Moi and Spa Kettle
It's the end of an era, with the closing of the historic John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch. It's a new dawn for Valley hospitality, with the unveiling of the Zen-inspired resort and spa taking Gardiner's place -- Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain.
The resort won't open until October, but its flagship restaurant was fast-tracked. Elements opened its doors in mid-March for dinner. And as the restaurant's decor suggests, the transformation of the legendary ranch will be so dramatic that virtually nothing will remain of Gardiner's except its stunning views of the north Valley.
Whether visitors to Arizona will embrace Sanctuary's spiritual Asian theme (casitas have "steeping pools" instead of hot tubs) remains to be seen. That visitors and locals alike will appreciate the creative Asian-influenced American cuisine at Elements, though, is pretty much guaranteed. This new restaurant proves once again that the Valley has truly evolved into a city that competes with the big boys for the dining-out experience.
The success of Elements is all the more satisfying considering what a risk demolishing a landmark entailed. When Gardiner's was purchased by Westroc Hospitality just over a year ago, its new owners shook up the Valley's old-money set with the grand plan of stripping the property down to its skeleton. From the ashes of a 1950s Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired tennis getaway that once attracted the likes of Edgar Bergen, Johnny Carson, Liza Minnelli and Dean Martin would rise a spiritual resort spa, including New Age touches like a Watsu immersion hydro pool, and a spiral yin and yang treatment room for couples.
No more a preppy country-club enclave for bored, moneyed housewives and their well-compensated tennis instructors. Instead, the newly coifed Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain would feature an ultra-contemporary experience to celebrate "the serenity and spirituality that permeates (Camelback Mountain)." Gone would be the classic -- if tragically sleepy -- continental menu served at the resort's Firedance restaurant. Sanctuary would birth a gourmet concept featuring seasonal American cuisine, but purportedly gutsy with Asian accents like soy, ginger, sesame and miso. I found myself wondering if guests expecting classic Southwestern ambiance along the lines of the Arizona Biltmore, Hermosa Inn and Royal Palms would buy into a concept more at home in New York or Los Angeles. And such a strong Asian culinary theme? It seemed much too bold to carry a restaurant that, as with all resort locations, needed to be mass friendly.
Since the initial press release, though, the concept has been toned down to more approachable, resort-appropriate American favorites. While I'm still divided on the desecration of a favorite property that maintained Arizona's gracious heritage, I've got to hand it to executive chef Chuck Wiley for his food. Elements celebrates high cuisine in bold, uncomplicated style -- fancy fare that while requiring coats and ties to enjoy, leaves pretension at the door.
Nestled on the lower northern slope of Camelback Mountain, Elements has an exclusive amenity: panoramic views of Paradise Valley and all its opulent mansions. Elements also has an exclusive parent in executive chef Wiley, one of Food & Wine Magazine's 10 Best New Chefs in America, and former head honcho at the Boulders. At Elements, Wiley doesn't simply serve time in the kitchen, he's out front, welcoming guests and lending a calming, low-keyed personality to an experience that easily could stumble over the top in formality.
The restaurant is still finding its personality, it's true. From the guard-gate entry, to the valet service and aloof hostessing, dining at Elements doesn't yet achieve the neighborhood-restaurant feel Wiley says he was shooting for. In fact, uncomfortable interior design is the restaurant's primary challenge, sacrificing warmth for modern, minimalist decor that simply seems unfinished. A stainless-steel wall in the foyer is sterile against charcoal-tone carpets. Olive-toned chairs seem more faded than fashionable, and tan-and-black uniforms look somehow coffee shop. I like the lights -- glass renditions of paper lanterns -- but hate the light: floor-to-ceiling windows offer no escape from the blinding glare of the western sky. The view of Squaw Peak is spectacular, but only at sunset, after our retinas have healed. I have a lot of trouble picturing guests relaxing here for breakfast and lunch, as is planned when the resort opens.
When the sun goes down, though, Elements has its charms. That's when jazz music kicks in to warm us under the restaurant's thin-slat wooden ceilings. As lights punch up over the landscape like twinkling candles, we can sit back in spacious booths and enjoy the view.
I'm not sure how Elements' showcase fixture will work at breakfast and lunch, either, but for dinner, the restaurant's community table is an inspired idea borrowed from such trendy joints as Obeca Li, Balthazar and Mercer Kitchen in New York. In fact, dining at large tables with strangers was called the Best Trend for 2000 by New York Dining Guide.
The table, seating 12, is the only seating in Elements available without reservations, and it hops on weekend nights. Full dinners -- as in Elements' adjacent Jade Bar -- are available here, but appetizers are encouraged for mingling purposes.
Meals begin with oshiburo, the warm washcloths that are offered in Japanese restaurants to cleanse hands. A plate of crusty warm bread and butter is fine, but if we're leaning Japanese, the option of a complimentary dish of edamame (salted soybeans) would be even better.
While some touches keep the Zen faith -- yin-yang finger bowls dividing salt and pepper, stark white plates atop boxy glass chargers, polished rock rests for pens at check presentation, nobody's gone overboard with shtick. Wiley wisely keeps Asia to an accent, focusing on the beauty of fresh ingredients and carefully honed flavors.
Wiley also keeps things interesting, adding reason to return on a regular basis. With a menu that changes monthly, fluctuating with the seasons and availability of fresh ingredients, it's worth making a standing reservation to see what's new from the kitchen.
One table next to me is lamenting the loss of "the best crab cakes in the universe." They're not on my May menu, but I'm thrilled with what is. Appetizers are uniformly exquisite, as pretty in presentation as they are in flavor. Garlic-ginger shrimp comes pan-seared with skillet-roasted vegetables, and a barbecued duck spring roll compels with lots of rich meat in a vibrant chile sauce.
Devil fried oysters are magnificent, too, bringing five gorgeously moist mollusks, breaded panko-style and served on the half shell atop a massive bowl of rock salt. Though there's no devil heat to speak of, the meat's undercarriage of tangy baby spinach and cucumber slaw offers a dynamic twist.
Heat is just one of the many fine characteristics of Elements' steamed mussels, though. The plate is just $10, but is easily entree-size, brimming with moist meat in a red curry coconut broth that brings bite, snap and smooth sustenance.
And I've dreamt of such tartare of tuna. Brilliant, raw, ruby-red fish rests in a round cake anchored by cucumber slivers, pine nuts, nicely bitterish field greens and a whisper-thin topping of toast on a tangy, lemon-tinged puddle of sauce.
Missteps are mild. A crispy fiery calamari starter is nothing remarkable, lacking points primarily because there are no flames in the squid, or in the side of miso-scallion vinaigrette (a clever presentation of "fire building" add-in sauces might be an option for the chef to consider).
Sauce served on the side -- or as a restrained drizzle -- would benefit a sumptuous foie gras, too. Even with a slightly over-charred skin, this velvet-textured liver is exquisite, sprinkled with rock salt for toe-curling contrast. The puddle of too-sweet, molasses-like cracked black pepper caramel, though, in such quantities, drowns the dish, overpowering a subtle base of melted fennel and leeks.
More care needs to be taken with the house-cured salmon, too. This fish is edging on aged, taunting of a rubbery texture and fishy end, splayed next to crisp stems of asparagus and organic greens splashed in a lightly sweet herb vinaigrette.
Elements keeps things basic, offering just seven entrees plus a daily special. The handling is handsome -- covering fresh fish, pork, chicken, beef and even a vegetarian plate (a divine, ever-changing mix of roasted vegetables, plus Yukon gold potatoes and sweet balsamic onion marmalade).
One evening's special is a rarity in the Valley: marlin. The luxuriously peppered, rich fish tames down with nutty-hued jasmine rice, gloriously bitter greens and an accent of wild mushrooms with a slick of cream sauce.
Elements is upscale dining for upscale pricing, but here's an excellent value for $28 -- in quality and in quantity. The seared ahi brings two fat slabs of perfect fish, the firm, moist species partnered with young spinach, chunk avocado and sticky jasmine rice with a gentle glaze of lemon vinaigrette.
And though salmon may be the overworked fish du jour, Elements reminds us why it's worth paying $25 for. It's in its finest here, crisp-edged from the grill, salty and peppery skinned, lounging on a nest of tangy braised greens, snow peas, sesame, ginger and somen noodles, a thin, white Japanese noodle made from wheat flour.
Four big pork loins sprinkled with herbs also impress, the juicy meat expertly grilled and sided with crisp green beans sprinkled with crunchy bacon, plus jasmine rice. And Elements' filet of beef is fine stuff, a generous hunk cooked to a medium-rare rose and fork-tender finish. Garlic mashed potatoes topped with melted bleu cheese and sweet, soft onion strips offer delicious drama, though I'd be happier with a lot less of the cloyingly sweet sauce puddled on the plate.
Even chicken emerges above ordinary, roasted to a crispy skin and served with garlic mashed potatoes and delectable creamed spinach.
Desserts change frequently, including well-crafted shortcake with fresh strawberries, a zingy lemon tart with stiff meringue, and a soothing warm apple crumble with ginger ice cream. They're better than the bland "cookies of good fortune" presented at meal's end -- these are just biscuits.
When the weather cools, dining al fresco at the Jade Bar is an exciting option -- the patio is stocked with cozy chairs, candles and views of the Sanctuary's garden courtyard. The drink list appeals, too, with novel options like the Purple Haze, a combination of sake and Chambord.
Given all the attention to an upscale experience, it's odd, then, that Elements has such a brief wine list, particularly by the glass. I love Pinot Grigio, for example, yet am offered but one choice, a Maso Poli from Italy, by the bottle only, for $40.
A little tweaking of the wine list, some softer touches to the decor, and some sun screens, and Elements will have all the, well, elements, of an excellent restaurant.
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