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May 02, 2011


(Very) Miniature Sloppy Joe Dominic Armato

My first visit to Binkley's slipped away into the desert, never to be found.

It was nearly three years ago, well before we came to call Phoenix home. After a trip to visit family that was highlighted by meals at Sea Saw and Binkley's, we returned home to a few months of chaos. I managed to get the Sea Saw post up after a couple of weeks, but two months of blogging wasteland followed, by the end of which the details of our meal at Binkley's had almost completely vanished into the ether. I looked at photos, struggling to remember the dishes' composition, what they tasted like, or even in a couple of cases whether or not I'd enjoyed them. The entire reason I started blogging in the first place was laid bare. Those memories that I cherish, both good and bad, were simply gone, and I found myself unable to form any definitive thoughts, much less express them coherently. Of course, it would be completely irresponsible to post about a restaurant in such circumstances. And so, 43 photos of a summer menu at Binkley's sat in cold storage for nearly three years. Before my dinner this weekend, I went back to take a look, and with a couple of exceptions, I couldn't remember any of them. They might as well have been somebody else's dinner, because they sure didn't look like mine. And while I may lose details over time, I remember dishes. What had happened? Had my cerebellum been cooked by the desert heat, or had my first meal at Binkley's really left so slight of an impression on me? For the first time I can recall, I found myself hoping it was a matter of brain injury.

Binkley's, you see, is the pride and joy of the Phoenix restaurant scene. It's the unimpeachable gastronomic temple in the desert, an Arizona none-too-stuffy front of house backed up by a no-holds-barred fine dining back of house, commanded by the restaurant's namesake, Kevin Binkley. Having trained with such luminaries as Patrick O'Connell and Thomas Keller, Binkley brings a pedigree. And with gushing review after gushing review, he brings a reputation. And yet, the circumstances surrounding my first visit truly caused me to wonder what he would bring to my table.

Amuses. Lots of them. Dominic Armato

The answer, at first anyway, is amuses. Lots of them. An endless stream of them... before dishes, after dishes, in between dishes... Kevin Binkley likes small bites. And fortunately for his diners, he gets small bites. Though some work better than others, they are without exception small in stature and big in flavor, a formidable punch packed into a tiny package. Cauliflower soup with apple curry oil is a simple and elegant pairing, made amuse by its remarkable potency, a warm and creamy distillation of cauliflower with just enough salt to extract the maximum amount of flavor without jumping over the precipice. It's been done, but rarely so well. An exceptionally light and airy chicken liver mousse arrives in a Lilliputian cooking vessel, to be spread on wafer-thin crisps and topped with such bracing morsels as mint-infused tomatillo, red wine and eucalyptus gelée, pickled red onion, caper berries and coarse mustard. Though enjoyable, there was a disconnect between the mousse and its accompaniments. The central element was outstanding, but it was so delicate that it was bullied by its supporting players. The mousse was a star. It just fell in with a bad crowd. There was no mistaking the star of our third amuse, an olive oil and vanilla poached bit of cantaloupe, with radish halo and festive sprout. Simple, strong, clean, delicious. Up next, a single spire of Romanesco broccoli, with yuzu cream cheese, yuzu foam and prosciutto powder. Though I lost the prosciutto, it was another bracing bite. Hot on its heels, a spoon filled with poached carrots, curry oil, toasted almond, dried currants, cilantro and couscous, as notable for its texture as its flavor. And to round up this one-bite barrage, a "pork bun," comprised of a bit of belly, bun, soy-marinated pineapple and wasabi foam. Delicious. The pineapple needed to be dialed back a bit for balance's sake, but again, simple, clean, bold, tasty.

Spot Prawn TartareDominic Armato

One of my dining companions joked that on previous visits, he sometimes wasn't sure where the amuses ended and the dishes began. But the spot prawn tartare was no amuse, either in terms of size or sophistication. There's a certain almost starchy quality to certain sea creatures like squid, scallops and shrimp when they're raw, and while I love it in full potency, it's a very different and no less compelling experience to have it as it's done here, mellowed and smoothed out by the sweetness of blood orange. Blood orange juice, blood orange segments, blood orange foam, a dehydrated blood orange chip, used in so many ways it elevated the textural interest while still keeping the flavors clean and uncomplicated so as to not overshadow the spot prawn. Though the other accents were numerous -- uni gelée, snow peas, slivered radish, pickled grapes, chili threads -- they were used sparingly enough to leave that central pairing be. Sophisticated in composition and yet somehow simple in flavor, I thought it an excellent treatment of some stellar product.

