By Kathleen Vanesian
By Eric Schaefer
By Heather Hoch
By Lauren Saria
By JK Grence
By Eric Schaefer
By Robrt L. Pela
By Eric Schaefer
Don't bet on it.
The food's gorgeous. Just make sure your credit card's not maxed out, because the … la carte menu may put you over the top.
Palo Verde is the more casual of the resort's two dining rooms. Rounded white walls give it an adobe look, while large, woven wall hangings feature abstract boulders. The open kitchen peers out from behind ristras, strings of garlic and gleaming copper pots and pans. The service is professionally informal and unobtrusive. And there's no music, either, to interfere with the principal business at hand: eating.
Like Todd's, this restaurant furnishes the best reason to shed your cocoon and dine out: It serves outstanding food, with a Southwestern flair, that most people couldn't begin to make at home.
34631 N. Tom Darlington Drive
Carefree, AZ 85377
Take the soup, for example, a smoked-vegetable-and-seafood chowder bursting with flavor and a peppery kick, a perfect starter for chilly winter evenings.
Millimeter-thin strips of marinated ahi tuna, combining Japanese and Southwestern tastes, also work nicely as an appetizer. The butter-tender fish supports a mound of avocado papaya salsa while nestling alongside a puddle of jalape¤o lime cream.
But the appetizer gold medal goes to a terrific salad of greens in a mint vinaigrette, topped with warm, cornmeal-crusted pheasant. A poet once said God gave people the gift of memory so there would be roses in December. At $8.50, this small dish will empty your wallet faster than it will fill your belly, but I figure I've gotten a $20 memory to trot out the next time I warm up leftovers for dinner.
A couple of the main dishes are superb. Rack of lamb showed up as two meaty, juicy hunks, encrusted with pecans and thoughtfully severed from the bone. The sweet peppers and goat cheese sharing the plate may have been gilding the lily, but sometimes I don't mind having my lilies gilded.
The lamb was also accompanied by quinoa, a crunchy, offbeat grain from the Andes. It's been heavily promoted in health and natural-food stores, and may replace potatoes and rice in upscale restaurants in the Nineties.
Nothing ordinary about the roast squab, either. The tender bird came festooned with smoky-flavored slivers of pork, and moistened with a chipotle cider sauce. It's a strongly flavored dish, and the side of wild-rice compote was a well-chosen complement.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the Southwestern bouillabaisse--perhaps a fish stew stocked with aquatic life from Lake Pleasant?
What turned up wasn't quite so far-fetched. Shrimp, scallops, mussels, cockles and a chunk of lobster floated in a chile-infused tomato broth. Black beans, nopal cactus and fresh corn provided the heavy Southwestern accent. But these local touches competed with slices of toasted French bread slathered with aioli, the garlicky spread that is de rigueur with bouillabaisse. Unlike the other main dishes we sampled, however, this one never quite added up beyond the sum of its parts.
Our waitress steered us to a wonderful dessert, well worth the extra three miles I logged trying to burn it off. Fragrant toffee custard came resting on a sweet, chocolate-studded pastry shell, with caramelized whipped cream and an intense chocolate sauce.
I wish she had steered us away from the bizarre dessert called the Southwestern trio. A .333 hitter will probably get into the Hall of Fame, but at $6.50 a pop, I expected this dessert to bat 1.000.
Nothing wrong with the chocolate-cake part, but the flan came in a sauce studded with so much lemon, it made the plate pucker. And the sweet-potato empanada seemed more far-out than inventive.
When snowbird visitors wish to show appreciation for your generous hospitality, suggest they take you to Palo Verde. If they come back next year, you'll know they're either real food lovers or real friends.