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Season's Eatings

Arizona Kitchen is renowned for its Southwestern cuisine.
Lokey

For many years, my family celebrated the holidays by ourselves. All the major groups of relatives were located 38 hours away by car so we rarely saw them. Most of our interactions with cousins and aunts and uncles took place via the U.S. Postal Service. Then came cheap airfares. And I began to see why my folks had moved away in the first place.

The annual pilgrimage of distant relatives and old college friends hits its peak between Christmas and New Year's and with it comes the formal responsibility of coordinating ceremonial dining and toasting.

And certainly there are many tempting options for impressive dining in the Valley. With relatives you don't see much, it's important to take them somewhere a bit pricey so you can conclude the meal with the ageless game of trying to pick up the check.

Putting down the plastic for such an event is the ultimate proof that you are gainfully employed and creates a temporary wave of good gossip about you among the aunts and uncles that should last until the family reunion next summer. That's money well spent.

This season, I took my dining party to the Arizona Kitchen at the Wigwam Resort on Litchfield Road, an elegant restaurant that has won the Mobil Four Star dining award for the last three years with its notable Southwestern cuisine. The resort's tranquil setting adds to the celebratory mood with an entrance lined with luminarias and towering palm trees wrapped in white lights.

Executive Chef Jon Hill's mettle was tested during his stint as the White House chef under Nancy Reagan and that president with all the hair. (I think we can all imagine some of the demands Hill faced.)

Since then, Hill's gone on to turn the Arizona Kitchen into a must-try stop for devotees of Southwestern cuisine of the highest level. After extensive ethnobotanical research, he's created a menu that utilizes traditional regional ingredients like chiles, corn, squash, mesquite flour and quinoa. Rest assured that everything is under control at the Arizona Kitchen (or AZK as the staff refers to it) and it still deserves accolades.

The room is intimate with a rustic adobe fireplace and a spotless display kitchen just a few feet from the tables. Here, the culinary staff busies itself creating your dinner, often with the twirling of tongs and dramatic bursts of flames. (Whenever they bent over the stove, I worried their toques might catch fire.) They all look very serious, but on one visit, the room was quiet enough that we could hear the chefs talking softly to each other. They were guessing what we might order. Observing the busy kitchen activity is an appealing part of the dining experience here, a bit like watching your favorite cooking show on the television but with an opportunity to actually taste the results (and take the leftovers home).

We began the evening at AZK with an appetizer that turned out to be perhaps the best thing on the menu: the warm artichoke heart and goat cheese tartlet. Surrounded with decorative splashes of roasted red beet and lemon oils, it's as lovely to look at as to taste. I'd drive all the way out west to the resort just to try it again.

The wood-roasted quail breast piled atop a vertical column of goat cheese orzo is another notable appetizer. (Goat cheese is a popular ingredient throughout the menu.) I found myself chasing every bit of the pomegranate molasses glaze so intently that my spoon was playing the drum solo to "Wipeout" on the plate. (Or so my wife claims.)

Having had such good luck so far, we proceeded to the shrimp quesadilla. The dish boasts an intense but pleasant smoky flavor mixed with a spicy jalapeño Asadero cheese. Better still, though, are the lobster and shrimp pasta tacos filled with marinated peppers, yellow tomatoes and a zesty piñon sauce.

One thing that boosts a good restaurant to a higher level is when the chef searches out and uses only the freshest ingredients. Nowhere are results of this more evident than in the salad options. The crisp baby greens and goat cheese salad is beautifully presented with a smoked apple-lime dressing. The wild greens with grilled quail is perky with a sun-dried blueberry and cactus relish, plus a smoked tomato vinaigrette. I'm most partial to the desert greens, topped with grilled squashes, jicama and tomatoes. The chipolte citrus dressing on the side gives it a nice kick in the pants.

On any cold winter evening in the desert (I've lived here long enough to be able to say that the evenings are cold, not cool), a marvelous way to warm up is with one of the hearty soups. The servers are quick to tell you that the smoked corn chowder is so good, the recipe hasn't changed in the restaurant's years of operation. And they're right. It is good. So satisfying, it inspires one of the chefs to use green and brown sauces to draw a decorative scene of an adobe house surrounded with saguaro cacti atop the soup.

When I asked about the wild boar Anasazi bean chili, my server warned me twice that it was very spicy. Not so on the night I sampled it. It's a dish that's not about being spicy, but rather balancing the flavors of the wild boar with the Anasazi beans. Paired with a tantalizing hunk of blue-corn bread, it's a comforting dish that will take the chill off.

Part of the intrigue of Southwestern cuisine is the new vocabulary that appears on the menu. Take the sautéed Chilean mero, one of the restaurant's most popular dishes. Mero is a type of sea bass. And it is skillfully prepared -- dusted in mesquite flour, piled atop herb mashed potatoes and splashed with a passion fruit mulato chile sauce.

Each dish is complex in its own unique way. Fortunately, the servers here are exceptionally well-trained and informative. They patiently answered our questions and as they presented the finished items, always reminded us what the ingredients were. The hospitality is flawless.

Seafood and pasta lovers should go with the sautéed Guaymas shrimp over firm achiote pasta. The grain mustard jalapeño cream sauce with roasted tomatoes and green chiles is mild and filling. The pan-seared veal medallions with a wild mushrooms sauce and polenta will satisfy and delight any meat lover, as will the grilled venison chops. Paired with a vanilla bean soufflé, the chops are appealing and flavor-packed.

The least successful entrée is the grilled lamb loin chops. While the lamb chops are tender and placed atop a lovely sun-dried blueberry syrah sauce, the dish is overpowered by the strong flavors of the goat cheese quesadilla filled with al dente black beans. Each item on your plate is delicious, but in combination, it's the quesadilla that speaks the loudest, not the lamb.

The two desserts I've sampled must be mentioned because they are perfect distant-relative pleasers. The showcase chocolate taco presents a thick "taco shell" of dark chocolate, stuffs it with fresh strawberries and a chocolate Kahlua mousse. The result is surrounded by concentric circles of multi-flavored fruit purees. It reminds me of a Georgia O'Keeffe watercolor of a sunrise I saw once. Both the painting and the chocolate taco remain unforgettable in my mind now.

The guajillo chile ice cream is also a work of art. The ice cream arrives in a transparent freeform turquoise bowl. Lovely. Then the waiter reveals that the clear blue bowl is made of edible sugar. At this point, every diner sits up and pays closer attention. If the hand-blown glass sculptor Dale Chihuly ever were to switch to using food as his medium, the result will look like this. A few words about the ice cream. Because the guajillo chile can be very hot, the Southwestern cooks sometimes refer to it the travieso ("mischievous") chile. The mischief here takes place in the kitchen because the resulting ice cream is both sweet and spicy, hot and cold. All at the same time.

The week between Christmas and New Year's is the perfect time to put your own distant-relative plan into action. While others around us are worrying about Y2K, I'll be making plans to visit the AZK again.


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