INN SIDE EDITION
Lon's at the Hermosa, Hermosa Inn, 5532 North Palo Cristi, Paradise Valley, 955-7878. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 6 to 10 p.m.
Valley hotels and resorts know they can't do much about marketing their rooms to locals. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that people who live here already have a place to spend the night. But the hostelries make a big push to get us year-round residents to come for dinner, particularly in the off-season when well-heeled tourists in this town become scarcer than liberal Democrats. Two hotel dining rooms--the new Lon's at the chic Hermosa Inn and the newly refurbished Wright's at the opulent Arizona Biltmore--hope to sail through the summertime doldrums by filling their seats with Phoenix fannies. So I hauled mine to both spots, to test my natural hot-weather inclination to do nothing more vigorous than stand naked in front of my air-conditioning vents until, oh, Halloween. Are the restaurants worth the effort of getting dressed and braving the desert furnace? Lon's is, if you can be lured by the prospect of pleasant food in a delightful setting. And so is Wright's, if you enjoy forking out huge piles of greenbacks on some less-than-scintillating fare.
Restored after years of neglect and a devastating fire, the Hermosa Inn has been reconstructed in the style of the original 1930s adobe. Lon's, the dining room, is named after former owner Lon Megargee, an artist who used the property as his home and studio.
The place resonates with old Arizona charm. Wood ceiling beams, beehive fireplaces and cowboy memorabilia create an authentic rustic Western feel. So do the original works of art, some by Megargee himself, as well as some vintage photos. Servers are casually outfitted in jeans, aprons and bola ties. And management has properly decided not to ruin the effect by piping in music. The only sounds you'll hear are those of diners having a good time. Why the happy noises? The appetizers deserve some of the credit. They're familiar, but with just enough flair to keep them from being stodgy. Take the Southwestern bruschetta, five pieces of bread seasoned with olive oil and garlic, heaped with tomatoes and gilded with capers and herbed goat cheese. They do just what starters are supposed to do--get you primed for dinner. So does the fire-roasted whole artichoke, split in half and drizzled with a perky vinaigrette. A tempting, poblano-tinged aioli comes along for dipping. And while I can't give Lon's saut‚ed sea scallops any points for originality--saut‚ed sea scallops decorate just about every appetizer list in town--I can boost their score with high marks for artistic and technical merit. Four moist, delicately seared mollusks on a bed of fresh greens get pumped up by a zippy orange poppy-seed dressing. One appetizer bust: a ridiculously out-of-place mix of sweet potato fries and battered onion rings that apparently wandered in from a sports bar. I can't imagine many of Lon's sophisticated guests panting after this inelegant, oversize fried mound. How about offering a platter of grilled vegetables instead? The ten or so main dishes aren't easy to characterize: slabs of wood-grilled beef; seafood with a Southwestern touch; single offerings of duck, lamb and chicken. But while it's difficult to get a handle on the style of cooking, it's no trouble describing the results. This is hearty, tasty fare, reasonably priced in the $14 to $20 range.
The waiter convinced us not to order the beef. "It's choice grade, not prime," he explained, when we asked about the quality. While he vouched for its taste, he told us not to expect the kind of meat you'd find in a serious steak house. That kind of knowledgeable honesty had the effect of giving us more confidence in his other recommendations. He gave an unqualified thumbs up to the braised lamb shank. So did I. Lamb shank is becoming a trendy dish, and when it's prepared like it is here, you can see why. Lon's puts out a moist and tender hunk of meat, and rests it on a zesty wild mushroom risotto flecked with carrots and zucchini. At $14.95, this filling platter is probably the best menu value. So you'll have a few bucks left over to treat yourself to a glass of Penfolds Shiraz, a lusty Australian red wine that makes an outstanding accompaniment. These days, I'm almost afraid to order shrimp in a restaurant. Is there any food that's been as debased over the past few years? I've had enough rubbery, flavorless crustaceans to fill a trawler. I believe people may have actually forgotten just how sublime good shrimp can taste. Well, they can get a reminder from Lon's saut‚ed Mexican prawns, five hefty critters brimming with briny flavors, boosted with a mild salsa.
