First Taste

The New Binkley's Restaurant in Midtown May Be Phoenix's Most Ambitious New Restaurant in Years

When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).

Restaurant: Binkley's Restaurant
Location: 2320 East Osborn Road
Open: Less than a month
Eats: Modern, seasonally driven American fare rooted in French tradition
Price: $160 for 22 courses (before beverage pairings), plus 22 percent service charge

"I haven't felt so stuffed since Thanksgiving!" Those were the words of a grinning yet slightly rumpled-looking young boy, maybe around 8 years of age, seated a few feet away from me at a round, ultra-sturdy heirloom-quality wooden table, the kind you might spot on somebody's "French Country Inspiration" Pinterest board.

The boy, dining quietly amid a collection of adult family members, was clearly a little overwhelmed by the quantity of food coming in his direction. But he was also beaming. Everyone else at his table, and around the dining room, it seemed, was sort of beaming, too.

It was around nine o'clock on a recent Thursday night in midtown Phoenix, and a group of about 24 diners were deep into a three-hour feast at the newly opened Binkley's Restaurant. The restaurant, billed as a ticketed "dining experience," is the newest and most ambitious effort from James Beard Award-nominated chef Kevin Binkley and his team to date. It might also be the most ambitious independent restaurant to open in metro Phoenix in years.

The young, well-behaved boy at the next table perked up, as did most everyone else in the room, when the next course arrived: something called Freezing Mango Soup, served in a chilled, heavy marble dish, and featuring a Meyer lemon semifreddo served with toasted curry meringue, fresh raspberries, hunks of pineapple, and a creamy puddle of liquified mango puree.

For a finishing touch, Binkley went around the room, giving each dish a short, soft blast from his liquid nitrogen tank. Binkley is known as one of the first chefs around metro Phoenix to incorporate liquid nitrogen into his regular kitchen arsenal, and although its use is nothing novel, it's worth noting that for all its smoke-tinged magic, there was nothing about this particular dish that smacked of high-tech novelty.

The freezing mango soup mostly just tasted wonderful. As the cool wisps of vapor cleared from the plate, you could dig your spoon into the softly frozen fruit, the light and feathery cold crisps melting on your tongue and revealing themselves in the smooth, reliable tones of cool, sweet fruit.

The dessert was one of about 22 courses served during the recent dinner at Binkley's, which is now entering its third full week of dinner service. It was one dish out of a lineup that, in an alternate food universe, might make up a well-heeled gastronome's highlight reel. A night at Binkley's can feel like several fine dinners condensed into a single night.

This new version of Binkley's Restaurant is the result of a conscious scaling-down effort by the Binkley team. Earlier this year, the chef announced that he and his team would be closing two of the four Binkley restaurants in the Valley, and migrating the chef's flagship fine-dining restaurant in Cave Creek to midtown Phoenix.

The new and re-energized Binkley's Restaurant stands in direct opposition to the Valley's penchant for fast-casual dining. An evening at Binkley's, in other words, is a singular and unlikely dining experience in metro Phoenix: a multicourse and multihour dinner, prepared and served in an unabashedly intimate setting.

The cost is about $160 per person, not counting optional beverage pairings and a service fee. This is a central fact about the restaurant that is sure to keep many diners away. The price will be prohibitive to cash-strapped gastronomes who can't afford to spend what amounts to something like a month's car payment on dinner. And for those who can afford the price of admission, the question is whether they will want to spend it, regularly, at Binkley's Restaurant.

Let's hope they do, because this latest iteration of Binkley's is possibly its best, a kind of grandly ambitious restaurant demonstrating both the scope and sharp focus that would allow it to compete in other cities. You don't need to be armed with much sensitivity to feel the energy and passion and knowledge the Binkley team has accumulated over the years, and how all of those things are now being poured and distilled into this latest venture.

This is a kind of fine dining for the modern age in Phoenix, far from the grand-statement resort ballrooms, and sans the dinner jacket and pearls and post-dinner snifter (although the Binkley bar staff will probably oblige if you request some cognac). Dining at Binkley's is quiet and refined, with a personal touch designed to put you at ease. Servers will fuss over you, to the kind of restrained degree that a stranger is allowed to fuss over you.

