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 East Crescent Moon Drive, Scottsdale
Jumbo shrimp cocktail: $12
Red bell pepper soup: $9
Rib eye: $29
Double-cut lamb chops: $32
Filet mignon: $25
Alaskan halibut: $24
Crme brle: $8
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.
Funny how a massive, expertly grilled, bone-in rib eye steak soothes the beast. Simple succulence sells us, the 18-ounce cut savored with a stunning bottle of Newton Merlot Unfiltered. A juicy gigolo platter of traditional lyonnaise potatoes, a thankfully restrained slick (may I never suffer a ocean again) of peppercorn sauce, and we're slumping happily back in our lavish surrounds of wood rib-and-beam ceilings and velvety live guitar music.
I adore my double-cut lamb chops, gnawing the smoky frenched bones until my teeth scrape, working every bit of the plush, juicy meat under its glossy mantle of sweet Vidalia onion glaze. Partnering garlic mashed potatoes are thick, smooth, fluffy and heavy.
I'm thinking that if we invited Mr. Becker to join us for another supper of Acacia's filet mignon in a lusty cloak of roasted shallot-Pinot Noir jus, he'd rethink his anger over local property development. The eight-ounce cut melts like butter; a side of superbly crusty-edged, skin-on French fries dipped in seasoned mayo is mesmerizing. Paired with a starter of four massive, meaty shrimp served over fresh butter lettuce and dipped in vibrant, spicy cocktail sauce, it's all-out reason to return to Acacia again and again.
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I'm in duty mode, sampling for variety's sake a slab of pan-seared Alaskan halibut the size of one of Becker's trailers -- fine fish, piled atop fingerling potatoes and sweet golden beetroot with a dollop of gloriously garlicky baby spinach and a drizzle of chunky green pea sauce. Good as it is, my heart still sets on the magical veal chop, 16 ounces of gently truffle-Madeira-infused meat; or the 12-ounce New York strip steak with fries and peppercorn sauce. The fanciest I feel like getting, in fact, is with an outrageously wonderful red bell pepper soup, a vegetarian puree served hot with a wickedly brilliant swath of walnut-chive oil, chopped walnuts and a long wand of crouton topped with thick goat cheese.
Acacia's original area of success was in its desserts, tempting and exquisite confections. A new pastry chef has been brought on, and Anthony Patafio is holding up his end. Crème brûlée is a classic, smooth custard capped with crunchy cooked sugar, a mantle of fresh berries and skinny pistachio biscotti. And the signature soufflé remains impossibly rich and gooey, partnered with homemade ice cream.
High five to the new, improved Four Seasons. As at any such resort property, eating here is still expensive. But finally, we feel like Acacia has delivered our money's worth. Welcome to Arizona.