a "main" dish. But if there is a main dish here, it's course Number Six. And the chef wisely put his own stamp on it.
When Christopher was in charge, this course would feature hard-hitting animal protein: beef, lamb or game, often punched up with pancetta and smoothed with a powerful wine reduction. This time, however, the kitchen went with duck breast, and did it up with such un-Christopher-like Asian touches as five-spice, a sesame wafer, crunchy cabbage, a light sherry vinegar and even a dash of chile heat. It was the kind of dish that made you regret when you got to your last bite. However, I had no use for the fruity California Pinot Noir it was infelicitously paired with. This wasn't a match--it was a clash.
The cheese course was a step down from platters I remember. No more tete de moine, explorateur or fourme d'Ambert. Instead there's a generic Camembert, petit Basque and Maytag Blue, somewhat second-line cheeses.
Then there's a trio of refreshing sorbets, coconut, pear and berry, followed by one of Christopher's signature sweets, hot and cold chocolate. But on this occasion, it didn't have much of a signature. Every other time I've eaten this dessert here, I didn't leave even a crumb on the plate. But this version so lacked the wicked chocolate intensity I was expecting that I gave up after a second bite. And anyone who is still hungry enough to nibble on the macaroons, truffles and petits fours that follow must have been born on the planet Krypton.
At one time, Christopher's was a dynamic force, one of the Valley's culinary leaders. We'll see what the future holds. But right now, it seems to be marching in place, while the rest of the restaurant world is rushing to try to pass it by.
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