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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.
Club Skirts presents The Dinah — the annual music festival and pool party weekend and the largest lesbian event worldwide — is taking over Palm Springs from September 21st through the 25th.
Now celebrating its 31st year, the star-studded weekend will kick off a five-day party known to draw in upwards of 15,000 women from around the world.
This year, for the first time ever, the event will take place in Palm Springs’ most iconic hotel, The Margaritaville — formerly The Riviera — famous in the ’60s for its role as celebrity central, drawing the likes of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Sammy Davis Jr., and Sonny and Cher.
Photo courtesy of The Dinah
“I think it is definitely a rite of passage and a bucket list item,” said Mariah Hanson, ”and it’s a beacon in a way. I think that what we create there is so magical and so inspiring that you hear about it and you want to be a part of it because it’s life-changing.”
Hanson explained that the magic is intentional. She said along with her staff, they set to produce an event that is diverse, welcoming, and life-changing.
“We create a world for five days where people are united by the common theme of just acceptance and diversity and living in a world you want to live in,” Hanson said.
Hanson said she is proud to offer what she says is one of the “most diverse, inclusive, celebratory events.” She said The Dinah recognizes that our community is very diverse, and she wants everyone to feel welcome.
The festival includes various performances by nationally-renowned recording artists, massive pool parties with world-famous DJs and go-go dancers, red carpet events with celebrity guests and musicians, and meet-and-greets with lesbian celebrities.
The Dinah pool party
Photo courtesy of The Dinah
While in previous years, the Dinah events centered mostly on pool parties, the Dinah of the past decade has flawlessly amped up the pool parties, while also simultaneously becoming an enormous music festival, drawing in huge superstar artists over recent years, such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Chaka Khan, Meghan Trainor, Iggy Azalea, Eve, Salt ‘N Pepa and more, many of them while they were just on the cusp of hitting the big-time.
Hanson explained that she has a formula, a set of ever-changing criteria, that she uses to book acts. She has a knack for finding artists to perform at the Dinah who is on the cusp of enormous stardom.
“My favorite example is Lizzo, who headlined the Sunday afternoon pool party in 2017,” said Hanson. “Nobody really knew who she was, and she’s a major star now. No one will ever see her in that small of a venue.”
Hanson has another incredible all-female entertainment line-up again this year.
“I’m excited to offer the lineup we have. I think it’s powerful. It’s almost all queer except Taylor Dane, but she’s welcome because she’s so cool!” said Hanson.
Taylor Dane, 80s pop icon, is taking over the stage at Friday night’s Black & White Ball and is bringing her full band for a special Dinah performance. The GRAMMY-nominated powerhouse’s groundbreaking debut single "Tell It to My Heart" turned her into an overnight star in 1987. She followed the smash hit with 17 Top 20 singles including “Love Will Lead You Back.” Co-headlining Friday night is a breakout hip-hop artist, Haviah Mighty, who is poised to follow the footsteps of Lady Gaga, Bebe Rexha, Iggy Azalea, and Lizzo. She is the first Black woman to win the Polaris Music Prize.
On Saturday night’s Hollywood Party, Fletcher, one of the most electrifying queer artists to burst onto the scene, takes center stage. The GLAAD-nominated artist has a slew of hit singles including “Undrunk”, “Bitter”, “girls girls girls”, and “Cherry.” Her new single “Her Body is Bible” is out now and her debut album is being released this month.
“You don’t want to miss any of these acts,” Hanson said.
Club Skirts The Dinah pool party
Photo courtesy of The Dinah
All of the weekend’s pool parties, night parties, and concerts will take place at the Margaritaville. The opening and closing parties will both be held at AsiaSF, a new hotspot to both kick-start and close the weekend.
Hanson said she is excited for the Dinah this year and hopes it will, as always, be an amazing experience for all who attend.
Hanson said her message for attendees, other than to pace themselves, is always the same.
“Don’t be afraid to meet new people. Don’t be afraid to reach out and share your stories and listen to other people's stories because there’s people from all over the world coming.”
Hanson negotiated some great rates with the host hotel, Margaritaville, and it currently has a waiting list. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get the Dinah discount and to add your name to the waiting list.
For more information and for tickets, please visit The Dinah.
