Uncle Jim's encyclopedic knowledge of food comes from years spent paying his dues as garde-manger, sous chef, kitchen manager at a variety of upscale eateries. He hasn't worked as a chef for a long time, but restaurants still give him a thrill. He's big on finding the newest foodie hot spots, and has a real knack for snagging reservations. And when he orchestrates a night out, dinner isn't a prelude to something else it's the main event.
Jim's not wealthy, but he lives well, and he knows his priorities. Expensive cars? No. Gourmet food? Absolutely. And the experience of dining with him is participatory drama. You must look sharp. You should slink into even the fanciest joints with the attitude of a glamorous chameleon enjoying a new habitat. You have to soak in the vibe, admire the decor, and start things off with a nice bottle of wine. A very nice bottle.
When Uncle Jim finally gets a sip of his drink and has the script, er, menu in hand, he's really in his element. He'll slowly read aloud from the list of entrees, making a perfectly drool-worthy description of some dish sound even more appealing with each syllable. At moments like these, when he smiles in anticipation of good things to come, his cheeks glow and he looks as content as a blue-eyed Buddha.
"Mmm. Listen to this one . . . ," I can hear him say, eagerly describing an unusual pairing of ingredients.
It's too bad Uncle Jim doesn't live in Phoenix, because if he did, I'd take him to Méthode Bistro just to listen to the delight in his voice.
Actually, when he came to visit several years ago, we did have a great meal at this ritzy strip mall nook on Scottsdale Road, when it was home to the exquisite Restaurant Hapa. A while after that, though, brilliant chef-owner James McDevitt sold the place, and Hapa eventually fizzled.
Now I'm thrilled that chef-owner Matt McLinn has given new life to this spot. Méthode Bistro has a casual, rustic European atmosphere with warm harvest colors, touches of art nouveau on the walls, and a family-size wooden table in the middle of the dining room. As for the menu, I found myself enthusiastically reciting McLinn's Mediterranean-inspired creations, including paella, risotto, and osso buco, à la Uncle Jim.
"Ooh, how about roasted day boat scallops with champagne peach crème, brown butter and fines herbes?" I gushed to my dinner companions.
One gave in readily and ordered it for her appetizer. The dish was as sublime as it sounds perfectly plump scallops melding with a whisper of delicate sauce.
The arugula salad with blue cheese profiteroles, doughnut peaches, and crispy almonds contrasted bright, fresh greens with buttery pastry, while the sweet corn soup with truffled English pea was comforting and smooth, a study in subtlety.
Although we were slightly confused at first about how to discern entrees from appetizers some main dishes were designated as such, while others showed up in categories labeled "Outside the Box" or "From the Wood-Fired Oven" our waiter helped us figure out our options.
One friend tried the open-faced roast pork ravioli, laden with rich, caramelized honey. Another companion chose the ricotta gnocchi, doughy little dumplings that melted into potatoey creaminess with each bite. They were smothered in shredded, braised pork with a flavor so intense that you had to pace yourself while eating it. (I could have happily gone without the tough, crispy artichoke garnish, though.)
My roasted sturgeon with aromatic mushrooms was cleverly presented: The waiter brought out a piping hot kettle of morel tea, pouring it over my dish in a cloud of steam and earthy perfume. Tiny ravioli de royans, no bigger than a penny, floated like confetti in the savory broth, along with bits of shiitake and morel. And the firm, meaty fish was fascinating it tasted more of the forest than the sea.
McLinn is a master at navigating the elusive line between sweet and savory, coming up with some delicious surprises. I loved the foie gras with plum tart and lavender gastrique, the dense, velvety flesh complemented by the tang of fruit and the crumbly texture of brown-sugary cake. And on the tapas menu (available only on the bar side of the restaurant), a precious portion of salty duck confit came with tiny mandarin-flavored beignets, golden brown fritters sprinkled with a pinch of confectioners' sugar.
Grilled white peaches in vanilla bean nage wasn't quite sweet enough to qualify as dessert, but the roulade of fresh dates and Merguez sausage wrapped in sugar-cured bacon nearly was. Other dishes that played with the sweetness factor included pizzelles with smoked salmon, and brioche with creamy corn and shrimp.
Tapas portions were inconsistent sometimes too tiny to share, like a single, exquisite prawn tinged with citrus and honey-glazed fennel, and other times just enough for a group taste, like the white bean hummus ringed in aged balsamic and served with crisp, thin toast. But at five bucks a pop, I'm not complaining. You could certainly assemble a reasonably priced meal with an unusual variety of tastes.
Méthode also offers a half-dozen desserts, and my all-out favorite was the chocolate croissant bread pudding chunky, warm, and bursting with cocoa, it came with a tiny copper pot of Bailey's crème anglaise to drizzle or dump on top, depending on how soupy you like your pudding. We also tried the roasted pineapple with fresh vanilla bean and caramel, balanced on a flaky puff pastry. It came with a couple scoops of lavender ice cream (McLinn must have a thing for lavender) that I could slurp up by the quart.
I have a feeling that the next time I want to visit Méthode Bistro, it'll be a lot trickier to get a reservation. And for that, you can bet I'll be channeling my favorite uncle again.