You would think he'd be impervious by now.
Christopher Gross, owner and chef of Christopher's and the Bistro, is a smash hit. Local restaurant critics rave. National restaurant critics rave. Food and Wine, in 1989, named Gross one of the nation's ten best new chefs. The accolades flow like wine.
So what difference could one more opinion possibly make?
All this is by way of explaining the weird, semiparanoid atmosphere that surrounds me when I review these two star-studded additions to Phoenix's haute-cuisine scene.
Though I rate myself among the most discreet when it comes to scribbling notes while dining, I am busted--for the first time ever--at the Bistro.
After the check is paid, Carl Esser, one of the restaurant's managers, strolls over. "Can I answer any other questions for you?" he asks, somewhat nervously. "I noticed you were taking notes during your meal. Are you in any way connected with New Times?"
Yikes! Totally astonished, I mutter some lame, noncommittal reply. An outright lie would be unseemly; the truth, critical suicide. I still need to visit the adjoining and very expensive Christopher's. As soon as Esser leaves, my accomplice and I hustle out of the restaurant. For the moment, my cover is totally blown.
"So what?" you say.
It matters because I was eager to have the advantage of visiting Christopher's and the Bistro completely unknown to Chef Gross and his staff. Over the last few months, I've heard a few bitter grumblings about service at the Bistro. Despite its glowing reviews, the restaurant has allegedly treated some folks with downright disdain, and these people were upset about it. As a total stranger, my experience would be more likely to mirror that of Mr. or Ms. Average Diner--something no other critic in town could claim. Happily, even before we are spotted for spies or journalists, my dining accomplice and I are treated very well at the Bistro. Service is prompt and attentive. Questions are answered courteously. A visual survey of the dining room indicates our experience is not out of the ordinary. Maybe the staff has been coached since some of these complaints surfaced.
And the food? I like it, Chris. I really, really like it.
In fact, I like almost everything about the Bistro. Without being imitative, this bustling, clubby restaurant makes transplants from bigger cities feel right at home. From its menu, which places equal emphasis on "starters" and main courses, to the availability of an assortment of mineral waters, unusual beer and excellent wines by the glass, and in its commitment to late-night dining, the Bistro reaffirms life after sundown for misplaced night owls living in a town that shutters up at ten o'clock.
But back to the food. I love the delicious, buttery smoked salmon my dining accomplice and I share. Served with dill cream and silver-dollar-size buckwheat pancakes, our appetizer is already divided onto two plates for us.
The salads we try are equally exciting. A salad of creamy homemade mozzarella is fantastic, thanks to tasty, tender tomatoes (real red ones!) and assorted greens perfectly seasoned with drizzled olive oil, salt and pepper. A salad of endive stimulates parts of my palate I never knew I had. Mixed greens, including oak leaf, radicchio, red leaf lettuce and endive, are tossed with halved pecans and a lovely walnut-oil dressing. Both salads are generously proportioned.
Many of the entrees offered the night we visit are grilled. Sea scallops prepared this way don't really grab my fancy--though they are fresh and tender. Topped with wonderful fried "straw" potatoes, the grilled mollusks are accompanied on the plate by chunks of green, yellow and red bell pepper. A mound of ratatouille looks dull, but proves to be full-flavored with basil, tomato and oregano.
Grilled rack of lamb is charbroiled outside, but juicy and pink inside. (Note: the kitchen prepares everything served medium rare unless otherwise requested.) A side of gratin dauphinoise turns out to be upscale scalloped potatoes which taste of butter and milk and definitely outdo Mom's.
We sip foamy cappuccino as we await dessert. Even the range of customer attire at the Bistro pleases me. We see everything from ties, jackets and frills to the upscale casual look of polo shirts and linen.
Christopher's banana split is inspired. It features caramelized bananas, several tiny scoops of homemade blueberry, strawberry and vanilla ice cream, and lace-nut cookie sculptures. I am charmed.
Tarte tatin is a bit too wintry for a hot June night. Still, it is delicious. The upside-down apple tart is rich in butter and caramel, spiked with Calvados (an apple liqueur) and served with a small scoop of homemade fig ice cream.
It is at this point, still basking in the ecstasy of our meal, that I am tagged and identified by the management. While this does not help my digestion or reduce my anxiety about visiting Christopher's unnoticed, it does nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for the Bistro. I am excited and grateful to have another cosmopolitan, sophisticated and alive restaurant in the city of Phoenix. I plan to visit again soon and often. My notepad stays in the car. It always has been my intention to review Christopher's and the Bistro midway between the Fourth of July and Bastille Day. Gross, after all, is a red-blooded American infatuated with les choses francaises, and his restaurants are evidence of both influences. The Bistro emphasizes American cuisine with a French twist; Christopher's is French with an American accent. I actually don a disguise to visit the intimate enclave called Christopher's, after being sighted at the Bistro. I'd love to describe my get-up, but that would negate its usefulness in the future. Let's just say that my dining accomplice, a native of Normandy, has trouble recognizing me when we meet.