This past week I’ve been in Scottsdale, Arizona (near Phoenix) for a work conference. The hotel where the conference was held was the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess. Set in its own complex, the impressive resort contains several pools, waterslides, a golf course and a number of restaurants, including Michael Mina’s acclaimed Bourbon Steak. The weather was hot- it wavered between 41 – 43 degrees Celsius the week I was there; perfect weather if you’re not in sessions and free to lounge poolside!
I ate at Bourbon Steak twice during my stay, and had the privilege of attending a special staff training. On Tuesday, a group of 7 colleagues plus myself made a reservation for 5:45pm. The four of us who arrived on time sampled the bar’s handcrafted cocktails while waiting. Bourbon Steak hypes their bar, where bartenders squeeze all their citrus by hand every day, and make their own simple syrups, lime cordials, and other bases. Two of my colleagues had dirty martinis, the third had a cosmopolitan, and after some discussion with the bartender, I ordered a tequila sour, all of which we enjoyed.
The rest of our party arrived, and we sat at about 6:15pm. We began with wine, ordering both red and white to accommodate everyone. My colleague the wine aficionado (she laughs and tells me she’s not an aficionado, just really enjoys her wines, but I was impressed) selected both: a 2008 Malbec from the Luca region in Argentina, and a Sancerre from France, both wonderful choices that paired well with our meals as well as on their own. She described the Malbec as being peppery and fruity, noting that sometimes Malbecs can taste tannic, but this one showcased the fruit more, and the Sancerre as having notes of grapefruit.
After ordering, a complimentary amuse bouche arrived at our table, consisting of french fries fried in duck fat prepared three ways and each with its own dipping sauce, in keeping with Michael Mina’s trio concept (MM often takes an ingredient and showcases it in three ways using different flavour combinations). The first group of fries were prepared with fine herbes (chervil, parsley, rosemary, thyme and grapeseed oil) and paired with a tomato- onion ketchup; the middle set had truffle oil and paired with a truffle emulsion; and the last were dusted with pimenton (a Spanish smoked paprika) and paired with a smoky barbecue sauce.
I was very excited to finally taste fries fried in duck fat as I’d never had them before, but to my surprise I didn’t taste a huge difference between these fries and regular ones, and in polling several of my colleagues, neither did they. Perhaps the fact that the fries were thin and on the crispy side made a difference; when I’ve read about fries in duck fat they’ve always been the plump, softer type. The fine herbes fries had great flavour. The rosemary came out the strongest but it wasn’t overpowering as rosemary sometimes can be. The onion in the ketchup was extremely subtle and the dip itself quite sweet. The truffle fries and emulsion were the favourite all around, although I did find the truffle taste quite mild. The pimenton fries were the least favourite, although still good, and the smokiness of the barbecue sauce paired nicely with the smokiness in the paprika.
The bread course was a black truffle potato focaccia. I ate my piece with knife and fork as the truffle butter dripped off it. This bread was warm, tasty, and heavy. One of my colleagues called it “deadly” in that she could eat the whole thing and then some, and it was compared to a piece of cake in its texture, heaviness, and mouth feel.
Although I didn’t order an appetizer, some of my colleagues shared the daily selection of Market Oysters ($17) and Black Olive Caesar salads ($9), and the restaurant easily split them into sharing portions. The presentations were lovely, with the oysters on the customary bed of ice, and the salads deconstructed into baby romaine lettuce topped with a sourdough crouton and a large slice of white anchovy across the top.
I ordered off the Michael Mina classics list: Day Boat Scallops on a shallot and leek potato cake with American sturgeon caviar ($34). It was surrounded by a citrus beurre blanc with minced mirepoix in it. Again I noted how the flavours were milder than expected, particularly the citrus in the beurre blanc, but the caviar was nice and rich with an earthy tone. The presentation was beautiful: five scallops in a row, each sitting atop its own miniature potato cake, topped with a small mound of caviar.
One of my colleagues ordered a 14 oz New York Strip steak ($41) medium-rare, which arrived to the table overcooked (to a solid medium). Perhaps this was due to the extremely lengthy wait between the appetizers and our mains (timings for the rest of the meal were fine). He sent it back, but since everyone’s mains had already arrived, I worried that his replacement steak wouldn’t appear in a timely fashion. To my pleasant surprise, the restaurant really came through and a brand new, perfectly cooked steak was placed in front of him mere minutes after the original had been taken away.
I shouldn’t have been too surprised though, given the level of service we’d been receiving all evening. Nick Padua, our server and sommelier, was truly exceptional. I have rarely seen such excellent service and attention to detail, even in some of the finer restaurants, and it made the evening. Nick knew the menu, flavours, and wines inside out, and constantly watched to ensure our wine glasses were filled, our meals were enjoyed, and whether we needed anything else. Another server made sure our water glasses were never empty, and I would recommend a visit to this restaurant simply to experience this level of care. Bourbon Steak will do well if Nick stays around!
The other mains ordered were two Tapioca- Crusted Snappers ($36), another New York Strip, another Day Boat Scallops, and a Colorado Lamb Rack ($42) (the eighth person ordered two sides instead of a main). My colleagues reported that the snappers were light and flavourful; the lamb had great flavour; the scallops were slightly dry (mine, however, were perfect and I thoroughly enjoyed them); and the steaks, delicious, which certainly has to do with the non-traditional cooking method.
The steaks are slowly poached in clarified butter and aromatics (thyme, rosemary, garlic and peppercorns) using a sous-vide method, but without a bag and using the butter instead of water. They poach for about 3- 4 hours, and are finished over fire. This is the opposite of the traditional method of a strong sear first and finish in the oven.
