I recently had a discussion at work with some people who didn’t understand the concept of a “date night” for J. and me. As one person asked, “Why do you need to date when you are engaged to be married?” Well, because I always think that courting someone should continue even after marriage. Thankfully, J. feels the same way. So, having a “date night” just fell into place for both of us and we have really made it something special.
J. and I had dressed up as best we could for a hot July evening in Phoenix to have dinner. J. was kept out of the loop as to where we were going for dinner, but was told to look nice, be hungry and ignore the flash from my camera. J., as always, knew the routine well and didn’t disappoint. We left an hour prior to our reservation because the restaurant we were going to was in Cave Creek, a small desert town north of Phoenix that I hadn’t been to in ages.
We arrived about 10 minutes early and pulled right into the lot of Binkley’s Restaurant. The lot was almost full and the sun had just started setting, so it was a very pleasant evening, although still a scortcher from the heat. We entered the restaurant and in front of us was a long bar and a dining room with tables dressed with white table clothes and subdued place settings. A pleasant host noted our name, looked at our reservation and took us through a couple of small hallways to a room in the back with three tables, two of which were for larger parties and an oversized two-top for J. and me.
We were seated and handed several menus, including a wine list and a cheese list. The table was dressed with plenty of flatware and a large candle floating in a small bowl of water. I did notice that the temperature in the restaurant was a bit on the warm side. I then overheard the waitress say to the table next to us that they were having power issues because of a recent dust storm that downed a couple of power lines. Ah, yes. Our friends in the dust storm department that has, even in Phoenix, knocked out power for hours.
Our server approached and was very friendly and walked us through the menu, encouraging us to try the tasting menu. Since J. and I were going to have that anyway, so the server didn’t have to do a hard sell. We did, however, have to make our tasting selections and that proved very difficult. The selections were plentiful. We decided to both have the 6-course tasting menu ($72.00 each), which included a cold appetizer, hot appetizer, fish course, meat course, cheese course, and dessert course. I also threw in a Diet Coke ($2.50).
Our server let us review our choices for a while as she retrieved my Diet Coke and some water. After a lengthy discussion, we broke down our selections to the following:
Serrano Ham and Melon
Crispy Duck Confit
Lamb Loin ($3.00 additional charge)
Strawberries and Cream
Butter Lettuce Salad
Cinnamon and Walnut Crusted Pork Chop
Chocolate Caramel Torte
While we waited for our server to return, we were presented with demitasse cups of watermelon juice. The edge of the cups had been treated with powdered watermelon. The drink was ice cold, slightly sweet, and full of flavor. It was a great starter and a well-selected choice by the chef considering the heat in the desert in the summer.
Also brought to us was two types of bread. The first was a sour dough chiabatta that was really quite excellent. It had a nice tang to it and the soft inside was perfect to contrast the chewy exterior. The other bread was a raisin bread that really didn’t do anything for me. I think the problem was that the bread itself was far too savory for the raisins, so their taste got lost.
Our server returned, took our order and about five minutes passed when another server brought us out an amuse bouche. This was a Chinese soup spoon holding a large button mushroom, drizzled with a viniagrette dressing, with a roasted garlic chip resting on top. J. and I put the entire treat in our mouths and I was amazed at how powerful a punch this treat made. The mushroom was firm and earthy and the dressing just gave it an extra blast of taste. The roasted garlic chip was very crunchy and provided an excellent contrast in texture to the mushroom. This was a big hit with us.
Our plates were cleared and moments later another amuse bouche arrived. This was a slice of fig, topped with a peach “caviar” and a mint leaf. Two drops of a wine reduction sauce decorated the plate. This really was very subdued. Each of the tastes (fig, peach, mint, wine) were evident, but very subtle. Our favorite part of the dish was the peach caviar which had little round balls of peach essence that exploded in your mouth. It was a very odd feeling, but the flavor was excellent.
These plates were cleared and another amuse bouche was presented. This time, we were presented with a small piece of salmon that was wrapped around a bit of spiced cream cheese and garnished with dill. It sat in a small puddle of herbed olive oil. I thought it was good, but felt the oil made it heavier than it should have been. J. was pleased with the dish. I did like the cream cheese and felt this could have been very well-rounded with a small toast point.
Next up on the amuse bouche parade of dishes was the Pork Rind with BBQ Sauce. This was very interesting in that the pork rind was still hot from the fryer. I scooped up a good amount of the BBQ sauce with the rind and popped it into my mouth. I loved the crunch of the rind. What I didn’t like was the over-salty BBQ sauce. The sauce itself had a good taste, but it was marred by how much salt there was in it. J. seemed to enjoy it, but I think out of all the amuse bouche we had, this was our least favorite.
