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My guest for dinner at the Four Seasons Resort's flagship restaurant, Acacia, is finally relaxing. He's settled back into his oversize, high-backed armchair and is fingering the stem of his wineglass thoughtfully. A lazy grin appears on his face.
"You know," he says cheerfully, "this is all right."
And it is. Very much all right. A bit of an exercise to get him through the door, but oh-so satisfying by the time I sign the credit card slip.
10600 E. Crescent Moon Drive
Scottsdale, AZ 85262-8342
Region: North Scottsdale
480-515-5700. Hours: Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. nightly.
Acacia is first-class, I'd told him, when we'd agreed on a 6 p.m. dinnertime. The resort earlier this year was designated a Mobil Travel Guide Four-Star Award Winner.
That bright, concerned look came into his eyes. "What do I wear?" Not that he doesn't know his way around the classy places -- he certainly does, but after a long day at work, who wants to stuff himself into a tie?
"Casual-nice is fine," I say. "This is Arizona."
Then, he's running late. Will seven be okay? No problem; I change the reservation. Getting a table is easy enough; it's still summer, after all, and this is Arizona. We're not in the car until 7:15, and that bright look is back. "What about our reservation?" he worries.
"Chill," I say. "It won't be a problem. This is Arizona."
And it's not a concern at all. When we waltz in a half hour late, I apologize to the hostess, who smiles brightly and offers us a cozy table by the window overlooking Four Season's spectacular Troon North backyard. Other diners stroll by -- a man dressed in shorts and a polo, a woman in jeans and a peasant blouse, an older couple in natty evening wear -- a mix of characters all completely comfortable in their fancy atmosphere.
I really like Acacia. I have to say that, when the restaurant debuted almost three years ago, I didn't -- it was much too pretentious, much too uneven in its food and much too overpriced. That concept of dinner being too good for the diner is so out. (Am I the only one who loves incredible restaurants but wonders when they became so much work to visit, as we go through the garbage over reservations, valet and dress code only to feel intimidated by the servers when we don't know what spoom -- frothy sherbet -- is?). That works just fine at the Four Seasons eateries I've sampled in other big cities, but not in our laid-back Valley. Part of my guest's hesitation at dining here, in fact, was that he was in the mood for real food, not glitz crackers.
Yet Acacia has recently welcomed a new chef and a new concept. The stumbling service has been refined, the tiny portions brought to reasonable size, and the food massaged from so-so, oversauced and stuffy Southwestern to solid upscale, comfortable steak house. This is Arizona, and the Four Seasons has finally figured that out.
The clues that Arizona is a unique personality crop up as we approach the gorgeous neighborhood that is the Four Season's backyard. For the longest time on our journey, we've been cruising past an opulent landscape awash with spectacular open desert, soaring mountainscapes and a tapestry of stunning million-dollar homes.
But then we pass the southeast corner of Pima and Happy Valley roads, where landowner Henry Becker last month lost his most recent appeal to continue staging his protest against his town's development. He blames what he thinks is an idiotic city council for such fiascoes as the Coyotes arena and the Galleria, and he doesn't want the council to have any say in how he treats his 95 acres. For his statement, he's decorated his highly visible plot with soaring cartoon-style statues, small wooden shacks painted in shocking pink and yellow, abandoned trailers decorated with anti-council statements, and a rusty bicycle. (In a nod to taste, an original art piece of three toilets was removed.) The metal statues, towering 20 feet above surrounding saguaros, are tourist jokes of a Day-Glo yellow kokopelli, a red and green cowboy, a dancing Gila monster. At the end of the kitsch parade is another trailer, this one painted in full irony with a giant smiley face and the encouragement to "Don't Worry, Be Happy."
We pass into more beautiful desert, more elegant homes. Yet there's also Pinnacle Peak Patio, a Disney-type tourist-trap steak hall where visitors dumb enough to wear a tie have it promptly cut off and tacked to the wall by their server. More lush flora, more mansions. And then there's Reata Pass a few feet up the road, another old tourist trap marked by a hunkering water tower spiked with an antenna draped in blinking lights. It's an expensive area, yes, but there's no room for the stuck-up in these parts.
New executive chef Simon Purvis has the philosophy nailed. While he hasn't abandoned elegant Four Seasons-style fare like ahi tuna tartare with crisp potato latkes, cucumber and wasabi vinaigrette or spiced venison chops with root vegetable and potato hash under cocoa jus, he's wisely added honest favorites. Finally, we can kick back with lovingly treated basics like dry-aged (28 days) USDA Prime and certified Angus beef steak or chops, he-man jumbo shrimp cocktail, and stick-to-the-ribs sides like creamed spinach, double-baked potato and garlic mashed spuds.