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Review Redux: Binkley's Restaurant (Cave Creek, AZ)

ejs1492 Oct 26, 2009 07:29 AM

Binkley’s is back. Actually, it never really left, but I took it off our “fine dining” rotation after a painfully dysfunctional meal there on New Year’s Eve 2008. Reviewed on my blog, that meal missed the mark on everything that makes Binkley’s Restaurant so special to me. The food was overwrought, service was lackluster and arrogant, and the pacing was off. Descriptions of each course were pre-packaged and rushed, when present at all. Our table in the back room made us feel forgotten. I felt as if I had lost an old friend. Had Binkley’s success gone to its head, or was it just an “off night?”

Granted, New Year’s Eve is not the best night to judge a restaurant. So, for the occasion of my wife’s recent birthday, we decided to give it another shot. In my mind, I had already decided that we were never going back if the experience was anything like the one we had on New Year’s Eve. The stakes were high.

So, when we were seated at our favorite table and greeted by a server named Rebecca who remembered us from visits many years past (long before I even knew what a “blog” was), I knew that New Year’s Eve would be just a fuzzy bad dream, soon to be forgotten altogether. Simply put: our 5 Course Tasting Menu at Binkley’s Restaurant was a culinary tour de force, rivaling some of the best meals I have had anywhere at prices ten times more than what Kevin Binkley charges. Excellence was everywhere.

There were no fewer than 15 amuses bouche. Chilled Curried Pear Soup with Serrano Powder (so good that I contemplated snorting the powder), a Charcuterie Plate with Coppa, Honeydew Dippin’ Dots with Prosciutto, and Steak Tartare “Burgers” with Homemade Potato Bread. The onslaught continued. Puff Pastry with Balsamic Gel, Tomato Tartare, Micro Arugula and Mozzarella Sauce. Duck Yolk with Bacon Powder. A Foie Gras Noodle. (No one does Foie better than Kevin Binkley…no one.) All the molecular gastronomy buzzwords were there – “balm”, “gel,” “dust,” and other liquid nitrogen inspired creations. Yet, contrary to our last visit, none of it felt gimmicky. Flavors and textures were complimentary; form followed function. My only complaint is that we were sometimes presented with so many amuses at the same time that we weren’t able to fully savor each one. And it’s time to put the blinking coasters into retirement; they’re hokey and a tempting target for personal injury attorneys representing strobe-sensitive epileptics.

The Black Truffle Bantam Egg with Charred Sweet Onion, Turnip Latke and Truffle Jus was the epitome of indulgence; rich, complex, and unexpected. It’s definitely one of the top ten things I’ve ever eaten.

The Menage a Foie, comprised of a Puddin’ Pop, Terrine, and Cappuccino, showed off Chef Binkley’s deft touch with all things goose-liver. My veal was less of a hit; the smoky flavor was too strong and seemed out-of-place. But the accompanying sweetbread was a delicious nugget of glandular goodness. I’m fairly sure that Kevin Binkley could make rocky mountain oysters appetizing to me.

My Blue Warehou was a fish I had never tried before, but did so at the urging of our server. She was right. It was delicate and mild, working in concert with the lobster mushrooms, butter lettuce, and creamy orzo. The subtle flavor of chives gave this dish extra dimension, and the orzo was a nice departure from risotto.

I was recently interviewed about the opening of Modern Steak at Scottsdale Fashion Square, and the reporter asked me if I thought a “fine dining” restaurant could succeed in a shopping mall. The first thing that came to my mind was Binkley’s, which serves some of the most sophisticated food in the Southwest from a tiny space in a bland strip mall two doors down from a Cave Creek food bank. That’s precisely what makes Binkley’s such a special place to me. It’s a little bit unconventional. The kitchen clearly has culinary chops that rival the best, but they would never make it in a corporate kitchen where they had to answer to somebody else. This quiet anti-establishment undertone runs through every element of the dining experience at Binkley’s. It’s akin to the well-dressed investment banker with tattoo sleeves hidden under his Saville Row suit; polished, but a little bit funky.

Not everything about the meal was perfect. Bread was forgotten several times, although it was sublime once it finally arrived. (Note to Kevin: PLEASE bring back Stu. There must be a way that he can work for you while still pursuing his music career playing the spoons. From a diner’s perspective, he is sorely missed.) Like our last visit, there was simply too much food packed into too short a period of time. We never felt rushed, but there were probably five amuses bouche too many, not that I could pick five to delete.

Binkley’s Restaurant has a lot more competition that it did when it opened and I have noticed that it gets considerably less press than it used to. Part of that is because the food has evolved into something that you probably aren’t going to want to eat every week. It has become more esoteric, focusing on precision techniques, artful presentations, and impeccably sourced ingredients. Kevin could make a lot more money if he appealed to a lower common denominator but, in refusing to do so, he has expanded the culinary boundaries of our city.

It seems that my fears of Binkley’s demise really were just a bad dream. If you are seeking the best of the best, let Kevin Binkley cook for you. But, merely out of superstition, I’m still not going back for New Year’s Eve.

Photos of the meal can be found at www.ericeatsout.com

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Binkley's Restaurant

6920 E. Cave Creek Rd.

Cave Creek, AZ 85331

www.binkleysrestaurant.com

480-437-1072

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Binkley's Restaurant
6920 E Cave Creek Rd, Cave Creek, AZ 85331

  1. c
    Claudette Oct 26, 2009 09:59 AM

    Great report, as always. Yeah, New Year's Eve is one of 2 days that my hubby and I never eat out (Valentine's is the other).

