Cafe Reviews

You Can Eat a Dinner in Phoenix for $364. Should You?

Fig in a Blanket at Binkley's.
Fig in a Blanket at Binkley's. Jackie Mercandetti

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Chef Kevin Binkley preparing Figs in a Blanket.
Jackie Mercandetti
A flight to Iceland. An entry-level DSLR camera. Enough liquor and tinctures to trick out a bar cart. A robotic vacuum controlled through your phone. These are some of the things you can get for $364.

As I sipped hibiscus tea pulled through a coffee siphon onto a Luxardo cherry, as a suited server made liquid nitrogen billow on my table and cast a vanilla scent, as the smoke cleared and the last of my 21 courses was ready, as 12 drinks shot through my veins and the melt of A5 wagyu seared my recent memory, I compared what you can get for $364 with what I just had.

Dinner with wine pairings at Binkley’s Restaurant costs $364 (after service, after tax). You can skip the wine pairings, making the dinner $238 (ditto). You can also ritz up your meal with add-ons like caviar and a more empyrean wine pairing, lifting the price tag north of $400.

If you eat at Binkley’s, you should do at least the entry-level wine pairing. You’ll also want to share the night with somebody, a person who eats widely. That puts dinner for two at $728 or more.

Could a meal for two that costs more than the GDP per capita of Nepal be worth the splurge?

Two weeks ago, I went to Binkley’s to find out.

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Binkley's Restaurant looking toward the terrace at its Phoenix location.
Jackie Mercandetti
Chef Kevin Binkley has run his flagship since 2004. Formerly in Cave Creek, Binkley’s Restaurant moved to its current location on Osborn Road in Phoenix in 2016, replacing Bink’s Midtown. Binkley sold his last satellite restaurant earlier this year, completing a contraction from four eateries with 130 employees to one with 16.

Binkley has curbed his empire to a single Phoenix bungalow: his tasting-menu mothership. His wife and wine guru, Amy Binkley, has gotten a garden really humming a few houses down. Binkley’s shut down in late August for a recharge, and opened again in late September. If ever the $364 meal would be worth it, it would be now, when the chef was most likely to be on his “A” game.

“Mr. Fitzgerald, good evening, thank you for joining us tonight,” the tall chef greeted my incognito persona, strolling out onto his patio. I was seated overlooking a dusky lawn, under twinkle lights and flapping moths. He set down a bowl of four tiny radishes in a heap of ice.

“I hope you brought your appetite,” he said, and started into a studied breakdown of the dish. 

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Fermented cucumbers with polenta chips.
Jackie Mercandetti

Dinner at Binkley’s, 19 to 28 courses over three to four hours, is rigged to feel like a dinner party. You start at 6:30. After a run of bites on the patio, the night’s diners, seven the day I was in but as many as 24 some nights, move into the bar. After several dishes that twist and elevate bar food, you finish in the dining room. All the while your group, seated apart from the other diners, can step away from dinner’s thread at any time, and move freely into other parts of the house.

It begins in a patio chair. Not long after GM Christian Giles seated me, I was holding a sweaty glass of sparkling rosé from the Loire Valley. Jazzy tunes played. Cars ghosted past on the graying road. Planes rose and fell in the twilight.

The first course was a Thompson grape slushy served with an amuse bouche. Spiked with gin, rimmed with shiso sugar, the icy drink just detonated with fresh grape intensity. For the amuse, walnuts and dried Crow’s Dairy goat cheese filled a spoon. Together, grape, nut, and cheese elements were like a starter board but remixed. 

Already, the first common threads of dinner had emerged: fruit, Japanese influence, surprise, imagination. And crucially, variety. “The whole idea is that every single bite that you take is a new and exciting flavor,” Kevin Binkley says. “We try not to repeat any ingredients except for sugar and salt.”

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Macintosh, Rosa Lynn, and Mountain Rose apples with pickled red onion, apple cider chimichurri.
Jackie Mercandetti

Course two was a tiny apple in chimichurri made with apple cider vinegar. Mixed in April, the sauce was so lush and minimally biting that you could slurp it like cereal milk.

Course three: four radishes from three Arizona farms, the most interesting being a purple root and a radish sprout from Twisted Infusion Farms. Fourth: a lone scallop from Hokkaido poached for 38 seconds — not 35, not 40! — and rested in rice vinegar. Softly charged with the various tangs of apple gelee, lemon oil, and elephant food (leaves with a zap like sorrel), the scallop had the delicate marine spirit of good shellfish but was more bracing.

After course five, cucumber buoyant and meaty at once thanks to umami exponents — miso vinaigrette and bonito flakes (smoked amberjack tuna) — Giles drifted over and invited me into the bar.

Inside the bungalow, dinner revs into a higher gear. Drinks come faster. Food is richer. The stools and moody lights of the room whisk dinner down more ornate channels.

At the bar, polenta chips with the crunch of chicharrones weren’t an upgrade over fried pork rinds. As I learned this, something blew in the kegerator with a pneumatic hiss, shooting beer into the air.

This was treated like a power failure on a jet. Half the staff zerged the kegerator, with one man using his hands and chest to absorb the projectile flow. It was fixed in no time.

Apologizing, making light of the gnarly error, the Binkleys readied the next course.

Shishito peppers grilled on an 800-degree plancha stuck like darts from ponzu meringue. With the zing and froth of aerated ponzu, and a magical German riesling with a love tap of sweetness, the bar portion was off to a hot start.

