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I wanted to fall in love.
For years, I've been curious about a certain elegant stranger with the whole package: good looks, exquisite taste, and an impressive pedigree. I knew it would take money to get acquainted with this seductive presence, but for the effort, I'd be rewarded with a few hours of ecstasy, an unforgettable experience. For all the fawning I'd heard about this A-lister, I half expected to find enlightenment, too.
We had a great time together, and we parted on friendly terms, but I wasn't swept off my feet. What can I say? The chemistry just wasn't there.
Potato tart: $21
Duck breast: $47
Lamb loin: $49
480-423-2530, »web link.
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 6 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.
The grande dame I'm referring to is Mary Elaine's, The Phoenician's legendary fine-dining establishment, and to say her reputation precedes her is an extreme understatement. Even before I stepped foot in the hallowed eatery, I had to consider the gravity of its culinary-Ivy League achievements.
Mary Elaine's is considered one of the country's best restaurants, a recipient of AAA's Five Diamond Award. Its chef de cuisine, Bradford Thompson, was honored with a James Beard award this year. Wine Spectator bestowed its Grand Award on the restaurant for its $3 million wine cellar. Adding to its allure, The Phoenician recently debuted its own exclusive blend of bubbly, from a California winery owned by the same company that makes Cristal. And no, it's not an urban myth: Men really are advised to wear jackets at Mary Elaine's.
Not that I mind getting dressed up. In fact, I love it, and all of my dining companions seemed thrilled at the chance to break out the nice jewelry and fancy attire. Comparatively, people dress like slobs just about anywhere else in town even at the swankiest Scottsdale hot spots, jeans have become the uniform for men and women alike. I'm guilty of it, too, but if I have a rare opportunity to get glam, I'll take it. Not long ago, The Phoenician changed its dress code from "jackets required" to "recommended," but from there it's a slippery slope. I caught a glimpse of a clueless guy in short sleeves at Mary Elaine's, and he looked like he was headed to Margaritaville while his poor wife, dolled up in a dress and heels, trailed behind.
It's hard to put my finger on exactly why I was underwhelmed by Mary Elaine's, but it had to do with high expectations. Nothing offended me, and at the same time, nothing dazzled me, either. At ordinary restaurants, that's usually okay, but Mary Elaine's is supposed to be extraordinary. What should have been an experience to remember turned out to be nothing more than a pleasant meal and I've had plenty of those.
The atmosphere was a generic, predictable vision of luxury that you could conjure with your eyes closed: big chandeliers, heavy, exposed nailhead chairs, crisp white tablecloths, and wall-to-wall carpeting swirled with turquoise and brown. A wall of windows on one side of the dining room offered up a beautiful view of the city, but it never distracted me from the fact that I was sitting in a hotel restaurant reeking of corporate ballroom rather than reveling in distinctive, intimate style.
The place was a big deal when it opened at the end of the go-go '80s, a legacy of Charles Keating Jr. before his S&L crash-and-burn. But since then, the Valley's become home to lots of unique, high-end restaurants, and competition's a lot stiffer. And Mary Elaine's stands in a bit of a time warp I cringed when the gal playing piano in the lounge started singing her third Andrew Lloyd Webber tune.
To its credit, Mary Elaine's service does live up to its reputation. I encountered more than half a dozen employees, and they were all attentive and professional. Black napkins for black-clad guests were a somewhat over-the-top courtesy, as were small, upholstered stools for the ladies' handbags. The master sommelier had an effortless knowledge of the wine list, and I enjoyed our waiter's elaborate description of a platter of cheeses. There were a couple of disappointing, unexplained substitutions with our desserts apparently the kitchen was out of what we wanted but we weren't charged for the most glaring snafu, and we even got a box of chocolates as a consolation, followed by an assortment of petits fours and the most mind-blowing salted caramels I've ever had. Throughout the evening, there was a steady, unobtrusive flow of fresh bread, water and wine.
To be sure, the creative, French-inspired cuisine was delicious, a succession of beautiful dishes that elicited more than a few oohs and aahs from my friends. The chef sent out complimentary amuses bouches to get us started pastries filled with smoked sturgeon, and tiny espresso cups of soup, a purÃ©e of roasted endive with a touch of Stilton. The portions were bite-size, but the flavors were concentrated and vibrant.
Appetizers were just as rich. House-smoked salmon was served with miniature latkes and chive cream. Shaved black truffle and Reblochon cheese gave dimension to a warm Yukon potato tart. Tastes of hamachi and kampachi tartare (a twist on sashimi) were paired with dollops of both fish done up as ceviche, with creamy spoonbill caviar on top. And a nice portion of sautÃ©ed foie gras, served in a brioche crust, was beyond buttery, so fine that it dissolved before I could chew it.