Season's Eatings

When I asked about the wild boar Anasazi bean chili, my server warned me twice that it was very spicy. Not so on the night I sampled it. It's a dish that's not about being spicy, but rather balancing the flavors of the wild boar with the Anasazi beans. Paired with a tantalizing hunk of blue-corn bread, it's a comforting dish that will take the chill off.

Part of the intrigue of Southwestern cuisine is the new vocabulary that appears on the menu. Take the sautéed Chilean mero, one of the restaurant's most popular dishes. Mero is a type of sea bass. And it is skillfully prepared -- dusted in mesquite flour, piled atop herb mashed potatoes and splashed with a passion fruit mulato chile sauce.

Each dish is complex in its own unique way. Fortunately, the servers here are exceptionally well-trained and informative. They patiently answered our questions and as they presented the finished items, always reminded us what the ingredients were. The hospitality is flawless.

Seafood and pasta lovers should go with the sautéed Guaymas shrimp over firm achiote pasta. The grain mustard jalapeño cream sauce with roasted tomatoes and green chiles is mild and filling. The pan-seared veal medallions with a wild mushrooms sauce and polenta will satisfy and delight any meat lover, as will the grilled venison chops. Paired with a vanilla bean soufflé, the chops are appealing and flavor-packed.

The least successful entrée is the grilled lamb loin chops. While the lamb chops are tender and placed atop a lovely sun-dried blueberry syrah sauce, the dish is overpowered by the strong flavors of the goat cheese quesadilla filled with al dente black beans. Each item on your plate is delicious, but in combination, it's the quesadilla that speaks the loudest, not the lamb.

The two desserts I've sampled must be mentioned because they are perfect distant-relative pleasers. The showcase chocolate taco presents a thick "taco shell" of dark chocolate, stuffs it with fresh strawberries and a chocolate Kahlua mousse. The result is surrounded by concentric circles of multi-flavored fruit purees. It reminds me of a Georgia O'Keeffe watercolor of a sunrise I saw once. Both the painting and the chocolate taco remain unforgettable in my mind now.

The guajillo chile ice cream is also a work of art. The ice cream arrives in a transparent freeform turquoise bowl. Lovely. Then the waiter reveals that the clear blue bowl is made of edible sugar. At this point, every diner sits up and pays closer attention. If the hand-blown glass sculptor Dale Chihuly ever were to switch to using food as his medium, the result will look like this. A few words about the ice cream. Because the guajillo chile can be very hot, the Southwestern cooks sometimes refer to it the travieso ("mischievous") chile. The mischief here takes place in the kitchen because the resulting ice cream is both sweet and spicy, hot and cold. All at the same time.

The week between Christmas and New Year's is the perfect time to put your own distant-relative plan into action. While others around us are worrying about Y2K, I'll be making plans to visit the AZK again.

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