It got hotter. A mission fig enrobed in Bayonne ham and puff pastry dazzled with levels of umami, the strongest borne by white truffle. A foie gras taco the size of a thimble accented hot livery richness with maple hoisin. The last bar bite: a micro slider of lamb pastrami. Kevin Binkley brines lamb shoulder for two weeks, smokes it over hickory and charcoal. With baba ghanoush made from white eggplant from the garden and black garlic, the lamb pastrami is luscious, even if the tiny bun hides that a little.

With that, the “bar food” phase of dinner ended.

Time for the dining room.

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Kabob with charred octopus, foie gras, and lamb loin, with the Fig in a Blanket in the background.
Jackie Mercandetti

So far, the service had been at least as stellar as the food. The Binkleys and Giles have a warmth that makes you feel at home; the staff’s infectious curiosity infects you.

There is also a sort of restraint to the excess. Courses are small and light until after the bar. Though you’re eating like a Roman emperor, you feel tender and kind, the opposite of a tyrant.

Once we moved into the dining room, I could see into the kitchen. Cooks sliced and plated with calm coolness. My seat was lower than my barstool had been, and, later, I grasped what the chef had done: He varied the decor, the music, the lighting, the chair height.

As the propulsive force of a meal pushes on, Kevin Binkley tries to thwart diminishing returns by mixing details. “It’s like when you jump in a pool — it’s exciting and then you get used to it,” he says.

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Smoked sweet onion roll with onion butter.
Jackie Mercandetti

An antipasto highlighted by a baby peach and pickled green strawberry kicked open the appetite again. Starting with ultra-lush plum consommé, the meal became increasingly Seussian. Shima aji sashimi with candied Fresno chiles, pear and pomegranate, and a leaf of arcane arugula that tingled like wasabi. King crab leg under a skinless stuffed pepper and a truffle blizzard. Both dishes had a studied restraint, keeping the volume low to preserve the elusive nuances of super-fresh seafood. 

An intermezzo of soda made from clementines blew across the palate like a cold wind. Kevin Binkley noted that the night’s early season clementines had more tartness, making for a better soda.

The Binkleys keep 25 fruit trees. Kumquats. Blood oranges. Key limes.

“When we grow things specifically for ourselves,” Kevin Binkley says, “we can grow what we want, harvest them when we want, pick them that day, then serve them that night.”

He is a warlock with fruit. Whether making a boozy slushy or a huckleberry sauce to pool under duck leg confit, he strips fruit to its naked essence, then highlights that essence or uses it to highlight something else.

He is also adept with mushrooms, as the course before the duck leg showed.

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Swordfish bone marrow.
Jackie Mercandetti

That course is mushrooms four ways. First: matsutake steamed in dashi, a tale of subtle earth tones. Next: a foraged lobster mushroom thick and meaty on house-made Greek yogurt. (Ah, lobsters are my favorite mushrooms, I thought.) Third were chanterelles slowly cooked in Irish butter with leeks. (Chanterelles are the best mushrooms, I revised my opinion.) Last was a shot of porcini soup, stunningly soulful and rich. (Oh man, I decided, porcini mushrooms are the all-time greatest.)

One of the most soothing tea-like infusions I have ever tasted came next. A waiter sparked a flame under a coffee siphon, sending hot water to absorb the goodness of hibiscus, turmeric, ginger, coriander, and rosemary that minutes before had been a garnish on my table.

Ready and poured, the pungently floral brew helped reel in the first dessert: key lime pie, best dish of the night.

Kevin Binkley believes that sherbet, like bread, is best freshly made. So he observes the flow of service and starts the sherbet-making so that key lime scoops will be ready just in time for the first dessert course. Topped with a mousse made from pureed graham crackers and milk aerated with nitrous oxide, the dessert is intelligent, creamy, surreal.

And like that, following another dessert — panna cotta, liquid nitrogen, a mild vanilla scent — my dinner came to an end.

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Fig in a Blanket at Binkley's.
Jackie Mercandetti

The end felt abrupt. Amy Binkley asked if I needed
anything, and I said no, although I should have said a nip of Amaro Nonino from the bar. I felt like the Binkleys had given me a lot, so I was hesitant to ask.

But in retrospect, I had paid a lot for what I had been given. So was it worth the money?

If you want to nitpick, the dinner had shortcomings. Some dishes were overly simple — not a bad thing when eating $6 burritos, but a different story here. Also, not all the dishes will be seismic, given that 25 to 50 percent of the menu changes per week as seasons and ideas shift. The house IPA, too, wasn’t on the level of the sake brewed from purple rice or a dulcet pinot gris.

But when I weigh this and that, I come out on the other side. You have to view dinner at Binkley’s not as dinner, but as an act of exploration, or as an event. The patio-to-bar-to-dining-room flow that allows you to waltz into the kitchen while chefs raze slices from fish that was gliding off the coast of Japan 36 hours ago is unique. The food is great, the service is greater, and you feel like a vacation is coming to a close when your meal does.

You might spend more than $364 on a weekend trip, or on concert tickets. So why not a chimera of a dinner?

There is also the fact that if you are reading this you are alive, and that you will one day die, meaning that if you love to eat or try new things, this is a magnificent one and the time is now.

Binkley’s Restaurant
2320 East Osborn Road
Hours: Seatings at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday. Closed Sunday to Tuesday.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy