Cafe Reviews

Karma and Camus

I'm fairly skeptical about the concept of some sort of cosmic justice, whether it be a benevolent graybeard on a throne up in heaven, or something less silly, like the notion of karma. After all, not enough bad things happen to the right people. If my idea of karma were in play, American Idol would be canceled, Bruce Willis would be banned from making movies, and Rush Limbaugh would spontaneously combust in a giant supernova of slime, SlimFast and OxyContin.

Life's not so simple, alas. More often, bad things tend to happen to the just and noble as much as not. Take existentialist author Albert Camus, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who perished in an auto accident at age 46, before being able to complete his epic novel The First Man, the initial draft of which was rescued from the wreckage. Or, a little closer to home, witness the 1976 car-bombing of crusading investigative reporter Don Bolles via six sticks of dynamite strapped to the bottom of his white Datsun sedan.

Strangely, the tragedies of these two writers' untimely deaths are linked in the opening of the hippest, most cosmopolitan bar/restaurant in the Central Corridor, Camus, at the newly revamped Clarendon Hotel and Suites, west of Central on Clarendon Avenue. Anyone who's driven past the lodge of late after nightfall will have noted the building glowing with blue lights, the large red "C" over the main entrance, and the blue neon in the restaurant window crafted to mimic Camus' autograph. The Clarendon's parking lot is the site of the explosion that eventually claimed Bolles' life. How curious that such an infamous spot has now been converted into a boutique, L.A.-style hotel.

I can't speak for the Clarendon overall, not having seen the rooms, but Camus' design is nothing less than sensational. Frosted doors lead into a cozy, chic watering hole on the right that purrs and hums with a happening vibe rare to this part of Phoenix. Acid jazz buzzes from the sound system, while computer-controlled lights bounce rays of sapphire, garnet and cat's eye off reflective tables. The bar itself is scarlet with mirrored flecks, perfect for resting your apple or lemon-drop martinis.

To the left of the lounge is the restaurant, a medley of henna-red banquettes, turquoise-blue glass tables, kinetic lighting like that in the bar, and a wall of windows, which, if it overlooks nothing scenic, at least lends the space a feeling of openness. Still, spiffy digs aside, one wonders, why the name Camus?

"Other than the fact he's my favorite author, it came down to finding something that worked for this space and demographic," explains Carson Quinn, Camus' tall, lanky manager/owner. "I think there are people in this area of town who will appreciate it."

Appreciate it they certainly will because the closest thing to Camus is The James' J-Bar and Fiamma Trattoria way over in Scottsdale. Certainly, The James is bigger, and the beneficiary of far more corporate largess. But Camus has the energy of youth, with Merc Bar vet Quinn, executive chef Matt Donohoe, most recently of the Biltmore, and Quinn's wife Farah as pastry chef, all in their 20s or very early 30s. They, along with the bar and wait staff, radiate the sort of enthusiasm money can't buy.

A restaurant review is often little more than a snapshot from the critic's perspective of how an eatery fares at a point in time. This is especially the case in my assessment of Camus' menu, for though I generally found most of what I noshed above average, I'm hopeful that over the next few months, Donohoe will fine-tune his offerings so that everything diners partake of will be nonpareil.

Camus earned big points with me right off the bat by serving some really scrumptious bread, focaccia with black olives, and by pouring Fiji bottled water. I don't know how many times I've gone to a high-end grub shack and had to wait for the first course with stale bread and metallic-tasting tap water for company. A word to all Valley restaurateurs: The water in this town, though declared safe by the authorities, is as refreshing as sucking on a rusty nail. So filter your water or give us bottled, gratis! Otherwise, you might as well spit in our H2O as you pour it for us.

As far as the vittles go, Camus mostly plays it safe with starters such as fried calamari with blue cheese and Sriracha, seared scallops with a truffled risotto, and herb-encrusted lamb chops, all of which are delish, albeit tried and true. Donohoe mixes it up with the sauces and add-ins as much as he can, like when he presents steamed mussels in a bacon-apple broth with a cinnamon crostini drowned in the midst of it all. I appreciated the effort, even though I ultimately found the broth cloyingly sweet and wished for a more standard pairing of mussels with white wine broth. Some items are simply resistant to change, boyo.

Donohoe does better when he abandons all pretense and focuses on flavor, as he does with a small plate of gnocchi and wild mushrooms with porcini cream sauce. The gnocchi are house-made, and shaped like little tubes, instead of more standard dumplings. Paired with the little mushroom bits, they're earthy and savory.

Beef Wellington may sound like a cliché of the Kennedy era, but it's generally a lost art these days. Donohoe resurrects it for one of his entrees, but gives it a twist, using duxelles (a finely chopped mushroom mix) instead of foie gras inside the tender filet of beef, with tall triangles of puff pastry off to the side, all situated in a puddle of Prigueux sauce. Exquisite and memorable.

Less memorable is the poussin (or baby chicken) over prosciutto couscous. Too much like ordinary clucker; I'd have preferred duck or squab instead. Kudos for the soft meat of the beef short ribs in a veal sauce left over from the braising, and the fresh, cedar-planked salmon. The brined pork chop was nothing special, though edible.

For dessert, you must try either the passion fruit crème brûlée (topnotch), or the "tiga chocolate," a small tray with chocolate torte, chocolate panna cotta, and a cute lil' chocolate martini from the bar. Superbly original. Here's another argument against karma: Camus' chocolate trifecta was bestowed upon yours truly to inhale, and, as most of you know, I'm a very, very bad man.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons