Holiday on Spice
Imagine chef Vincent Guerithault as cafeteria server, ladle in hand. Or Christopher Gross behind the counter at a 400-seat hotel coffee shop, cranking out breakfast, lunch and dinner in a never-ending blur. Or picture Eddie Matney's uniquely eccentric cooking style repackaged for vending machines across the nation.
It just doesn't make sense. Star-quality chefs like these cherished Valley types belong in their own tiny kitchens. They should be busy figuring out how to turn sautéed veal sweetbreads with blue corn meal and red wine thyme sauce into a delicate, perfect serving for one, not a feed for hundreds.
Unless you're Mark Miller, that is, the latest in an ever-expanding list of celebrity chefs to take a single successful restaurant and turn it into an industry. Yes, über-chef Mark Miller has landed in Phoenix, and the result is, well, weird.
His Blue Sage is under way at the new JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort, a behemoth conference property with 950 rooms next to a splashy shopping mall. And what class: The celeb's place is located where tour buses pull up under a monster porte-cochere, their engines idling in diesel growls, their tail pipes belching exhaust.
Miller, of course, is the James Beard Award winner behind the lauded Coyote Cafe of Santa Fe. When the Southwestern restaurant opened in 1987, it was an instant hit, and appeared just at the time when chefs were becoming Martha Stewart-like marketing darlings. (I've still got an original proof photo of Miller perched with Guerithault and other national rising culinary stars on the rim of the Grand Canyon. The pic was turned into a glossy "collectors item" poster for sale. Really.) Miller soon followed with Red Sage in Washington, D.C., two more Coyote Cafes (Las Vegas' MGM Grand, and Texas), an offbeat Asian cafe in D.C. named Raku and a sort-of Brazilian thing called Wildfire in New Zealand. Each new restaurant played to the upper crust, showing off such creations as wild boar tamal with huitlacoche, chile-glazed beef short ribs with corn dumplings, and leg of lamb fajitas with tamarind-mint salsa.
But in our own burg, instead of showcasing Miller's talents in an elegant, intimate bistro, he's been dumped in the hotel's full-service dining room, capacity 323. This is the glorified coffee shop that every hotel has, designated for relatively affordable breakfast, lunch and dinner snacking. It also handles room service operations for the three-month-old property, and banquet catering for the two largest ballrooms in the Southwest.
And instead of the intriguing recipes that made Miller's reputation, we get a toned-down menu. The only interesting ingredients I found were epazote (a pungent, coriander-like herb) and boniato (sweet potato). A few of the dishes hint at why he's become a legend. A lot of them, however, are surprisingly mainstream. Mostly, the only taste of true Miller we get is in hot, hot spicing.
I didn't really expect Miller to be in the house (the kitchen is actually run by chef Charles Bartsch), but his absence is too keenly felt. Decor is comfortable Southwestern chic, but embarrassingly corporate, down to the gift shop that's the entry, and a bar that's destined to be filled with sarong-wrapped, tank-topped pool guests come the warmer months. The cafe-table-dotted center room shrieks "casual lunch"; the room way in the back is more appropriate for dinner ("it's carpeted," our hostess proudly points out). There's a breakfast buffet station, too, abandoned in the evening yet still littered with bits of spilled food in its ice-lined trays. Breakfast and lunch menus are presented in tandem throughout the day (typos and all); in the evening, a "chef's selections" card is simply stuffed in the jacket.
There's no way the well-meaning but awkward service is the stuff that garnered Miller so many awards (Life magazine named him one of America's most influential chefs in the '80s). On one visit, our server is still pooped from a huge banquet the night before. He confides in a loud voice that he'd served a plated dinner for 1,000 European computer software professionals. The work was a bear, he sighs, and he had to stick around until after 1 a.m. to clean up. But the tips were great, he adds, much better than they've been at Blue Sage so far (hint, hint). On another visit, the server yaps and yaps and yaps, explaining in great detail the different heat levels of each dish long after we've made it clear that we're locals and are familiar with the intensity of various Mexican peppers and spices.
