Good for The Phoenician.
I doubt anyone would argue that this city needed yet another high-end steakhouse, but the resort's partnership with celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten was a really smart move.
Why do I like J&G Steakhouse so much?
J Thursday through Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; bar opens daily at 4 p.m.
For me, this stylish spot successfully navigates the fine line between luxury and accessibility — no easy feat. Considering the aura around The Phoenician itself, and the intimidatingly high achievements of the chef behind the restaurant (Vongerichten has a global empire of glittering, Michelin-starred eateries), I admit I expected a rarefied dining experience at J&G Steakhouse. Instead, I found the four-month-old restaurant to be sexy but not uptight, sophisticated but not contrived. Service was attentive, professional, and thoughtful. And chef de cuisine Jacques Qualin's cooking was simply delicious.
Compared to two other high-profile steak destinations that have opened up in the past year, chef Michael Mina's Bourbon Steak at the Fairmont Scottsdale, and chef Laurent Tourondel's BLT Steak at Camelback Inn, J&G is actually somewhat more affordable. In short, it is the kind of restaurant I can see myself returning to again and again — not in a once-in-a-blue-moon, ultra-fancy occasion way, but in a regular-rotation, let's-splurge-on-a-fantastic-steak way.
That's an enormous departure from how I felt about Mary Elaine's, the legendary restaurant that used to occupy this spectacular space. It closed a year ago after a two-decade run as the pinnacle of Valley fine dining, the kind of place where gentlemen had to wear jackets and ladies were given special upholstered stools for their purses. People went there to blow the expense account or to celebrate milestones in their lives, if they managed to go at all. The service was utterly ceremonious, while the food was as outrageously expensive as it was exquisite. I can't help but recall the $23 artichoke soup that my friend called "a bowlful of money"; at J&G Steakhouse, you can get prime hanger steak frites for $18.
As excellent as Mary Elaine's was in its way, it became dated. When I visited for a review in 2006, my first impression was of a sea of loud carpeting and Broadway theme songs on the lounge piano.
So imagine how J&G Steakhouse swept me away when I set foot inside: sleek, angular furniture and cozy round booths, wood floors and pillars covered in espresso-colored slats, gleaming glass partitions, and illuminated shelves of wine bottles. Gorgeous! Butcher-block tabletops decked out in brown paper, candles, and miniature enameled Staub pots added charming touches, while the soundtrack was an eclectic mix of '60s, soul, and contemporary electronic music.
Thankfully, one thing hadn't changed — the wonderful view of Phoenix through a wall of windows. Expert lighting throughout the dining room heightened the effect.
To soak up the atmosphere, it helped to get the drink order started. Along with a globetrotting selection of wines (from France to South Africa to the Pacific Northwest), there is a great beer list that includes Hitachino Nest White Ale, Avery IPA, and Flying Dog Gonzo Imperial Porter. And I appreciated well-crafted cocktails like the Yellow Jacket, a lipsmacking concoction with Partida Reposado tequila, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, Yellow Chartreuse, orange bitters, and prosecco, and the potent Pisco Sour, topped with a froth of egg whites.
I could make a meal out of the appetizers here — if only I could choose among so many hits. The J&G Chopped Salad was unexpectedly scrumptious, a crunchy, colorful confetti of cucumber, avocado, cherry tomato, Gruyère, yellow roasted pepper, radish, corn, shiitake, and arugula, tossed in a wasabi-kissed dressing. Tender ravioli filled with Parmesan and roasted sweet corn also had a wonderfully fresh flavor, thanks to bright-green basil butter, some ripe cherry tomatoes, and a handful of sweet corn kernels.
I zeroed in on the foie gras terrine, and wasn't disappointed. Teamed with spicy-sweet apple-jalapeño compote, the buttery spread was so rich that I had to request more grilled bread to eat it all. Chunks of sweet and sour pork belly were also decadent, but a kicky ginger-shallot confit countered the fattiness, creating a yin-and-yang dynamic with every bite. And the plump Peekytoe crab cake, served with remoulade and pickled peppers, was about as sweet and meaty as I could ask for.
Speaking of meat, I am still salivating at the thought of the killer steaks at J&G. A lovely strip of prime New York steak, coated in a six-peppercorn crust, was unbelievably juicy; the prime rib eye was also perfectly cooked and seasoned just right. Steak this good doesn't need extra embellishment, but for kicks, diners can choose one or more sauces to go along with it, including Bearnaise, barbecue, and soy miso mustard.
If you don't have your sights set on steak, there are other options just as well prepared, like red wine-glazed short ribs. The portion was big enough for two people (hooray for leftovers like these!), the glaze was rich yet balanced, and the meat was beyond tender. I'm putting those short ribs on my short list of best dishes so far this year. Another fine choice was moist, slowly cooked salmon, rubbed with lemon oil and paprika.
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SHOW ME HOW
Side dishes were served à la carte, ideal for sharing. Think classic and comforting, like gooey mac and cheese topped with bread crumbs, creamy Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus, and charred onions and peppers. Luscious potato gratin with Comte cheese was a highlight.
I'd expect something along the lines of chocolate cake or cheesecake at a traditional steakhouse, and that bores me. But J&G's versions were so much better than what you usually get. Fresh, silky-smooth cheesecake was teamed with intense sour cherry sorbet and a dollop of dense cream with cherry compote, while warm chocolate cake oozed a molten middle of very dark, high-quality chocolate, with a tasty scoop of caramel ice cream on the side. Simple but effective.
Meanwhile, you never see tarte Tatin at run-of-the-mill steakhouses, and that's probably a good thing — I can't imagine they'd be able to do a delicious, authentic rendition like this one, with tender apples, a flaky, golden crust, and cinnamon ice cream.
Without a doubt, I plan on going back to J&G Steakhouse — and not just for the steak.