By Jeff Kronenfeld, March 2021 Issue.
Hidden in the speakeasy above Citizen Public House in Old Town Scottsdale is Benjamin’s Upstairs, a new restaurant and bar offering sanctuary to the hungry and amorous alike. While not actually a secret, ascending its stairs makes you feel like a VIP nonetheless, and we haven’t even gotten to the fried chicken, oysters, or natural wine. Chef Benjamin Graham succeeds in serving up a unique dining experience that is both romantic and filling.
Opened in August of last year, the space has just six tables and is only open three nights a week, which is why reservations are essential. I booked five days in advance, and most of the coming Saturday’s time slots were already spoken for, though not all. I considered this a good sign while also wondering how crowded the swanky sky parlor would be. Old Town was certainly bustling when we arrived shortly before the appointed time. As we approached the entrance, the beauty from the thousands of golden bulbs strung from trees and awnings was balanced by the loud yelling from a pack of passing carousers.
This and all other thoughts of the outside world were quickly forgotten once we entered CPH. A host escorted us around the bar, through a narrow hall, and up a dark flight of stairs. Emerging from the shadowy underworld into the gleaming light of the chandelier and flickering glow of the candles was disorienting in a good way. There were no clocks or windows. Instead, the walls were covered in old recipes framed like works of art. The room’s black and white color scheme was occasionally interspersed with an intricate geometric pattern. Here the food, drinks, and, of course, your company are the evening’s center of attention, with the other elements serving as complements rather than distractions.
My concerns that the elevated eatery might be too small or densely packed were quickly allayed. A little like a Tardis from “Dr. Who,” the space seems larger than you would guess from the outside. In fact, the distance between tables is greater than in most full-size restaurants I’ve visited of late. Ensconced in our romantic nook and far from the two couples who were there before us, we felt comfortable turning our attention to ordering when our very helpful waiter Scotty arrived.
The food and drink menu is small but varied. Wanting to take our time after hustling all week, we opted to start with refreshments. Cocktails, beer, and more familiar varieties of wine are all available, but the selection of natural wines are the real stars. Listed under the heading pétillant naturel, which literally translates into natural sparkling, these bubbly drinks are made by adding wild or ancestral varieties of yeast at the time of bottling. As the fruity fluid ferments, CO2 is produced as a natural byproduct, giving these wines an effervescent quality without recourse to some cringy industrial process. Sometimes also called the Méthode Ancestrale, this winemaking technique is the definition of an oldie but a goodie.
My dining companion ordered the Morphos, a merlot rosé from Maine. Described on the menu as wild and tart, we found it tickled the tongue with a refreshing but mild dry sweetness. Readily confessing my ignorance on matters of the vine, I asked Scotty for a recommendation. He suggested the Vegas Altas, a Macabeo and cabernet rosé from Spain. It, too, was lighter and more refreshing than what I usually drink, leading me to conclude the natural wine craze is not just some gimmicky fad.
As we savored our pleasantly intoxicating aperitifs, I again turned to Scotty for advice. Like the space itself, the menu is compact. With only eight dishes, picking what to order might seem simple. I knew we were going to try the Benjamin’s fried chicken, which comes with mashed potatoes and collard greens. I also planned on ordering at least a half-dozen oysters, but I was torn when it came to selecting our third dish. The shrimp cocktail and cornbread waffle both looked inviting, but so did the vegetable Crudo and beef tartare.
Scotty pointed me to the Yellowfin tuna sashimi, which I ordered as an appetizer. When it arrived soon thereafter, I knew our waiter had again nailed it. Thin slices of almost neon pink fish rested beneath a lean-to of crispy leeks, cubes of cucumber, crushed peanuts, and a few fresh greens. Beside it was an arty smear of jalapeno ginger aioli sprinkled with what I believe were toasted sesame seeds. The crispy leek straws added a satisfying crunch and complex flavor to the tender, cool fish. We quickly scraped the plate clean as omega-3 fatty acids flooded my brain, or maybe it was just wine. Whatever the case, I liked it.
It was not long before our next oceanic delight arrived. The half-dozen raw oysters were served on a plate packed with ice, three sauces, a lemon slice, and two small forks. The oysters were large and filled with juices, as well as the fleshy mollusk bodies. After a generous spritz of citrus, I decided to use one sauce per oyster since we split the six evenly. I enjoyed both the classic mignonette and the hot sauce, but the vinaigrette was my personal favorite. I felt like I could have eaten about 100 more of these delightful bivalves but was glad I exercised restraint when our bird at last arrived.
Before I even saw the fried fowl, the dish was already winning on the presentation. It came neatly packed in a white metal bucket. Lifting the lid was a little like opening presents on Christmas morning, or so this Jewish journalist imagined. Inside were two large pieces of reddish-gold fried chicken, two white containers filled with collard greens and mashed potatoes, respectively, plus a little side of bourbon honey.
I started with a few bites of the sides. The potatoes were good, your classic milk butter clouds, but the greens were exceptional. Soft, tangy, spicy, and savory, they were the best collard greens I’ve ever had the pleasure of inhaling. I thought I tasted the smokey fat flavor of bacon but later learned from Graham it was actually smoked pork shank. Regardless, the greens were so good I devoured them all before even trying the chicken.
When I did finally get to the bird, it didn’t disappoint. The breading was crispy, warm, and loaded with savory flavors. A 24-hour bath in pickle brine kept the meat inside moist. Aromatic steam wafted from the juicy flesh as I slowly pulled it apart. It was so good I completely spaced the bourbon honey until I was nearly finished. Once I finished it, I could understand why the owners of In Good Spirits — the company behind Benjamin’s Upstairs, CPH, and the Gladly — were so eager to build a menu around this delectable dish.
While both the atmosphere and food served at the speakeasy are fancy, Graham himself is refreshingly down to earth. The Minnesota native attended culinary school and got his start cooking for a professional hockey team in his home state. In 2008, the then 21-year-old got fed up with the Midwest winters and migrated to the Valley.
Graham soon found work for Gio Osso, who we interviewed about Pizzería Virtù in October. Not just a boss, Osso was also a mentor. Through him, Graham met the owners of In Good Spirits, who brought him on when they opened CPH roughly a decade ago. He worked his way up the kitchen’s hierarchy over the years, though he never forgot his first culinary teachers.
“I actually got into cooking because of my mom and my grandma,” Graham explained. “I would always cook with my grandma when I would go visit her, and then obviously I cooked with my mom all the time.”
Graham’s mom initially freaked out when he moved to Arizona without a job lined up, something he enjoys teasing her about today. It’s those early lessons in the kitchen that helped him climb up the culinary ladder to the very lofty perch he inhabits today, not that he lets it get to his head. Case in point, Graham originally wanted to name this restaurant within a restaurant, the Shuck and Cluck. While we prefer the name Benjamin’s Upstairs, whatever it’s called, Graham has us crowing for more.