There's something magical about the atmosphere at Prado, the Andalusian-inspired fine-dining spot at Paradise Valley's brand-new InterContinental Montelucia. Indeed, the resort as a whole has a special luster — thanks to President Obama's recent stay here — but the restaurant, in particular, deserves a nod as one of the prettiest in town.
Imagine a plush, bustling lounge that gives way to an energetic dining room with cozy lighting, beautiful Moroccan-patterned tile floors, airy arched ceilings, and furniture fit for a luxurious estate. The wood-fired grill along one wall is like the hearth at the center of a genteel home, its flames casting a comforting glow across the space. A Spanish guitar player's soothing strains mellow out the loud buzz of dinnertime conversation. And just beyond the open windows and doorways, a patio overlooks illuminated water fountains and a rugged swath of Camelback Mountain. Around dusk, the view is just stunning.
But my enchantment with Prado ends right there. Ultimately, the lavish surroundings only intensify my disappointment with the dining experience at this pricey eatery. After five months in business, I'd expect a restaurant of Prado's prestige to be firing on all cylinders, yet clearly it's not. Conceptually, it's having an identity crisis. The cooking is hit-and-miss. And the service is simply not up to par for such a high-end restaurant.
InterContinental Montelucia Resort breakfast 7 to 11 a.m., lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. (to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday)
Where to begin? I'll start with what I know about the resort's executive chef, Francesco Roccato, and Prado's chef de cuisine, Claudio Urciuoli. Both of the Italian natives are Slow Food proponents — in my book, that's a great thing for any restaurant that wants to compete in Phoenix's fine-dining arena, where chefs meticulously curate their ingredients, and customers literally eat it up. Urciuoli also has a noteworthy résumé, including gigs at Different Pointe of View, Taggia, Osteria del Circo at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and La Brea Bakery Café in L.A.
So the restaurant hired an Italian chef to cook Spanish cuisine — no big deal. Except that the kitchen didn't come close to nailing a decent paella. There should be a delicious, crispy layer of rice at the bottom of the pan (called socarrat), but this paella was a watery disaster. The rice was mushy, and the pieces of chicken nestled in the pan tasted undercooked. When an order of seafood paella landed at the table next to mine, the same problem was visible.
Besides that Spanish staple and a few other dishes, this menu plays it so safe that you'd be forgiven for not knowing that Prado is supposed to specialize in a certain cuisine.
Take the antipasto plate. A lovely platter, really, laden with Manchego cheese, nuts, fat green olives, tender, rosy slices of jamón serrano, a chunk of fig-almond cake, some sweet membrillo (quince paste), and breadsticks. Too bad those are default offerings at countless wine bars across town.
Same goes with the wood-fire-roasted beet salad. I'm rolling my eyes right now because there are so many restaurants serving beet salads these days that I've become a connoisseur by accident. Sadly, Prado's jumble of roasted red and yellow beets, watercress, Marcona almonds, acacia honey, and hazelnut oil could've been a contender if it weren't for the liberal dose of salt on the greens. Similarly, I can gorge on sautéed spinach, but my side dish of spinach with olive oil, garlic, and chili flakes was neither pungent nor spicy — just way too salty.
Meanwhile, I expected a lot more oomph from calamari a la plancha — that is, cooked on a hot metal plate. Even aioli, smoked Spanish paprika, and a tangle of fresh mizuna weren't enough to save it from startling blandness.
What was distinctively Spanish about wood-roasted bass with roasted carrots, turnips, yams, and onion? Delicately coated with breadcrumbs, parsley, and garlic, the fish was fresh, properly cooked, tasty in a basic way, and utterly unmemorable. I just wouldn't go out of my way for this.
A Kurobuta pork chop showed more promise — it was a great piece of meat, really juicy, with a sweet kiss of Muscat (an Andalusian specialty). I expected the side dish of brown rice to be studded with pine nuts and figs (as per the menu), but the funny thing was, there was literally one fig in it. Not a huge problem, just another small letdown.
Most intriguing about Prado's offerings was the sizeable list of daily specials, with a handful of apps and several entrees. It was basically a whole separate menu unto itself — much more seasonal, with more interesting ingredients.
I liked the sophisticated simplicity of ultra-fresh fava beans seared in the pod, with cardoon blossom honey, a dash of Cervia sea salt, and shavings of rich, sharp pecorino sardo cheese. I also appreciated the grass-fed NY steak, with a nicely caramelized crust and a drizzle of spicy-sweet cecchini mostarda glaze (a red pepper jelly made by Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini, famously profiled in Heat, Bill Buford's book about chef Mario Batali).
Another daily special caught my eye — John Dory with grilled onions, fregola (semolina pasta that resembles Israeli couscous), and oranges a la plancha — but it was poorly executed. The fish seemed to lack seasoning yet was doused in salt. Conversely, the fregola was bland and oily. And where were the onions that sounded so appetizing? None made it on to my plate.
It's ambitious of Urciuoli to offer so many seasonal dishes, but between those and the regular menu, he seems to be spreading himself too thin.
It was a welcome relief to tuck into scrumptious sweets like moist olive oil cake with raspberry coulis; flaky apple crostada with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream; and a chocolate tart filled with chocolate cream, sprinkled with sea salt, and teamed with a scoop of olive oil gelato. Still, they were perhaps a little too rustic. As with everything else here, I wished Prado would've pushed the envelope with desserts.
Beyond the food, I couldn't get over Prado's service — or lack thereof. I would've piped up about a lot of the issues, if only somebody would've taken the time to ask me how my dinner was. A few bites into the entrees, there were no servers in sight, and nobody showed up to clear the plates until well after the meal was finished.
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At a place this fancy, I expect my water glass to stay full, the wine and cocktails to keep coming, the napkin to be folded when I get up from the table. Isn't that part of what I'm paying for? Prado should be special-occasion good, and it didn't come close.
Recently, I found out that Prado is attempting to fix its front-of-the-house problems by bringing Pavle Milic on board as the new general manager. Currently the GM at Digestif in Scottsdale, he's well known in the restaurant scene as a hospitality pro who makes every guest feel like a star.
I hope Milic cracks the whip at Prado. If so, I might consider giving this place another chance in a few months.