It was here that we received the intermezzo pictured at the top of the post, the miniature sloppy joe that I was surprised to later discover would not be the most playful dish of the evening. With a nickel-sized bun and slivered cornichon condiment, it packed a lot of flavor into so small a bite. It was, however, a sloppy joe, its only exceptional interest being its size, towards which I might have been more positively inclined if the bun weren't rather dry. I've no doubt that keeping such tiny bits of bread moist and spongy is no small technical challenge, particularly in the desert. But if the itty-bitty dry bun is a theme -- and I've heard from others that it is -- whimsy shouldn't be at the expense of flavor and the dish should be 86ed, I think, no matter how adorable that little sandwich is.

Foie with Sunflower and HuckleberryDominic Armato

My aforementioned dining companion requested the foie, and I couldn't be more thrilled that he did. Food nerds can be bought with foie. It's just a fact. But still, exceptional preparations stand out and this was assuredly one of them. A sizeable segment of foie was seared, almost charred, to a deep, deep brown color, the melting interior suspended within an almost crispy shell. But while the execution was excellent, the flavors were positively inspired. Set atop a slice of sweet vanilla French toast, it was dressed with a touch of balsamic reduction and accompanied by fresh mulberries and a smear of paste made with ground sunflower seeds. The sunflower seed paste was the linchpin, a savory, nutty contrast to foie's traditionally sweet accoutrements. But this flavor combination, so unconventional yet so right, completely sucked me in. It was both complex and delightful in unexpected ways. A couple of times I caught what I could have sworn was the slightest whiff of chocolate, but the kitchen confirmed, none was present. Something about the nutty sunflower playing off the sweetness of the balsamic lent that impression, I think. But regardless of its composition, this dish was something special that's going to stick with me for a long time.

Mango Bomb Dominic Armato

Since another intermezzo followed the foie, I'll take a little intermezzo myself and muse over how remarkable it is that this dish was so unremarkable. Let me explain. It was delicious. The "Mango Bomb" employs a technique that's now a modernist classic (contradiction in terms?), encapsulating a liquid in a skin formed from the same. You bite it, liquid gushes out, and it's mango through and through. And acidic verjus and spicy chili oil are delicious, straightforward accompaniments. In short, it's a great little refresher in between courses, and what's remarkable is that we can simply enjoy it as such, rather than it being a referendum on molecular gastronomy. The evening's menu wasn't particularly heavy on modernist techniques (with a few notable exceptions), but there's that mango globule, staring you in the face, without the need for an accompanying lecture. I find that refreshing, as I did the dish.

Corvina with Tomato and FavaDominic Armato

That the corvina was both the weakest of the non-amuse courses and still quite excellent is, I think, a testament to the meal as a whole. It was a beautiful piece of fish, with a crisp seared crust and moist flesh, perfectly seasoned and paired with a spicy remoulade and numerous plays on tomato and fava bean. Beneath the fish, a juicy and tart green tomato, battered and fried. Surrounding it, whole peeled cherry tomatoes, oven dried tomato slices, tomato puree, fava beans and basil oil. Off in the distance, crusty bruschetta with fava puree, more tomatoes and more basil. Fresh tomato and heavily reduced tomato have a very different character, and the oven dried tomato and thick, pulpy tomato puree managed to walk the line between the two, taking on an intense flavor without losing the brightness of the fresh product. But despite the numerous components and techniques involved, this was a simple dish at heart. Fish, tomato, fava, basil and bread with a bit of creamy remoulade. It was quite delicious, and beautifully executed. I felt as though it was wanting for just one final touch to really make it pop, even if I can't think of what that might be. Still, this was a dish I'd be thrilled to receive at just about any restaurant. If this is your weak link, you're doing incredibly well.

Pork au PoivreDominic Armato

After another intermezzo, a simply presented shot of tangelo soda, we moved on to the meaty portion of the menu, here represented by Binkley's pork au poivre. It was as though with each successive course, he was adding more elements, employing more techniques, working in more flavors, and yet here was where I think my final conflict with Binkley met its resolution. Just to describe the dish takes forever. Peppered and roasted pork sits atop an artful drizzle of root beer jus. Behind that, a turnip empanada with caramelized baby turnips on a raisin puree with an assortment of whole rehydrated raisins. Behind that, a cube of fried, crispy, spicy grits sitting next to a spinach puree with a sort of ethereal spinach paper on top. (Side note: said spinach puree was really remarkable, like spinach times twenty, an entire bunch crammed into a tiny quenelle.) At first, it seems like deconstruction gone wrong. There's so much, flung to every distant corner of the plate that bringing it all together is impossible. Want to get a bite with everything in it? You can't. Some assembly required doesn't begin to cover it. So I spent a few frustrated minutes trying to put together elements that I was starting to feel really should have been put together in the kitchen. And then somewhere near the midpoint, I was distracted by conversation, and suddenly it started to come together. By turning off my brain and just blindly eating, it started to work. An enormous amount of energy is obviously expended on the plate, and I'm not sure that a little focus wouldn't make it even better. But this sort of virtuosic combination of distinctive elements has its charms, and while working my way through the dish I learned to appreciate them.

