Moriah, Renaissance Cottonwoods Resort, 6160 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 991-1414. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
Michelangelo complained about it when he was painting the Sistine Chapel for the pope. Mozart complained about it when he was composing for the Archbishop of Salzburg. Orson Welles complained about it when he was making movies for RKO.
The problem? Meddling bosses telling artists what to do.
To their dismay, most artists find they can't bankroll their own work. They need commissions, backers, distributors. But the patrons of the arts who control the purse strings tend to think that their money gives them the right to interfere with their artists' creative visions. That's why the Church ordered the nudes in Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" to be clothed, why Mozart called his years toiling in backwater Salzburg "slavery" and why studio executives added a dopey happy ending to Welles' dark masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons.
There's another class of artists who may feel unhappy about this kind of meddlesome attention from above: chefs at the Valley's high-end resort restaurants.
They don't have the freedom of chef/proprietors who call their own shots. If you run your own place, you can put any gastronomic theory to the marketplace test. Think the world is ready for nouvelle Tibetan specialties? How about Bedouin-Italian fusion fare, or maybe an all-ostrich-meat menu? As long as your money holds out, you don't have to answer to anyone.
Resort chefs, however, are salaried employees. They have to clear just about every part of the restaurant operation with higher-ups whose primary interest is putting fannies in dining-room seats, not trying to make a culinary splash. Management doesn't want to drive off deep-pocketed guests with a menu that might be too bold or too different. Why take risks? That's why at tony Valley resorts (with a few notable exceptions), the fare tends to be remarkably dull.
At Moriah, however, the chef offers several indications that there's a talent here that ought to be given a little more scope and opportunity. The small, play-it-safe menu doesn't give him much space to maneuver, but when it does, he takes advantage.
Like the menu, the room also could use some livening up. Wrinkled, unpressed tablecloths don't make a very good impression. Neither do chipped glasses. The abstract paintings on the wall look like the kind of art you see for sale on the street corners of major intersections. The red-flowered carpet seems better suited to a Turkish bordello than to a casual resort restaurant. For some inexplicable reason, management chooses to serenade diners with enervating Strauss waltzes. If you're descended from the Hapsburgs, you may be thrilled. Otherwise, you'll have to fight the urge to slumber. And don't worry about being underdressed. Many of the guests, and even the host, wear shorts.
While the appetizer list doesn't exhibit much flair, the nibbles themselves are well-crafted. Smoked-salmon quesadillas are as wild as the kitchen gets. Five mini tortilla disks, fresh and crunchy, come stuffed with a thick slice of smoked fish, tomatoes, sour cream and guacamole. They're quite enjoyable. So are the fresh mozzarella and roma tomatoes in a zippy pesto vinaigrette, served with focaccia. Three crisp crab cakes had a right-out-of-the-skillet taste. And the chef puts together a tempting seafood chowder, a briny broth with a welcome chile kick, stocked with aquatic life and veggies.
Main-dish staples like lamb chops with mint sauce, roasted chicken and grilled salmon don't give a kitchen much chance to showcase its prowess. But elsewhere on the menu I glimpsed intriguing flashes of ability.
The robust prickly pear chicken actually manages to make poultry exciting. It's a grilled breast topped with havarti cheese, smoothed with an effectively sweet prickly pear sauce. The platter is boosted by a wonderful tomato-basil linguini sharpened with a chipotle pepper beurre blanc that packs a sinus-clearing chile punch. There's no shortage of vigorous flavors in this dish.
Grilled chicken plays a supporting role in a first-rate pasta entree. It accompanies fettuccine studded with black beans and peppers, seasoned with herbs and olive oil, then tossed in a perky tomatillo-cilantro vinaigrette. (This dish would work as a cold salad, too.)
Grilled prawn tacos are another variation on the Southwestern theme. You get five hard-shell corn tortillas filled with good-quality shrimp, jicama and cucumber. The Southwestern touch is less effective with the trout, which is overpowered by a heavy cilantro lime sauce.
Like every resort restaurant, Moriah offers steak. But the beef here has two qualities you don't often find elsewhere. First, the meat is graded prime. Second, it's affordable. A 20-ounce New York strip in a peppercorn port wine sauce checks in at less than 20 bucks; a smaller strip, in a hearty wild mushroom sauce, goes for $14.95. If you're in the mood for a plate of animal protein, Moriah is worth considering.
