Cafe Reviews

Review: Century Grand — the Highest-Velocity Bar Eats in Town

Some a la carte options from Century Grand.
Some a la carte options from Century Grand. Jackie Mercandetti Photo
click to enlarge Some a la carte options from Century Grand. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Some a la carte options from Century Grand.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Century Grand might be one of the most exceptional food and drink experiences in town. In the long space with a 1920s railway theme, more than 500 whiskey bottles await in The Grey Hen, or restaurant shop. You can sip bubbles, throw back cocktails with kefir and lacto-fermented blueberries, or spoon into boozy desserts on the simulated Prohibition-era train ride, Platform 18. But more tellingly, in the dining room — walls concrete, lights yellow, quick jazz making your heart race and cocktail vanish — your bartender might give you a steak knife for your salad.

The crazy thing is, you need that steak knife with its swirled handle and serrated blade. The salad, which doubles as a crudité, is a whole head of Treviso radicchio, purple and laced with crisp white veining, leaves spread open like flower petals.

There’s an excess to Century Grand. There’s the ravishing decadence of post-World War I boom times, which the concept seeks to channel, and does.

click to enlarge Dim sum carts frequently swing by. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Dim sum carts frequently swing by.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
It begins with drinks. The many cocktails at Rich Furnari and Jason Asher’s deeply ambitious bar-meets-restaurant are thoughtful and expertly balanced, among the best in the city. You’d expect this having drank at the duo’s Counter Intuitive (now closed), Pobrecito (ditto), or UnderTow (right next door). During my meals at Century Grand, I tried five cocktails. The weirder you go, the better they get, and none were below an easy nine out of 10.


The Grey Hen also offers stellar drinking. The whiskey shop’s windows glow, its door opening onto the dim clearing where people who have scored elusive reservations to board Platform 18, the simulated train ride that immerses drinkers in a lost past with a 50-plus page menu. (Note: Food isn’t served on the car.) In the Grey Hen, shop overseer John Christie talks whiskey and whisky, everything from Pappy Van Winkle vintages to private selections from Tucson’s Hamilton Distillers to shelves of primo finds from Japan.

In its cellar, Century Grand stocks an eye-popping 2,200 natural wines.

Drinking here is something wild. And with Chef Sacha Levine behind the stoves, food has the creativity, range, history, and soul to match. One of the Valley’s top talents with vegetables and seasonal bounty, Levine, who has cooked in the past at Ocotillo and Singh Meadows, brings her bold cooking style to thoughtful plates, many with links to the 1920s.

There are home runs. There are solid doubles. There are a few swings and misses.

The Treviso — steak knife optional — captures Levine’s unimpeachable sourcing and luminous creativity as well as any dish on the menu. Creamy dollops of dill-heavy green goddess dressing fill some of the shallow cups in the spread-out purple head. Slivers of peppery radish nestle in the leaves, along with intensely green pea pods sliced on a bias. The radicchio’s bitterness is left partly intact, and in the plate’s deliberate rusticity lives a sense of its source: Blue Sky Farms, a pristine growing operation in Litchfield Park.

click to enlarge The Colfax, CA cocktail with seasonal offerings from Chef Sacha Levine. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
The Colfax, CA cocktail with seasonal offerings from Chef Sacha Levine.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
At Century Grand, the 1920s theme runs deep. Bartenders rock period garb. There are antique cash registers, punch bowls, aspics, oysters. Asher and Furnari even consulted with a Disney Imagineer to envision the design, and their efforts have paid off. You feel transported. On the food end, Levine breathes new life into tired classics.

For one, she aggressively reimagines beef Wellington. Traditionally, this English dish sees beef coated in mushrooms, prosciutto, and more, all swaddled in a tight sleeping bag of puff pastry. Levine tweaks ingredients, jumbles ratios, and edits plating positions. At center: an unwrapped fist of beef cheek, braised for five or six hours with fermented shiitake mushrooms. Instead of prosciutto, she gooses the beef with pork jus. The puff pastry? Reduced to a puck of fluffy biscuit, teetering atop the cheek.

I’d say this beef cheek alone is worth a trip to Century Grand. It has the melt and glide of a good barbecue brisket, not to mention seemingly more richness. Umami seems to radiate, deepened by meaty mushrooms.

click to enlarge Inside the theatrical dining room. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Inside the theatrical dining room.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
Dinner at Century Grand has a chaotic pacing. This is the energy of eating at a top-flight cocktail bar but more so, with higher propulsive movement and velocity. You order a la carte from a fiercely seasonal menu, decked with persimmon one week, then none the week following. Dim sum carts laden with food rapidly circuit, showing fried blowfish tails and deconstructed ham-and-cheese sandwiches. To supplement or supplant ordering from the menu, you point to what you want from moving carts. Plates pile before you like treasure; drinks lighten everything.

To eat at Century Grand, you need to open your mind to not knowing what’ll roll by on these carts. If you like traditional service and knowing what you’re eating ahead of time, you should probably try someplace else. Here, you need to revel in the meal’s arrhythmic rhythm. You need to embrace its joyful chaos.

Crunchy crab rangoon tops a luscious smear of persimmon, when in season. Vietnamese-style butternut squash spring rolls gain silky depth from marble-smooth peanut sauce. Oysters sourced by fish maestro Chris Nelson are zapped with buddha’s hand and pink peppercorn mignonette. Even beef jerky shines, permeated with fish sauce doctored with chile, ginger, lemongrass, and crispy onions, jagged flavors that jive nearly perfectly — a theme that persists.

That said, even through the rose-colored glasses the space thrusts over you, not all is perfect.

Stuffed grape leaves were sleepy. Sichuan noodles with chile de arbol and toasted sesame could have a more robust chile flavor, or more components. Though I loved the idea of a reimagined avocado toast, deconstructing it into foams and aspics didn’t upgrade the original. Finally, I am going to be that guy and whine about the pasta — which I didn’t even try. My beef is that Century Grand rolls it out on the cart near the end of the meal. This happened twice, and both times I was way too full to get busy.

click to enlarge Levine's reimagined beef cheek Wellington. - JACKIE MERCANDETTI PHOTO
Levine's reimagined beef cheek Wellington.
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
But the hits are big, the kinds of conceptually vibrant, highly original dishes that make eating out rewarding. Levine has a fun culinary mind. She has a weatherman’s grasp of the seasons, a full consciousness of how they coax produce toward ripeness, and a keen sense of how it all can jazz a menu. Just look to the dumplings: fragrant with leeks and spring peas, dough pouches at once tender and crisp from simmering in a pan-frying in brown butter.

If you crave new eating and drinking experiences, make a reservation at Century Grand ASAP. Better still, post up at the bar with a game friend and an appetite and set your eyeballs on those dim sum carts. However you choose, you’re in for a high-speed ride to the heights of immersive dining and cocktail culture in Phoenix.

Century Grand
3626 East Indian School Road
602-739-1388
Hours: 4 p.m. to midnight Sunday to Thursday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday to Saturday

Colfax, CA (cocktail)
$12
One-ounce whiskey pour $8 to $120
Treviso salad $15
Crab rangoon $3
Seasonal dumplings $12
Beef cheek Wellington $22
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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