If you have your ears (or, er, tongues) open in the Phoenix food scene, Binkley's Restaurant needs no introduction. Chef and owner Kevin Binkley has been nominated for the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef Southwest for several years in a row, and this year he was named as a finalist. To those who have indulged in his food, that's no surprise. And to those of you who haven't yet made it to Binkley's or the more casual (and cheaper) Café Bink, what are you waiting for?
With a menu that changes daily, the offerings are always a surprise. And yep, that includes the dessert. There may be no guarantees as to what you'll find, but no matter what, it is guaranteed to be pretty damn good. Chances are you'll also get more than you bargained for with small plates like amuse bouches and pre-desserts. As part of the three-course prix fixe menu offered during Arizona Restaurant Week, there were actually four sweets to taste: mini chocolate lava lamps, miniature cinnamon toast soufflé, red wine poached pear with white chocolate mousse, and a teeny tiny macaron to finish.
From the minute it was brought to the table, the mint chocolate lava lamp was a real treat -- first for the eyes, then for the taste buds. The minty syrup and chocolate pearls were served in a shot glass that rested on top of a flashing multicolor light. However delicious, it was not quite consumable as planned. The first taste was as intended, a shot of slightly sweet, minty liquid with triple chocolate and hazelnut pearls. After that, the extra chocolate had to be scooped out with a spoon, and with most of the syrup gone, it wasn't very minty. It was still super tasty -- just not as delicious as that first shot.
Next was the miniature cinnamon toast soufflé, which was tiny but full of flavor. The soufflé was baked in a petite ramekin, too small even to hold most condiments. The cute appearance matched up with the dish, which tasted remarkably like Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. Only better, of course, combining the childhood favorite with the dreamy richness of soufflé and crème anglaise. Despite being about 1" in diameter, this portion equaled four small bites, enough to be satisfied yet still want more dessert. Just in time for...
Red wine poached pear with white chocolate mousse, roasted pistachios, and mint was the main dessert of the evening. Hands down this is the best mousse ever. No, really. It's so much more than white chocolate. Rather than being flat and one-dimensional, the light mousse had warm flavor with notes of vanilla and brandy. At its side, the pear was perfectly poached, soft but not mushy, and brought big flavor rounded out by the red wine. There wasn't much spice in this dish, leaving room for the roasted pistachios and thin, crisp candied mint, which were both isolated yet complementary flavors. Everything on this plate came together just right, and although the serving was small, it was certainly enough after two pre-desserts.
To end the evening we were served two tiny macarons, maybe 1/2" wide. With a soft texture and a crisp shell, the macarons were very well made; however, they fell short in the flavor department. Maybe the package was too small to pack in much flavor, but regardless, these didn't match up to the other desserts. Mostly the macaron left a sharp sugary taste in my mouth, not quite sickeningly sweet but almost there. No matter -- even a bitter, stale macaron couldn't have dampened all of the happiness brought on by the rest of the meal.
It's true that the desserts at Binkley's aren't comparable to those of the top local pastry chefs who devote all of their time to sugar (Tracy Dempsey, Country Velador, Duc Liao, etc.). These desserts are fairly simple in technique, but they also demonstrate the very same expertise and exactness with flavor that have earned Kevin Binkley national acclaim. And that means Binkley's desserts will never let you down -- and, yes, are worth a trip all on their own.
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