Room at the In
This was to be my birthday dinner to remember, a landmark event staged last week at one of the world's best restaurants, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. Chez Panisse, of course, is the creation of legendary chef Alice Waters and, since it opened in 1971, it's come to be known as not simply a restaurant, but as an ideology of eating. Waters is convinced that the best-tasting food is organically grown and, as she preaches, "harvested in ways that are ecologically sound, by people who are taking care of the land for future generations." Her menu is a quest for the immediacy and wholesomeness of vegetables just out of the garden, fruit right off the branch, and fish straight out of the ocean. Not just dinner, a meal at Chez Panisse is a "celebration of natural harmony and optimal flavor." A lot of chefs are copying her these days, but Waters is still considered the best.
Oh, it was good. An incredible pain to get reservations, pretty expensive and, yes, a little snotty in service since we were being treated to "art," not just food -- but still, it was almost enough to make me forget I was turning a year older.
Yet as remarkable as Chez Panisse is, I've got a new, much more convenient idea for my next very important celebration (Labor Day is looking good. So is China's mid-autumn festival on September 21, and Western Australia's queen's birthday on the 30th).
From now on, I'm going to Élevé, the restaurant that's thundered into the Biltmore Plaza, taking the space that used to be Blue Burrito Grille and setting this tony corner of Camelback's restaurant row spinning. As much of a jewel as Chez Panisse is to Berkeley, we've got our own little gem right here in Phoenix.
Chef-owner Michael Mishkin is taking Waters' preaching to heart, focusing on fresh seasonal ingredients, light uncomplicated recipes and unfussy presentation.
Élevé isn't stumbling over pretension, though. At Waters' Chez Panisse, we had to make a reservation exactly one month to the day in advance, put down a $25-per-person deposit and then reconfirm the morning of the dinner. It's not as easy as it sounds, since the staff there didn't seem to believe in answering the phone, so much of the reservations gymnastics needed to be done in person at the cafe.
But at Élevé, the host works to get me in, even when I've called at 5 p.m. for a table that same night for my family at 6:30. I'm well aware of the strained pause as the host considers my request -- he has to shuffle tables to fit in my party of four, but he does it without a grumble (I recommend more polite customers call at least a day in advance).
It's not really fair to Élevé that I'm here tonight at all. The elegant little bistro (it seats 64) has been open just over two weeks when I stop in with my family and fellow Chez Panisse partiers; it's hardly enough time for the place to work out any kinks. And I'm expecting mistakes -- this is 27-year-old Mishkin's first operation. But he's been trained by some fine local outfits, including Vincent's and Zen 32, and it shows. This is a first-class experience, from the cuisine to the service, from start to finish.
I can find no flaws reading Élevé's menu. It's refreshing compared to Waters' Chez Panisse, where all diners were limited to a single meal -- three or four courses of whatever the chef had deemed acceptable for our peon palates; plus, it was $75 per person, take it or leave it. Mishkin, though, has crafted an exquisite composition of seven appetizers, eight entrees and five desserts with prices so reasonable I have to wonder about typos (starters from $8 to $12, main plates from $18 to $24).
Also, at my Berkeley birthday fest, I'm pretty sure our servers didn't like us. With all the stoic stares and raised eyebrows coming my way, I actually felt like I was ordering the wrong thing, menu choice or no. At Élevé, though, the spirit is so warm, cozy and sincere that I find myself forgetting that I'm in an upscale eatery, complete with classy expo kitchen and thick white tablecloths. Even the table settings are perfect: heavy, geometric plates; hefty silverware; whisper-thin, lipped goblets even for the water glasses; and hand-ground rock salt and whole peppercorns. No uptight air here -- someone stops by to pitch us on Sunday brunch (a breathtaking array of gourmet eggs, specialty pancakes like dark and white chocolate of pumpkin-cinnamon, and big dishes such as scallop-and-goat-cheese quesadilla). Chef Mishkin himself stops by to see if we're happy. Another server -- and we're not even her table -- checks in, too. What pros.
And what perfect food. I'm loving my appetizer, a generous serving of silky, succulent smoked salmon piled above peppery whole arugula leaves, a thatch of griddled potato-leek, tangy horseradish crème fraiche, capers, chopped red onion and red bell pepper. Paired with a glass of Villa Nova Pinot Grigio from Élevé's creative wine list and lusty tears of Willo bread (sesame-seed and kalamata-olive loaves), it's almost enough for a full meal.
My sister Elizabeth wasn't quite sure what to make of a Chez Panisse starter of baccalà ravioli -- baccalà is dried salt cod -- but she's got no concerns over her grilled shrimp cocktail now. The four fat crustaceans have been marinated in blood orange and tequila, grilled and capped over crisp jicama slaw, all in a martini glass. And I pause from my salmon long enough to commandeer most of Mom's chicken appetizer, juiced with orange-chile, shredded and layered with lacy grilled zucchini and soft, fluffy, truly spicy green-chile corn cakes, plus fresh avocado-corn salsa.
For entrees, Elizabeth goes for the ravioli; Élevé's approachable version is al dente red-pepper pasta stuffed with bright, strong gorgonzola, and lemon-herb pasta filled with tender roasted chicken, golden raisins and pistachios, all dressed in the sleekest silk of Chardonnay reduction. Delightful.
Mom has stolen my first choice, a remarkable fillet of sturgeon. We don't see sturgeon too often in the Valley, which is a shame, because it's an exquisite fish -- fresh, delicate, high-fat and so firm it's almost like steak. Mishkin rubs his catch in sweet tarragon, then tosses it over a beautiful chop of grilled carrots, plump cannellini beans, shaved fennel, biting brisk green olives and preserved lemon.
Meanwhile, Audrey, Elizabeth's friend from college, stakes her claim on another of my favorites, ahi tuna. The fish doesn't get any better than this, with two huge steaks served gloriously raw under a quick-seared rim, paired with just-wilted baby spinach, crunchy sugar snap peas, and a wildly successful tomato-and-herb tabbouleh under a champagne-and-hummus vinaigrette. Waters, in her wildest dreams, probably hasn't approached this combination yet.
I could live happily just on Mishkin's garlic-sautéed spinach, the side to my beef tenderloin. Emerald-green and sparkling with fresh garden flavor, it adds glitz to an already dynamic plate of medium-rare beef slicked with tart Israeli sheep's-milk feta and fresh herbs, plus oven-cured potato slabs (usually it's juicy tomatoes, but tonight's presentation includes a full-flavored purple Peruvian spud).
At my Berkeley birthday, Chez Panisse sent out a dessert that almost made me accept the hoopla over its reservations. It was a peach-and-raspberry crostata with mascarpone ice cream, so clean, so shining, so un-sickly sweet. Mishkin takes the same less-is-more approach to his made-on-site sweets, although that "less" can be pretty inventive. Cheesecake is an almost quichelike consistency of ricotta, with a surprisingly sweet-sharp infusion of basil over a puddle of aged balsamic and marinated strawberries. Peach cobbler is untraditional but extraordinary, served in a baking dish like a potpie.
Sure, my Berkeley birthday dinner ended up being a big deal, in more ways than one. But with restaurants like Élevé finally making their way to Phoenix, I'm looking forward to aging oh-so gracefully.
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