The last time J. was in town, we were celebrating the anniversary of our engagement. The weekend turned out to be just this side of a disaster all the way around due to fate or kismet or the stars above and capped by a disappointing anniversary dinner at one of Phoenix’s most respected fine dining restaurants. That was back on a weekend in February.
The weather had warmed between February and April and it was time for a different anniversary. While we have been engaged for four years, J. and I have been together for six years, so it was time to celebrate and, hopefully, have a better weekend than the one in February. J. flew out from Orange County and I experienced a twinge of anxiety when my plans for dinner following J.’s arrival were thwarted by a Southwest flight delayed by over an hour. Despite my plans, however, we did end up having a wonderful dinner at Delux as a back up since my first choice had all but closed by the time we would have arrived.
The next day led me to trying to make up for a botched dinner and I told J. we would be going to a restaurant nearby to my home that was fairly upscale. At 7:50, we got into the car and headed to 32nd Street and Camelback Road in Phoenix. J. immediately blurted out that we were going to Eleve, probably because it would have been the only restaurant in the strip mall that we hadn’t tried and certainly the most upscale one. I parked the car and we entered.
Eleve was only about half full but I mentioned to the hostess that we had an 8:00 PM reservation. We were taken to a four-top table against the wall opposite the kitchen, which was somewhat open air and busy with a few people working on dishes. We were handed menus and told our server would be with us momentarily. I was a bit surprised at how loud the place was considering it was only half full. It wasn’t deafening nor did J. or I have to raise our voices to be heard, but it was quite noticeable.
We waited for a few minutes and our server arrived requesting our drink order and letting us know about the specials. J. just asked for water and I requested an Iced Tea ($3.00) and water as well. Our server said she would be right back, so J. and I looked over the menu.
Upon her return, our drinks were set before us, along with a plate containing four slices of bread. Two of the slices were Sunflower Bread and the other two were Kalamata Olive Bread. These was served with a small ramekin of room-temperature butter. The sunflower bread was soft and I loved the visible sunflower seeds in the bread itself. The bit of crunch was a pleasant surprise. J. was a fan of the Kalamata Olive bread finding it to be hearty and bold. I tried it and as much as I wanted to like it, I thought there was just too much olive taste that marred the taste of the bread dough.
Our server had left for a moment to retrieve a bowl of sweetener for my tea. After that detail was completed, we placed our order. J. decided to go with the Baby Greens with Grilled Asparagus Salad ($8.00) for a starter. I was tempted by the Green Chili Caesar Salad ($8.00). For our entrees, I was torn between two, but ended up ordering the Dijon and Herb Roasted Chicken Breast ($18.00) and J. opted for the Cracked Pepper Flat Iron Steak ($22.00). However, we couldn’t pass up the Black Bean Hummus ($8.00) and got that to share to begin our meal.
While we waited for our appetizer, I mentioned to J. that the place was rather comfortable. The tables were not packed close together and the lighting along with the soft music and art pieces on the wall made for a relaxing atmosphere. I did note, however, that a few strategically placed sound absorption tiles on the ceiling could do wonders to muffle some of the sound.
The Black Bean Hummus arrived and I thought the presentation was done quite well. A large plate contained a serving of the hummus surrounded by grilled flat bread, marinated peppers, grilled tomatoes and a variety of olives. I grabbed one of the pieces of flat bread and coated the top with the hummus and added some of the roasted peppers for good measure. The dip was a complete knock out. Savory, salty and just a tiny hint of sweetness really made this a great start to our meal. J. loved the dip as well citing the great flavor combination. We both enjoyed every ounce of the hummus and only wish there had been more on the plate. The same held true with our feelings about the flat bread because the kitchen seemed a bit stingy on it and we ended up using the remainder of the sunflower and olive bread as a vehicle for the hummus.
There was only a scant few moments between our finishing the hummus and the arrival of our salads. J.’s Baby Greens with Grilled Asparagus Salad looked pretty enough with the dark green leaves of the greens and the pieces of oven-roasted tomatoes and hearts of palm that peeked out between them. The whole mix had been tossed with a lemon-dill vinaigrette. J. took a taste and only gave a matter-of-fact “good” when I asked for a description of the taste. Upon further pressing, J. admitted that the salad was indeed “good” but nothing exciting or exceptional. The greens were fresh, the asparagus was fine, the tomatoes decent and the hearts of palm standard, but nothing really stood out, including the dressing. After some reflection, J. said the seasoning - or lack there of - seemed to be missing from the dressing and the salad in general.
