I'm a fan of nouvelle cuisine and never balk at paying premium prices for fine food. But while Second Story Liquor Bar offers both the teeny portions of fussy food and the prices one expects from a four-star restaurant, it does so without benefit of fine cuisine or distinction. Uneventful entrées and one-note sides can't be cloaked by the nearly endless gimmickry offered here.
Located on the corner of Third Avenue and Scottsdale Road, this glamorous culinary disappointment is the brainchild of restaurateur Tommy Plato, who also owns the downstairs Gelato Spot Caffe. Second Story's stunning décor features dark leather booths and a dramatic chandelier; its main dining room is flanked by an outdoor eating patio and built around a floor-level window that gazes into the downstairs cafe. Its billing as "the restaurant in the sky" -- it's located on the top floor of a two-story building -- is as outlandish as its menu.
The name of the game here is not haute cuisine, but trickery. Not content to simply prepare and serve good food, the brain trust behind this swank speakeasy presents its menu as a series of "episodes" starring executive chef Josh Bracher and whiskey man John Christie. Bracher appears to have forgotten whatever skills he learned at the elbow of Posh owner Josh Hebert. Rather than explore new cuisines, he's situated his menu as a four-act play (the "story" in the restaurant's title) and divided it into Intro (appetizers), Prologue (first course), Plot (second course), and Finale (entrée). If my recent visits are any indication, diners might do well to bolt at intermission.
For his part, Christie, formerly of Old Town Whiskey, has assembled a list of ambitious signature cocktails and hooch arranged by era. According to the barkeep on my initial visit, Christie has stocked nearly a hundred different whiskeys. Would that I had quaffed several of these before leaping into the second-rate appetizers and entrées.
Being drunk may not have helped. Ahi poke Asian chopped salad, the standout on the "Intro" menu, is an overzealous bore. Its pair of butter lettuce leaves are littered with too much junk -- forbidden rice, edamame, globs of lime-rich avocado, and cubes of tuna meat drenched in honey ginger vinaigrette -- yet the overall effect is surprisingly flavorless.
The Samosa lobster pot pie, from the "Prologue" menu, is a deconstructed disaster. Its poppy seed puff pastry is sodden with crème fraîche and dotted with low-rent caviar, both of which eclipse the smallest taste of lobster. From the "Plot" menu, a Barbie-sized portion of hay-smoked short ribs comes sauced in not one but two flavors: a caramelized pumpkin buttermilk puree and a pumpkin seed saffron oil, both of them overpowered by the flavor of rosemary jus. Paired with a decent handful of buttery chanterelles, the nicely crusted, tender cut of meat is wasted on all this pottage.
The "Finale" menu boasts an entire kitchen's worth of complexity; the rule seems to be, Why have three flavors when you can have 16? Ling cod is mobbed with flavors, none of which complement one another. Pickled ginger and braised kale drown wasabi-dusted popcorn. (Please, chefs everywhere -- stop with the fucking popcorn, already!) Paired with serviceable sesame gnocchi, this wee pile of warring flavors is priced at $27. Other straightforward meat dishes are also obscured by heaps of ingredients: The diminutive pan-seared New York strip can be found beneath Asian-style chimichurri, Brussels sprouts, bacon, and confit fingerlings. Its meaty taste is obscured by pickled daikon, kimchi puree, and horseradish. Bitty pork chops are buried in apple and mascarpone tortellini, charred yellow beets, and apple crisps, drizzled with a sage-beurre noisette emulsion and dusted with pork powder. Jesus Christ.
A subsequent after-hours visit meant ordering from Second Story's equally overwrought late-night menu. Duck confit hushpuppies achieved a nice balance of sweet cakiness flecked with bits of musky, fat-rich meat, but Korean kimchi dumplings offered a humdrum pairing of shrimp and kimchi, their wrappers the texture of wet napkin.
Part of Plato's "evolving storyline" means that both his dinner and late-night menus change every couple of months. But will it improve? Successful nouvelle cuisine should leave one wanting just one more bite of each dish. At Second Story, I found myself plundering Chef Josh's tiny portions, looking for something I wanted to taste again.
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Second Story Liquor Bar 4166 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale 480-945-5555 www.secondstoryliquorbar.com Hours: 4 to 11 p.m. Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday; 4 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday
Ahi poke Asian chopped salad $18 Samosa lobster pot pie $20 Hay smoked short rib $26 Ling cod $27