Culinary Rave?Dominic Armato

A very conventional (if delicious) cheese course followed, my selections from a small board plated with toasts, nuts and a bit of dried fruit. And I have to wonder if this rather conservative interlude was simply to set up the first dessert, which bordered on -- no, WAS -- completely ridiculous. I don't necessarily mean that as a pejorative, but looking at the photo only gives you half the picture. Those lights would change colors every couple of seconds. There's a horrible groaner of a pun about a rave review in here that I'm going to avoid, and simply say that while many will probably find this dessert absurd, I don't mind a little fun. Though I could have used a techno soundtrack, and was forced to supply my own. The tiny lollipops were bubble gum flavored, with little sprinkles adding a pleasing texture. What was in the glass? One whiff... fruit cocktail. Sort of. Rather, it was an assortment of fruit gelées -- pineapple, mango, lychee -- suspended in a viscous liquid that evoked heavy syrup without being so heavy, and looking like an inverted lava lamp. Like Steve Martin pulling out the script within minutes of the opening of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, I wonder if this bit of absurdity might have more of an icebreaking effect if positioned closer to the start of the meal. But either way, I respect Binkley's attempt to keep things loose.

Peanut Butter SouffleDominic Armato

The next dessert item was also quite playful, if more subtly so. More of a dessert intermezzo, it was a peanut butter soufflé the size of a silver dollar, finished with huckleberry jelly. Peanut butter and jelly. Like one of his mentors, Binkley acknowledges the power of classic, unpretentious flavor combinations. I'm not certain the peanut butter made for the best soufflé texture, but it was tasty whatever you call it. The final full dessert course was another far-flung presentation, this time of strawberries and cream. The strawberries were coated with zabaglione treated with agar agar, and they sat in a sea of vanilla crème anglaise along with balsamic reduction, dehydrated strawberries, miniature chocolate moon pies and a bit of honeysuckle. In this instance, I'm not sure that the various manipulations made the dish more delicious, but they made it more fun, and there's certainly value in that. A few mignardises -- raspberry pate de fruit, meringue and drops of chocolate with coconut -- and three and a half hours later and about $100 lighter, we were on our way.

Strawberries and CreamDominic Armato

I don't think there's any fear of me forgetting my meal this time around. Chef Binkley puts on quite a show, marked with an enormous amount of precision and energy. The sheer number of components involved in his full tasting, while not unprecedented, is quite remarkable. And this virtuosic performance not only produces some wonderful dishes, but it's grounded with a bit of humor and wit, without which it might drift into straight-up pretension. I don't know that I can gush unreservedly like so many other pieces I've read. There were lulls, and while I don't mind a little fun for fun's sake, there were moments where some of his complex machinations seemed to be a means without an end. It may be telling that of the larger courses, by far the best of the evening was the one that was most simply plated. But the bottom line is that there is delicious and impressive food here, produced by a master technician and sometimes creative genius, in whom Phoenix's pride is well-placed. It can be an intimidating thing to weigh in on a sacred cow, and truly, none in Phoenix's herd are more sacred than Binkley's. And so it's with a great deal of relief that I discover Binkley's is a restaurant that's truly excellent, and even a little special.

Binkley's Restaurant
6920 E. Cave Creek Road
Cave Creek, AZ 85331
Tue - Sat5:00 PM - 9:30 PM


Congratulations. You make me both want to head out to the desert to visit Binkley's and to revisit Chicago to see some more Steppenwolf. At least I'm assuming that's where you saw Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Hungry *and* homesick. So many good restaurants, so little time...

Omnivore... That's *precisely* where I saw it. Many moons ago :-)

Another great review. I know some folks really have an issue with his exploded platings but I'm glad you got to a point where you could enjoy them. I've had many great meals there & definitely need to get back soon.

Dying to try that foie dish but I'm sure it will be completely different by the time we get there.

On our first visit there, we had a quartet of foie. Foie dippin dots, foie mouse, foie flan and foie powder. This was in addition to the terrine of foie gras & black truffles too. I will never ever forget that foie powder. The intensity of flavor that just exploded when put in the mouth was amazing. The foie dippin dots were super fun too.

I can't believe there's no picture of the cheese course. What can be better than a cheese course? #endlessdebate

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