Cafe Reviews

Tables Turned

My nostrils are so filled with the stink of keister-kissing by the other restaurant critics in this city that I long for nothing more than the hide of an overrated grub purveyor. Throughout greater Phoenix, there are plenty of culinary dinosaurs, as well as new bistros, in need of a vivisection, and I'm just the maniac for the job. Cue in Bobby Darin singing "Mack the Knife."

Often folks will recommend such places to me. It might be My Florist or Christopher's, but I ensure the punishment is well-earned before I strike. Like Anakin Skywalker, I'm here to bring balance to the Force. Granted, I may have to slip on the black mask and slice off a few limbs before that's done, but you know you love the bloodshed, people.

Thus, I initially approached Vincent Guerithault on Camelback much in the way a big-game hunter might ease up on an old lion: with a view to the kill. I had heard rumors this venerable eatery was no longer up to its notices. But before I knew it, I was disarmed, charmed and treated like a debutante at cotillion by a dashing beau. Indeed, the service was so silky smooth from start to finish at this 19-year-old establishment that, by the end, I was crooning the corny Captain and Tennille hit "Do That to Me One More Time."

With the maître d', wine steward and two or three others fussing over me and my companion, I felt like I was impersonating the Prince of Monaco. Never had to ask for water: As soon as my glass was empty, it was filled. And when I ordered a half a bottle of a Pinot Noir, and the restaurant didn't have it in stock, I was brought a bottle of an arguably better wine at the same cost. The wine steward apologized so profusely that I was a little embarrassed. The reason I'd ordered the half-bottle to begin with was to save a few shekels on what promised to be a pricey tab. And here the staff was upgrading my order!

This continued throughout our visit. When our waiter decided that we should have a Pinot Grigio with our appetizer, two glasses appeared, gratis. And when we chose starters and salads to share, they were split into two lovely presentations. After we ended our din-din too stuffed for dessert, our server whispered, "Let me bring you something light on the house," and we were each brought apple tarte à la mode. The bill paid, we passed through the heavy wooden door to see that the complimentary valet had already brought our car forward and was holding the door. A perfect end to a perfect evening.

We returned on another night, and had the exact same experience. I should note that nobody had any idea I was a food critic. In fact, after asking around and observing how other diners were being treated, I discovered that such exceptional service is doled out equally. You could argue that the pampering is reflected in the price tag, which ran about $150 or so, before tip, for two people, including wine. Perhaps, but I've paid the same or more on numerous occasions, and never been made to feel this welcome.

Okay, I was spoiled rotten by the staff, but what about the rest of the package? For those of you who haven't been to Vincent's before, the place is somewhat formal without being stuffy. Waiters wear vests and ties, crumb your table, and all that. Your fellow diners aren't slouches, either. Dress is business casual, and you'll get a whiff of old money from some of the craggier clientele. Faux white rock, medieval tapestries, pumpkin-hued walls, and ceilings with brown roof beams mix the elegance of the Old World and New. Piano music, often Mozart or Bach, emanates from the stereo.

And the food? Chef Guerithault is one of those icons of the Valley's food scene, with laurels up the wazoo, and a storied career that stretches back to his native France and finally to Phoenix, where he opened Vincent's on Camelback in 1986. However, there's truth in the old chestnut, "You're only as good as your last meal." An impressive C.V. does not always lend itself to great eats. But in the case of Monsieur Guerithault, the two seem evenly matched.

For bread, you get a hopper of flaky, buttery mini-croissants, an invitation to gorge yourself if ever there was one. To do so would be a mistake, though, because the starters, soups and salads are all engrossing. The bill of fare's divided into two sections: "nouveau" and "classics." I tended to lean toward the "classics," where there's more crossover between French and Southwestern cuisine.

The appetizers I tried included the duck tamale, the corn ravioli, and the shrimp beignets. For the "duck tamale," picture little beige tubes of tamale, sort of like canapés, stuffed with shredded duck, Anaheim chile and raisins. Extremely soft and savory. The ravioli actually had more of a kick: pasta filled with a creamy corn purée, surrounded by warm, yellow kernels, and bits of tomato and basil, with white truffle oil. The "shrimp beignets" were crusted from being fried with some sort of sweet batter. Dollops of lavender-mayonnaise dressing to the side made for a lovely dip.

The tomato and lobster bisque was velvety, a marvel. But the Caprese-like salad, served as a special, with heirloom tomatoes that I'm still fantasizing about, reminded me why I adore Caprese, even after all of the horrid examples of it I've had elsewhere. The pièce de résistance, salad-wise, was the prosciutto and melon: balls of melon and cantaloupe, and small cuts of mozzarella, released by the waiter from a glass over a bed of greens and prosciutto, bathed lightly in the French muscat Beaumes-de-Venise. A true symphony of pleasure.

Per the entrees, the rack of lamb was one of the better ones I've snarfed, though I found it a tad heavy on the sodium chloride. The medallions of grilled wild boar loin were tender and rich, an absorbing plate that you really sink into. I only wished the habanero sauce around it had been spicy, but my server promised it will be next time. And the seared sea scallops? Like a magnificent bivalve archipelago in a shallow mélange of butternut squash.

Desserts, from the tarte, to the crème brûlée, to the flourless chocolate cake, provided just enough confection to go with a double espresso or two. Sigh . . . I came to conquer and was conquered. In Vincent's, this Mack the Knife has met his match.

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