The last amuse bouche to hit our table was the fois gras in pastry topped with fois gras powder. This was divine. I loved the mix of textures and the strong flavor of the fois gras. I also liked the sweetness that was added to the plate via the balsamic vinegar reduction and the addition of a gooseberry. The gooseberry was fantastic. This was a superb dish and I think J. and I thought this was the best of the bunch.
There was a brief respite before our cold appetizers appeared. J. and I agreed that we were singularly impressed with the parade of amuse bouche. It really allowed us to take a variety of things from sweet to savory. After a refill of beverages, I was brought out my Butter Lettuce Salad. In a medium-sized bowl, torn leaves of butter lettuce were tossed with dried cherries, candied walnuts, blue cheese and a sherry vinaigrette. The taste was sublime. I think was made this dish just stellar was the softness of it all on the palate. Everything from the leaves to the cheese just melted on my tongue. If only they made a salad like this at the little deli in my builidng at work, I would move my desk down there.
J.’s appetizer of the Serrano Ham and Melon was a large plate with a huge slice of a deep fried sweet potato chip resting on top. The plate included spiced hazelnutes, candied fennel, the ham, cantalope, and a treatment of key lime vinaigrette. J. was in heaven. It really was an excellent dish completed with contrasting tastes and textures. Everything was brought together with the dressing and J. was scraping up the various bits of the dish. I thought the ham was really quite good and the sweet potato chip was just over the top. What a great dish, although I would have preferred a bit more melon.
Our next course brought my something that I thought was going to be a disappointment, but turned out to be amazing. My server brought me a large bowl and in the bottom of it was an ice cream-sized scoop of some creamy mixute. She announced that it was my Corn Chowder and I was sort of shocked because I saw nothing chowderish about it. Okay, maybe it was an interpretation on it or something similar. Then, another server arrived with a small vessel with a steaming liquid. He carefully poured it around the creamy mound in the bowl and a huge wave of the smell of roasted corn hit my nostrils. The mound in the center started to slowly melt into the chowder. I grabbed a bit of the mount and a scoop of the chowder and tasted it. This blew me away. It was perfect. The chowder was creamy and had a wonderful roasted flavor to it. The mound was a combination of bacon, potato, green onion and creme fraische. It gave the chowder its crunchiness and added creaminess and both J. and I thought this was the best thing we had had during the meal. It really was superb.
J.’s Crispy Duck Confit was also a winner. The duck skin had been placed next to a serving of white bean puree and dotted with roasted shallots and a spot of frisee. This was a very interesting take on duck confit and while it didn’t have the richness of the traditional dish, the flavors were outstanding. J. was savoring every bite and had raves for the white bean puree. I think I would have preferred the more traditional dish, simply because I think that if you are going to harm your arteries, you should do it with reckless abandon. Still, J. and I would both choose this dish again.
Our fish courses arrived about 10 minutes after we concluded our appetizers. J.’s Black Cod looked amazing with its dark skin and the way the plate was decorated. J. enjoyed the cod and said it was quite moist. J. also loved the additions to the plate which included bok choy, edamame, lychee, yuzu cranberries, braised daikon, miso and chili oil. J. noted that the cod was fairly bland, but the addition of the other items on the plate really put together a great taste. It was a success for J.
My Mahi Mahi was served with figs, pineapple carpaccio, grapes, jicama, jalapeno and some crispy prosciutto. The mahi mahi was very tender and moist and had a great flavor. I loved the mix of figs, pineapple and grapes with the fish, althought I would have preferred a bit more of the pineapple. I thought the prosciutto was a bit of a distraction for the dish. But, overall, this was a very good fish dish.
There was a brief break in our courses when our server brough us a palate cleanser. J. and I to chose between a Pineapple Sorbet and the Grape Ice. I adore Pineapple, so J. was loving enough to let me have the pineapple sorbet. There was only a very small scoop, but the sorbet was delicious and J. said the Grape Ice was really quite good. Our palates were ready for the meat entrees.
J. almost never passes up on lamb when it is offered. So, I wasn’t surprised it was ordered. J.’s Lamb Loin was perfectly cooked and the two pieces of loin had been tied and looked like little rump roasts when they were brought to the table. The lamb was tender and juicy and had a great flavor. The lamb jus that was on the plate was exceptional. The broccoli and wild mushrooms were a nice paring with the meat. J. and I were also bowled over by the risotto. It was delicious and had some of the best taste for a risotto I can remember. J. was using the bread to get every last drop. I would have done the same thing. The whole entree for J. was a great highlight.
My Cinnamon and Walnut Crusted Pork Chop was outstanding. The chop was thankfully not overcooked and the crust had a slight crunch to it. My only criticism was that the cinnamon flavor could have been much more pronounced. It barely made an appearance. The baby turnips, cherries and apple butter really enhanced the flavor of the pork and I found myself using the bread like J. did. I also have to say that the spaghetti squash that was served with the pork was fantastic. It had been tossed with butter, garlic and a bit of cheese and melted in my mouth. I was thrilled with it and loved every bit of my dish.
