The Be-All, Trend-All

ObaChine, Biltmore Fashion Park, 24th Street and Camelback, Phoenix, 955-9653. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Americans are obsessed with race. We're obsessed with ethnicity. We're obsessed with gender. But ask Americans about class, and they'll look at you blankly. It's something we never think about.

If you force people to say what class they're in, they will almost always respond, "middle class." It doesn't matter if they bring home $150,000 a year, get dividend checks every quarter and set up a college fund for the kids. Upper class? Nah, that's Bill Gates and the Rockefellers.

What if they have no technical or professional skills and live week to week at a $15,000-a-year dead-end factory or clerical job? In this country, such workers still don't feel part of what used to be called the working class. Labor solidarity? Just try to get working stiffs to join a union these days. More likely, most of these wage earners have middle-class dreams of opening a business and bossing around their own employees some day.

But just because we don't see society in terms of class doesn't mean it's not there. The owners of Biltmore Fashion Park and Arizona Mills are certainly aware of it.

These two malls target two very different sets of consumers. Biltmore Fashion Park aims to lure the classes: well-heeled shoppers who believe status and taste can be purchased in fancy boutiques. (After all, what good is having money if you can't flaunt it with a Gucci bag or a Donna Karan outfit?) Arizona Mills, on the other hand, attracts the masses: cash-conscious customers forced to buy status and taste at a discount.

Their eating spots reflect each mall's marketing philosophy. The latest addition to Biltmore Fashion Park is ObaChine, part of the growing Wolfgang Puck empire. (There are two other ObaChines, in Beverly Hills and Seattle.) Puck launched the nauseating phenomenon of "celebrity chef" back in the early 1980s in Los Angeles with Spago, his restaurant to the stars. Ever since, he's been on a mission to colonize the planet with other high-end, Puck-brand restaurants (Chinois on Main, Postrio, Granita) and a line of packaged foods. At Arizona Mills, meanwhile, the featured eatery is the Rainforest Cafe, an amuse-the-proles theme restaurant that mimics the formula first developed by Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood.

ObaChine's status-seeking diners will get good vibes as soon as they wheel up to valet parking. After all, how could a restaurant be less than wonderful if it costs five bucks just to park your car there? At that price, though, it almost pays to drive your vehicle directly to the table and buy it an appetizer.

The restaurant has been sumptuously furnished and designed by Puck's wife/partner. The upstairs dining room is filled with gorgeous Asian art. Mahogany-stained wood tables are inlaid with glass. The iron staircase railings are cleverly designed to resemble creeping vines. The image of the oba, a Japanese leaf from which the restaurant derives its name, appears everywhere, from the carpet to the rattan chairs to the glass sconces.

Too bad the same care didn't go into rest-room design. This place has one stall and one urinal in the men's rest room, two stalls in the women's room. I've seen gas stations with larger facilities, and on a busy weekend evening, I heard lots of patrons grumbling.

It goes without saying that ObaChine is hip, hyped and trendy. So is the fare. But most of it is quite good, if no longer quite cutting edge.

Much to my happy surprise, ObaChine isn't about toned-down Pan-Asian food. Rather, it offers ethnic flavors reconceptualized for the casual upscale crowd. ObaChine wants to make sure it doesn't scare anyone away--that's why your table is set with both chopsticks and cutlery. But this kitchen still takes some chances.

ObaChine is least interesting when it's least imaginative. The ho-hum spring rolls spring to mind. You can do better in almost any Vietnamese restaurant, at about one third the cost. Crab shu mai, small Chinese dumplings, don't have much ethnic zip. And I wasn't impressed with the Cambodian shrimp crepe starter, either, a $9.50 splurge that Asian-food fans who venture west of Central Avenue have seen done better and cheaper. But the clientele here probably doesn't scour the avenues looking for funky ethnic cuisine.

Still, you could wander the avenues forever and not find the likes of warm, sesame-crusted oysters in a rice-wine-vinegar sauce. These six plump, luscious morsels sensationally combine taste and texture. And you also won't run into the likes of Beijing stir-fried lamb, ground lamb vigorously seasoned with cilantro, mint, soy and chile, nesting in a leaf of radicchio.

The main dishes, served family style and beautifully presented, all carefully stay south of the 20-dollar line. ObaChine's customers may have money, but they're not reckless about parting with it.

You won't have any regrets about choosing the grilled, three-peppercorn-crusted ahi tuna. It's remarkable, lovely slices of rare tuna fanned across the plate, creatively matched with mashed sweet potatoes, Chinese eggplant and black-eyed peas. Grilled mandarin beef tenderloin is also superb, teamed with a crispy noodle cake and coated with a dreamy port wine sauce. Even the noncarnivores in my group couldn't resist snatching their share.

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