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Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: That's what -- poof -- appears in my cranium like a two-bit magician behind a puff of smoke as I walk back to my car from Vu, chef William Bradley's chichi, yearling eatery over at the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale at Gainey Ranch. There's one scene in particular from the 1971 classic starring Gene Wilder as the loony-yet-dapper candy mogul that my recent repast has called to mind. In it, an annoying American lass named Violet Beauregarde samples a prototype Wonka chewing gum that grants the masticator all the flavors of a three-course meal in one inchlong Chiclet stick.
My analogy is exaggerated, of course, but the serving portions at Vu (pronounced "view") are certainly nouvelle-like when it comes to just about everything but the sides. Somehow, à la carte bowls of crunchy, mustard-drowned sunchokes, and fava beans mixed with savory little squares of pancetta escape the less-is-more treatment. But the starters and the main courses occasionally remind you of all those old jokes about nouvelle cuisine, like the wag's line that the phrase is French for "I can't believe I paid 96 dollars and I'm still hungry."
The jumbo-size dinner fork Vu provides you with doesn't help this impression, though I'm sure it would've been the perfect size for Andre the Giant. Still, it's to chef Bradley's credit that you do walk away full, if not stuffed, after supping. Bradley's victuals are rich in flavor, and are meant to stimulate the palate, not over-fill the belly like a binge at Buca di Beppo. His artful displays and precise, imaginative manipulations of textures and sensations are for the most part impressive, even if they don't always inspire a culinary kowtow.
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Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 6 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 to 10 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday. Hours change for the season, so call ahead.
Some examples of the less-than-amazing include the "rock shrimp" appetizer, the black bass entree, lobster mushrooms, and an orange marmalade crème brûlée. Vu's menu descriptions are enigmatic to say the least, with listings that read: "rock shrimp -- romaine/red peppers/scampi." This translates into a thick lumpia (a fried, Filipino egg roll) filled with puréed rock shrimp, with a leaf of braised romaine laid parallel to it and a creamy "scampi" sauce on the side. Alas, these elements conspire to bring you nothing more interesting than the egg roll at your run-of-the-mill Chinese buffet.
The black bass looked lovely, a crispy fillet atop streaks of a green spinach sauce, and a tangy, brown-black barbecue one, with a few peas as a garnish. I can't say it was unappetizing, but neither can I praise it as having an intense payoff for the taste buds. Problem is, you expect more from a $28 plate, especially when its presentation is so pinkie-in-the-air. Similarly, an item listed as "lobster mushrooms -- walnuts/goat cheese/roasted garlic" fills one with anticipation. For no particular reason, though, these fungi were just ho-hum. Same goes for the orange marmalade crème brûlée, which was very, very average. My companion and I ordered it because the regular dessert menu was not available that night. So this may have something to do with its ordinariness.
Yet for every one dish that disappointed, there were two or three others that rushed in to save the day. As mentioned, the sunchokes and the fava beans were outstanding, as were the green and white asparagus with chorizo and cipollini. The asparagus starter has since been removed from the menu. A sad occurrence, but not nearly as sad as the fact that the "potato purée" remains. The little pot of whipped pommes de terre looked cute, sounded tasty, but in reality did little to rival the instant mashed pots of certain fried-chicken chains.
If the black bass left me flat, the "dry aged New York" and the veal tenderloin put the wind back in my sails. The former was the most perfect thing on the bill of fare, four large medallions with dots of black and yellow mustards and macerated cherries on either side, a spare offering that allowed the quality of the meat to speak for itself.
I'm also a great fan of the veal tenderloin, once again medallions of flesh, given to me on a squarish platter, with dabs of sides in each corner. In one, a quarter-size bit of lentils; to its left, a slice of bacon the size of my fingernail over a tiny mound of Roquefort; below it, a smidgen of pork loin; and ending at about five o'clock, a jam of mixed berries. I greatly admire the thought that went into it, and the generally exquisite result, but why the overkill? Two of these accompanying noshes, in greater quantity, would have been quite enough.
This is where Bradley seems much like some geek buddy from junior high, overly eager to prove he's the smartest kid in class by reciting the entire periodic table while standing on his head. All you want to say to the guy is, "Okay, you're the smartest kid in class, now can I have my veal, please, with about half the fuss?"
But my kvetching seems inappropriate in the wake of Bradley's Kobe short ribs and his pear gazpacho, both apps. I really wanted more of the short ribs -- the beef was so soft, the honey barbecue glaze so sweet, and the balls of puréed cornichons so ingenious that I'd have been happier than a D-list celebrity with a reality show if I could have devoured a larger portion. The pear gazpacho with puréed pistachio was like lapping up some uncongealed pistachio-pear pudding. Delish, but more like a dessert than a starter.
The peanut butter "parfait" -- sort of a P.B. mousse -- should slake any Jif jones you might have, and I felt like Pooh Bear in the honey jar when it came to the pot de crème, with its layer of chocolate atop a layer of banana. Pulling my head out of the bowl required the efforts of the entire wait staff, all of whom were extremely helpful and always on point, particularly on Pooh-extraction.
Ambiance? Late '90s Scottsdale, with taupe carpeting, orange-red banquettes, sheer orangish curtains, and moody electronica on the box. The patio looks out onto a lagoon, which should be alluring once temps drop for fall. Overall, it's a once-in-a-blue-moon sort of spot, and not for the faint of credit card. Now, if Bradley could create some lickable fruit wallpaper, just like in Willy Wonka, then he'd have something.