While were were visiting family in Carefree, AZ (a suburb of Phx) we had the opportunity to spend our first Valentine’s Day as a married couple at Binkley’s. Owner/Chef Kevin Binkley trained under two fo teh most highly respected chefs in the US: Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Patrick O’Connell of Inn at Little Washington. We often fail to make reservations. That’s just the kind of kids were are. We fly by the seat of our pants and see where it takes us. To get a table at Binkley’s is in a nutshell, hard. Speaking with some of the locals, you need to call weeks in advance to score a spot. But, there is a catch. They have a bar that seats 8. First come, first serve. So, we banked on eating at the bar, given that my in-laws lives mere moments away from the restaurant. I call and inquire about tables, just to see. And what do you know….there are 5 tables available…2 at 6:00 pm and 2 at 8:00 and 1 and 8:30. We choose the bar. Why? Because we didn’t think that we were going to eat a big meal given the fact that we have been eating ourselves silly since the moment we landed in AZ. We just wanted to try a few things given the fact it’s not often you get to eat food prepared by such an amazing chef. It’s 7 o’clock when I call…there are 6 folks at the bar. She tells us to hurry…and that we do.
When we arrive, she is so excited to tell us that a very romantic table just became available outside by the fire (it’s AZ…it’s 65 degrees). She ensures that there are portable heaters and it’s a great table. I’m thinking, “Score. Fancy fireside table for V-Day with the cheesemonger” and as soon as I finish my thought, I hear Si say, “Nah. We are good at the bar”. Wha?? Fireside table…romance…real seats. But, alas…we are taken to the bar. You might be thinking at this point: Way to go Si…screwing up your first Valentines Day dinner with your gorgeous wife. Wrong. He made the most perfect choice.
The bar sits directly infront of the kitchen. Our seats were prime for chef watching. And when you are freaks about food like us…you can’t get enough of this kind of thing. So, there we were, sitting at Binkley’s by a wing and a prayer getting a front row seat to watch the action. Best Valentine’s Day present ever!
Now, Binkley’s works differently than other restaurants I’ve been to. There are servers, maitre d’s (one being the sommelier), one bartender, a guy at the kitchen window, Chef Binkley and his kitchen of culinary minions. At first, I didn’t really understand who was who…what type of system they used…but then as we got settled in…we figured it out. In the front of the house, there is one Maitre d’Hotel for each server (almost). The server is responsible for greeting you and taking your order. At Binkley’s your meal is not confined by what you order. You are given ‘tastes’ throughout your meal. Small, bite-sized morsels of immense flavor and gastronomic uniqueness. Some are given to you on spoons, some are in shot glasses. As you read through the courses…you will understand what I mean. So, you have to understand how quickly and perfectly things must come out of this kitchen. The Maitre d’s assist with this. As soon as an order/course/tasting is ready to go…they deliver. Oh, just writing this entry makes me yearn for another visit. It truly was an amazing place.
Now, the guy at the kitchen window is not just an ordinary expediter. From what we gathered, he is Chef Binkley’s right hand man. Chef de Cuisine if you will. He is the man responsible for timing of all dishes. He is the one who calls orders to Chef Binkley(CB for short) when they are needed. He is a timing genius. He knows the menu like the back of his hand. Once this guy tells Chef Binkley what he needs, then Chef Binkley throws down the order to his kitchen brigade. Each plate is inspected by CB and then presented for service. In between these plated coming out of the kitchen, the Chef de Cuisine is also responsible for getting that evening’s ‘tastes’ out to the patrons in between their courses. And that he does.
Each sever/Maitre d is responsible for delivery of courses and tastings and for removal of empty plates. Not once did we sit with an empty plate in front of us. Timing was impeccable at this place.
So, there were were, sitting at the helm of this amazing kitchen. As the bartender (our server as we were sitting at the bar) asked us what we wanted; we just looked at each other knowing the answer. “Just have the kitchen send out what they feel is appropriate for the evening.” We chose the 6 course tasting menu. Now, given the fact that we were on the cusp of bustin out of our britches from the week’s eating…we decided we would each get a bite of everything. CB would cook one BIG tasting menu and we would share (romantic, huh). And I am so very glad we did. All and all, we had 25 courses of food. At first, I found myself being a bit embarrassed that we were sharing. But CB put as at ease knowing full well that he was about to knock our socks off.
So, here we go. Each course is in chronological order from memory…so bear with me. I didn’t write it down table side b/c I thought it would be to awkward. So as soon as we got home…we jotted it down. We shared the big plates of the tasting menu. We were given individual ‘tastes’ in between courses….no sharing there.
1. Duck Consume: a rich velvety duck consume served with sherry in a white porcelain espresso cup. Balanced flavors, robust and a wonderful taste to get you ready for the evening.
2 . De-constructed Calabrese: a sliver of ripe cherry tomato drizzled with a port reduction, topped with a miniature basil leaf, brioche crouton topped with a mozzarella cream sauce. All in one little bite. Yum. Summer in your mouth.
3: House made breads and sweet cream butter. Simon had the sourdough. I had the cranberry walnut. Bread and butter. Good.
4. A blue cheese ‘puff’ with candied walnut and and endive spoon. Served in a shot glass. A creamy, light as air puff of blue cheese, scooped up with the endive. The sweet crunch of the walnut was a fabulous accompaniment to the blue cheese.
5. Sous Vide Chicken, wrapped around baby carrot served with maple brown sugar foam. Served on a two pronged fork in a glass orb filled with the foam. Out comes the most perfectly cooked chicken I’ve ever had. One bite each.
6. Octopus served over a white wine gelee and garlic chip. To this day, Simon claims this was the most tender flavorful octopus he has ever tasted. Served on a Japanese soup spoon.
***A word of insight. Each bite was so flavorful, the thought of eating an entire meal out of it would render one in sensory overload. As the night progressed were were AMAZED at how much flavor one man could get in one bite of food. AMAZED!
7. Foie Gras Dippin’ Dots with mango gel: It’s exactly what you think it is. Small perfectly round balls of duck liver frozen in liquid nitrogen, topped with a few drops of the most pungently amazing mango gel. Again, one bite. Mango filled my mouth..then duck liver. Oh the humanity!!!!!!!!!
8. Lava Lamp Broth: a baked potato broth (it really tasted like a baked potato…seriously) spiked with diced jalapenos, tiny orbs of potato and chives presented in a double shot glass atop a LED coaster( the kind they give you at a restaurant when you are waiting for a table). When the glass was set on top of the coaster, it mimicked a lava lamp. Best lava lamp I ever tasted.
9. Palm hearts, pears, house made coppa, pistachios and balsamic glaze. Need I say more. This was our cold app for the tasting menu. Big plate.
10. Monk fish, mushrooms and polenta. I have never had such a tender piece of monkfish. The mushrooms didn’t over power the fish and the polenta was a good choice for a starch. Fish course.
To Be Cont’d……(told you this was going to be a long post)
And at this point I might mention that I was having a lovely glass of big bodied Bordeaux and Si was drinking port. Yep, port. The food was so flavorful and rich that it worked amazingly well. CB was thrilled to see that port was chosen as his his dinner drink. Prior to that it was whiskey..again…the food was strong enough to hold up to that heavy of a drink. Despite running a kitchen and keeping everything perfectly timed, CB and his Chef de Cuisine continually spoke to us about each course. It was so much fun. sigh.