Lady Luck has opened a kitchen just east of Scottsdale. The new Casino Arizona on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community is home to Cholla, an upscale restaurant, and Salt River Cafe, a casual eatery. While there's no guarantee of a payoff with the casino's slots, cards, off-track betting, keno or bingo, quality dining at either restaurant is a sure bet.
All the elements of a successful evening out are there: complimentary valet parking; a comfortable setting; polished, unobtrusive service; and noteworthy cuisine. After dinner, there's a bonus -- built-in entertainment. Even if gambling's not your game, the show by the Elvis impersonator and the Temptations masqueraders is great fun. Better, it's free -- playing twice nightly in the cushy lounge adjacent to Cholla (but hurry, the no-cover intro special is just until the end of March).
Is this Las Vegas? It might as well be; smaller and less flashy, sure, but with the same relatively refined ambiance and fine dining that have come to define contemporary Nevada casinos. At $50 million to build, Casino Arizona certainly doesn't feel like an Arizona casino. This is the big time, in a league above our other casinos -- Apache Gold in Globe, Bucky's in Prescott, Cliff Castle in Camp Verde, and Fort McDowell north of Fountain Hills, to name a few.
There's been a mini-boom in casinos here lately, spurred by a sweet deal that former governor Fife Symington signed in 1993. When he opened up tribal gambling then, the Fifester neglected to demand that the casinos pay state tax. Currently, Arizona's 19 casinos rake in more than $500 million a year, with nary a penny to state coffers. But an end is looming -- tribal contracts begin to expire in two years, and the state is proposing taxation. Officers of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association, meanwhile, are proposing that only new gaming facilities -- those opening after 2003 -- should face the tax. The rush to build is on, it seems, before the cash cow quits giving milk. Casino building, in fact, currently is the state's fastest growing business, according to the Arizona Department of Gaming's 2000 Annual Report.
But this is one time Fife's ineptitude works to our benefit. Because the Indians pay no tax, they charge no tax, either. On a meal that averages $85 for two -- an easy tab at Cholla -- I figure Fife has bought me an extra glass of Teifen Pinot Grigio.
Or an appetizer, such as crispy fresh grilled asparagus with prosciutto and shredded phyllo napped in a zippy citrus vinaigrette. Cholla's starter choices are rich and varied -- sweet lobster and shrimp puff pastry on a lush, fire-roasted red pepper cream; fat chile rellenos with forest mushroom duxelles and smoky Gouda corn sauce; and Gulf shrimp, firm and bathed in an assertive chipotle barbecue sauce that's tempered by forkfuls of grilled pineapple salsa.
Savory corn cakes are excellent intros as well, at presentation looking for all the world like a mound of field greens slicked with delicate herb vinaigrette. But dig, and unearth a team of tasty petite rounds stuffed to bursting with grilled kernel corn. These jewels are pan-seared to a golden casing, and lounge on a plate littered with chopped walnuts, sumptuous cubed, roasted beets, and dots of creamy Laura Chenel goat cheese, a California boutique product.
Onion soup would be just as impressive if it had arrived hot -- in a neat trick, the bowl itself sears your fingers, but its contents are just above lukewarm. Lots of gooey aged Sonoma jack cheese makes for fine sustenance even so, paired with a mass of pumpernickel garlic croutons and whole mini bulbs of white onion in a truly sweet beef broth.
Bread would benefit so much, too, from a stint in the warming oven. Here's a yeasty feast: full-bodied jalapeño cheese bread, crumbly soft bleu cheese crackers, black olive bread and robust sourdough. Served cold, though, the bread only hints at its harbored flavors, and isn't helped much by a too-whipped red chile butter. The dairy topping is so airy it tastes of gauzy margarine mixed roughly with chili powder.
It's difficult to complain, however, since our server, concerned that our appetizers came out of the kitchen perhaps 10 minutes late, has offered to buy us dessert. Engrossed in conversation, and analyzing the breadbasket, we didn't notice, but what the hell? Forget the dollar slots, we just hit the jackpot.
Cholla has a menu that would be commendable for any independent "name" eatery, no less a Valley casino, with main courses including pheasant. The pan-roasted bird, farm raised for mild flavor, marries cabernet-cassis (black currant) with roasted shallots, zipped with sides of cranberry-apple conserve and vegetable couscous. Yow. Even chicken dresses up, thanks to a feisty sweet garlic pan sauce and blissfully bitter sautéed spinach.
Elk isn't found on many menus around town, because of limited demand. Maybe it's just me, but all of the people I've known who profess a love of this gamy meat have hunted down their dinners themselves, and with great machismo. Perhaps the challenge of pointing a supercharged shotgun at a living creature armed only with antlers makes its death all that more delectable. Because even as competently prepared as Cholla's giant cut of elk is, it's still just slightly musty, vaguely dry meat, accented with applewood smoked bacon and grilled onions. Matchstick yam, red and green pepper, and grilled white green beans make pretty partners, but shiitake artichoke risotto has gone gummy.
Cholla's veal chop quashes any indecision over whether to order fancy or familiar. Go familiar, and enjoy an excellent cut of baby bovine, rubbed with roasted garlic and thyme on a puddle of white truffle demi-glace. Fresh salty spinach is nice, but Yukon gold potato compote is stellar, combining chunked bits of potato and creamy mashed tubers, dotted with confetti of chopped carrot and whole white corn kernels.
Even the worst date would end on a good note after a few spoonfuls of Cholla's luxurious double chocolate mousse. Taste, in your mind's eye, a rich chocolate cookie crust, topped with milk chocolate mousse, and capped with white chocolate mousse. The creamy creation is -- purposely -- slightly frozen in the middle, an approach I hope to see a lot more of at other restaurants. Finishing the plate are dollops of whipped cream, chocolate shavings, cocoa dusting and stripes of raspberry coulis.
Kicking back with coffee, it's almost impossible to believe we're in a gambling hall in the middle of the desert between Scottsdale and Mesa. Feeling very VIP in the clubby room (just 10 or so tables), we're surrounded by cherry wood walls, leather and velvet-look banquettes, a dramatic wall of colorful art, and a soaring, leaded glass wall separating us from the slots. Even with the tiny room, Cholla's got four chefs working the gleaming chrome exposition kitchen.
Now that's the real luck of the gnaw.
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