My Green Chile Caesar Salad looked appetizing when it was set in front of me. I could see the creamy dressing on the bits of Romaine lettuce and tiny pieces of fried tortillas dotting the salad along with pieces of diced red pepper. I could also see crumbles of cotija cheese. I made use of the pepper grinder that was sitting on the table and took a taste of the salad. The dressing was fresh and delicious and the lettuce was cold and fresh. I also liked the use of tortillas in place of the standard croutons, and the cheese had a strong saltiness that accented the entire salad. What was disappointing, however, was the noticeable lack of green chile, both in taste and appearance. At first, I thought they had forgotten the chiles, but upon eating the last couple of bites, I did notice the green chile flavor showing up. I was convinced the kitchen had only added a few pieces of the chile, but upon reviewing the photo, I could see the chiles liberally sprinkled on the salad. I am not sure what caused the chile taste to be so absent, but the cheese and the dressing were both rich in flavor, so perhaps one or both of them drowned out the green chile taste. I found that disappointing because I could easily see how something like an addition of green chiles would be a refreshing change to the standard Caesar salad.
We finished our salads and requested a few more slices of bread and refills on the water and tea. Shortly thereafter, our entrees arrived with an admonition from our server to be careful since the plates were searing hot. Well, “searing” would be a conservative estimate of their heat.
J.’s Flat Iron Steak was listed on the menu as USDA Prime and studded with cracked pepper. It was also served with baby green beans, a sweet potato hash, and served in a brown ale glaze. After allowing the steak to cook, J. took a bite and said that the meat was good, but lacked any seasoning. J. also had a minor complaint that some spots of the steak were rubbery. I tried a bite and I couldn’t tell if there was any cracked pepper on the meat or not, but J.’s observation about the lack of seasoning was spot on. Without the glaze, the meat would have been fairly bland. J. did, though, rave about the sweet potato hash saying it was the best thing on the plate. As for the green beans, J. referred to them as “average.”
My Dijon and Herb Roasted Chicken breast was a large white meat serving that had been sprinkled with fresh herbs and roasted until golden brown. It was served with sauteed baby spinach, horseradish glazed carrots, and a Chardonnay reduction sauce. I dove into the chicken and it was deliciously moist and tender. I loved the herbs, but I was on a mad quest to find anything resembling a dijon taste. It simply wasn’t there. I had polished off most of the chicken before I finally found the elusive dijon taste hiding under a morsel of the skin and some of the meat. Again, disappointing to me since that flair was part of the selling point for me in choosing this dish. The carrots were excellent, but, like the dijon and green chiles before it, I was scratching my head trying to taste horseradish. The spinach, on the other hand, was souped up with plenty of garlic during its cooking process and both J. and I loved it. In fact, it was the best thing on the plate. The sauce was pleasant enough, but rather mundane.
We finished our meals and were full due to the ample portion sizes, so we passed on dessert. We requested our bill instead and the total was $71.22 which included tax. The service was attentive and friendly with plenty of inquiries regarding our desires for more bread or additional drinks and the like.
As we got back into the car, J. and I both agreed the word to describe our adventure would be “inconsistent.” There were some home runs at Eleve, such as the hummus, the sweet potato hash and the sauteed spinach. However, we were mystified by the reluctance to use seasoning to enhance the flavors of clearly fresh ingredients. Eleve has a cool, sophisticated feel to it and there were some enticing and inspired items on the menu, but many seemed to have evaporated in practice.
I did have more twinges of guilt as we headed home because I was still trying to find that sublime dining experience for our anniversary celebration. Eleve had some promise, but it missed the mark in providing that experience.
I crossed my fingers and hope for the best that the next night’s dinner would suffice.
3118 East Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016
Dress: Business Casual on up.
Hours: Sunday through Saturday - 5:30 PM to 10 PM
Notes: In the Safeway shopping plaza on the northwest corner of 32nd Street and Camelback Road.
Additional photos can be found at www.feastinginphoenix.com