Pardon Their French
Bistro 24 executive chef John Johnstone has been one busy fellow lately. Over the past several months, he's packed up his pots and pans, relocated from New York's Tavern on the Green, dismantled and rebuilt the Phoenix Ritz-Carlton's kitchen, brought in a new staff and introduced new lunch and dinner menus.
All his effort has been aimed at bringing a simplified, more relaxed dining experience to the classically inspired French restaurant that is the Ritz's flagship eatery. Sad to say, he might have saved himself a little work. For these prices, and for what we've come to appreciate at the cafe, dining here is now a largely boring, and entirely uneven, experience.
Gone is the lengthy menu with very bistro-like stars such as escargot, filet of beef à la Bourguignonne, pâté du jour with Cornichons, croque monsieur, goat cheese omelet and plats du jour of coq au vin and bouillabaisse. Instead, the condensed offering emphasizes mostly familiar flavors like ahi tuna, filet mignon, lamb chops and chicken. Sauces have been lightened, and complicated dishes deconstructed to accommodate, we're told, a professional clientele's time constraints -- less fuss, less muss means less time spent sitting at the table, I guess.
It's unfortunate, because the best things here remain the lusty, Gallic fare that had us flocking to the eatery in the first place. This new Bistro's been beaten down.
The change was necessary, Johnstone says, to appeal to the "wide variety" in tastes of the everyday diner. In restaurant lingo, that means guests wanted more of the standard stuff, less of the fancy fare. That's economics. In the shakeup, however, I'm afraid we've lost much of the character that's made Bistro 24 stand out from the sea of pricey steak, fish and chicken houses constantly springing up across the Valley.
This isn't the first time the hotel eatery has been dumbed down -- the resort got rid of its highly formal concept, called The Restaurant, in the late '90s in an effort to appeal to a new breed of movers and shakers with less inclination to dress for dinner. Then, the change worked to a wonderful degree. While the evening crowd continued to be largely hotel guests, Bistro 24 emerged as one of the prime places in the Valley for an executive lunch -- last year, in fact, Gourmet magazine designated it one of the top spots in North America for a business noontime nosh. Its reservations list reads like a who's who of folks taking a little break from playing lord and leader of our economic, political and social scenes.
Many of the renovations were done then and continue to be winners. The decor is still brilliant. The Restaurant's severe black-and-brown motif was overthrown for gold-and-green-striped silk booths, comfortable rattan booths, sophisticated crown moldings, country French accents and a cozy, eat-in bar at the restaurant's entry. Even though we're in a posh hotel, the bistro's atmosphere is so inviting, it makes me want to curl up and take a nap.
I love the live piano music that's played during the evenings. Even where tables are crammed too close together, excellent acoustics absorb any corporate secrets being traded over bites of salmon paillard. It's an excellent environment in which to impress guests, with expert, unobtrusive service and all things we expect from the Ritz.
So what happened to variety on the menu? I'm a fanatical fish fan, but Bistro 24's new starter choices have me somnolent by my second visit. There's a jumbo lump crab meat plate at lunch. Ahi tuna tartare. Smoked salmon. Spicy shellfish gazpacho stocked with shrimp, lobster and crab. We can also select from evening appetizers of lobster bisque, oysters on the half-shell, chilled gulf shrimp and two sampler platters boasting bits of shellfish plus mussels, seafood of the day, clams and, on the large platter, a half-lobster.
A few soups, salads and duck dishes aren't nearly enough to balance the appetizers, particularly when I turn to entrees and find yet more swimmers: sole, bass, tuna, salmon and lobster ravioli.
Most disheartening, though -- the fish we get doesn't register on the Ritz-er scale of taste. Ahi tuna tartare has me salivating with its description of avocado cream and grapefruit ginger vinaigrette, yet ultimately, the condiments are the best thing on the plate. The dish certainly looks pretty, molded in small heaps like fish cupcakes topped with greens. It follows the current fashion of appetizers the size of small vehicles. But the fish is blemished by too much connective tissue for its $13.50 price tag, and the tuna is surprisingly tasteless. Too bad -- the silky guacamole-like topping is a nice touch, and I really like the citrus bite of the grapefruit segments served alongside.