Michael Feinstein has become an iconic singer of the modern era. He has entertained audiences and world leaders alike with his jazz standards. Recently he began working with Liza Minnelli to produce a unique stage show that celebrates her mother, Judy Garland's, 100th birthday.
Mr. Feinstein took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions and give us some insight into his creative process, the future of jazz, and the production of this one-of-a-kind show.
Why do you feel the classics still resonate today?
One of the things I love about the music that I primarily sing is that the songs transcend the time in which they were created. They truly are timeless in the sense that they still have incredible power and energy in what they convey to audiences. I always compare them to the timelessness of William Shakespeare or Beethoven or Michelangelo in that people don't experience any of those things and say they're old.
They still resonate with the heart and they have a contemporary sensibility because certain fundamental emotions are forever. The songs that I sing are so amazingly crafted that they're malleable and they can be performed and sung and may any different ways. And that's one of the reasons they survive because they're just adaptable.
And that's one of the fun things about it. Every time I sing one of these songs, it feels fresh to me. And I also know that there are maybe people in the audience who've never heard these songs before. So I'm mindful of trying to present them in their best suit. If you will.
Did Judy Garland influence you more when you were a kid or as an adult?
Judy Garland, what an amazing person; incredible performer. As a child, like most of my generation, anyway, I first became aware of Judy Garland in connection with the 'Wizard of Oz.' That movie was shown every year as an annual event on television. And we would always go to my aunt and uncle's house and watch it there because they had a color television. But the true art of Judy Garland was introduced to me later in my life, when I became aware of her many recordings and other films that she made at MGM, and she had two distinct careers. One was the 28 feature films she made at MGM from 1937 until she was unceremoniously fired by them in 1950.
Then there was her adult concert career from 1951 to 1969. In that period, she performed over 1100 concerts and made classic record albums. And that's such a rich period of American culture and also music. And so the show that I'm doing is a true celebration of the extraordinary joy she brought to her and the pathos and the sadness that's conveyed through the way she sang ballots. It's a multimedia celebration with home movies supplied by the family, a rare recording of hers singing acapella. And I accompany her on the piano that I actually discovered of a song no one had ever heard her sing before. So it's a, a rich program."
In your opinion, has jazz fallen by the wayside in contemporary music, or is it just reserved for a more distinguished crowd?
I think jazz falls into the same category as American popular song, the classic American popular song in that it will always survive, it will always have an audience and perhaps it's more specialized today, but it's the kind of music that people discover when they're a little bit older and then it becomes a permanent part of what they listen to.
Are there any modern songwriters who you feel could be as prolific as Mr. Gershwin?
Well, uh, I believe that Bob Dylan is incredibly prolific. There are many other songwriters who have a work ethic that produces a lot of material. Diane Warren, I'm told, writes every single day, The songwriter Michel Legrand composed, well over 200 film scores as he composed every day. So there are probably songwriters who wrote more than Gerwin, but will their songs be heard in a hundred years as widely as George Gershwins? That I don't know the answer to.
Do you think the best songs are written when the world is in turmoil or when it's more at peace?
Music always reflects the time in which it is created. Uh, if you look at the songs of world war II, the were lots of songs of patriotism that were very, um, what's the word --- jingoistic. Things like, 'Johnny get your gun, get your gun, get your gun.' All these songs about fighting for what's right. And those songs have not lived as long as the love songs that were written in that time.
For example, 'White Christmas' was written at a time when the world was just entering the second world war and that song has lived, and the patriotic songs, uh, have not worn well, even though the sentiment is there. They were very much of their time. I think that there is a certain kind of inspiration that comes out of turmoil. A lot of songs written during the American depression have become lasting standards.
Things like "As Time Goes By.' That was later featured in the movie 'Casablanca' and that sort of thing. So I think that good songs can be written in any time, but perhaps there's more, uh, passion conveyed when there are problems in the world,
Does music constantly play in my subconscious?
Absolutely. Yes. Music is always playing in my brain and that doesn't bother me because sometimes it's music. I know, and sometimes it's new music. That's how I, I come up with the idea for a tune. My friend, George Firth, who died a number of years ago was a brilliant librettist. He wrote the book for the Sondheim shows 'Merrily, We Roll Along,' and company. And he once said that anything that you're whistling or humming in your brain is a subconscious window to what one is really thinking about or what they're really feeling.
