Dominic Armato Arizona Republic
Published 1:55 PM EST Dec 11, 2018
Fine dining has been a bit of a moving target, recently.
By “recently,” I mean the past couple of decades. And by “moving target,” I mean that those who aren’t inclined to kill it dead have taken to reinventing the institution every few years.
We’ve had hipster anti fine dining, ultra-posh fine dining, chef-scientist fine dining, pop-up fine dining, participatory fine dining, cozy fine dining and just about every possible take on the trappings surrounding creative, refined cuisine that might somehow separate the genre from its historical tropes.
How about unassuming fine dining?
Brandon Gauthier may or may not appreciate the term. But it’s the best way I can think to encapsulate the quality and character of Confluence, his mature and exciting first solo venture.
This shouldn’t be a surprise:
Gauthier’s first restaurant is this strong
Many who follow Valley restaurants have never heard his name (he pronounces it goth-ee-er, as though arguing whether Bauhaus is more dark and brooding than The Cure). But Gauthier has been a steadfast fixture on the scene, working as Kevin Binkley’s right-hand man through the expansion and sudden contraction of the famed chef’s restaurant group.
When Binkley shed his satellite restaurants to refocus on his eponymous flagship, Gauthier and his wife Victoria purchased Cafe Bink. In July, this back- and front-of-house duo relaunched Cafe Bink as Confluence, maintaining the cafe’s casual, community vibe.
Disarmingly casual, given what’s in store
If you’re pulling up to a snoozy Carefree strip mall on a quiet, pitch-black evening, you’ll know you’re in the right place by the smell of the pizza joint next door.
It’s a scene familiar to fans of Cafe Bink, a quiet neighborhood joint with a large patio, limited seating indoors and a chatty, laid-back crowd at the bar. From the look of the place, Confluence could just as easily be selling roast chicken, spaghetti marinara or steak frites.
For those who eschew the trappings of fine dining, Confluence is a trap.
It doesn’t seem intentionally so. Whether by design or happenstance, the restaurant doesn’t play as a shot across the bow of highbrow cuisine. The vibe is more along the lines of “accidentally nondescript.” It is neither establishment nor anti-establishment, white linens nor wine tumblers, Bach nor Biggie.
Service is quietly sharp — friendly but attentive, devoid of pretension and focused more on feeling than on form where hospitality is concerned.
In short, for those who knew Cafe Bink, Confluence looks pretty much the same.
Look a little deeper, please.
Gauthier makes his statement on the plate
Cafe Bink’s casual, well-executed bistro fare has been replaced by a collection of complex and constantly changing creative dishes, each a rush of ingredients, colors and techniques crafted into a work that, for the most part, is refined and satisfying without pushing into precious.
It starts with bread service, a simple slice or two served with a different dip or spread every visit: Perhaps olive oil laced with herbs and duck fat, salty whipped feta, smoky salmon mousse or a sweetly lush quenelle of silky pureed chicken liver.
Heirloom tomatoes ($12) — when they were still in season, natch — arrived with a cool puddle of herbed ricotta and a bright tomatillo puree, a tart contrast to the sweet summer fruit. More recently, grilled figs ($14) have made an appearance in an earthy and fragrant tangle alongside beets, hazelnuts and sorrel with a touch of citrusy yuzu froth.
A starter of seared tuna ($16) attempts to rope in multiple Asian flavors, creating an eye-catching combination of rambutan, shiso, ginger and daikon that Gauthier can’t quite lasso. It’s a respectable arrangement, but they’re not so much married as cohabiting. Smoked octopus ($16) — served straight-up with lentils, slivered radish, charred lettuce and bright grapefruit for contrast — is a stronger offering.
But a late-summer roasted peach ($13) was one of my favorite restaurant dishes of 2018. It was downright devastating, its sticky, caramelized sweetness awash with a molten wave of Epoisses fondue — creamy, midrange cheesy funk brightened with honey and mint. Its fall replacement — persimmon and quince paired with Epoisses baked en croute ($13) — isn’t quite as intoxicating but has a starlet’s charm all its own.
Meaty starters and meaty mains
Seared foie gras ($29), whether a nod to classic fine dining or playing to the well-heeled neighborhood, feels almost obligatory in this context. But Gauthier handles it with skill, in a summery context with port reduction and sweet strawberries; or paired with pumpkin, huckleberries and a spicy mole as the weather grows cold.