Catfish is a surprising knockout. That's because the kitchen coats it with a crunchy tortilla crust, and takes care to cook it to moist, translucent specifications. And at this time of year, asparagus fans won't get shortchanged on their favorite vegetable. But I'm sure the chef can come up with a better starch than the snoozy medley of brown and wild rice that rounds off this plate. The generous portion of roasted boneless duck breast is also well-fashioned, distinguished by meaty, high-quality fowl that didn't get much aid from the weak port wine sauce that moistened it. Whipped sweet potatoes and French green beans helped; the garnish of unpleasant fried onions didn't. Desserts are cut from the same cloth as the appetizers and entrees. While there's nothing remotely gourmet or ravishing about them, they're deftly done and uncomplicatedly pleasant. White chocolate cheesecake with a lip-smacking blackberry port sauce commendably tastes like white chocolate and cheese, not sugar. German apple spice cake with vanilla ice cream and butterscotch is a natural crowd-pleaser. And if you're not sick to death of cräme br–l‚e, Lon's version rivals the town's best models.
There's nothing cutting-edge about Lon's food or setting. And that may just be the secret to its charm. Even if it's hotter than Hades outside, a couple of hours at Lon's somehow makes you feel that life can be pretty good. Wright's, Arizona Biltmore, 24th Street and Missouri, Phoenix, 954-2507. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, 6 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
A couple of hours at Wright's gave me a somewhat different take on life: Somebody's always after your money. Even the air-conditioned comfort couldn't keep me from being hot under the collar by the time I left. After years of benign neglect, the venerable Arizona Biltmore has been spruced up to its original splendor. It looks gorgeous. The resort's fancy restaurant also underwent considerable alteration, including a name change, a new chef and a redesigned menu. The new menu doesn't offer much in the way of imagination or sophistication. Perhaps it's been tuned to appeal to the sedate tastes of resort guests uninterested in culinary adventure. The food more or less tranquilizes you into complacency, without ever threatening to grab you by the lapels. It's obvious right from the start. Take the inevitable appetizer of seared scallops, surrounded by Swiss chard with a touch of orange zest. Unfortunately, every flavor is completely overwhelmed by salt that seems to have been applied with a ladle. The Portobello mushroom risotto is perfectly satisfactory, but without the heady redolence that can put you in a swoon. And mixed greens drizzled with a walnut vinaigrette aren't going to cause any excitement, even with the accompaniment of a Cambozola cheese flan. Only the shellfish soup packed the sort of taste punch that can make diners sit up and take notice. The intense, saffron-tinged broth comes filled with crayfish and mussels. But even here the kitchen couldn't get it completely right: The soup wasn't hot.
With one exception, the entrees are instantly forgettable. Actually, that's probably for the best if you had the misfortune to order the pasta with lobster and herbs. Chunks of tough lobster, neither particularly meaty nor sweet, float in pasta that's been seasoned only by air. There's a clear line between subtle and dull, and this dish has taken a running start and leapt over it. Our group vegetarian opted for the made-elsewhere linguini, topped with grilled peppers and Portobello mushrooms, the cheapest entree at $19.25. I've had better at half the price. Sea bass and grilled veal chop are routinely serviceable, but I can't imagine they're stretching the talents of the chef de cuisine. His heart appeared to be only in the smoked venison loin, a vigorously flavored dish that snapped me out of my daze. It starts with excellent farm-raised venison whose gamy taste is cut by sweetened apples. Spaetzle and spinach furnish worthy complements. Why isn't anything else this good? I expected something a little more elegant from the desserts. They're homey, not head-turning. The caramel-glazed Pippin apple tart on shortbread crust is comforting. Mixed berries doused with wine and sugar, gilded with maple ice cream, are simple and effective. But the three pseudo-cräme br–l‚es--purportedly flavored with vanilla, chocolate and ginger--are plain awful. Despite its bland mediocrity, nothing about Wright's threatened to upset my placid disposition. Until I got the check. An advance inspection of the menu clued me in that dinner was going to be expensive. Appetizers average more than $10. Eight of the 11 entrees go for $27 or more. So even though Wright's prices seem to have been set by someone who in a former line of work manufactured $7,000 toilet seats for the military or charged hospital patients $14 for two Tylenol, I can't complain about being blindsided by food costs. Instead, I got sucker-punched by the price of coffee. When I looked over my ticket, I noticed Wright's had charged five dollars a cup. Certain that there must have been an error, I summoned the waiter. He explained that the restaurant pours high-priced Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee. But no one had bothered to inform us of this gastronomic "benefit," either orally or via the menu. These days, Jamaica Blue Mountain sells for about $40 a pound, retail, about four times more than, say, a premium mocha from Yemen. But even if Wright's paid retail, it would still be making money after brewing only eight cups. The loan sharks in my old neighborhood didn't have the nerve to take this kind of markup. And what about my decaf? Was that also Blue Mountain? "Well, no, that's good French roast," admitted the uncomfortable server. No matter. That was five bucks, too. Apparently, the Biltmore is using Wright's to help finance the costs of the property's capital improvements. If you dine here, you've obviously got more dollars than sense.
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