So if he ever heard anybody humming or whistling, he would say, what are you singing? What are you humming? He wanted to know the title of the song, because that was his armchair psychoanalysis of what that person was, was going through.
What will the audiences be treated to at the Scottsdale show?
Well, it's a centennial tribute to Judy Garland. And as I mentioned previously, it's multimedia with photographs that have never been seen before, this incredible home recording of Judy Garland, which I found in a house that she once lived in behind a fake wall.
It's just a weird story. Uh, so I'll be accompanying her in this song. So it's a world premiere of Judy Garland singing something that nobody's ever heard before. And I also sing a couple of things that were written for her that never saw the light of day.
And then a lot of familiar things. It's a celebration of the best of her MGM years, and then the concert years, the iconic Carnegie Hall show, and it's a very immersive experience, both, visually and emotionally. The audience reaction has been, spectacular, and I'm very grateful. The enormity of trying to pay tribute to someone with a career, as large as Judy Garland's certainly was not easy, but I feel like we've nailed it.
I had a team of people who helped to put it together, notably, Judy Garland's daughter, Liza Minnelli, who executive produced the show and was very much influential in helping to shape what it's about. It celebrates the incredible art that she gave all of us. It doesn't delve into the tragedy because that's the tabloid stuff. But the reason people remember her at all is because of the talent. And so that's what I celebrate.
Show & Venue details:
Valley audience members can join Feinstein for this celebration of Judy Garland at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, 7380 E. 2nd St., Scottsdale, Arizona. There will be two concerts at 3 pm and 7 pm on Sunday, March 20, 2022. Tickets start at $79. For information click here or visit or call 480-499-TKTS (8587).
All guests age 12 and older must provide a negative COVID-19 PCR test, taken within 72 hours of the performance date, along with photo ID, to attend performances. As an alternative, guests may provide proof of full vaccination. Masks are highly encouraged to protect artists, staff and patrons. For full health and safety protocols click here.
- Michael Feinstein to Share Gershwins' Legacy in Song - OutVoices ›
- Michael Feinstein to celebrate Judy Garland at Scottsdale Arts ... ›
Musical icon Michael Feinstein is coming to Scottsdale, Arizona on Sunday, March 20, 2022. His smooth voice and playlist of American standards will soothe audiences of all ages in this special live performance. Feinstein is known for having worked with George and Ira Gershwin, two of the most prolific songwriters in history.
His appearance in Scottsdale will pay tribute to another of entertainment's most iconic voices: Judy Garland. The actress and singer would have celebrated her 100th birthday this year. Her music still lives on in the hearts of millions.
Concert is Executive Produced by Liza Minnelli
Audiences are invited to join a nostalgic and spectacular musical exploration of Garland’s illustrious career. Executive produced by Liza Minnelli, this performance will be packed with special surprise moments as Feinstein honors Garland’s unparalleled talent and charisma.
This brand-new multimedia show features big screen film clips, never-before-seen photos, rare audio recordings, great music and good humor. Feinstein will lead you on a historical journey through Garland’s amazing life, telling stories he learned from Minnelli — Garland’s daughter — and from the legend’s close friends.
Audiences will be treated to recently discovered and previously unheard musical arrangements while gaining rare insight into the enduring Garland mystique.
“We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to celebrate the iconic Judy Garland on her 100th birthday, especially knowing the authenticity and love that went into this project with her daughter Liza Minnelli as the executive producer,” said Abbey Messmer, programming director at the center. “With the Ambassador of the American Songbook leading this journey, it’s certain that we’ll feel Judy’s spirit when we hear songs like ‘Get Happy’ and ‘Come Rain or Come Shine.’”
Photo courtesy of Michael Feinstein.
The Great American Songbook
Feinstein has built a dazzling career over the last three decades, bringing the music of the Great American Songbook to the world. From his multi-platinum-selling recordings that have earned him five Grammy nominations to his Emmy-nominated PBS television specials, his acclaimed NPR series and concerts spanning the globe.
Feinstein's New Album to Feature Music Icons
His live performances, film and television appearances, and 35 albums — including the upcoming release of “Gershwin Country,” featuring duets with country superstars like Dolly Parton, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, Alison Krauss and more — have made Feinstein an all-star force in American music.