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It's the end of an era, with the closing of the historic John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch. It's a new dawn for Valley hospitality, with the unveiling of the Zen-inspired resort and spa taking Gardiner's place -- Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain.
The resort won't open until October, but its flagship restaurant was fast-tracked. Elements opened its doors in mid-March for dinner. And as the restaurant's decor suggests, the transformation of the legendary ranch will be so dramatic that virtually nothing will remain of Gardiner's except its stunning views of the north Valley.
Whether visitors to Arizona will embrace Sanctuary's spiritual Asian theme (casitas have "steeping pools" instead of hot tubs) remains to be seen. That visitors and locals alike will appreciate the creative Asian-influenced American cuisine at Elements, though, is pretty much guaranteed. This new restaurant proves once again that the Valley has truly evolved into a city that competes with the big boys for the dining-out experience.
5700 E. McDonald Drive
Paradise Valley, AZ 85253
Region: Paradise Valley
Grilled pork tenderloin: $26.00
Roasted spring vegetables: $19.00
Filet of beef: $29.00
Strawberry shortcake: $7.50
480-607-2300. Hours: Dinner, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily.
The success of Elements is all the more satisfying considering what a risk demolishing a landmark entailed. When Gardiner's was purchased by Westroc Hospitality just over a year ago, its new owners shook up the Valley's old-money set with the grand plan of stripping the property down to its skeleton. From the ashes of a 1950s Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired tennis getaway that once attracted the likes of Edgar Bergen, Johnny Carson, Liza Minnelli and Dean Martin would rise a spiritual resort spa, including New Age touches like a Watsu immersion hydro pool, and a spiral yin and yang treatment room for couples.
No more a preppy country-club enclave for bored, moneyed housewives and their well-compensated tennis instructors. Instead, the newly coifed Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain would feature an ultra-contemporary experience to celebrate "the serenity and spirituality that permeates (Camelback Mountain)." Gone would be the classic -- if tragically sleepy -- continental menu served at the resort's Firedance restaurant. Sanctuary would birth a gourmet concept featuring seasonal American cuisine, but purportedly gutsy with Asian accents like soy, ginger, sesame and miso. I found myself wondering if guests expecting classic Southwestern ambiance along the lines of the Arizona Biltmore, Hermosa Inn and Royal Palms would buy into a concept more at home in New York or Los Angeles. And such a strong Asian culinary theme? It seemed much too bold to carry a restaurant that, as with all resort locations, needed to be mass friendly.
Since the initial press release, though, the concept has been toned down to more approachable, resort-appropriate American favorites. While I'm still divided on the desecration of a favorite property that maintained Arizona's gracious heritage, I've got to hand it to executive chef Chuck Wiley for his food. Elements celebrates high cuisine in bold, uncomplicated style -- fancy fare that while requiring coats and ties to enjoy, leaves pretension at the door.
Nestled on the lower northern slope of Camelback Mountain, Elements has an exclusive amenity: panoramic views of Paradise Valley and all its opulent mansions. Elements also has an exclusive parent in executive chef Wiley, one of Food & Wine Magazine's 10 Best New Chefs in America, and former head honcho at the Boulders. At Elements, Wiley doesn't simply serve time in the kitchen, he's out front, welcoming guests and lending a calming, low-keyed personality to an experience that easily could stumble over the top in formality.
The restaurant is still finding its personality, it's true. From the guard-gate entry, to the valet service and aloof hostessing, dining at Elements doesn't yet achieve the neighborhood-restaurant feel Wiley says he was shooting for. In fact, uncomfortable interior design is the restaurant's primary challenge, sacrificing warmth for modern, minimalist decor that simply seems unfinished. A stainless-steel wall in the foyer is sterile against charcoal-tone carpets. Olive-toned chairs seem more faded than fashionable, and tan-and-black uniforms look somehow coffee shop. I like the lights -- glass renditions of paper lanterns -- but hate the light: floor-to-ceiling windows offer no escape from the blinding glare of the western sky. The view of Squaw Peak is spectacular, but only at sunset, after our retinas have healed. I have a lot of trouble picturing guests relaxing here for breakfast and lunch, as is planned when the resort opens.
When the sun goes down, though, Elements has its charms. That's when jazz music kicks in to warm us under the restaurant's thin-slat wooden ceilings. As lights punch up over the landscape like twinkling candles, we can sit back in spacious booths and enjoy the view.
I'm not sure how Elements' showcase fixture will work at breakfast and lunch, either, but for dinner, the restaurant's community table is an inspired idea borrowed from such trendy joints as Obeca Li, Balthazar and Mercer Kitchen in New York. In fact, dining at large tables with strangers was called the Best Trend for 2000 by New York Dining Guide.
The table, seating 12, is the only seating in Elements available without reservations, and it hops on weekend nights. Full dinners -- as in Elements' adjacent Jade Bar -- are available here, but appetizers are encouraged for mingling purposes.
Meals begin with oshiburo, the warm washcloths that are offered in Japanese restaurants to cleanse hands. A plate of crusty warm bread and butter is fine, but if we're leaning Japanese, the option of a complimentary dish of edamame (salted soybeans) would be even better.