The snapper is dredged in tapioca flour and pan roasted in brown butter. It’s drizzled with a sesame vinaigrette containing chillis, lime and fish sauce, and sits atop a bed of basmati rice with edamame and almonds, into which dried tropical fruit, rehydrated for 10- 15 minutes in a Japanese plum wine, are mixed.
We shared Roasted Asparagus with lemon and nicoise olives ($8). The lemon sauce was fabulous, and I would have liked more of it as it was only spooned across the middle and there wasn’t much to spare. Each spear had a small half olive on it as well, a nice but somewhat unnecessary touch. There were only a handful of spears- about the right size to share between two or three people, not more.
The Soy-Glazed Shiitakes with mirin and ginger ($8) were delicious. They were very straightforward and it was their simplicity that made them so lovely. The general manager, observing the evening’s service, noticed that one of my colleagues had particularly enjoyed them, and offered to send him the recipe!
At this point one of the guests mentioned that I would be blogging about the meal, something I purposely hadn’t told the restaurant because I didn’t want an artificial experience, but once it was out in the open, the general manager Anibal Macias, was kind enough to indulge me with answers to some of my questions.
Naturally Michael Mina isn’t at Bourbon Steak on a daily basis himself; the chef there is Daniel Patino. Daniel has been with Michael Mina for six years, previously at Arcadia at the Marriott in downtown San Jose, California. At the end of our meal, he came out to meet us, a bit of a thrill for my guests and I!
The restaurant team has a weekly meeting with Chef Mina, and Anibal has a daily call with him at 3:00pm, to review the previous day’s service and any notes for the upcoming service, including financials, allergies, large groups, VIPs, and, he assured me, surprise food bloggers. Anibal has been at Bourbon Steak for five months, and with Michael Mina since 1993, when he started at Aqua.
Pastry Chef Veronica Arroyo created a delectable dessert menu (each $9) including Beignets with choice of dipping sauce: tongan vanilla crème brulee, Macallan 18 year butterscotch pudding, or Valrhona dark chocolate pot de crème; Michael Mina’s Root Beer Float; Chocolate Molten Cake; and Mascarpone Cheesecake. We were already pretty full, but we *had* to try something. We got two orders of the beignets, one with Macallan butterscotch pudding, the other with the Valrhona, and the molten cake.
Dessert was incredible.
Beignets are pieces of fried dough dusted with powdered sugar, famous in France and New Orleans in particular. Each order came with three small square ones and the sauce. The beignets were warm, flaky, and delicious with or without the dipping sauce. But the sauces- oh my, the sauces- easily stole the dessert show. The butterscotch pudding had a mouth-watering burnt butterscotch taste, while the chocolate one had a satisfying deep chocolate flavour. Both were luscious beyond imagining. The Macallan 18 butterscotch pudding won out as our unanimous favourite, but you wouldn’t go wrong ordering either of the creamy treats. The molten cake’s presentation was almost too perfect to eat, but after admiring the plate it was devoured with sighs of happiness all around. It was a small cake, perfectly sized after such a filling meal. Coffee was poured tableside- a nice touch.
The recipes at Bourbon Steak are mostly accessible on the web, but it’s the beautiful presentation, excellent service, and layers of flavour that really make the experience.
Our meal ended at 8:45pm, two and a half hours after sitting down. The bill for eight people came to $798.33, which included three bottles of wine and assorted cocktails.
On Thursday, I returned to the restaurant with a different group of colleagues for round two. This time they knew I was coming, as I had mentioned it to Anibal and Nick before leaving Tuesday. Despite not having Nick as our server this time, the service was again a treat, and I noted that other tables also received the same high quality attention.
A colleague and I split an app and entrée, and began with the Ahi Tuna Tartare ($19). Prepared tableside, the tuna is combined with ancho chile, bosc pear and sesame oil, and was delicious. The colour combination of the ingredients makes a great visual, and of all the dishes I tried over the course of two dinners, the Ahi Tuna Tartare is one of my favourites. The chile in it left a pleasant tingling sensation on my lips and tongue while we waited for our mains.
Enticed by Nick’s description of the cooking technique, I felt compelled to order a steak, so we split a 14 oz New York Strip ($41), medium rare. Perfectly cooked, the steak was meltingly soft. I also sampled the Truffled Mac n Cheese side ($8), comforting and homey with a twist, but a heavy addition to an already heavy meal; and the Broccolini with garlic and chilli- nice and crisp, but I didn’t get much garlic or chilli flavour.
At the end of the night, Anibal asked me if I had noticed a difference in quality between the two nights (I hadn’t, really; with minor exceptions everything was lovely both nights), and I was amazed to learn that the hotel had erred and overbooked 35 reservations for that night. The added pressure didn’t show at all, although I had wondered why the general manager was on the floor helping pour wine and serve food!
Bourbon Steak clearly takes pride in the service they provide, and I was honoured to be invited to a cigar-tasting training session for their staff the following day. In addition to daily briefings with staff, Bourbon Steak periodically invites vendors to run an educational session for staff on their products. Sessions have included cigars, wines, salt, meats, spices, etc, and are part of an in-depth training program to ensure their staff are knowledgeable about the products and deliver quality service. The fact that they had such an interesting and well-developed program was impressive. David of Fumar Cigars Inc led a comprehensive session on the art of cigar smoking, how to help the client select the right one, how to cut and light the cigar, and the descriptions of and differences between cigars. The workshop was accompanied by hand-outs including one that listed how to provide the best service and guidance in order to make the guest’s cigar smoking experience a memorable one.
My overall experience at Bourbon Steak was excellent, partly due to the food and largely due to the service- which is great, because this conference runs every other year, so they’ll definitely be seeing me again.