By the end of the night, you've spent so much time in the company of the two dozen or so other patrons, the dining room takes on a sort of loose, warm feel normally associated with dinner parties, family gatherings, or maybe a very special pop-up dinner. Diners are encouraged to wander and explore; you can take a peek into the kitchen, if you wish. The white tablecloths and square tabletops that you may remember from Bink's Midtown have been replaced in favor of mix-and-match wooden tables. Framed prints in the main dining room have been replaced with neat shelves brimming with bottles, and a chalkboard menu inscribed with all the evening's courses helps you keep track of where you are in the meal.

There are still some kinks to be worked out — a reservation time was recently listed at 6 p.m., but an e-mail confirmation said to arrive at 6:30 p.m. And it's worth emphasizing that dining at Binkley's operates on a ticketed dinner format, rewarding the type of planning normally associated with attending the theater or a sporting event. Your dinner reservation is nonrefundable, but if you can't make your reservation, it is transferable. Dinners are only offered four nights a week, Thursdays through Sundays, and it should go without saying, you should put aside a few hours to extract the most enjoyment from your dinner.
Dinner begins on the front patio, where under the flattering glow of a garden fire pit and strings of lights, someone hands you a welcome cocktail. The menus are expected to change, or at least be tweaked, fairly frequently. On my visit, the cocktail was a green apple and aloe concoction, smooth and refreshing with a nice blend of acidity and sweetness. Several amuse-bouches followed: a wonderful foie gras slider; freshly-picked baby radishes served with a frothy bundle of green goddess dressing foam; a small, bacon-inflected doughnut seasoned with flakes of Parmesan cheese.

After about 40 minutes of leisurely lounging with cocktails and small bites, the more formal stretch of dinner service began in the restaurant's bar area. The first sit-down dish served recently was a course called, simply enough, Ham, which featured servings of three premium hams: a few slices of San Daniele prosciutto, a Virginia country ham, and the "Cadillac" of all hams, black-foot jamón ibérico. The dish was accompanied by a freshly made pork rind, beautifully salty and crispy, and a small cast-iron pan of black garlic rosemary focaccia bread, freshly pulled from the ovens.

Much of what makes a roughly four-hour dinner at Binkley's fly by — and it does fly by remarkably fast — is the way the chef and his team employ technique and optimal ingredients to concoct dishes marked by good flavor, but also wit.

So, you get something that seems like a workaday bar snack — a potato skin — but here it's been worked into a funny-looking, withered sort of shape, a fine, salty chip embellished with some very good foie gras. And a lovely, creamy crab cake might be transmuted to look like a tater tot. Poached sea scallops might arrive wearing a feathery scrap that turns out to be a blini chip.

There are some misses in the highlight reel, though — a pok pok-style Jidori chicken skin dish, served with carbonated puffs of blue cheese, was tongue-scathingly salty. There are also some wonderful revelations, as with an ultra-creamy, sweet date soup served with pecan crumbles, full of so much sun-ripened sweetness and flavor, it may well cause you to do a double-take.

And a pork shoulder, slow-cooked right out on the patio by the chef, was buttery and succulent, the meat essentially dissolving on your tongue, and skillfully paired with persimmon, spaetzle, and black trumpet mushrooms. Binkley spoke briefly about the provenance of the pig, which was raised in Buckeye and fattened partially on local dairy whey.

As with any long, leisurely meal, the evening's menu includes some well-timed palate cleansers, including a very good, slightly fizzy tangerine soda, and a table-side siphon brought out for a tea-making ceremony of sorts. If you dined at the late, great Binkley's in Cave Creek, you may remember the Japanese siphon that's used to brew a lovely blend of lemon, hibiscus, star anise, and rosemary, the water heating and gurgling, then turning a deep, fragrant red right before your eyes.

The tea-making portion of the dinner, which is nicely timed just before the dessert courses start to roll out, gives you time to pause, wonder, reflect, and of course, digest. You might say the same thing about a full dinner at Binkley's, where the evening could end with the chef shaking your hand, somebody walking you to your car, and somebody else handing you a small gift bag where inside, among a few other tokens, you'll find a copy of the night's menu rolled up loosely like a treasure map scroll, to be preserved for the ages.

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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.