If there's any place in town that has me daydreaming about bloody guillotines and headless aristocrats, it's Kierland Commons, though my 18th-century fantasy is more Monty Python than History Channel. First, we'll erect the infernal machine in front of Restoration Hardware, with executions beginning at noon. All Cialis-popping, nouveau riche businessmen are asked to form a single-file line to the right of the A Celebration of Golf shop. Your head will be handed to you shortly. Saline-enhanced trophy wenches? Please assemble at BCBG Max Azria. When your number's called, just imagine it's for a shiatsu massage and remove all outer vestments. Soccer-momish first wives with spoiled brats in tow are to report to Ann Taylor Loft and, for God's sake, remain clothed at all times.
Forgive the flight of fancy. It's not that I have any real animus toward the accumulation of wealth. Counting Krugerrands remains on my to-do list, right after I sell my soul to Old Scratch and take a job with Condé Nast. But were I rolling in Google stock options, I'd still avoid Kierland like a Petri dish filled with flesh-eating bacteria. My personal vision of affluence tends to be a double-wide parked a stone's throw from Thomas Keller's The French Laundry. Or better yet, being hand-fed by grass-skirted wahines on some tropical island: Marlon Brando, reincarnated.
Gratifying my gut remains uppermost, you see. And Kierland Commons chow leaves a lot to be desired. On one hand is the pure, unadulterated horror of the Cheesecake Factory, and on the other, that banal high-end chop shop known as Morton's. Zinc Bistro boasts some pseudo-Gallic charm, but ultimately it's depressing because of what it's not -- in France!
All the same, Kierland is Sam Fox's kinda locale, he being the Caesar of Fox Restaurant Concepts, which has made millions by selling edible mediocrity to the upper middle-class. If you're blessed with excess disposable income and safely insensate taste buds, a spot like the mock-trattoria NoRTH in KC caters to you. KC also plays host to Fox's The Counter, where Babbitts plunk down moola on bath products and little tins of Dean & DeLuca chocolates. Up near Gainey Ranch is the New American snoresfest known as Bloom. And there's Fox's answer to the gourmet pizza craze, the ultimately forgettable Sauce, with its various locations. Branches of the Fox empire creep into Tucson and Colorado, which just goes to show ya that Scottsdale doesn't have a lock on dumb yuppies.
KC is also the beneficiary of the latest Fox eatery, the Craftsman-inspired, California-cuisine peddler The Greene House. Predisposed as I am to despise this new venture, I admit I found the ambiance engaging: the handsome bar, wooden floors, copper-topped open kitchen, Charles Rennie Mackintosh-like touches on the lights, and the way the entire restaurant is structured to resemble a bungalow constructed circa 1900 in the style of the California architectural firm of Greene and Greene. This mimicry is largely successful, and allowed for a pleasant reminiscence on my part of Disneyland's Craftsmanesque Grand Californian Hotel, though The Greene House is but a postage stamp by comparison to that edifice.
Dining-wise, TGH is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Chef Brian Lewis comes to the PHX by way of San Fran, and seems well-versed in Left Coast cuisine. The menu proclaims a slavish devotion to superior ingredients: Kurobuta pork, Cervena venison, La Belle Farms foie gras, etc. And the preparations are rather involved. Why, then, are the results so hit or miss? The entrees feature smallish portions at an average of $26.50 per plate, with a range of $19 to $38. For that money, I want the flavors to jump, appeasing me with every nibble. Of course, the Kierlanders can afford it, and maybe it's no big deal to them if the fare only delivers 50 percent of the time.
My message to Chef Lewis: Just because you're using a prestige item doesn't mean it will automatically please the palate. Take my Kurobuta pork two ways, hunks of loin and one of belly, neither of which did much for me. The loin was unusually dry, save at the very center where it had been left pink. And the belly was grotesquely fatty, with a cloying, sticky-black crust that tasted like Coca-Cola, but was actually a reduction of Madeira and sherry. The ahi tuna with watermelon radish presented another failed effort. The soy caramel glaze was superb, but the ahi itself, not quite up to the standards of ahi I've gobbled elsewhere. Nothing wrong with it, it just lacked that immediate explosion of oral pleasure.
The watermelon radish salad was entirely unappetizing. Sounds terrific, and those thin slices of the radish did look like watermelon rind, but they tasted like flakes of balsa wood. What's the point of trotting out something like this if you can't make it taste any better? Still, Lewis scores big-time with the Pacific black cod and Cervena venison plates, both of which were extraordinary. Those strips of venison, with their crusts of crushed juniper and pepper, were matched beautifully with a rich sauce of wild huckleberries. To the side, a schmear of puréed parsnip, topped with pickled chanterelles. As for the black cod, the flesh fell apart with a sigh, mixed in with candied shiitake mushrooms and a fantastic soy Madeira glaze. Understandably, this is the most popular item on TGH's menu.
I found Lewis' soups lackluster, whether of puréed peas or carrots. Both were in dire need of ham or something flavorful. The Dungeness crab fritters with sorrel aioli had a fluffiness and nice seafood taste to them. But the tiny, sautéed Nantucket Bay scallops did not live up to their promise, and were easily shrugged off, the squash purée beneath them making me wonder about this obsession with making fruits and veggies taste like Gerber's. Did someone's wife just give birth?
As for meal enders, the warm pineapple cake in rum caramel topped with toasted coconut gelato was like the best pineapple-upside-down cake your mom ever made and then some. But the Scharffen Berger chocolate cake only barely bests Duncan Hines. Better for me was a slice of musty, gooey Red Hawk triple cream cheese with a Kent Rasmussen Zinfandel "port." After a couple of Rasmussens, I felt a smidgen more indulgent toward Lewis, Fox -- and even the Kierlanders. Off with their heads? Oh, most certainly. But let's have another touch of that Rasmussen first.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.