At this point, J. and I realized we still had two more courses to go and we were already getting full. However, the meal was such a treat, we were going to enjoy it if it killed us.
Our cheese course arrived and it was such a delight. J. and I each order three different cheeses. J. selected the Papillion Roquefort, the Mutton Button Brie, and the Cabrales. The roquefort and Cabrales were both sharp blue cheeses and the Cabrales in particular was a dark green from the amount of vein. J. was thoroughly enjoying the cheeses. J. said the best was the Cabrales, but all three were excellent.
My cheeses were much more mundane, but still were delicious. I chose the Double Gloucester, the 4-Year Aged Gouda, and the Thomas Hoe Stilton. I am a big stilton fan and this was an exceptional cheese. The gouda and Double Gloucester were also quite good, but the nod definitely went to the Stilton.
Both of our cheese courses were served with a plate of accompaniments toasted baguette, grapes, candied walnuts and a fruit cake. J. thought the fruit cake was the best of the lot, but I have never been a fan of fruit cake and found that to be okay, although it was very moist. My favorite was the candied walnuts which really made a great addition to the taste of the cheeses.
With the cheeses being consumed, we headed for our dessert course, but we were interruped by a transition. Our server brought us two small shot glasses that were filled with a Green Apple Ice Cream Soda. The green liquid just about jolted my tastebuds into a coma with the sharp green apple flavor. I could best describe it as a liquid Jolly Rancher. The ice cream on top was excellent. J. and I both adored these ice cream sodas.
It was time for dessert and we had only to wait a few moments before it arrived. J.’s Strawberries and Cream were a pile of strawberries paired with mascarpone, black pepper, and vanilla tuile. A server then pulled out a bottle of 15-year-old balsamic vinegar and sprinkled the strawberries with the sweet liquid. J. said the strawberries were exceptional and the vinegar and black pepper pushed this dish into the sublime range. J. also enjoyed the small strawberry shake, noting how creamy and fresh it was.
My Chocolate Caramel Torte was a small personal-sized torte filled with plenty of chocolate and caramel and topped with buttermilk ice cream, butterscotch sauce, chopped peanuts and a piece of saffron brittle. The torte itself was quite delicious and I found the mix of caramel, chocolate and peanuts to be quite good. The ice cream was great and I could have easily made a nice dessert from just that. What was not good, however, was the saffron brittle. In fact, this was just terrible. I took a bite and the only thing I could taste was something chemical. J. took a bite and came to the same conclusion. I am not sure that the dish even needed it, so I put the rest aside and finished my torte.
By this time, we were ready for a nap. However, our server had other plans and brought us a small plate of treats to finish off the meal... and us. The plate included Vanilla Truffles, Cardamon Cookies and Raspberry Squares. The cardamon cookies were good, but excessively dry. The Raspberry Squares were awesome, but they would turn some people off because when you bit into them, you got a shocking blast of tart raspberry taste. This was good for J. and I, but others would hate it. The clear winner, though, was the Vanilla Truffle. They were just exceptional with a strong vanilla flavor in a smooth paste. We loved them.
So, having done enough damage for the evening, we requested our bill. The total including tax was $162.66 which we both thought was very reasonable for the meal we had. The service was quite friendly and we found that we were regularly checked on and our glasses were kept filled. The only thing that did sort of bother me was that during the amuse bouche, we were told that each dish was “compliments of the chef.” I think that was a bit overplayed. The servers did a great job of describing each dish and it parts, but throwing in that at the end seemed a bit much. Just one time would have sufficed.
I thought the meal was fantastic and I would head back to Binkley’s in a heartbeat. J. felt the same way. I did think that Binkley’s needs to polish the desserts a bit. The saffron brittle and the cardamon cookies didn’t even come close to matching the rest of the meal. Other than that, J. and I must have really enjoyed ourselves because we spent 2.5 hours being gluttons.
We paid the bill, headed to the car and I took the long way home driving through Cave Creek and remembering what a cute town it was with plenty of restaurants I need to come back and visit. J. and headed home, rounding out our date night with hand holding and listening to crooners on the radio.
The meal, the company, the music, the hand holding. This is why we have date night.
(For a favorable, but different perspective on Binkley’s, please visit www.iamjacksbrain.com and see his entry on May 27, 2006.)
6920 East Cave Creek Road
Cave Creek, AZ 85331
Dress: Business Casual to Formal
Notes: Reservations are essential and should be made weeks in advance.
Additional photos from this visit are located on my website at www.feastinginphoenix.com