Cafe Reviews

Café Review: A French Legend Revisited

There are two lanes you can take at Christopher’s for dinner: classics on weeknights or the tasting menu on weekends.
There are two lanes you can take at Christopher’s for dinner: classics on weeknights or the tasting menu on weekends. Jacob Tyler Dunn
There was a time French cuisine was the pinnacle of American cooking. But the generations have changed, and now we eat more widely and casually. The idea of French food today has taken on an air, almost like that of classical poetry, medieval history, or black-and-white photography. It feels like it belongs to the past.

One of the Valley’s most celebrated chefs for decades, Christopher Gross, winner of a James Beard Award, now 65 years old, has cooked at restaurants in Paris and Chablis. He was trained the old way. He prepares dishes like foie gras terrine, pate, and souffle. He cooks French food.

After two years of construction, Gross just opened a new restaurant, Christopher’s. It’s a sleek, expensive-looking space adjoining Wrigley Mansion, a dark jewel box with floor-to-ceiling glass walls that give diners a panoramic view south over the sprawl and towers of downtown Phoenix. Gross says this restaurant will likely be his last.

Heading into Christopher’s, I had this drama on my mind: old-school French-trained chef, new world of eating. How would it taste, feel, and be?

There are two lanes you can take at Christopher’s for dinner: classics on weeknights or the tasting menu on weekends.

The tasting menu is an imaginative flight so unconventional that Gross uses dinnerware tailored to each artful course, including a Cosanti bell. At $250 a pop before booze, though, the tasting menu is out of my price league. Instead, I went classics. They are retrieved from significant points in Gross’s career and aren’t cheap either: $100 for a 3-course prix fixe with added touches like amuse-bouche and Scotch-infused chocolate truffles to close.

click to enlarge Great food and great dining experiences demand great attention to detail at Christopher's at the Wrigley Mansion. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Great food and great dining experiences demand great attention to detail at Christopher's at the Wrigley Mansion.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Even the classics menu has a dreamlike quality. You lose track of the number of servers that come to your table. The sun sets over the city. The wine list feels infinite.

After an amuse, there is bread service. Baguette and sourdough, both baked here, are so good that it will be a challenge to refrain from stuffing down too many slices as the night deepens. So, too, is the decadent butter produced in-house using Fond du Lac Farms dairy.

Starters lean rustic. A country pate brings irony, meat-creamy thunder and is an excellent reason to launch a second attack on the bread. It might seem simple, but I did enjoy the house-smoked salmon served with simply dressed greens. To reduce this bad boy from fresh fish to smoke-touched pink folds that dissolve on your tongue, Gross employs a method he learned at a restaurant near Versailles. He rigs sheet pans and a baker’s box drilled with a hole, using this makeshift vessel to smoke a salt-and-sugar-cured, high-fat Norwegian salmon for 24 hours at no warmer than 94 degrees.

Great food and great dining experiences demand great attention to detail. In the bright twilight of his career, Gross deals in microscopic details. From the placement of the silverware (in a drawer that pulls out from the table) to the thoughtfulness of the service (constant and helpful without feeling intrusive), Gross has considered every detail. And you can tell he’s considering them as you eat, watching him kindly direct the spacious open kitchen highlighted by a wood oven and grill.

Gross floors the gas pedal for the entrée course. At this point, you can really glimpse what he can do with food spiritually and technically.

Gross grills a faultless fish that varies by day, skin beautifully crisp, flesh plump and fragrant, marine goodness enhanced with a delicate salsa vierge. You can choose from scallops and roast chicken, and a smoked truffle-infused fillet. It’s time, though, to forget all of that and talk about the duck.

The duck two ways is an example of how a supreme technician can go absolutely ham fine-tuning tiny detail dimensions that your average chef never even enters. The plate is duck breast and duck leg teetered over a shallow pool of dark sauce. There are probably other components, but the duck has completely erased them from my memory.

click to enlarge After two years of construction, Christopher Gross has opened Christopher's at the Wrigley Mansion. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
After two years of construction, Christopher Gross has opened Christopher's at the Wrigley Mansion.
Jacob Tyler Dunn

Gross cooks the breast first by sous vide and then over the wood-fired grill. He confits the leg in the classical style, with thyme and garlic, slow-cooking, and then re-roasting. The sauce on the plate, slick and thin and brown, gains its unbelievable depth from veal consommé made using veal breast and pig’s feet. The sauce has a sultry smoke and surprising animal richness. It’s just a powerful savory elixir to drag slices of tender, mineral-bursting duck breast through. The leg is cooked to a sublime fall-apart state, almost like great barbecue, bringing a wallop of the darkest, dark-meat glory you can fathom.

At some early point in the meal, well before the entrée course, the meal stops to become a meal. It becomes an experience. You just happen to be eating.

It becomes an escape, but not to some dusty past era. The way Gross has calibrated the experience — relentlessly customizing, laboriously building a space nothing like the white-tablecloth simulacrum you might think of when you think of fancy French food — he shatters the mold. It’s classical French with his own refinements. And yet it feels fresh and electric.

I think our modern food culture is too obsessed with the new. We tend to exalt new openings, new foods, new faces. People flock to vogueish, flash-in-the-pan coffee styles, ingredients, and anything colorful and excessive that can be giddily plastered online. The way food culture evolves is essential. But I think in so many of the recent developments, “recent” referring to both months and years, we’ve lost our way.
I would like to see a return to celebrating food, technique, thoughtfulness, and stories.

Here’s a good story: celebrated Valley chef opens an unconventional restaurant in a new dining era in the bright twilight of a long career. It follows its own dreamlike drumbeat and hits every note from the yellow Chartreuse spritz to the unholy bite of coffee cake that comes, unasked, with your cappuccino in a brutally simple gray cup designed by the chef.

Expectedly yet unexpectedly, the restaurant is a 10/10.

Christopher’s at the Wrigley Mansion
2501 East Telawa Trail
Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.; closed Sunday
602-522-2344
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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