Michael Hoobler has to be thrilled. The star chef, now running the kitchen of Phoenix's new Restaurant Arcadia, has successfully escaped the confines of corporate America.
Last fall, Tom and Chrysa Kaufman, owners of Scottsdale's highly popular Rancho Pinot Grill, presented Hoobler with the opportunity to open his own restaurant. It was a risk, as any entrepreneurial undertaking is, but he immediately left the Royal Palms resort where he had toiled since 1995.
The result is a win for everyone. By financing Hoobler's dream, the Kaufmans likely are hoping to hit pay dirt as they did three years ago when they backed James McDevitt and his instant success, Restaurant Hapa. And while no one believes that working for the ultra-glamorous Royal Palms was torture, it's understandable that Hoobler wanted a baby of his own.
5620 East Thomas
Foie gras: $12
White bean soup: $7
Grilled pork chop: $21
Pan-seared sea bass: $24
Lamb shank: $23
Maine lobster: $26
480-945-4503. Hours: Dinner, Wednesday through Monday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Royal Palms isn't suffering too terribly, either, since Hoobler hand-groomed his replacement for six months before packing up -- chef Derek Morgan now runs the show at the resort's flagship T. Cook's restaurant, and by all reports has settled in smoothly.
But the biggest beneficiary of the musical chairs is the dining public. Because now we've essentially got two T. Cook's. There are differences. T. Cook's, frankly, has much better ambience, and Arcadia's menu is more American, less Mediterranean. Arcadia's food is less exciting, too, and in several cases, overpriced. But that said, even Hoobler's quieter cooking is better than most chefs' best efforts, and his new place delivers a consistently high-quality evening out.
I'm also betting that down the road a bit, we'll see Hoobler loosening up, offering more creativity than he does now. Under his watch, after all, T. Cook's was listed among "America's Top Tables" by Gourmet, and named best restaurant in Phoenix/ Scottsdale by Food & Wine's "2000 Restaurant Poll." Zagat called his dining experience "a wow from beginning to end."
Undoubtedly drawn in by Hoobler's powerful pedigree, diners have packed Restaurant Arcadia since it opened in early January. Reservations have been a must since day one, even with no marketing other than enthusiastic word of mouth.
Few folks likely are stopping in on impulse, anyway. The location is charmingly off the beaten path, nested on the seedier edge of Phoenix's Arcadia neighborhood in the former Anna's Cafe, an eccentric little joint that confused the connoisseurs with its enormous selection of spectacular French wines served at bargain prices in a linoleum-floor setting.
Renovations have been simple but sophisticated, with creamy warm walls, dark carpet and soft lighting that floats with rich golden tones. A few prints hang here and there, but most of the decor comes from cherry-wood-framed mirrors of varying sizes, reflecting the candlelight flickering from our white-clothed tables. In the best change, the front door has been moved from the parking lot to a cozy flagstone side patio fronted with flowers and hung with trailing vines. Linen tab drapes muffle the headlights that used to beam through large picture windows facing Thomas.
The noise level, however, can be deafening, particularly when neighboring parties have sampled too much of Arcadia's ample wine list (there's no hard liquor served). I spent one evening leaning on my elbows, away from a stiff-backed wooden chair, struggling into conversation.
Service, too, is rough around the edges. Arcadia's kitchen is still tweaking its menu, our server tells us, blurting out -- though we didn't ask -- that there are no specials offered. Often it seems we wait endlessly for attention, and always, service is hurried and hyper.
There's little frenzy going on in ingredients -- many dishes are toned-down versions of our favorites from the Royal Palms. Most work very well; a few are struggling at the starting line.
A mussel appetizer is a welcome repeat from the resort, featuring easily the best mollusks to be found in our desert. An oversize bowl comes brimming with sparkling fresh mussels, the juicy creatures sautéed and lounging over a vibrant Chardonnay-fennel broth that soaks luxuriously into a thick bed of toast.
The Dungeness crab cake starter's another pretty selection, lush with lots of sweet, perfectly salty crab puddled in a blissful red pepper butter sauce. The cake is cooked to a soft, loose interior and just-crisped exterior.
Foie gras continues to be a culinary darling, it seems, showing up on local menus perched atop brioche, dolloped in wild mushroom soup, rolled in Chinese five-spice, and even as an emulsion on veal and scallop "surf and turf." Arcadia keeps its appetizer version simple, relying on the superb quality of its star ingredient. A slab of fatted goose liver comes expertly seared, partnered with a few thimbles of flavorful pineapple chutney, dots of tart 100-year-old balsamic and a little hill of radish sprouts. It's a remarkable explosion of complementary textures and flavors.
