Palm Court, Scottsdale Conference Resort, 7700 East McCormick Parkway, Scottsdale, 991-3400. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 9:30 p.m., seven days a week.
The traveling salesman is an American archetype. He moves from city to city, peddling his wares by day, passing his nights in frayed hotels, born to wander and sell. Company man Willy Loman springs to mind, a poor schlemiel who spent 40 years scouring his territory, wearily hauling his trunk of samples every few days to another town, and another cramped room. Arthur Miller provided a great portrait of that kind of life, the underside of the American dream. But no dramatist has yet focused on the happier elements of modern business life on the road. Of course, that cheerful story couldn't center on today's army of Willy Lomans, who still stay in budget hotels and eat in the downstairs coffee shops. Instead, it would focus on their bosses, men and women who slumber and dine at the plushest digs in town, waving the company credit card. Here in the Valley, both the Scottsdale Conference Resort and the Ritz-Carlton hotel cater to this type of executive business traveler. Their every need is anticipated, from fax machines to the gourmet dining room. While we locals may not have much use for their fax machines, the restaurants are another story. Attention must be paid. Palm Court is Scottsdale Conference Resort's swanky shrine to fine dining. It's an appealing site, from the pianist perched at the grand piano by the entrance to the massive vases filled with orchids. Matchbooks engraved with your party's name wait at the table. And the oil paintings, from the 19th-century idealized American landscape school, subliminally signal that nothing on the menu would shock 19th-century diners, either. Like the decor, the fare is comfortably old-fashioned. A brigade of hostesses, waiters, busboys, captains and sommeliers keeps the meal moving with almost military precision. And their efficiency is particularly noteworthy here. That's because the Palm Court experience hinges on tableside preparation, a time-consuming, labor-intensive art that requires lots of individual skill and team coordination. Whoever trains this smooth staff should take a bow. Starters rely less on imagination than on execution. The appetizer list tilts heavily toward old-time standards: shrimp cocktail, escargots Bourguignonne, smoked salmon. A prickly pear compote gives the pƒt‚ de foie gras an offbeat touch, but I missed the Cornichons. Smoked duck breast, fanned across the plate, is intensely flavorful, and perkily accompanied by tiny melon balls. If you want to put your team of servers immediately to work, begin with angel-hair pasta with mushrooms. A full-size cooking cart is maneuvered to the table, so everyone gets a view of the process. The pasta comes draped in a smooth cream sauce, laced with sublime tones of wild mushrooms and Parmesan. If your only concern is filling up, it's not necessary to order a salad. Portions here are more than ample. But for a potent combination of visual entertainment and outstanding taste, the wilted spinach salad is hard to match. Once again, it's made before your eyes. But our server warned us that our sense of smell, not sight, would bear the brunt of the attack. He was right--it's impossible to dodge the aroma of mushrooms and bacon saut‚ed in a honey-sweetened mustard-raspberry vinaigrette, all of which is then flamb‚ed in brandy and mixed with spinach. This is the kind of green, leafy nutrition I like. There's nothing nouvelle or cutesy about the main dishes. They're all uncommonly rich--in taste, texture and tradition. In some way, it's almost reassuring to find a restaurant that can still handle the old favorites. And who better to fuel than the hungry class of American capitalists? Whenever I take guests out to eat, I always give them first crack at the entrees. They invariably zero in on delicacies like rack of lamb and Dover sole, and I get stuck with the saut‚ed chicken livers or fried calamari. It's an occupational hazard. At Palm Court, however, I made what the Pentagon called during the Vietnam war a protective reaction strike. I selfishly targeted the lobster Lord Randolph for myself. Would you have done differently in my shoes? It's meaty chunks of fresh Maine lobster, saut‚ed with mushrooms and truffles, flamed with cognac, then finished with cream and lobster sauce. Frankly, I don't know how our server found the will power to bring it to the table from the tableside cart where it was prepared. Had it been me, I just might have run off with it. True, it's a $27.50 splurge, but I got more joy from dining out on one lobster Lord Randolph than I do from eating almost any three $9 entrees. This is a platter worth saving up for. Once their own entrees arrived, my companions stopped fussing. Veal … la Parisienne brings butter-soft medallions, topped with a light, lemon-butter-and-parsley sauce. The delicate veal and mild sauce make a fragrant pairing, a dish you can really savor. Duckling aux framboises is just as skillfully done. The saut‚ed duck breast would stand up to any competition, except the exquisite crisped dark meat in a fruity raspberry-orange glaze that shares the same plate.