    I've noticed that a lot of restos are going the nouveau route (more foams, gelees, aromatics) to try to stay au courant. My husband hates that: he wants food he can just eat and not contemplate. OTOH, I love poking and dissecting my food - it's a game to see what/how/why my food is manipulated (after all, what else is there to do when one's already cooked hundreds of chickens, short ribs, lasagnas, and souffles in one's lifetime?). Thanks for the report.

    1. s
      sonomajom Oct 26, 2009 10:15 AM

      I am thrilled to discover your blog! I'm going to Phoenix for a conference next week and was looking for some recommendations and trolling the board here. We want to do one nice meal and one budget . I'm a total foodie so intrigued by binkleys - price?
      also came across NOCA, Quiessence, barrio cafe carolina's. thoughts on any of them
      or should I do this via your blog?
      We live near San Francisco so get a lot of mexican but I'm v interested in more southwestern influence as we dont get that
      also love wine so any good places for a glass of wine with an eclectic or vast wine list, or to relax after dinner

      11 Replies
      1. re: sonomajom
        a
        AllPhoenix Oct 26, 2009 10:25 AM

        Welcome to Phoenix, sonomajom! In what part of town will you be staying?

        1. re: AllPhoenix
          s
          sonomajom Oct 26, 2009 02:07 PM

          the conference is at the Biltmore - which I hear is a nice location

          1. re: sonomajom
            c
            Claudette Oct 27, 2009 12:58 PM

            sonomajom - Sounds like you live in Sonoma, but if you're ever near San Jose CA, check out Aqui (3 locations: Willow Glen, Campbell, and in Jan 2010, San Jose on Saratoga/SVL road. It's terrific Cal-Mex/Southwestern fare.
            http://www.aquicalmex.com/home/index.php
            We own a place in Tucson, but we've found nothing like Aqui in the Southwest.

            1. re: sonomajom
              b
              Booger Oct 28, 2009 10:22 AM

              NOCA is 5 minutes from Biltmore (if not closer). You could even walk there (if you were feeling ambitious). Biltmore is in a great location, you will have tons of options.

              1. re: Booger
                e
                eatmedrinkme Dec 30, 2009 07:53 AM

                You could go to NOCA it would be convenient and the food will be ok. But if you are willing to drive for excellence, Binkley's is your spot.

          2. re: sonomajom
            drewb123 Oct 26, 2009 03:51 PM

            I would go with Binkley's over NOCA by far!!!

            1. re: drewb123
              ejs1492 Oct 26, 2009 09:45 PM

              They are totally different restaurants. I find them hard to compare except that they are both great at what they choose to do. In my opinion, they both have an important and esteemed role in the AZ food scene.

              1. re: ejs1492
                s
                sonomajom Oct 28, 2009 03:05 PM

                Ok anyone up for giving me a few lines on what kind of cuisine is at NOCA. I think I have a good handle on Binkleys from the review

                Also any suggestions on budget restaurants?

                Yes Claudette we're in Sonoma so pretty far from Willow Glen but will keep that in mind if were ever headed to the South Bay
                thx everyone

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                Noca
                3118 E. Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85016

                Binkley's Restaurant
                6920 E Cave Creek Rd, Cave Creek, AZ 85331

                1. re: sonomajom
                  drewb123 Oct 28, 2009 04:26 PM

                  what kind of budget food? mexican, italian,american, whatever...

                  1. re: sonomajom
                    hohokam Oct 28, 2009 06:11 PM

                    Hard to sum up NOCA in a few lines. On any visit, you're likely to see something classical, something whimsical, something challenging, and something homey. Sometimes you'll see all of these aspects in a single dish. Chef Curtiss's food draws on influences and ingredients from Japanese, American, Spanish, French, and Italian cuisines, and dishes range from classic combinations to modern/haute twists on simple comfort foods to totally original creations.

                    Even though NOCA is not a seafood restaurant per se, it is my first recommendation for anyone seeking good fish in this town. Everything is carefully sourced and perfectly prepared.

                    Perhaps the best way to get a feel for where the NOCA crew is coming from is to ignore my blithering and instead look over the current menus online:

                    EDIT:
                    I removed the links to the online menus. They were totally jacked by Chow's new place link embedding thingy. Follow one of the links above to the CH restaurant entry for NOCA and then click on the "Go to Website" link. The home page for NOCA has a link to the regular menu and the menu for Sunday Simple Suppers.

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                    Noca
                    3118 E. Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85016

                    1. re: sonomajom
                      e
                      eatmedrinkme Dec 30, 2009 07:54 AM

                      If you are lloking for a WOW experience than NOCA is out of the question IMO.

              2. c
                crsin Oct 26, 2009 04:16 PM

                "Kevin could make a lot more money if he appealed to a lower common denominator but, in refusing to do so, he has expanded the culinary boundaries of our city. "

                Glad this trip was able to reaffirm your love for the place. I'm also thrilled he doesn't compromise anything in an attempt to appease a wider audience. There are more than enough places that do that and, judging by the last couple of times I've tried to make a reservation (granted, before the economy tanked), Binkley's does just fine without that lower denominator.

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