Scottish smoked salmon roulade is equally oversize and well-groomed, looking, as our server jokes, like a Chia Pet under its mantle of ubiquitous greens. The idea is excellent, rolling thick slabs of salmon with boursin cheese and serving it atop a cold, cheese-stuffed pumpernickel finger sandwich. The triple-cream, herb-flecked cheese would make a wonderful partner with its buttery goodness, but there's so much of it that the firm fish ends up completely overpowered. It doesn't help that the salmon tastes like it's spent too much time prestuffed in the refrigerator; it's waterlogged and flat-flavored.
An entree of crispy striped bass doesn't do it for me, either. It's simply a thin piece of dry fillet laid over haricot verts (green beans), tomatoes, capers, roasted red peppers, kalamata olives and potato rounds. It would be much better without the aggressive butter sauce it swims in.
Butter dominates sole meunière as well, cloaking the crisp-skinned fish's delicate flavors, swamping delectable fried capers and obscuring the excellent, crisp asparagus served alongside. Half as much sauce would have twice the effect.
The "less is more" approach works particularly well with Bistro 24's vichyssoise. The chilled potato and leek blend is mint-colored and practically tastes green, it's so fresh and clean under a dusting of whisker-thin deep-fried leeks. The crisp lahvosh chunks floating within are a pleasant surprise; much more so than the errant ice cube that surfaces on my spoon. Turn down the fridge, folks, and I'd eat this soup day in and day out.
French onion soup is about as traditional as any bistro can get, and the Ritz's take is achingly close to wonderful. I like the thick tangle of sweet onion and adore the tangy Swiss cheese-topped French bread. Yet why does the broth taste so sugary? Sacre bleu!
Bistro 24 doesn't miss any marks on duck confit, however. Who but the French would have thought to take duck, salt it, cook it and serve it in its own fat? The dish is not for dieters, swimming in calvados gastrique (a sauce of reduced brandy, vinegar and sugar) and topped with caramelized apples. It's more of a meal than a dinner appetizer (and, in fact, is served as a luncheon entree for $1 more), astounding me with a full thigh plus a hefty toss of spinach and red onion salad served in an almost life-size, duck-shaped bowl. It's rich, tasty and in perfect keeping with concept.
On the other hand, the tossed salad is much too delicate. Our waitress assures us it's an entree, but it's hardly filling, bringing a vacuous heap of bibb and arugula with a cowering sprinkle of cashews, blue cheese, hearts of palm and tasteless dots of what I'll agree with the menu might be artichoke bits. A lemon vinaigrette is so thin it evaporates on the plate, even as we request a separate serving to ladle on.
Bistro 24 is famous for its hamburgers, and usually, the accolades are justified. Not so on one luncheon visit, unfortunately. The requested-medium beef is bloody, and so greasy it leaves a ring on the plate under its sesame seed bun. Nothing's changed with the restaurant's napkin-wrapped French fries, thankfully -- they're still fabulously skinny, skin-on and scintillating.
Another survivor of the old regime is that bistro classic, steak au poivre. The huge fillet is perfectly done, tender, and topped with lots of whole green peppercorns plus thin, fried onion strings. A side of fries is perfect for soaking up the beefy juices.
When Chef Johnstone strays from the traditional, the result is much less successful. How herb lasagna got its name I'll never know, or how it's survived this long on the menu. This is a frankly weird dish, folding two pieces of very chewy pasta over whipped Jerusalem artichoke -- it tastes kind of like a tough, mashed potato-stuffed burrito. I actually like the filling, but hate the exceedingly strong Madeira-scented mushrooms served on top and in the salty puddle of brown sauce. The chef is new, and the emperor has no clothes, perhaps?
Meals end on a happier note, with a favorite Anjou pear tart and wonderful, strong French-press coffee. The tart's firm pear is lightly grilled, sliced and in nice textural contrast to a bed of marscapone cream and cake.
Johnstone plans to change his menu seasonally, I'm told. Hopefully his second go-round will bring us a better, brighter bistro once again.
2401 E. Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016
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