The dining room of Binkley's Restaurant

CAVE CREEK, Ariz.
If there’s ever a destination restaurant in Arizona, Binkley’s would be that place. That’s because it’s really the only reason I can think of driving more than 17 miles after a plane ride for dinner.

With nothing more than the GPS app on my iPhone guiding me through the dark desert night, I eventually found Binkley’s Restaurant in a tiny strip near a tamale spot in a town called Cave Creek north of Scottsdale, Ariz.

From the outside it looks like any strip mall restaurant – the sign a bit flashy for the refined elegance found inside. From the moment I was greeted at the door, the service at Binkley’s was a standout, with multiple friendly servers bringing dishes after dishes to my table.

Binkley’s is the well-known restaurant from Chef Kevin Binkley, whose whimsical play on dishes using liquid nitrogen, gels, and foams would stand up to any kitchen in Manhattan or San Francisco. But this is Cave Creek, and Chef Binkley makes a worthy effort to put the little town of Cave Creek onto the nation’s culinary map with his emphasis on fresh and local ingredients.

The menu works in two ways: the traditional ala carte choices on the right or multiple options for tasting menus on the left. What I like about the tasting menu is that you decide what you’d like to eat from the ala carte side, with the portion sizes reduced to be appropriate for a tasting.

Amuse bouches: a sunflower stem with curry dipping oil (left) and pear soup (right)

Chef Binkley makes his tasting menu special with the abundance of amuse bouches and in-between tastes he sends to the table. I ordered the five-course tasting menu ($89) and even before I got my first course I nibbled on six different amuse bouches that was like eating food for tiny people, such as the tray of three teeny weeny sandwiches (a Sloppy Joe, Vietnamese bahn mi and New Orleans-style muffaletta) and a tiny doughnut with bacon butter.

Some of the amuse were a delightful opener such as a tasty pear soup and a playful “ham and cheese” dish with home-made Canadian-style bacon and a truffle tater tot with a delicious cheddar cheese foam. But some weren’t as successful, like a plate of pickled vegetables and pretzel ball (the pickled vegetables were more salty than sour and lacked much crunch) and a sunflower stem with curry dipping oil (the oil didn’t have a distinct curry flavor). Still, it was an entertaining way to get a peek at the chef’s playful approach to the dinner ahead.

For my main courses, an appetizer of oysters three ways was also mixed, with a refreshing raw oyster with granita but a smoked oyster appeared mostly shriveled. Another starter of Serrano ham-wrapped frog legs was a winner, with the ham pan-fried to a crispy texture that nearly crackled as I cut into the tender frog legs, the richness of the ham cut by a fava bean and caper vinaigrette. I also loved the sunchoke and artichoke gratin, where the vegetables were covered by Hollandaise sauce and then torched for that roasted tinge.

Serrano ham-wrapped frog legs with fava-caper vinaigrette and sunchoke and artichoke gratin

The course of Nantucket bay scallops were light and beautifully plated, and my main entrée of five-spice pork tenderloin was an interesting plate of contrasting textures, from the tender pork medallions to the jelly cubes of root beer to the paper thin slices of pineapple that felt like I was eating a candy wrapper.

Again, as I waited for the above courses, the chef sent more in-between bites – some amazing while others were just OK. There was a bacon lardon on top of a puff pastry filled with an egg yolk, but the yolk was barely detectable although the puff pastry was nicely made. A mulled apple cider “bomb” was a burst of apple cider mixed with prosciutto cream and lemon zest, and an orange anise soda had a nice flavor but lacked much fizz for a soda shot.

A definite eye opening near the end of the meal is the complimentary pomegranate drink served with pin-small Elderflower lollipop. What gets the diner’s attention is the pomegranate drink is placed on a color light platform that turns the cup of liquid into a lava lamp.

My favorite dish has to be Binkley’s signature dessert, simply listed on the dessert menu as “raspberry.” I wondered how exciting a plate of raspberries would be, but with my server’s encouragement, I went ahead and ordered it and totally do not regret doing so.

Signature raspberry dessert with raspberry consomme and liquid nitrogen

The raspberry plate included several items prepared different ways, including cream-filled raspberries, luscious blondie cubes, refreshing grapefruit slice, candied ginger, solidified vanilla cream pearls and crunchy pistachio. The server pours a raspberry consommé around the plate and then adds liquid nitrogen for that “special effect” of watching a calming smoke roll over the raspberries like San Francisco fog. The plate was a delightful end to a fantastic dinner show.

Oh, there were more little bites as well like a delicious and cute teeny weeny cinnamon soufflé with crème anglaise and a plate of chocolate truffles, pate de fruit and vanilla meringue.

A tasting dinner at Binkley’s leaves you feeling pampered, with the service extending to even a next-day voicemail left on my phone by the restaurant hostess thanking me for visiting and hoping I will return again. Chef Binkley definitely leaves a memorable experience, tempting you to come back. While not every dish is effective, all will leave you amused and talking.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4 camera snaps

 

 

Binkley’s Restaurant, 6920 E. Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek, Ariz. PH: 480.437.1072. Reservations, major credit cards accepted. (Credit card required to hold reservations.) Open Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 9:30 p.m. binkleysrestaurant.com

Binkley's on Urbanspoon

Amuse called "ham and cheese" with home-made Canadian-style bacon and a truffle tater tot with cheddar cheese foam

Five-spice pork tenderloin with braised Shanghai greens, pineapple slices, and root beer cubes

Amuse of three tiny sandwiches (Sloppy Joe, Vietnamese bahn mi that was my favorite, and muffaletta)

Oysters prepared three ways, above left is a raw oyster with granita in a spoon and right is a gelee oyster in yuzu

I had a front row seat of the bustling kitchen

Complementary bites came between courses too, including the mulled cider "bomb" (left) and orange-anise soda (right)

Nantucket bay scallops with cauliflower, wild mushrooms, bacon and thyme

One of the small bites before the dessert course was a lovely cinnamon souffle with creme anglaise

Pomegranate drink on a lava lamp created fun colors reflected on a teeny tiny Elderflower lollipop

The bar and open kitchen

7 Responses to Refined Whimsy and Tastes in the Desert

  1. Sandy says:

    Extra extra fancy! That raspberry dessert plate looks divine :)

    • Ben Ben says:

      Sandy, it is fancy but definitely a good value for everything you eat. Back in the Bay Area, I would probably pay $125-$180 for a tasting dinner like this, instead of $89.

  2. David says:

    Great photos! Did they mind? Did you have wine or cocktails with your dinner? — David

    • Ben Ben says:

      Thanks David. They didn’t seem to mind me taking pictures. The room was a bit dark, so it was a challenge. I like how the tables aren’t squeezed next to each other so I didn’t feel like my neighbors were busy watching me shoot my food. Since I was driving, I didn’t go for the accompanying wine tasting but I did have one glass of pinot noir from California!

  3. Carolyn Jung says:

    Did you say bacon-wrapped frogs legs? Oh my! How wonderful those must have been. Tiny, crisp, salty and just plain fun to eat. ;)

    • Ben Ben says:

      Serrano ham to be exact! Much better than bacon because it’s slice thinner, making it even more crispy. It was my favorite dish of the night. (That and the raspberry dessert)

  4. Row says:

    Wow, so many unique and fun dishes! Sounds like it’s definitely worth the drive in the dark. :)

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