Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Pavarotti sang. Tiger Woods plays golf. Kevin Binkley cooks.
There are times when you just have to sit back and watch genius at work. You can get frustrated learning that you're never going to get to their level, or you can be inspired to push yourself.
Last week the Crabby family vacationed in Arizona. What follows isn't so much a restaurant review as a grand tour of what great cooking can be. In a subsequent post, I'll rant on restaurants and explain how I look at them, but today is about how food can become art; art that you can see, smell and taste.
Binkley's sits in an unassuming strip mall in the dusty, increasingly fashionable former cowboy town of Cave Creek, Arizona. The restaurant is owned by Kevin and Amy Binkley. Kevin trained at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, subsequently rising to Executive Sous Chef at the acclaimed Inn at Little Washington, as well as working at Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Napa Valley.
Translation: The guy knows food.
When dining at great restaurants I always try and do two things. If offered, I always go for the tasting menu; it's a great way to experience the widest variety of the chef's talents. I also make it a point to order things that may be a little out of my comfort zone. Besides the main menu, Binkley's is famous, (infamous?, notorious?) for its slate of Amuse Bouche, (Bouches, Bouchi?).
SSSal and I both ordered the 5-course tasting menu. What follows, in order, as best as I can remember, is the evening's meal. Before you freak out about the amount of food, the amuses are small, single bites. The tasting menu portions are at most, half the size of ala carte servings.
Amuse Bouche 1: Parsnip Soup with white ruffle oil and white truffle powder. Served in a demi-tasse cup, the truffle powder rims the cup ala salt on a margarita glass. Amazingly smooth with just the right balance of earthy flavors.
Amuse Bouche 2: Prosciutto wrapped, blue cheese stuffed fig in a port wine foam. Tangy, sweet and tart.
Course 1- Cold Appetizer: Langoustine Ceviche. Tasso ham, celery gelee, butternut squash, menegi onion and lemon accompanying lobster ceviche. Very light. The ceviche was sliced razor thin, and the accompaniments provided great tastes to go with the langoustine. The most intriguing thing to me was the celery gelee, think celery jello, but so much subtler.
Amuse Bouche 3: Pomme Souffles. Potato souffles, (think very light and airy french fries), served with various dipping sauces, (truffle ketchup, sweet dijon mustard and a southwest "barbecue sauce" were our favorites).
Amuse Bouche 4: Diced Soppressata salami mixed with date relish and served with a deep fried sweet potato chip. Perfect blend of sweet and salty, though I thought the sweet potato chip didn't add much.
Course 2 - Hot Appetizer: SSSal: Seared Diver Scallops with porcini mushroom, bluelake beens, pearl onions and curry cream. Beautiful light curry flavor and a sauce as smooth as silk.
Crabby: Sweetbreads with sauce gribiche. Crabby loves sweetbreads, yes I know they're brains or glands or something wierd, but I love them. Sauce Gribiche is made from hard-boiled eggs, banyuls vinegar, mustard, cornichons, olive oil, capers and herbs. Think of the best egg-salad you've ever had and you're getting close.
Amuse Bouche 5: Fruit Caviar suspended in some sort of liquid. I don't have a good description of this amuse, but I can say it just didn't work for me. The tastes just didn't quite meld.
Course 3 - Fish: SSSal: Kampachi with baby bok choy, radish, lotus root, purple scallion, coconut couscous and chili oil. A type of Hawaiian Yellowtail, amazing flavor in the skin of the fish.
Crabby: Olive Oil poached Halibut, with baby carrots, spinach, cipollini onions, wild rice and caramelized onion broth. Fish was very moist and delicate, the onion broth was spectacular.
Course 4 - Meat: SSSal: Duck with red wine poached seckle pear, strawberry jam, sugar snap peas and baby turnips. Beautiful use of fruit. The snap peas were served with the husks broken open exposing the peas inside.
Crabby: Leg of Veal with clam shell mushrooms, salsify (think white carrot), fava beans and nettle coulis. Leg of veal was new to me. Again, all the sides combined for great mouth feel and taste.
Amuse Bouche 6: An intermezzo of Sorbet. Mango for SSSal and Asian Pear for Crabby.
Amuse Bouche 7: Blackberry and Pineapple lollipops.
Amuse Bouche 8: Meringues (with a faint hint of anise)
Amuse Bouche 9: Two drinks, A chocolate mouse malt and a strawberry float with strawberry Dip'n dots in homemade ginger ale (absolutely fantastic).
Amuse Bouche 10: Candied Mint on a dollop of whipped cream. Perfect.
Amuse Bouche 11: Raspberry foam frozen with liquid nitrogen. The raspberries are somehow pureed and then brought to a froth before they are frozen by the liquid nitrogen (320 deg. below zero). When you eat the foam, it doesn't so much melt as it evaporates in your mouth, leaving just the essence of raspberry flavor.
Cousre 5 - Dessert or Cheese: SSSal: An assortment of chocolate. Crabby: an assortment of three cheeses.
That's it, by this point my bouche had been seriously amused. I know it sounds like a lot of food, but remember, the amuse bouches are small bites, taken together they probably amounted to the same food as the meat course. This is a meal not about bulk but about taste.
The only vague complaint we had was that the meal took two hours. With sixteen courses fifteen more minutes would have been just right, but given the coordination that's involved in something this complex, I have no real complaint about the pace.
For me, the greatest flavors were the caramelized onion broth and the sweetbreads with sauce gribiche. I didn't love the fruit caviar and the asian pear sorbet was only OK. But understand, these aren't complaints, this was a spectacular meal with insight into how a truly talented and creative chef thinks and works. Everything is designed to show off the food. Even the large white plates are used more as a canvas than conveyance.
SSSal and I split a glass of champagne and a bottle of Paul Hobbs 2006 Pinot Noir. Cost of the meal, $82/person without wine, tip or tax. A steal if you consider the work involved. By all meals, if you love food and tastes, dine at Binkley's if you ever get the chance.
6920 E. Cave Creek Rd
Cave Creek, AZ
In an upcoming post I'll be tell you about an equally great meal at the far other end of the cooking spectrum, a neighborhood Mexican joint in Tucson.