Bison tartare ($15), however, is a stripped-down model of simplicity and contrast. It’s cool, carefully minced, seasoned just so with a gooey quail yolk crown and paired with piping-hot blistered shishitos and cinnamon-scented mesquite crackers.
The meatiest dish on the menu, ironically, might be the black bean soup ($13). The broth, spiked with black garlic and serrano chiles, is a full-flavored one, to be sure. But it’s plied with enough tender braised belly and silky lamb fat that it carries more pure, intense, meaty flavor than any rack of lamb I’ve had this year. The soup looks skinny, but it packs a heavyweight punch.
Meaty mains are similarly robust. Here’s hoping the Iberico pluma ($39) returns, succulent premium pork supported by earthy bass notes like miso-marinated eggplant, peanuts and scallion ash. Meanwhile, I’ll happily dig on a roasted poussin ($37), over cannellini beans studded with fall cherries, cranberries and chewy chicos — dried and rehydrated corn kernels.
Dry pieces of pork tenderloin ($39) unceremoniously jumbled with corn, sweet peppers and avocado is a rare miss. But beef is well-represented in the form of a sizzling charred filet ($43) with roasted root vegetables, a restrained application of Hollandaise and paper-crisp carrot chips.
Venison au poivre ($39) — juicy medallions in a bold jus paired with roasted delicata squash, broccolini, onions and blackberries — is a straight puncher that wins on points.
But the fish is where Confluence truly shines
I’ve sampled eight different seafood mains across four visits to Confluence, and not one of them has disappointed.
None seem to remain for long, but among the best were a monster wedge of bone-in roasted monkfish ($37), flanked by simple roasted cauliflower and sugar snap peas with a smear of creamy labne and a lightly curried butternut squash puree.
Red snapper ($39) with lentils and sweet grapes swam in a light, clear and blistering broth spiked with Calabrian chiles. Black cod ($39) — still on the menu, last I checked — comes with a silky purple yam puree, a minced hash of shiitake mushrooms and a luscious little quivering tangle of yuba — soybean curd — that plays like creamy little eddies of sweet, barely set egg whites.
My favorite might be the Nantucket bay scallops ($42), tossed with a chewy, textural mix of potato, hominy and chicos, spiked with a bit of poblano chile and topped with paper-thin slivers of spicy Spanish chorizo. The scallops may be supple, but this dish bites back.
A strong, sweet, surprising finish
I’m not sold on the Key lime custard ($11), essentially Key lime pie served as a deconstructed jumble of powders, sauces and crumbles. It feels like a lingering hangover from 2006 that we can’t quite shake, but your mileage may vary.
Desserts, however, are otherwise strong.
A dynamite raspberry granite ($11) is studded with fruit and basil that plays a little like halo halo and combines wild textures to better effect.
A beautiful butterscotch tapioca pudding ($12) is served with kabocha squash, sunflower seeds and a sneaky quenelle of creme fraiche. Plied with an intense smoke flavor, it flirts with the thought of turning the dish into ash-scented overkill, but pulls up just short, adding a bracing, savory note. It’s almost incongruous, but it works — a little surprise hidden inside an otherwise unassuming dollop of plain old cream.
Where: 36889 N. Tom Darlington Drive, Carefree.
Price: Starters, $12-$16. Mains, $37-$43. Desserts, $11-$12.
Hours: Lunch (11 a.m.-2 p.m.) and dinner (5-9 p.m.) Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Sound: Small, cozy and conversation-friendly with a pleasant buzz when it’s busy.
Vegetarian/vegan options: Most dishes involve meat, fish or dairy in some fashion. Inherently vegetarian/vegan dishes are few, at least on the printed menu.
Recommended dishes: Bison tartare; black bean soup; venison au poivre; black cod; Nantucket bay scallops; butterscotch tapioca pudding.
Details: 480-488-9796, restaurantconfluence.com.
Stars: 4 (out of 5)
Rating scale (based on food, service, ambience and value):
5 — Outstanding4 — Great3 — Good2 — Fair1 — Poor
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Review: Restaurant Confluence in Carefree a new breed of fine dining have 1684 words, post on eu.azcentral.com at December 6, 2018. This is cached page on Travel News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.