By Heather Hoch
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Mary Elaine's, The Phoenician, 6000 East Camelback, Phoenix, 480-941-8200. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m.
This is the time of year when many folks take stock and count their blessings. Right now, I imagine the executives at the opulent Phoenician resort have sunk to their knees in grateful thanks.
That's because, after a turbulent year, their swanky, fine-dining showcase restaurant, Mary Elaine's, is once again firing on all cylinders.
The engine trouble started in the summer of 1998, when longtime chef Alessandro Stratta, blinded by neon, was lured to Las Vegas by hotel magnate Steve Wynn. (Stratta, a James Beard Award winner who brought Mary Elaine's to national prominence, currently heads Renoir, at the Mirage.)
But Mahaffey didn't spend a happy moment here. That's because the bosses wanted him to continue Stratta's French-accented menu, instead of cooking up his own ideas. Mahaffey bristled. "I wanted to be an American chef cooking for Americans," he said. He didn't get the chance. He was in and out of Phoenix in four months.
So Mary Elaine's drifted rudderless during the height of the 1999 season. The anxious resort asked Stratta to come back. But he said no. So the search for a chef went in a different direction. Instead of grabbing a big name with a big reputation, the execs rolled the dice and picked an up-and-comer who, they hoped, was ready to go to the next level.
It looks like they've rolled a winner.
Chef James Boyce isn't exactly a stranger to Mary Elaine's. He'd worked under Stratta for several years in the early 1990s, so he was familiar with the Gallic-style fare management wants. Most recently, he headed the kitchen at Loews Coronado Bay in San Diego, where he got excellent notices.
Elegant, formal and even a bit austere, Mary Elaine's isn't an easy place to warm up to. Perched on the resort's top floor, it commands a sweeping view of the Valley. At the table, the Wedgwood china and fresh roses suggest no expense is being spared. The sophisticated melodies of Tin Pan Alley masters, sung by Nancy Gee, waft in from the lounge next door. The sleek, well-dressed dinner crowd looks like extras in a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers restaurant scene. (Note: Mary Elaine's is one of a handful of local restaurants that require men to wear jackets.) As soon as you're seated, one of the on-the-ball staff brings over a footstool, so madame's purse won't have to rest on the floor. At the same moment, a waiter pouring Evian and San Pellegrino will inquire as to your preference.
But the initial iciness quickly thaws, and soon disappears completely. Credit the highly trained, professional army of busers, bread bearers, servers and sommeliers, who have mastered the art of pampering guests without either condescending to them or fawning all over them.
For an over-the-top experience, don't go past page one of the menu. There you'll find the "Chef's Selections," a masterful, six-course indulgence that will keep you here close to three hours. It's a staid group of dishes, nothing remotely trendy or cutting-edge. But the vibrant flavors and rich textures compensate for the lack of novelty. Come armed with an appetite, good company and plenty of conversation. And make sure you're a few hundred dollars below your credit-card limit.
Our dinner got under way with a tasting freebie, a soup spoonful of vividly green puréed asparagus and spinach, with a luscious corn fritter soaking in the puddle.
A fricassee of lobster begins the meal in earnest. It's a fast start, too -- fat chunks of stewed lobster meat burnished with chanterelles, ricotta gnocchi and the most intense roasted tomato I can remember eating.
But I couldn't dwell on this course for long. That's because the next one features the single best item here, and perhaps in the entire Mountain Time Zone. It's the voluptuous foie gras, a longtime house specialty that the new chef gets exactly right. The foie gras is seared, lightly drizzled with maple syrup and 100-year-old balsamic vinegar, then perfectly touched up with a few grains of salt. The result is stunning, a symphony of gorgeous flavors whose total goes beyond the sum of the individual parts.
The foie gras is a hard act to follow, but the fish course, sole meunière, makes a valiant effort. Like every dish on the "Chef's Selections" menu, the portion is surprisingly ample. And the kitchen doesn't neglect the details -- in this case, a nifty veggie accompaniment put together with salsify (a wonderful root vegetable, much neglected in America), cauliflower and leeks.
The chef puts his own mark on the next course, grilled Muscovy duck breast and a fanciful, deboned duck leg "osso buco." I don't recall star anise occupying a spot in Stratta's spice rack, but the kitchen now uses it here to good effect. A quirky side of cranberry bean succotash also helps sustain interest.