Pity the humble chicken. Few edible creatures are so vastly consumed, yet so socially snubbed. We may roast a chicken for our relaxed family table and enjoy it greatly, but in nicer restaurants, we skip it. Real foodies, I hear again and again from my snootier friends, scorn the simple poultry when dining out. They want "important" food, like challenging fish, robust game meats, exotica. I've even read restaurant reviews criticizing people who would be so boring as to order chicken in a nice restaurant. The fowl is so disrespected, in fact, that disappointing meats are compared to it with a shrug and an accusation of blandness -- "It tastes like chicken."
I admit that I, too, shied away from the plain poultry for many years, until celebrating an epiphany at Young's Chicken Farm in Dewey several autumns ago. The birds raised here are free-range, fed only natural grains, and live a carefree life until they're sold to market or served up at the farm's adjacent Hungry Bear restaurant.
Does the happy existence make for a better bird? There's no question it does, I found, even as I felt a bit odd leaving the huge fan-cooled breeding barns to go to the restaurant next door for lunch (I'd just made friends with one particularly curious clucker, freeing him when he got his head stuck in the wire fence). Here I discovered that, whether it's herb-roasted, fried, packed into a potpie or chunked into salad, this meat is exquisitely moist and buttery, intensely savory and like no pallid grocery store cut I've ever found.
Today, no self-respecting upscale restaurant would dare serve ordinary chicken. At our classier places, the poultry even has a pedigree -- hailing from Young's Farm or, as on the current menu of the gourmet restaurants at The Phoenician Resort, Harrison Farm of Georgia. The specific name of the chicken ranch isn't so important as the fact that our entree spent its formative time in relative freedom, not stacked in crates, force-fed 24 hours a day and bloated with growth hormones.
I have a certain friend who appreciates the magical quality of chicken in a manner that's lovely to watch. When we go to fine places for a meal, most other members of my party will head straight for the fancier stuff; at The Phoenician's Windows on the Green, they'll lay claim to the expertly done cumin-ancho-rubbed pork chop with sun-dried tomato-green bean salad and leek-chipotle potatoes. At the resort's Terrace Dining Room, they'll fix on perfect pancetta-wrapped Atlantic salmon with Maine lobster, basil gnocchi and Chardonnay-lobster broth. This steady friend, though, often as not, settles with great contentment on the chicken.
Fussy friends don't know what they're missing. Windows on the Green recently emerged with a refreshed Southwestern decor and new menu focusing on Southwestern grill specialties. The Terrace has unveiled an updated menu of seasonal American specialties with Italian accents. The elegant cuisine is a standout -- the Windows' inventive watermelon gazpacho with candied celery chips, the Terrace's tomato gazpacho with peeky toe crab, cucumber and lemon-basil oil.
Yet my poultry friend and I have set out over a few evenings to explore The Phoenician's talents with simple chicken (the resort's third restaurant, the ultraluxe Mary Elaine's, doesn't serve the bird). We park in one of the resort's self-service lots, in fact, and utilize the Phoenician's complimentary golf cart shuttle to zip between restaurants on our taste tours.
What we find is outrageously good chicken. Chicken to honor all chickens. Chicken befitting two of the Valley's premier restaurants, where I don't even mind spending up to $28 for, well, chicken.
Part of the beauty of the Phoenician's roasted birds is that they're served bone-in and skin-on, an important flavoring agent for the breast cut, which too often arrives thick and dry. At Windows on the Green, the juicy, succulent pullet is lightly slicked with a fiery, sweet red chili-honey glaze and sided with punchy cilantro-corn mashed potatoes. The Terrace's version is more opulent, with the pungent, minty-lemon aroma of thyme in an earthy jus of black truffle. I eat the flesh, then the skin, precious piece by piece, savoring its immense fatty luxury and crisp crackling, scooping up the rich juices with forkfuls of creamy white-corn mashed potatoes and taut skinny green beans.
So some people still won't be chicken lovers. The Phoenician ranks as a destination for fine restaurant dining of all kinds. The views from both restaurants, cuddled in the foothills of Camelback Mountain, are splendors of Valley postcard scenery, the lush landscape of the resort and the Arcadia neighborhood below. This is cocoon ambiance, sparkling with such refined settings of white tablecloths, glamorous chandeliers, romantic lighting and cream-colored elegance.
See how mesmerizing routine romaine lettuce can be when treated with dignity and picked at its very freshest. At Windows, whole heart ribs are slathered with a vibrant, smoked, red jalapeño-Caesar dressing, salty crumbled cotija cheese and tortilla frizzles. At the Terrace, the classic dressing is enhanced with brightly bitter white anchovy fillets and Parmesan crisps. Even an often overlooked mixed-greens salad shines at Windows, with pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and tart-sweet prickly pear vinaigrette; the Terrace version joins candied walnuts with feta and sherry-walnut vinaigrette.
My fowl friend's second-favorite entree is steak, and he's not let down by the Windows' mesquite-grilled New York cut, generous and moistened with red wine sauce over mushrooms and roasted pearl onions. What sends me, though, is a stick-to-the-ribs side success of baked potato pie, a black cast-iron crock bubbling with potato chunks under an indulgent mantle of butter, sour cream, Cheddar and chives. I'm in for lamb lately, and a golf cart jaunt to the Terrace finds a winner -- the Colorado-bred meat (place of origin is as important for this tender meat as for chicken) is sensational. In a creative jaunt, it's served two ways: as an oversized braised lamb shank, fall-off-the-bone tender and studded with tart California olives, and as two Frenched, grilled chops cut thick and ringed with just a ribbon of fat for velvet tones. The juices meld with sides of creamy Reggiano polenta and braised root vegetables.
Neither of us a huge veal fan (yes, the images of tiny baby cows stuffed into tinier cages interrupt our appetites), we console ourselves with thoughts that, if the Phoenician supports free-range chickens, surely it liberates veal, too. Windows sends out an impressive hunk of meat in its T-bone, grilled and fulfilling with spicy chorizo-potato cake, plus a salad of sliced fresh peach, curls of poblano chile and carrot.
With such attention to the basics, I'm thinking that a smoked salmon salad I ate at the Terrace is a mistake. Or maybe I'm dizzy from golf cart capades. But the fish is extra-strong, curled over caper aioli that's more like harsh herbed cream cheese, yellow and red tomatoes, wands of toast with lemon wedges, and a cap of radish sprouts. Not bad, though -- only one failed dish in a feast of plenty.
A call to the Phoenician's public relations guru tells me that chicken is as popular as steak in the resort's restaurants; those are the top two dishes, in fact. The next time someone around me gets his nose in the air over humble chicken, I'm demanding dinner at the resort. And he's paying.
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