First Taste

First Taste: Yet Another Themed Cocktail Paradise Opens in Phoenix

Watch the train car, please.
Watch the train car, please. Chris Malloy
At some point during your ride at Century Grand, its theme will leak into your brain and the experience will come alive. This is the latest and most ambitious cocktail concept from Barter & Shake and piloted by Jason Asher and Rich Furnari, who are also the captains of the neighboring UnderTow and a few other great past bars (RIP). The 1920s zeitgeist and olden railway theme will, at some point, rush you like the onset of a medicine, a mood, or a drug.

Maybe it will all crackle to life when you enter. Walking in, you see the polished metal bar, icicle chandeliers, and stone walls that kindle the feeling of being in some old city’s monumental central train station. Or maybe it will as you patter to your seat, hearing crooning tunes, watching the bartenders in period garb pour and stir like some black-and-white film given some color, but not all.

Maybe it will happen out in the dusk under string lights, the patio enclosure painted like a boxcar.

click to enlarge Blowfish tails and oysters wind through Century Grand on a dim sum cart. - CHRIS MALLOY
Blowfish tails and oysters wind through Century Grand on a dim sum cart.
Chris Malloy
Maybe it will happen when the first wheeling carts offering fried blowfish tails, oysters, and Champagne rumble past your table.

And if Barter & Shake’s vision of the past doesn’t animate for you then, it certainly will when (if you’ve scored a reservation for the 90-minute seating) you take your seat on Platform 18 — a narrow room tailored to look like a '20s Pullman train car. The design is so complete and calculated, it even includes carefully placed screens that, synchronized, cast the illusion of windows and passage through a landscape.

Asher and Furnari have long been drivers of local cocktail culture and masters of theme. Counter Intuitive, their now-closed Scottsdale bar, cycled through themes as intricate as Picasso in Cuba. UnderTow has a full-speed-ahead tiki and pirate ship motif. Century Grand’s prewar railway mien has some antecedents (Orient Express Cocktail Bar in Manhattan, for one), true, but this lost world is brilliantly conjured.

And then we get to the food and drinks.

click to enlarge Two luscious cocktails jammed with mint and ice. - CHRIS MALLOY
Two luscious cocktails jammed with mint and ice.
Chris Malloy
The cocktail menu is broken into loose regions of flavor and sensation. One is titled Refreshing, leaning on gin, vodka, citrus, and other elements that work toward cleaner, lighter drinks. Another section is called Smokey & Exotic. This one spotlights drinks incorporating uncommon cocktail ingredients, like sudachi juice and shiso leaf, or perhaps lapsang souchong — tea leaves dried over fire, carrying some musk into the cocktail.

These broad menu sections also correspond to old American railways, such as the Transcontinental Railroad and Union Pacific. Within these sections, drinks are named for locations, once stops, along these old railways. You may also be stoked upon learning this deep menu, uniting common and uncommon ingredients, has a glossary, allowing you to fill whatever knowledge gaps you need to zero in on the right drinks(s) for you.

Cocktails are all over the spirit and style map. The few I had represent just a glance at what the page-after-page menu has to offer. They were nicely balanced, and often in ways you wouldn’t expect. The California joins gin, Amaro Montenegro, lapsang souchong, and guava in a Collins glass the color of a pencil eraser. Interestingly, the guava forms the lush backbone of the drink, with the sultry orange of the Montenegro providing edits. The tea smoke is much lower than you'd expect from the Smokey & Exotic section, a mere puff, but the drink has some tropical magic and it might vanish in just a few minutes.

click to enlarge The railway theme runs through just about every aspect of Century Grand. - CHRIS MALLOY
The railway theme runs through just about every aspect of Century Grand.
Chris Malloy
Another, cognac-based cocktail I had carried related mild tropical notes (from falernum, melon, and citrus) in a separate direction, layering it into a more botanical complexity. Like the railways that once carved through the country, there are so many places the cocktail menu goes.

Beyond cocktails, there are nearly 100 kinds of whiskey available from a to-go shop. And there's a universe of natural wines, some wheeled around on carts, like a low-intervention Sangiovese from a progressive producer in Umbria, Italy.

There is also food. It comes from Sacha Levine, most recently of Singh Meadows.

Levine has mad chops with vegetables, but for this project she took a slightly fresh approach. She studied cooking methods and popular foods of the 1920s, and they appear on her menu, the Chinese food riffs and oyster preparations often nodding to the era. The best way to experience the food here might be to ditch the menu and nab changing food from the dim sum carts that wheel between tables.

Point to a slick oyster with yuzu kosho, making the rounds on a Champagne cart. Clean and briny, the spirit is nudged by the toppings.

The carts might show Szechuan-style noodles in tahini-sesame sauce charged with chile de arbol brightness, the roasted sesame fragrant. They might reveal shrimp poached in dashi simmered using bones left over from a crudo (Levine shoots for zero waste), curls popping with a marine rush in their chilled tomato-based seafood bisque.

click to enlarge Chile-dialed noodles and "egg rolls," from the hand of Sacha Levine. - CHRIS MALLOY
Chile-dialed noodles and "egg rolls," from the hand of Sacha Levine.
Chris Malloy
And perhaps there will be an “egg roll” with XO sauce that is actually an omelet, rolled. The tawny spiral contains chiles, ginger, and garlic, but could pack more flavor.

Levine uses local providers, including Nelson’s Meat + Fish, which is right down the street.

Getting to the bottom of her changing menu and the many rooms, libations, and wrinkles that this thoughtful spot has to offer is going to take many rides of the Century Grand train. So you should book one soon.

Century Grand.
3626 East Indian School Road; 602-39-1388
Hours: 2 p.m. to midnight Sunday to Thursday; 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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