Desserts feature more flaming tableside cooking operations. (Does this place even have a kitchen?) Bananas Foster, cherries jubilee and crepe suzettes are neatly fashioned. The latter, heavy with Cointreau, serves simultaneously as a sweet and after-dinner drink. If you're flamed out, the not-too-sweet apple strudel with rum raisin ice cream will also put a fine exclamation point on the meal. About the only time Palm Court stumbles is at the finish line. In a place like this, I expected my coffee to come with something a little more elegant than sugar packets. Perhaps a chocolate-covered strawberry or some petits fours would help the meal end with a bang, not a whimper. Like its clientele, Palm Court knows how to take care of business. Your next step? Getting ahold of the company credit card. The Grill, Ritz-Carlton, 2401 East Camelback, Phoenix, 468-0700. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10:30 p.m., seven days a week. The Grill at the Ritz-Carlton aims to comfort American capitalists with more than just dinner. It also feeds their hunger for the something that money alone can't buy: respectability. That comes from the room itself, which is almost suffocatingly clubby, in a fantasized English sort of way. It's done up with dark wood paneling, from which hang paintings of milord's dogs and ponies. Huge, sturdy wooden breakfronts, filled with china, and a fireplace topped with a marble mantel and sculptures of horses add to the effect. By the time a suggestible corporate vice president reaches the table, he's liable to be daydreaming about his country estate in Shropshire, and his dependent class of devoted, hardworking peasants. Even I fell under the spell for several minutes, musing about a mythical Seftel manse, and taking my mind off realities like a current APS bill that could be confused with the Gross National Product of Ecuador.
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But on a recent Friday-night visit, management was unable to sustain the illusion. That's because the Grill featured a musical group that created dissonance on several levels. First of all, they were loud, loud enough to make conversation difficult. They were also persistent, supplying a strong argument for union-mandated musical breaks. Worst of all was their playlist. I am here to witness that it is simply impossible to eat veal Wellington and listen to a live saxophone version of "Achy Breaky Heart" at the same time. The music is jarring, and not very, well, ritzy. If the Grill ever decides to concentrate on quiet fine dining, the kitchen seems up to the task. Like Palm Court, this restaurant doesn't aim to start a culinary revolution. Instead, the emphasis is on quality. There's no faulting the meaty credentials of the three jumbo shrimp in the shrimp cocktail. But whether or not the $2.83-per-piece price would survive a cost-benefit analysis is a question your chief financial officer will have to answer. A bowlful of tender snails in a garlicky Pernod butter is a good starter option, although some odd fried onion strips threatened to overpower every other flavor. Fried lamb and potato turnovers are reminiscent of Indian samosa, and three of them come with rich goat-cheese dip. Velvety smoked salmon, with cräme fraŒche and capers, also rates highly. But there's little need to fill up on pricey appetizers. A substantial entree and dessert should satisfy even a robber baron's appetite. With a few exceptions, the main dishes offer unfussy preparations of grilled meats and fish. New York steak sports beefy prime quality, but the blue castello cheese crust is almost too light to be noticed. Dover sole is a fragile specimen. Here it's gently saut‚ed in lemon caper butter, perhaps a few seconds too long. The kitchen gets fancier with the enormous wedge of veal Wellington, a magnificent hunk of tender meat encrusted in puff pastry, sitting in a hard-hitting truffle-infused sauce. Adventurous executives who enjoy the thrill of the hunt should opt for the braised wild boar. Three mildly gamey medallions each came atop a wedge of rich foie gras, each again resting on a disk of black bread. Nothing shy about this combination of strong flavors. And the wild mushroom medley alongside had the oomph to furnish a worthy complement. Desserts are faultless. A hot apple-and-bread-pudding cake is as good as it sounds, especially with the homemade scoop of orange buttermilk ice cream. Another homemade ice cream, flavored with Grand Marnier and espresso, gilds an intense chocolate rum cake stuffed with chocolate mousse. And the berry-stuffed cräme br–l‚e is also right on target. The Grill is an elegant place. Please, someone turn down the music, and let the food sing for itself.