When I was a kid, I could not wait to become an adult, and my grandparents' themed cocktail parties fueled my imagination. Not that my memories are based on actual experiences, mind you. These glitzy poolside affairs never included children. Instead, I got a vicarious thrill from the old Polaroids in grandma's albums, especially the ones from her Polynesian party images of happy grown-ups wearing leis and hoisting huge glasses adorned with tropical fruit, of suntanned ladies in swimsuits and grass skirts mingling with men in loud flowered shirts.
No surprise, then, that even as an adult I'm still a sucker for tiki-torch-lighted kitsch. I can't say what my grandma served at her cocktail parties, if anything they were all about the cocktails and the ambiance, from the looks of her photos. And I immediately thought of those Polaroids when I visited the spanking-new Trader Vic's restaurant at the renovated, re-swankified Hotel Valley Ho in Scottsdale.
Indeed, on my first visit, I saw plenty of folks who reminded me of my grandparents probably there to reminisce about the old Trader Vic's, a dusty Old Town Scottsdale institution that closed in 1990. That's not to say my inner kid was alone at the grown-ups' table. Most of the time, the retiree contingent was easily outnumbered by a younger crowd that was more likely there because of the scenester buzz than for nostalgia.
Turns out, Trader Vic's is going for both old school and new school. Thanks to 72 years of history and 30-plus locations around the world, the restaurant that helped spawn the mid-century fascination with all things Polynesian has become practically synonymous with over-the-top island kitsch. It's the kind of place you'd go to not be seen, but rather to slink into a cozy, candlelit nook for a discreet rendezvous. Lately, though, the chain has gone in a trendier direction.
"It's more contemporary than what people might expect," Hans Richter, the company's CEO, told me. The design of each restaurant depends on the location, he said, and in the case of the one in Scottsdale, a new structure was built especially to coordinate with the Valley Ho's sleek aesthetic.
Giant carved wooden tikis and rustic palm frond lampshades set the island theme in the dining room, but it isn't quite the mysterious atmosphere I had in mind. For my first New Times restaurant review, I was hoping for a more straightforward experience either a pan or a rave but Trader Vic's left me on a bamboo fence, both in terms of the food and the mood. The place felt slick and shiny and spacious. That's a mistake. Flickering torches are only sexy in the dark, so I wasn't keen on the high industrial ceiling and too-bright halogen lights. When I went back on a bustling Saturday night, though, dimmer lighting drastically improved things.
One evening after work, I tried eating at the bar, when the lounge was jam-packed. I managed to snag some seats with friends, but the setting sun made the room uncomfortably hot. No wonder people were downing the $10 drinks. It was a limited menu, too. Call ahead for a table in the dining room if your priorities go beyond booze.
No matter where you sit, dinner at Trader Vic's starts with dessert (in a sense): fruity, alcoholic concoctions from a lengthy vintage menu. I liked the strong Mai Tai (the signature drink, supposedly invented by Victor "Trader Vic" Bergeron himself), but at one point found myself envying a girl nearby whose drink, called a Potted Parrot, had a feathered toy bird perched on the rim of the glass.
As long as you're not on a health kick, the Cosmo Tidbits is a good variety of retro (read: fatty) appetizers. The sampler included thick spareribs sprinkled with sesame seeds, tasty Dungeness Crab Rangoon (sure, it would be hard to screw up these cream-cheese-filled bites, although here I could actually taste the crab), slices of barbecued pork, and large, juicy prawns with a light panko coating. The Crispy Calamari was distractingly crunchy, although the squid itself was tender. And Cheese Bings were fried little nibbles of Swiss and ham that should've been left in the '60s. Sadly, I couldn't stop thinking about Hot Pockets when I ate them.
In contrast, Trader Vic's salad with hearts of palm and Javanese dressing was cool and summery. Wonderfully fresh watercress accompanied the grilled sea scallop salad; after a biteful of the cold, crunchy greens, the seared scallops seemed all the more buttery. The tartare of scallop opihi, ahi poke and salmon lomi lomi was mounds of silky, sashimi-quality fish served with taro chips. I liked the creamy, coconutty scallop mixture best.
There are more than 30 entrees on the menu, ranging from kung pao chicken to veal porterhouse. About a third are Chinese-inspired noodle and stir-fry dishes, and the rest are essentially all-American surf or turf, with occasional nods to Pacific Rim cuisine. My favorites were cooked in the restaurant's wood-fired oven a huge urn housed near the center of the restaurant in its own glass-enclosed room which gave the dishes a subtle smokiness. Trader Vic's really does a fine job with its meat. Maple Leaf Duck Breast was impressively moist, as was the Atlantic salmon, covered in a light lemon butter sauce. The fillet of Alaskan halibut's simple, clean flavor was enhanced by the fragrant oven smoke. And thankfully, the one lone pork dish on the entree menu, the Sterling BBQ Pork Chop, didn't disappoint, with a tangy, savory Maui onion marmalade.
Woe to my vegetarian friend who ordered the Vegetable Calcutta Curry, though. Curry might've been exotic fare a few decades ago, requiring scant spice to make it suitable for Western palates, but these days, fiery Indian cuisine is commonplace, so curry this bland tastes like an insult. The Singapore noodles were weak, too. Trader Vic's should ask whether customers would like the kitchen to turn up the heat, as more traditional ethnic eateries do.
Another minor gripe: side dishes. Most I tasted were palatable in an I-could-cook-that-at-home way: sautéed spinach, stir-fried vegetables, roasted potatoes. With so many entrees hovering around the $30 mark, however, I expected something riskier.
Dessert was anticlimactic, especially after those creative cocktails that started off the evening. In fact, on one occasion, the waiter handed us our check and was taken off guard when we asked to see the dessert menu. It took him 10 minutes to return with it. I did enjoy the smooth, not-too-sweet coffee cr'me brle and the banana fritters with warm rum sauce.
And just when I thought I couldn't eat any more, the check was delivered with fortune cookies and a handful of Andes candies, the green-foil-wrapped after-dinner chocolate mints, which made me smile.
Those remind me of my grandma, too.
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