However, I learn quickly why we have to sit through so many disclaimers on each and every visit. Even though this echoey room is clearly designed for the comfy sandwich crowd, the food caters to Tabasco lovers. While I'm okay with the challenging spice found in most of the dishes, I can just imagine what Uncle Vern in from Iowa has to say when confronted by his hamburger done up with screamingly hot Hatch chile and spiced fries.
Mom is warned, for example, when she asks for a taste of the Yucatán black bean soup, that it's up there on the heat level. It's a good thing, too, because Mom likes her chile mild, and if she'd had any more than just a sample of the velvety purée, it would have knocked her flat.
I could eat it by the gallon, however, thrilled with its lip-burning personality, its robust earthiness, the pretty drizzle of crème and dollop of salsa fresca on top. Mild mom prefers a delightful roasted cherry tomato soup, smooth and light on the cream with a sprinkle of sweet basil chiffonade.
Mom and I also disagree about a chef's selection: Maine diver scallops a la parilla. She thinks the dark rum black bean glaze spooned over the half-dozen sweet-flavored mollusks is uncomfortably aggressive (vinegary, peppery like hot sauce). I think it's fine, the seafood admirably topnotch, tempered with sides of chunky boniato mash and nubbins of juicy mango. When our server warns that tortilla-chip-crusted chicken is spicy, he's not kidding. The big (10-ounce) breast is breaded and sliced tonkatsu style, with a roasted jalapeño-Diablo sauce that overwhelms any other flavor. A safer choice is the topnotch fire-roasted filet of beef, with a huge chunk of expertly cooked, remarkably beefy-flavored meat drizzled in a light demi-glace alongside mashed potatoes studded with smoked corn kernels and dots of poblano chile.
Some dishes are perfect examples of the freakish Miller/coffee-shop crossbreeding. A tostada salad descends to Chili's chain caliber, with its massive portioning and complicated chop of ingredients. There's just too much commotion in this messy Mount Everest of cilantro, radish, avocado, tomato, red onion, shallots, salty cotija cheese and pesto-grilled chicken breast or shrimp burying a soggy tortilla round slathered in beans. A mushroom and sweet roasted corn quesadilla, meanwhile, doesn't make sense anywhere, with the fat grilled tortilla wedges mounded atop a tasty but silly-looking landfill of Southwestern coleslaw. There's way too much harsh epazote in the smoky cheese stuffing, too, with the wild mushrooms tasting almost marinated. Green chile stew is a huge disappointment to someone who's had the real stuff this thin salty broth has fresh hominy (I know, because I saw a bag of the stuff tipped over on the gift shop counter) but is completely one-dimensional with too much poblano.
Blue Sage alternates the lowbrow (a decent if unexciting grilled steak burrito with red chile sauce) with the highbrow (a good-but-I-wouldn't-order-again complication of lacy thin gravlox cured in a barely discernible habanero-tequila blend). The burrito is good and the gravlox is okay, but what chefs put both on the same table?
It's a big mistake that Blue Sage doesn't start its meals with gratis baskets of tortilla chips. Not only will hotel guests, largely out-of-towners, associate the appetizer with Southwestern cooking, but Miller's signature is salsa. He's written books about it; bottles of his blend are for sale in the gift shop. I can buy an apron there with his salsa logo, but I can't get a taste of his stuff in the cafe. Certainly the chips 'n' dip would be better than the dry jalapeño-corn scones and chalky cornbread we get instead.
Miller has made great gains publicizing his background as an anthropologist. Food, he says, should embrace its environment. In this case, I guess, that means his diners should be prepared to feel like they're checking into a Shriner's convention. One night, the valet waves me in like I'm an airplane. Another night, I bump into a porter holding a sign welcoming a migraine management meeting. Something doesn't belong here, and I think it's me.
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