THE HIGH-PRICED SPREAD
You would think he'd be impervious by now.
Christopher Gross, owner and chef of Christopher's and the Bistro, is a smash hit. Local restaurant critics rave. National restaurant critics rave. Food and Wine, in 1989, named Gross one of the nation's ten best new chefs. The accolades flow like wine.
So what difference could one more opinion possibly make?
All this is by way of explaining the weird, semiparanoid atmosphere that surrounds me when I review these two star-studded additions to Phoenix's haute-cuisine scene.
Though I rate myself among the most discreet when it comes to scribbling notes while dining, I am busted--for the first time ever--at the Bistro.
After the check is paid, Carl Esser, one of the restaurant's managers, strolls over. "Can I answer any other questions for you?" he asks, somewhat nervously. "I noticed you were taking notes during your meal. Are you in any way connected with New Times?"
Yikes! Totally astonished, I mutter some lame, noncommittal reply. An outright lie would be unseemly; the truth, critical suicide. I still need to visit the adjoining and very expensive Christopher's. As soon as Esser leaves, my accomplice and I hustle out of the restaurant. For the moment, my cover is totally blown.
"So what?" you say.
It matters because I was eager to have the advantage of visiting Christopher's and the Bistro completely unknown to Chef Gross and his staff. Over the last few months, I've heard a few bitter grumblings about service at the Bistro. Despite its glowing reviews, the restaurant has allegedly treated some folks with downright disdain, and these people were upset about it. As a total stranger, my experience would be more likely to mirror that of Mr. or Ms. Average Diner--something no other critic in town could claim. Happily, even before we are spotted for spies or journalists, my dining accomplice and I are treated very well at the Bistro. Service is prompt and attentive. Questions are answered courteously. A visual survey of the dining room indicates our experience is not out of the ordinary. Maybe the staff has been coached since some of these complaints surfaced.
And the food? I like it, Chris. I really, really like it.
In fact, I like almost everything about the Bistro. Without being imitative, this bustling, clubby restaurant makes transplants from bigger cities feel right at home. From its menu, which places equal emphasis on "starters" and main courses, to the availability of an assortment of mineral waters, unusual beer and excellent wines by the glass, and in its commitment to late-night dining, the Bistro reaffirms life after sundown for misplaced night owls living in a town that shutters up at ten o'clock.
But back to the food. I love the delicious, buttery smoked salmon my dining accomplice and I share. Served with dill cream and silver-dollar-size buckwheat pancakes, our appetizer is already divided onto two plates for us.
The salads we try are equally exciting. A salad of creamy homemade mozzarella is fantastic, thanks to tasty, tender tomatoes (real red ones!) and assorted greens perfectly seasoned with drizzled olive oil, salt and pepper. A salad of endive stimulates parts of my palate I never knew I had. Mixed greens, including oak leaf, radicchio, red leaf lettuce and endive, are tossed with halved pecans and a lovely walnut-oil dressing. Both salads are generously proportioned.
Many of the entrees offered the night we visit are grilled. Sea scallops prepared this way don't really grab my fancy--though they are fresh and tender. Topped with wonderful fried "straw" potatoes, the grilled mollusks are accompanied on the plate by chunks of green, yellow and red bell pepper. A mound of ratatouille looks dull, but proves to be full-flavored with basil, tomato and oregano.
Grilled rack of lamb is charbroiled outside, but juicy and pink inside. (Note: the kitchen prepares everything served medium rare unless otherwise requested.) A side of gratin dauphinoise turns out to be upscale scalloped potatoes which taste of butter and milk and definitely outdo Mom's.
We sip foamy cappuccino as we await dessert. Even the range of customer attire at the Bistro pleases me. We see everything from ties, jackets and frills to the upscale casual look of polo shirts and linen.
Christopher's banana split is inspired. It features caramelized bananas, several tiny scoops of homemade blueberry, strawberry and vanilla ice cream, and lace-nut cookie sculptures. I am charmed.
Tarte tatin is a bit too wintry for a hot June night. Still, it is delicious. The upside-down apple tart is rich in butter and caramel, spiked with Calvados (an apple liqueur) and served with a small scoop of homemade fig ice cream.
It is at this point, still basking in the ecstasy of our meal, that I am tagged and identified by the management. While this does not help my digestion or reduce my anxiety about visiting Christopher's unnoticed, it does nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for the Bistro. I am excited and grateful to have another cosmopolitan, sophisticated and alive restaurant in the city of Phoenix. I plan to visit again soon and often. My notepad stays in the car. It always has been my intention to review Christopher's and the Bistro midway between the Fourth of July and Bastille Day. Gross, after all, is a red-blooded American infatuated with les choses francaises, and his restaurants are evidence of both influences. The Bistro emphasizes American cuisine with a French twist; Christopher's is French with an American accent. I actually don a disguise to visit the intimate enclave called Christopher's, after being sighted at the Bistro. I'd love to describe my get-up, but that would negate its usefulness in the future. Let's just say that my dining accomplice, a native of Normandy, has trouble recognizing me when we meet.
And, speaking of visual surprises, Christopher's does not look as I had expected, either. Other reviews led me to believe it would be a darker, smaller room featuring thick velvet drapes. Instead, Christopher's is bigger than anticipated and less plush, though still luxuriously appointed with thick carpet, brocade chairs and matching drapes.
