Is fine dining a dying institution? If you spend any amount of time keeping up with the current state of American dining culture, you’ve probably heard the rumors that the fusty old white-tablecloth restaurant is going the way of the dinosaur, to be replaced with an ever-growing modern landscape of industrial-styled gastropubs and fast-casual concepts.
A certain style of puffed-up fine dining — the drawn-out, multicourse tasting marathon set in an exquisite dining room and overseen by a small army of service staff — has never really been the status quo in Phoenix. Historically, our city has sustained a much looser, casual dining scene, a development that’s at least in part pragmatic — who wants to wear shirtsleeves in 100-degree weather?
Even in metro Phoenix, though, the closure of tony steakhouses and upscale dining rooms seems to point toward the dwindling appeal of this particular breed of restaurant.
Is fine dining really dead, though? Not entirely. There will probably always be some appetite for pricey, high-end menus served in sedate and highly comfortable rooms.
For proof, consider Sel, a small yet elegant fine dining outpost that opened earlier this year in Old Town Scottsdale.
Fine dining operates on a spectrum, and everyone seems to have their own definition of it, but Sel offers many of its totemic features: the white tablecloths (of course), a sizable wine list, attentive service, and the opportunity to drop $125 on a single ounce of Ossetra caviar.
Sel avoids feeling especially stuffy or ostentatious, though — this is fine dining for the modern era. The restaurant has the friendly airs of a neighborhood bistro, with an intimate dining room that seats around 50 (there is additional seating on an outdoor patio). Service tends to be friendly yet unimposing, and owner and chef Branden Levine (previously the executive chef at Scottsdale’s Café Monarch) will probably come around to your table at some point in the evening to thank you for stopping by.
Sel deals in a specific kind of dining experience: the prix-fixe dinner, where for $70, plus tax and tip, you can enjoy a leisurely four-course meal in the restaurant’s sophisticated, nearly all-white dining room, a pleasant if impersonal space with a trio of glittering chandeliers, a sleek bar, and cushy banquette seating.
Outside, plastic patio seating sets a slightly less glamorous scene, but the space is suffused in the quiet, pleasant glow of quaint-looking Main Street art galleries, most of which are closed by the time dinner rolls around.
You can dine a la carte, but the better value is in the prix-fixe menu, which chef Levine changes every two weeks. Prix fixe, of course, means you are limited to certain dishes; collectively, though, the options feel designed to have maximum appeal.
On a recent visit, the menu was awash in hearty autumn vegetables. Roasted kabocha squash panisse, a take on the classic Provençal chickpea fritter, was a featured first course — some version of panisse seems to show up on the Sel dinner menu pretty regularly, and chef Levine certainly seems to have a way with the dish. In the squash version, the veggie’s slightly sweet profile is compressed into a soft rectangle, which is gently fried to give it lightly crisp texture. The panisse was intensely creamy and buttery, its richness further amplified by a very good garlic fondue sauce. To call the dish ethereal would seem pretty fitting.
Mesquite-smoked blue marlin crudo, another first-course dish, was another knockout starter recently. The firm, clean slivers of fish, skillfully paired with a lovely white truffle-squid ink vinaigrette, delivered a wonderful balance of flavors. A couple of snow-white wisps of crispy rice paper, floating around the edges of the dish, added some pleasingly crunchy texture.
A roasted Romanesco soup, a second course dish on a recent visit, was thick and velvety, hinting of the warm, spicy nuttiness that most of us crave this time of year. A wonderfully vivid tomato confiture, dribbled sparingly right into the middle of the soup, cut through the soup’s naturally thick richness with just the right hint of acid.
An autumn salad of baby kale, spiked with crispy chunks of Brussels sprouts “croutons,” was a fine third course recently, but the dish also came off as somewhat pedestrian in comparison to previous courses. The salad was a tad overdressed in the salty pepitas-Parmesan vinaigrette, although not enough to detract from the salad’s main appeal — the deep, smoky char of the Brussels sprouts.
Is there a more classic fine-dining steak than filet mignon? You may find the standard-bearer dish rounding out the fourth-course options at Sel. It was on the menu recently, the meat grilled to a nice, smoky, fork-tender consistency, and finished off with a very good, beefy Bordelaise sauce. Paired with soft, creamy sweet potato gnocchi, the dish was pretty flawless in terms of execution, but it also felt a little heavy, and a little stodgy, in a way that many of the best dishes at Sel often do not.
A dish of bigeye tuna, another fourth-course option, was considerably more memorable on a recent visit. The dish — a small-scale feast of varicolored flavors and textures — featured beautifully seared tuna paired with a handful of grilled, vaguely spicy matsutake mushrooms, and a wonderful, texture-rich ragu of jasmine rice and beluga lentils. A carrot-ginger puree, hinting at sweetness, buoyed the intensity of the mushrooms, and brightened up the mildly sweet fish.
You can stretch your dinner at Sel into a fifth or sixth course, if you wish — the kitchen offers a handful of supplemental dishes to extend your multicourse feast. There at the bottom menu, next to the caviar option, you’ll spot a supplemental dish of shrimp risotto. It’s a very rich and buttery risotto, embedded with fleshy, extra-juicy nubs of shrimp, and drizzled with a wonderful black truffle emulsion. Is this risotto as sexy as a dish of caviar? When something tastes this good, it doesn’t really seem to matter.
Of course, there is dessert, which presumably changes along with the rest of the menu, although Sel has already become known for its strawberry marzipan shortcake, a light-as-air confection that marries macerated strawberries with airy shortcake and puffs of chantilly crème. It’s lovely, and light enough to squeeze into the tail end of a long meal.
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In an age where the definition of good food has expanded to include meals consumed over wooden counters and bars, meals unwrapped and devoured outside of the rumble and grit of food trucks, Sel offers a spendy yet earnest throwback to the quiet pleasures of fine dining. It’s not a groundbreaking concept, but when food tastes this good, does it really matter?
7044 East Main Street, Scottsdale
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday
Roasted kabocha squash panisse $16
Roasted Romanesco soup $16
Filet mignon $45
Strawberry marzipan shortcake $12