Many talented chefs claim that after a time, they can "taste" recipes in their minds, even without having prepared them. Average citizens who hang around food enough may convince themselves they've got the same skills. That's not usually the case -- hence restaurants like Rancho Pinot that request "no substitutions, please" on their menu. Why should their kitchen be blamed when a diner wrinkles his nose at a self-invented dish? Hoobler himself has been quoted as saying that, were he to choose another profession, he would be a winemaker, because guests can't ask for a wine's recipe to be changed.
Reviewers, of course, aren't allowed to ask for menu items to be adapted in any way, and this is a good thing: It opens up so many experiences that might otherwise be overlooked. At first glance, for example, aged sherry vinegar might seem to be an odd addition to French white bean soup with smoked ham hocks, particularly in a lavish drizzle as it comes here. It's wonderful, though, sweet on one visit, sharp on another, but in both presentations adding welcome electricity to a subtle dish.
Along with a couple of salads -- poached pear and Roquefort, and spinach with bacon, caramelized onion and sherry vinaigrette -- Hoobler wheels out a Mediterranean antipasto plate that's ample for sharing. Divvying is easy enough -- the plate is entirely dull. The primary character is a thin wrap of oily prosciutto surrounding a parcel of soft, bland fontina cheese, assisted by squishy roasted red peppers, hideously salty cold grilled eggplant, mixed olives, a splash of balsamic and baby greens in a sweet vinaigrette. A tiny slab of toast spread with sopresatta, a creamy Italian cheese, is the most interesting part.
Pass on the lobster and black truffle risotto, too. Surely the dish we receive is a mistake -- the appetizer is horrid, almost rancid with fishy lobster and what seems to be an overdose of black pepper. Thank goodness our $11 brings only a few mouthfuls of the mess.
Weird, because the lobster that centers a pasta dish on another evening is gorgeous. It's not much of a meal for $26, bringing only a few ounces of sautéed Maine meat tucked under a miniature claw, but every bite is savored. A few spoonfuls more come tucked inside dainty mezzaluna (half-moon) pasta pockets, paired with a beautiful, buttery sauce and a side of asparagus spears.
Tortellini's another expensive proposition, securing just a small handful of roasted eggplant and goat cheese-stuffed pasta bundles for $17. A mild pomodoro sauce (light tomato) doesn't stand a chance under the overwhelming presence of so much goat cheese, either.
And don't plan on leftovers with the olive roasted free-range chicken breast -- this bird's bust is an A-cup. What there is of it is great, however, stunningly juicy and crusted with lots of the zippy fruit. A side of gold mashed potatoes is pleasingly creamy; sautéed organic spinach could benefit from garlic, lemon, something.
Other entrees need nothing else but a knife and fork for satisfaction. I covet my companion's Niman Ranch pork chop, moist, bone-in and bursting with solid piggy notes. An accompanying cake of creamy polenta has been spiked with mascarpone, arriving deftly salty and grainy alongside haricots vert (green beans) plus tart apple chutney.
Grilled beef tenderloin, too, impresses -- a generous cut, competently cooked to medium-rare and topped with a chopped tomato-shallot jam. Hoobler fans know he likes Roquefort with beef, and it's here, the pungent blue cheese blended in a high-impact pie of thinly layered potato slices.
Hoobler also favors fava beans with sea bass, and the legumes do add a nice bitter touch to the mild swimmer. This is great fish, a nice-size portion pan seared golden brown and moistened with buttery sauce, wild mushrooms, baby carrot, tomato confit and a sprinkle of radish sprouts.
Arcadia takes a careful hand with lamb shank, too, gently braising it and teaming it up with a delightful goat cheese risotto and sugary glazed baby carrots.
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While chefs may not appreciate diners who dismantle their dishes, they apparently have little problem with guests who are willing to pay more to experiment.
Such customers are leading a new trend powering the popularity of side dishes ordered in addition to the main course plate. Hoobler's happy to accommodate, with all sides available à la carte. Folks who think that the Roquefort pie would be just the thing alongside his shrimp and smoked prosciutto with bucatini (pasta) and Parmesan cream may be delusional, but they can have it for $5.
Most diners won't be too stuffed after dinner to take on dessert, and profiteroles (pastry puffs) with vanilla bean ice cream and chocolate and caramel sauce fills the gap nicely.
Hoobler's got a big toque to fill -- he's essentially competing with his own legacy now. The comparisons are inevitable, and as of yet, Restaurant Arcadia doesn't quite match the Royal Palms' level. But give him time to develop a fresh personality all his own. Too many T. Cook's would spoil the broth, after all.