Leave it to a Frenchman to notice the lack of tete-a-tete tables for two. "The tables are all so big," my accomplice points out. "Yet most of the people eating here are couples." He is absolutely right. Larger tables obviously afford a restaurant more seating flexibility, but you'd think an expensive and elegant place like this would have at least a couple of deuces.
Several dining options are available at Christopher's. Ordering a la carte is a possibility, as at the Bistro, or diners may choose to go the prix fixe route. A six-course Menu Gourmand costs $60 per person, $85 with wines of the world added. The eight-course Menu Prestige costs $80 a head, $110 when wines of France are poured with it.
We decide to order the Menu Prestige. With wine. For my accomplice, a meal of this magnitude is no big deal. He has spent most of his life eating multicourse meals and drinking French wine--naturellement. For me, eight courses is a test of endurance; six glasses of wine, a binge. It promises to be an interesting evening, made even more so by the imminent threat of discovery.
After some petite appetizers of smoked salmon, a beef mini-brochette and a leek tart, our eating exercise begins in earnest. Our first white wine, a Gewurztraminer, is fruity and fragrant, but not too sweet. It complements, but does not overpower, our salad of foie gras, squab and artichokes. I'm not so wild about this salad. My foie gras is seared on the outside, but otherwise nearly uncooked. Frankly, it reminds me a little too much of Mia Farrow's diet in Rosemary's Baby for me to enjoy it wholeheartedly.
Our first wine glass is cleared and a second one poured. (Wine portions are ample tastings, but not full glasses.) Our waiter articulates carefully the name and vintage of each new bottle, showing us the label each time. Our new white wine, Cotes du Rhone Rascassas, is drier and of a single, higher note. It accompanies a fish course: brill with girolles in balsamic sauce. Neither my accomplice nor I am familiar with this fish, which proves to be firm-fleshed and slightly greasy. Funnel-shaped chanterelle mushrooms in rich sauce are a pleasant diversion.
A dry, light white wine from Gascony is poured for us, and we prepare for our third course. This one is pure genius. What is served looks, at first glance, like a whole boiled lobster. In actuality, the head and tail are empty shells, and slices of poached lobster top fresh pasta where the body would be. A whole, shelled claw, truffles and a lobster ravioli complete this divine picture which tastes as great as it looks.
For the fourth course, two choices are offered. Boneless rack of lamb wrapped in a zucchini-and-potato crust is pink and tasty. Prime New York steak served in a red wine sauce is fat free and cuts like butter. Both are excellent, as is the Madiran, a full-bodied red wine. A lighter red Cahors, Chateau Haute-Serre, coincides with our cheese course. My Normand accomplice is disappointed by our plateau de fromages, but says he understands the limitations the U.S. faces in obtaining good, fresh cheese. I like the brie-like St. Andre and dry goat cheese.
Five tiny scoops of sorbet follow. While the fruit and champagne flavors are wonderful, I agree with my accomplice, who bemoans the fact that one or two are not liqueur-soaked in the French style to aid the digestion. I have made it to dessert without being recognized. Chef Christopher has breezed through the dining room twice without noticing me.
What comes next is a blur of dessert courses. I do remember the extremely sweet dessert wine--Chateau Nairac, a sauterne. I remember the bracing cappuccino. What I wish I could forget is the punishment of a plate of lovely chocolate desserts followed by a towering cream cheese dessert followed by chocolate liqueur-filled candies followed by a warm chocolate brownie-tart. This is simply over-the-top hedonism, as far as I'm concerned.
"We do not have this in France," my accomplice informs me, upon tasting the cream cheese-custard concoction in a tall coconut shell. "In France, that last course with the nice chocolate desserts would have ended it."
Yes, that's because France is civilized. They don't have to prove anything there. The fact is, I don't know an American who has ordered either the Menu Gourmand or Prestige who didn't say he or she felt sick afterward. After the first round of desserts, it honestly ceases being fun or pleasant for me. By the time the final chocolate tart is brought, I am begging our waiter to stop.
Our bill, with tax and tip, is just under $280--clearly an unrealistic amount of money for most couples to spend for an evening's entertainment. But that's exactly what it is. The clock has already struck eleven when we totter out of Christopher's.
Which brings me to one, last, moralistic point. As much as I enjoy each wine selected for our meal, and they are truly a high point of the Christopher's experience, we are still talking about drinking six glasses of wine with dinner. And then driving home.
Maybe some of you could still go toe-to-toe with Ernest Hemingway, but I certainly couldn't. It's 1990. Six glasses of wine are a lot. So here's my suggestion for making the marathon menus at Christopher's even more marveilleuse. For my big bucks--and Christopher's is worth it--cut the excessive desserts and throw in round-trip transportation by taxi.
We'll all live a little longer. And enjoy it more.
The Bistro, 2398 East Camelback, Phoenix, 957-3214. Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Saturday; 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Christopher's, 2398 East Camelback, Phoenix, 957-3214. Hours: 6 to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. A weird, semiparanoid atmosphere surrounds me when I review these two star-studded additions to Phoenix's haute-cuisine scene.
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