Chef Christopher Gross never misses a lick when it comes to reminding you of all the plaudits he's picked up in his day. There's a fairly exhaustive list on the take-home menu for Christopher's Fermier Brasserie, Gross' acclaimed Biltmore Fashion Park grub shack, and the list includes everything from his 1995 James Beard award, to hyperbolic huzzahs from the press, including some of my predecessors at New Times.
The restaurant itself feels like a musty museum honoring Gross' ego. A massive portrait of the great man with cigar and wine in hand celebrating his 1997 Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence dominates one dining area, and other framed laurels abound. Even the loo offers no reprieve. Chef Gross looks down on you as you tinkle from one of the mounted newspaper articles near the urinal. Really, Christopher, have you no shame?
I'm kidding a little. Probably every CEO in the Valley has a trophy room or wall dedicated to past glories, though most of them draw the line at nailing that Lions Club plaque up in the company baño. Then, not every chef can brag about being on PBS with the late Julia Child, or offer you a video link to same on his or her Web site, as does Gross. Problem is, when you polish your own trumpet like that, you'd better deliver when it comes time to play your song, bucko. Because with all that expectation inflation, mediocrity doesn't cut it.
Christopher's Fermier Brasserie
2584 East Camelback Road (Biltmore Fashion Park), Phoenix
Steamed mussels: $11.95
Frise salad: $8.95
Duck two ways: $24.95
Osso buco: $24.95
602-522-2344. Hours: daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
That's my main complaint against Monsieur Gross, his failure to wow me. I feel the same way toward George Lucas after suffering through Revenge of the Sith, Lucas' answer to Montezuma's revenge. However, Lucas' banal epic was a lot cheaper. Dinner for two at Christopher's weighs in at about $140, including wine and a tip. You can eat just as well if not better in town for half that.
Certainly, the service was above average. On the other hand, the decor at Christopher's could use some freshening, especially the greenish banquette along one wall, which would look better as some retiree's couch in Sun City. The brasserie's curtains appear to have done a good job dodging the laundry basket. The ones used to separate the first dining section from the second were shockingly filthy, with grime smeared all over them from the hands of waiters and patrons.
Grosser still were the black mussels I endured on my first trip. The white wine broth they came in was tasty, but the mussels themselves gave off a rank ammonia smell, and many of the shells were shut tight, leading me to believe they hadn't been cooked long enough, or had gone bad prior to preparation. Rather than being firm when pried from their shells, the mussels turned stringy, as if you were pulling gray, unappetizing taffy. After the waitress took mine away, I heard her talking to another table about the same problem. Before you write in telling me this is a common complaint everywhere, save the ink. I often eat mussels when out, and this is only the second occasion when they've been this disgusting.
Neither am I cutting Chef Gross any slack on the lack of imagination involved in the preparation of another batch of mollusks, these being terrestrial. Drowning snails in garlic butter is a culinary travesty often repeated in this country, probably because U.S. chefs are attempting to hide the tastelessness of their gastropods. In Europe, the snails are fresh, earthy and wondrous, and I've never experienced the same overkill there. A few chefs in the Valley make an effort not to repeat the cliché. Gross isn't one of them. He does bake a pot-pie-like pastry crust over the escargot tray, but otherwise this is the same snail-garlic-butter shtick I've seen a million times before.
Christopher's roasted red bell pepper soup reminds me of a bland squash or pumpkin purée. Its saving grace is the bit of crushed portobello floating on top along with the squirt or two of white truffle oil. This is sort of cheating, because a squirt of two of truffle oil will make your serviette taste better than seared foie gras. But just as cheating saves money on your taxes, so does it save this red bell pepper potage from being a complete waste of time.
The bread I received before my meals was stiff and chewy, but I've had worse. I confess to enjoying Gross' frisée salad, with its two poached eggs, pale leaves of frisée, sherry vinaigrette and lardons -- the French version of bacon bits, and also what I say when I'm in the mood for a BLT. You know, "Time to get my lard-on." Other than too much vinaigrette, I'd say this salad was nearly perfect.
The osso buco was the plat du jour the first night I stopped by, so I decided to have at it. The flesh of the veal was moist and palatable, but it was served to me minus the marrow fork, earning the staff one of its few demerits, since eating the marrow from the "pierced bone" is a big part of the dish. Worse was the fact that the whipped potatoes on the same plate were cold when they got to me.
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I had mixed feelings about my duck two ways: a classic duck confit atop sautéed spinach, and duck breast medallions in a port wine sauce, accompanied by turnips au gratin. The turnip slices were creamy and magnificent, and the confit and spinach, at least adequate. But the duck breast lacked flavor, a real letdown for one who loves that fowl as I do.
Dessert? Another bummer. I ordered profiteroles thinking of these ice-cream-stuffed ones that I had at Chat Noir, a plush French bistro in Costa Mesa, California. At Christopher's you receive only three, and they're more like little ice-cream sandwiches, with stale choux pastry cut in half.
Later, I took a stab at Gross' much-ballyhooed chocolate mousse tower, a hard, cylindrical shell of white and dark chocolate in which is chocolate mousse, with some strawberries on top and illy espresso sauce to pour over it all. After cracking this sucker open and noshing away, I was completely under-whelmed by its ordinariness. I can only conclude that some grant it a passing grade for its looks, but I'm not so inclined. C'mon, Chris, is this all you've got, baby? If so, the reality check is long overdue.