The Bitter Trend

Someone did have the smarts, though, to keep the Chaparral's signature lobster bisque around, the only menu survivor from the previous regime. Topped with puff pastry, a dollop of creme fraĒche and caviar, it will make you sigh for remembrances of things past. In contrast, the salad devised of fennel, frisee and red endive, augmented with orange segments, chanterelles and a fruity vinaigrette, gives some hope for the future.

So does the imaginative breadbasket. Whoever is in charge should put out a tip jar. The temptation to fill up on the crispy, fried, salt-and-rosemary-flecked lahvosh, the potato-flour rolls zipped up with black pepper and the focaccia draped with tomato and cheese is worth yielding to.

Unfortunately, you'll find the main dishes a lot easier to resist. At best, they're predictable. At worst, they're inedible.

I'm guessing that the chef's marching orders must have included a directive to put his imagination on hold. Diners coming to the Chaparral in search of culinary creativity might just as profitably climb Squaw Peak in August looking for snow.

That's not to say that the kitchen can't handle quality ingredients. The dreamy sea bass is superb, translucently moist and delicately crusted with tomato and parsley. Surprisingly, the portion is ample, too. And the mashed potato accompaniment gets a boost from an infusion of chives. I'm a fan, too, of the homemade porcini mushroom pasta, a satisfying platter perked up with peppers, mushrooms, a bit of chicken, spinach and cheese. And while the rack of lamb doesn't give you much carnivore bang for your 26 bucks, the meat is outstanding. And so is the side of apricot-flecked Israeli couscous, with which the kitchen might have been more generous.

No doubt the Camelback Inn's guests demand steak on the menu. And the Black Angus filet mignon does furnish them with their requisite dose of animal protein, albeit an innocuous one. But the over-battered side of onion rings and the lackluster patty of mashed artichoke potatoes don't provide much in the way of support.

I had great hope for the cazuela of shrimp, scallops, mussels and lobster. But reality was a bit of a letdown. I anticipated something along the lines of Mexican seafood stew. Instead, this dish had a severe case of the blahs. I expect the Chaparral to do more with two big, meaty shrimp, two juicy sea scallops, three mussels and a piece of lobster the size of my pinkie than simply to toss them over noodles in an underseasoned broth. I wouldn't come here just for the halibut, either. It's a small piece, devoid of energy.

Two main dishes require a wide berth. The risotto and vegetable casserole is the cheapest entree, as one bite will quickly demonstrate. Any resemblance to risotto is purely coincidental. The rice, mortared with morels and pecorino Romano, comes out thick, lumpy, heavy and mushy all at the same time. It reminded me of the rice failures I make, and throw out, at home.

Honey-cured barbecued duck suggests a theological question: Why do bad things happen to good poultry? The bird itself, meaty, moist and not greasy, seems ready to fly. But the unpleasant, heavy-handed barbecue sauce keeps it from getting off the ground.

Many entrees do not come with sides, so you may have to spring for them a la carte. Gorgonzola hash browns are a disappointment. In my mind's eye, I pictured sizzling, thin-sliced, skillet-fried spuds drenched with Italian blue cheese. Instead, I got a wedge of riced potato pie, with barely a hint of Gorgonzola. Spinach sauteed with garlic and pancetta was routine. And the grilled asparagus was, well, grilled asparagus.

Desserts are the best part of the meal, but can't carry the load all by themselves. I was especially smitten by the chocolate-covered dome filled with a rich, Bailey's-infused mousse, all moistened by a coconut Chambord sauce. The luscious chocolate peanut butter cake is big enough to share, but you won't want to. The fudgy, chocolate macadamia pie is a heavy way to finish up, but it presses all the right buttons. Only the custard-filled fruit tart didn't seem up to standard. It's the kind of dessert you expect to see at a banquet.

Marriott's policymakers probably made the right financial call when they transformed the Chaparral. The food is more accessible, the setting is less forbidding and the staff wants to be your friend. Business is likely to improve. But the Chaparral has lost its soul. It's just more evidence, as if we needed it, that change is not always the same as progress.

Stuffed ancho chile
Sea bass
Filet mignon
Bailey's mousse dome


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