Holiday on Spice

Resort restaurant setup is less than Sage

Imagine chef Vincent Guerithault as cafeteria server, ladle in hand. Or Christopher Gross behind the counter at a 400-seat hotel coffee shop, cranking out breakfast, lunch and dinner in a never-ending blur. Or picture Eddie Matney's uniquely eccentric cooking style repackaged for vending machines across the nation.

It just doesn't make sense. Star-quality chefs like these cherished Valley types belong in their own tiny kitchens. They should be busy figuring out how to turn sautéed veal sweetbreads with blue corn meal and red wine thyme sauce into a delicate, perfect serving for one, not a feed for hundreds.

Unless you're Mark Miller, that is, the latest in an ever-expanding list of celebrity chefs to take a single successful restaurant and turn it into an industry. Yes, über-chef Mark Miller has landed in Phoenix, and the result is, well, weird.

The food's hot at Blue Sage, but the setting's not.
Jackie Mercandetti
The food's hot at Blue Sage, but the setting's not.

Location Info

Map

Blue Sage

5350 E. Marriott Drive
Phoenix, AZ 85054

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: North Phoenix

Details

Yucatán black bean soup: $7.50
Maine diver scallops a la
parilla: $23
Tortilla-crusted chicken: $17
Fire roasted filet of beef: $27
Chicken tostada salad: $10

480-293-5000. Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily, 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

5350 East Marriott Drive, Phoenix

His Blue Sage is under way at the new JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort, a behemoth conference property with 950 rooms next to a splashy shopping mall. And what class: The celeb's place is located where tour buses pull up under a monster porte-cochere, their engines idling in diesel growls, their tail pipes belching exhaust.

Miller, of course, is the James Beard Award winner behind the lauded Coyote Cafe of Santa Fe. When the Southwestern restaurant opened in 1987, it was an instant hit, and appeared just at the time when chefs were becoming Martha Stewart-like marketing darlings. (I've still got an original proof photo of Miller perched with Guerithault and other national rising culinary stars on the rim of the Grand Canyon. The pic was turned into a glossy "collectors item" poster for sale. Really.) Miller soon followed with Red Sage in Washington, D.C., two more Coyote Cafes (Las Vegas' MGM Grand, and Texas), an offbeat Asian cafe in D.C. named Raku and a sort-of Brazilian thing called Wildfire in New Zealand. Each new restaurant played to the upper crust, showing off such creations as wild boar tamal with huitlacoche, chile-glazed beef short ribs with corn dumplings, and leg of lamb fajitas with tamarind-mint salsa.

But in our own burg, instead of showcasing Miller's talents in an elegant, intimate bistro, he's been dumped in the hotel's full-service dining room, capacity 323. This is the glorified coffee shop that every hotel has, designated for relatively affordable breakfast, lunch and dinner snacking. It also handles room service operations for the three-month-old property, and banquet catering for the two largest ballrooms in the Southwest.

And instead of the intriguing recipes that made Miller's reputation, we get a toned-down menu. The only interesting ingredients I found were epazote (a pungent, coriander-like herb) and boniato (sweet potato). A few of the dishes hint at why he's become a legend. A lot of them, however, are surprisingly mainstream. Mostly, the only taste of true Miller we get is in hot, hot spicing.

I didn't really expect Miller to be in the house (the kitchen is actually run by chef Charles Bartsch), but his absence is too keenly felt. Decor is comfortable Southwestern chic, but embarrassingly corporate, down to the gift shop that's the entry, and a bar that's destined to be filled with sarong-wrapped, tank-topped pool guests come the warmer months. The cafe-table-dotted center room shrieks "casual lunch"; the room way in the back is more appropriate for dinner ("it's carpeted," our hostess proudly points out). There's a breakfast buffet station, too, abandoned in the evening yet still littered with bits of spilled food in its ice-lined trays. Breakfast and lunch menus are presented in tandem throughout the day (typos and all); in the evening, a "chef's selections" card is simply stuffed in the jacket.

There's no way the well-meaning but awkward service is the stuff that garnered Miller so many awards (Life magazine named him one of America's most influential chefs in the '80s). On one visit, our server is still pooped from a huge banquet the night before. He confides in a loud voice that he'd served a plated dinner for 1,000 European computer software professionals. The work was a bear, he sighs, and he had to stick around until after 1 a.m. to clean up. But the tips were great, he adds, much better than they've been at Blue Sage so far (hint, hint). On another visit, the server yaps and yaps and yaps, explaining in great detail the different heat levels of each dish long after we've made it clear that we're locals and are familiar with the intensity of various Mexican peppers and spices.

However, I learn quickly why we have to sit through so many disclaimers on each and every visit. Even though this echoey room is clearly designed for the comfy sandwich crowd, the food caters to Tabasco lovers. While I'm okay with the challenging spice found in most of the dishes, I can just imagine what Uncle Vern in from Iowa has to say when confronted by his hamburger done up with screamingly hot Hatch chile and spiced fries.

Mom is warned, for example, when she asks for a taste of the Yucatán black bean soup, that it's up there on the heat level. It's a good thing, too, because Mom likes her chile mild, and if she'd had any more than just a sample of the velvety purée, it would have knocked her flat.

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