The Bitter Trend

Chaparral, 5402 East Lincoln Drive (Marriott's Camelback Inn), Paradise Valley, 948-1700. Dinner: 6 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

About a year ago, management at the five-diamond, superluxe Camelback Inn resort decided to jettison everything about the high-end Chaparral restaurant except the name. No, the place wasn't exactly broke. But they fixed it anyway. What a pity.

For years, the Chaparral had been a one-of-a-kind outpost of old-fashioned continental gastronomy, where gentlemen wore jackets and ladies put on their snappiest outfits. The fare was just as swanky as the clientele, featuring deftly crafted classic dishes that were about as cutting-edge as a Davy Crockett coonskin cap. Hardly any kitchen in town knew how to make them anymore: lobster Thermidor, beef Wellington, filet mignon Diane, sole meuniere. Flaming desserts, prepared tableside, were also a specialty. Watching the staff assemble and ignite the crepes Suzette, bananas Foster and cherries jubilee gave even folks who didn't order them a thrill. And an army of well-trained busers, dignified waiters and formally attired captains made sure dinner went off with military precision.

But recently, more and more resort guests started staying away. In the first place, folks here on vacation didn't like dressing up for dinner. In the second place, they had no idea what lobster Thermidor, filet mignon Diane and beef Wellington were. And in the third place, once they did find out, they concluded that these dishes were too rich, too pricey and too unhip to merit more than one restaurant visit during their stay.

Resort executives also noticed that locals weren't showing up as often as they once did. Most of the Valley's fine-dining community came to think of the Chaparral as a special-occasion restaurant, where they might celebrate an anniversary, a graduation or a job promotion. That's not good news for a place that must put lots of fannies in its plush seats seven nights a week, 365 days a year.

So the bosses made a practical business decision: Out with the classics, in with the trendy. They closed down the restaurant last summer for a complete food and setting makeover. The renovated room with the renovated menu reopened late last year.

What's the new concept? According to management, the Chaparral now features "innovative New American cuisine, a unique tapestry of flavors stemming from Italy, France, Spain, Mexico and the great Southwest." When I first heard this description, my heart sank. It sounded like a mishmash. And now, after making my way through most of the menu, I must sadly report that my worst fears have been confirmed. While the kitchen shows occasional agility with individual dishes, there's little evidence of a higher culinary intelligence guiding this operation.

Despite the fireplace, the new, half-million-dollar interior doesn't generate much warmth. The place looks like a hotel dining room: corporate, without much character. Look for wood beams across the ceiling, Southwestern earth tones and iron sculptures. Maybe some fresh flowers would add a little color and dazzle.

The staff has also been transformed. They're about a generation younger than the pros who used to work here, and their new denim outfits signal their youthful inexperience and too-eager-to-please informality. One of them was actually compelled to walk around with an identifying tag of "Trainee." I had to rub my eyes--trainees in the Chaparral! Who wants to pay 50 or 60 bucks per person for dinner and encounter trainees? Did the restaurant manager come here from Denny's? And in this new setting, the holdover French sommelier, decked out in full battle regalia with tuxedo and tastevin, looks as out of place as Dan Quayle at a Mensa meeting.

The menu has all the earmarks of having been put together by a committee, with each member permitted to offer up a favorite dish. The food is all over the map.

For evidence, I submit the three items on the hot appetizer list. Someone on the committee clearly likes crunchy Asian nibbles. How else would you explain the appearance of pricey, uninspired cashew spring rolls--with no trace of cashews--garnished with a half-ounce of seared ahi tuna? Another committee member obviously prefers Italian starters. That would account for the dull, grilled portabella mushroom, goosed up with roasted tomato, goat cheese and balsamic vinegar. Every menu in town does a grilled portabella mushroom starter. Is this the best the Chaparral's restaurant team can come up with? Finally, someone on the committee probably realized that the appetizer list needed a south-of-the-border touch. That's why there's an ancho chile, stuffed with duck and dried fruit. It's first-rate, too, an indication that maybe someone in the kitchen knows how to cook, if given the opportunity.

You wouldn't know it from most of the other starters, however. Caramelized onion soup is a disaster. Thick and heavy, it tastes like an onion gravy reduction. Why get cute with onion soup, when the original French-style version can't be beat? Smoked salmon is another appetizer cliche, partially redeemed by a nifty crab-and-apple relish. But you'll pay for the thrill--the tag for two teeny bites runs $11. And why even hire a chef if you're going to fill out the appetizer menu with the likes of bruschetta and shrimp cocktail?

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 fra”che 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
$9.00
Sea bass
22.00
Filet mignon
25.00
Bailey's mousse dome
8.

00

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