Call 2002 "The Year of the Resort." While national economists wrung their hands over a plunging stock market, and the number of Arizona residents with a net worth of one million-plus plummeted by an amazing 31 percent (poor things -- $999,999 doesn't go as far as it used to), our high-end hotel developers continued full steam ahead.
Along with the 2,185 new rooms, this meant a tidal wave of new, exciting resort restaurants debuting just before the holiday season. So much for New Year's diets: I figure it'll take me at least two months just to eat my way through all the menus. Oh, joy!
The new eateries herald another trend to watch, that of resorts bringing in high-profile national chefs to consult and add their celebrity brand names -- the chefs don't actually run our local kitchens, but we can feel fancy pretending they do.
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In east Phoenix, JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort (950 rooms) is flush with nine restaurants. The draw, though, is Blue Sage by Mark Miller, featuring Arizona specialties. Miller is known as a culinary powerhouse for his innovative Southwestern cuisine at Coyote Café in Santa Fe and Las Vegas, and for his Western-themed cuisine at the Red Sage restaurant in Washington, D.C. The James Beard Award winner gets raves for his creations such as wild boar tamal with huitlacoche, chile-glazed beef short ribs with corn dumplings, and leg of lamb fajitas with tamarind-mint salsa.
In north Scottsdale, the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa (735 rooms) boasts eight dining and drinking options under the direction of former Hyatt Gainey whiz chef Anton Brunbauer. But the highlight here is deseo, meaning "desire" in Spanish, a nuevo-Latino concept created by acclaimed chef Douglas Rodriguez. Rodriguez is known for his two New York hot spots offering offbeat, upscale, authentic Latin-influenced dishes such as black lobster empanada, coconut-curry ceviche, suckling pig with white beans, and black truffle tamal.
Then there's the new Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa on the Gila River Indian Reservation in far south Phoenix (500 rooms). Dining choices number five, but the spotlight is on Kai, conceived by another James Beard Award winner, Janos Wilder of the extremely popular Janos and J Bar bistros on the grounds of the Westin La Paloma Resort in Tucson. Kai, the Pima word for "seed," celebrates Native American cuisine in a tapestry of local products, including Arizona-processed olive oil, local citrus, sweet corn, gourds and melons. Look for delights like chilled Pima yellow watermelon soup with salmon gravlax, cucumber, apple and cantaloupe; and pecan-crusted rack of lamb with Native Seeds mole and corn bread pudding.
With restaurants like this, 2003 is looking pretty tasty.