If you're in the mood for sweets, it's not. The mud pie is a loser, a frozen confection with the texture of ice crystals and none of the promised amaretto or Kahla flavors. The margarita cheesecake fails to pass my calorie-to-taste test. And the hackneyed Southwestern apple crisp, a fried tortilla filled with apples and coated with raspberry and chocolate sauces, seems principally designed to impress first-time tourists from Milwaukee.
At the moment, Moriah is probably good enough to keep most Renaissance Cottonwoods Resort guests from straying elsewhere to eat. But if the bosses work a bit on the room, find someone to make worthy desserts and give the chef an opportunity to stretch his skills, they may someday see locals jockeying with out-of-towners for dining-room seats.
Shells, Marriott's Mountain Shadows Resort, 5641 East Lincoln Drive, Paradise Valley, 948-7111. Hours: Dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
As you walk to your car after dining at this upscale resort, you'll hear every Mountain Shadows employee you encounter sing out, "Have a nice evening."
It's a pleasant touch. I'm sure folks would love staying at this beautiful place. I'm not so sure they'd be quite as excited to eat at Shells.
As the name suggests, Shells is a seafood restaurant. Most everything is competently done. Almost nothing is interesting. After working my way through the menu, I got the feeling that Shells' operating philosophy is, "Let's not scare anyone off." It's a creed beloved by management, but one that few chefs would rush to embrace.
The breadbasket, a lackluster mix of institutional rolls, biscuits, lahvosh and breadsticks, is an indication of things to come. The pricey, $12 "Shellsational Sampler" appetizer platter comes with two coconut shrimp in a watery sweet-and-sour ginger sauce that has no bite; two grilled shrimp without a trace of the promised Cajun spice; and two crab legs. Oddly enough, the platter's best item hails from dry land. It's the beef tenderloin, two luscious cold slices paired with a teriyaki sauce with "Shells" spelled out in green wasabi letters. Oysters Rockefeller, a standard seafood-restaurant starter, is another innocuous way to edge into dinner.
Main dishes are generally a snoozy lot, confirming my belief that if you want lively aquatic fare in this town, you're best off going for ethnic seafood. (Check out, for example, the Chinese seafood at C-Fu Gourmet, the Mexican seafood at San Carlos Bay or the Italian seafood at Il Pescatore.)
One entree that will snap you out of your torpor is the baked halibut. It's wrapped with phyllo dough and stuffed with crab, shrimp and boursin cheese. Sides of asparagus and lentil-studded rice pilaf also keep your attention focused.
Louisiana swordfish also does its best to keep you from nodding off. It's a blackened slab, moist on the inside, topped with a few crayfish and an inoffensive hollandaise. Someone needs to remind the kitchen, however, that the black beans it's teamed with need to be cooked beyond al dente.
Unfortunately, other preparations don't have much flair at all. There's nothing wrong with the expertly grilled salmon, but the one-dimensional cranberry topping won't set any hearts racing. And the fish is set atop a mound of pasta unimaginatively seasoned only with butter and mint flakes.
The same lack of robust flavors afflicts the grilled scallops sate. Six unremarkable scallops are paired with rotelli that purportedly has been invigorated by a Thai peanut vinaigrette. Maybe so, but you'd need the nose of a bloodhound to pick up any of the scent.
Grilled ahi tuna is on every menu in town, and the unexceptional version here doesn't distinguish itself from the pack. And for my taste, the slices of cold mandarin orange that accompany it might just as well have been left in the can.
Australian lobster tails turned out to be a very expensive disappointment. For 35 bucks, I expect sweet, juicy perfection. Instead, this crustacean turned out tough, and its meat had an unpleasant bitter aftertaste, as well.
Like the rest of the meal, dessert doesn't make many demands on the kitchen, or much of an impression on diners. There's a rich creme brulee, a heavy chocolate walnut torte and low-quality chocolate macadamia pie, all of which you'll forget by the time you reach the Mountain Shadows parking lot.
When it comes to Valley seafood restaurants, Shells isn't a last resort. But it's not where I'll be dropping my line.
Chocolate walnut torte
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6160 N. Scottsdale Rd.
Paradise Valley, AZ 85253