Little House on the Desert

Lon's at the Hermosa, 5532 North Palo Cristi, Paradise Valley, 602-955-7878. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, nightly, 6 to 10 p.m.; Ranch House Breakfast, Sunday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Julia Child is convinced that we have taken the fun out of food. This icon of kitchen magic often laments that Americans have become so terrified of fat that they are stripping away one of the most glorious aspects of eating.

"Because of media hype and woefully inadequate information," she writes in her new recipe collection, The Way to Cook, "too many people nowadays are deathly afraid of their food."

It's an alarming trend she's seen evolve since the late '80s, and she's quick to chastise our cowardice in her numerous books, articles and television appearances.

Of course, this is a lady who cites butter as her favorite ingredient.

The trick to fat, she says, is moderation. Not as a main course, like my sister Elisabeth who, as a young child, went through a thankfully short phase of munching butter by the stick. Ick.

I like Julia's solution. "An imaginary shelf labeled 'indulgences' is a good idea," she suggests. "It contains the best butter, jumbo size eggs, heavy cream, marbled steaks, sausages and pâtés, hollandaise and French butter cream fillings, gooey chocolate cakes and all those lovely items that demand disciplined rationing."

Such foods are for special occasions, she concedes, but when that occasion comes, diners must enjoy every decadent mouthful. Yet even everyday sustenance must be respected, she insists. Meals need not be fancy, but they must be delicious, from the proudest chicken to the most magnificent meatloaf.

So it is with this justification that I happily return again and again to Lon's at the Hermosa. It's difficult to resist the siren call of executive chef Patrick Poblete's fare. Billed as American comfort cuisine with a Southwest flavor, Lon's menu is a glorious romp through familiar classics updated, respected and, yes, draped with heavenly fat.

The restaurant is butter-rich just for its location within Paradise Valley's Hermosa Inn. Hand-built in the 1930s by cowboy artist Lon Megargee as his home and studio, this gorgeous adobe hacienda has been reborn as an intimate resort. With just 35 guestrooms and dense desert landscaping, it is easy to miss when motoring down the residential street fronting it. No mistake, this, but by demand from its affluent neighbors who have long fought any type of commercial enterprise within their exclusive environs. After a devastating fire in 1987, Casa Hermosa was rebuilt to its original charm despite the squawking of area homeowners.

I applaud the lack of the yawning porticos and gleaming walls of glass found at many other Valley resorts. This is Arizona at its finest, from the saltillo tile patio anchored by a softly bubbling fountain to the flickering chimeneas at the restaurant's entrance. The beehive fireplaces enchant, their flames crackling with pungent wood and dancing sparks.

The Southwestern flavor welcomes guests warmly inside with its mocha-toned decor, gently worn leather armchairs and forged metal stair rails. Yes, as my dining companion giggles, Lon's wall-mounted logo portrait does sharply resemble the maniacal spokes-cowboy for Black Angus.

But what's with the tired new age music management pipes in? Tinkling wind chimes and breezy pipe melodies should be contained to Sedona, not this retreat of low-slung beamed ceilings and original adobe walls.

Chef Poblete has been Lon's culinary artist in residence since 1995. A graduate of California Culinary Academy, Poblete emphasizes the fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs grown in the 10,000-square-foot garden outside the restaurant doors. But what may have begun as a trend in the Golden State many years ago has taken hold here for good reason. The bold flavors of fresh produce are an even match for Lon's rich sauces and deep butter nuances. The garden also spurs Lon's seasonal menu to a true celebration of local harvests. Certainly playing sharecropper is extra work for the chef, but we expect nothing less.

Such high standards demand obsessive attention to detail, and mostly, Lon's succeeds. When the kitchen produces something good, it is awe-inspiring. When things go wrong, however, they are an unparalleled disaster. Such is the burden of an artist.

It is also the prerogative of an artist to take license with presentation. Appetizers, the most dramatically plated items at Lon's, vary in their design. One evening, crispy tiger prawns ($9.50) delivers three large crustaceans wrapped in wonton. Another night the prawns arrive costumed in a delicate tempura jacket. They're equally satisfying, nestled on a bed of creamy broccoli risotto in a garlic schircha sauce (a Vietnamese-style hot sauce that's milder than it needs to be).

House smoked salmon crostini ($8.95), meanwhile, appears once with the salmon already applied to the sliver thin toast, and another time with the fish mounding the center of the plate. No matter, they're both doting mates to the marinated cucumber slices and slightly sweet red onion cream cheese. Escorted by baby greens in a full-flavored vinaigrette effectively dusted with salt and pepper, this appetizer makes a satisfying meal in itself.

We order the Atlantic salmon and Oregon dungeness crab cakes ($10.95), and are thoughtfully warned by our server that they are much more salmon than crab. Indeed, the two racquetball-size cakes are lush with slivered salmon that dominates the moist crab and diced red pepper. Slightly oily pea sprouts and a punch-packing horseradish confit provide the perfect sharpness.

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