By Jeff Kronenfeld, January 2020 Issue.
Snowclad pines race by outside despite the fact this train is going nowhere. As I adjust to the illusion of motion created by the over a dozen coordinated flat screens embedded in the walls to look like windows, there’s a moment of mild vertigo. Just then, a server in burgundy slacks and suspenders delivers two flutes of champagne. She says our destination is 90 minutes away with a coy smile. Modeled on a 1920s-vintage Presidential Pullman train car, Platform 18 is one of the threesome of bars within Century Grand. Jason Asher and Rich Furnari, the duo behind UnderTow, again create a unique and immersive experience, this one set amid the splendor of the Roaring Twenties. Their company, Barter and Shake Creative Hospitality, has outdone itself. Whether dining on dim sum or sipping a cocktail, Century Grand is about the journey, not the destination.
In September, Century Grand opened its doors in a building on east Indian School Road. Asher and Furnari radically reimagined the rectangular space once home to a pizza place and before that a sports bar. First, they developed the narrative. This creative vision guided the design of the three concepts and remodel. They partnered with Mat Snapp to develop and write the story, as they did at UnderTow, located below Sip next-door. Snapp is the Director of Beverage for Fox Restaurant Concepts. He is also a writer and has authored drink menus for a slew of popular venues. Together they developed three distinct but complementary concepts.
When entering the building, you check in as a guest at a station to the left of the front door. If you have a reservation for Platform 18, the mock train car mentioned earlier, you’re directed to a waiting area to the left. As you sit, in front is the locomotive’s riveted sheet metal façade. Dan Duey built this, as well as the brass and wood interior. In front of the train are two rail carts topped with vintage steamer trunks, old-timey lanterns and other gear straight out of a Jack London novel. Behind looms another veneer, this one a Colonial brownstone, complete with stacks of worn wooden barrels. This is Grey Hen Whiskey Saloon, the second bar within a bar. The barrels aren’t all for show either; they are part of a three-score and growing collection of single barrel spirits from across the country. Grey Hen does double duty, also serving as a retail spirits shop. If one of the whiskeys, natural wines or other libations catches your fancy, taking home a bottle is easy.
After a few minutes a server — or is it steward — waved us aboard. Travelers get 90 minutes on the train. The oblong faux engine has limited seating. Platform 18 serves no food save for alcoholic ice cream. I started off with a Gas the Trucks, a drink built on a Basil Hayden’s bourbon base. It comes with a dense crown of mint and even a tiny tuft of cotton candy held to the glass by an even more tiny clothespin. This pink amber concoction went down very easy. The sweet fruit notes balanced well with the bitters, lime juice and other ingredients, including tree bark. My teetotaling friend ordered the first selection from the Temperance section, the Evergreen. Filled with ingredients that sound straight out of an apothecary’s cabinet of curiosities, he said it was refreshing but not too sweet. As with everything, the presentation was on point down to the smallest detail. For my fourth drink of the ride — I had both glasses of champagne — I went with the Calming Gentleman. It was more sophisticated than the first, bracing yet savory. Lastly, I swallowed a Winchester Rifle: coconut milk ice cream infused with bourbon, chocolate, basil and something called Hericques & Herciques 10-year Sercial Madeira.
Interspersed throughout the menu is a story, like at UnderTow. Instead of a Tiki pirate adventure, this tale centered around a mysterious steel magnate and bootlegger, Hollis Cottley Pennington. Though fictional, he is somewhat inspired by an actual person: the infamous attorney/moonshiner George Remus. If the UnderTow’s story is Treasure Island meets Jimmy Buffet, then Platform 18’s is The Orient Express meets The Shining, minus the murder.
The restaurant proper — Century Grand — is as opulent as the name suggests. The marble bar top and tables gleam beneath chandeliers. Perhaps if Amtrak took a cue from Barter and Shake, Phoenix wouldn’t be the largest city in the country without passenger rail service. The menu is compact but augmented by a delightful variety of dishes almost constantly circulating on dim sum carts. Helming the kitchen is Sacha Levine, formerly of the East Valley gem Singh Meadows and Ocotillo. Despite the menu’s compactness, our party of two just scratched its surface. We ordered the steak tartare. Levine puts a unique spin on this raw meat classic, particularly the abalone shell-sized sesame cracker that serves as its base. The cracker was crisp and airy, complementing the dense and juicy beef, shitake mushrooms, cured yolk and other ingredients.
Otherwise, we snacked on whatever looked good from the passing dim sum carts. This made for a fun and adventurous dining experience, if a bit of a logistical nightmare for an increasingly inebriated food writer. Of these dishes, the standout was the corn ribs. Having never had the pleasure of this vegan barbeque dish before, its savory flavor and juiciness were a delightful discovery. The texture was like tender shrimp but in a good way. Whether carnivore, herbivore, pescatarian or any other diet, if you can ever try corn ribs, I recommend them. With this dish, maize is ready for its close up. We also noshed on spring rolls and peanut sauce, which were tasty if tiny. Other dishes came and went, all inspired versions of gourmet stalwarts.
Train stations provide the names for Century Grand’s cocktails. Its narrative is educational if not quite as compelling as Pennington’s story. It describes the history of railroads from their earliest days to the transcontinental lines and into prohibition. By mixing this info with clever, well-crafted drinks, the story blends into the menu without causing distraction. I drank my way through East Coast cities and Midwest hubs, entertained by the friendly staff who were quick to offer suggestions. This is a perfect spot for entertaining out of town guests or for a romantic night. Barter and Shake once again succeed in creating an immersive experience that’s on a track all its own.