Like Scottsdale really needs another Ho, one more glamour gal about town who lives to slink sexily through Valley nightlife, turning heads, breakin' hearts and bleeding wallets dry. And yet, the newly revamped Hotel Valley Ho, with its recently completed $80 million face-lift and its George Jetson-Googie-Mid-Century swankiness, is really more akin to The Graduate's Mrs. Robinson. Think Demi Moore or Teri Hatcher, in today's parlance. A classy, experienced broad who could teach a young buck a thing or two.
The dolo dropped on the project has been well spent. From the blue neon signage that greets you as you check your car with the valet, to the curved bar and lounge area glowing with a reddish-orange backlight, and outside to the vast patio and pool area warmed by open fires, this lady puts a spring in your step, even if the lady is a tramp. With Dean Martin and Bobby Darin on the box, and gobs of eye candy around, it's the sort of spot you could imagine Robert Goulet kicking it with Triumph the Insult Dog over Scotch on the rocks. Or Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston canoodling on a sofa, if they haven't already.
See, the Valley Ho is like a cherry '57 Chevy Bel Air. It's been lovingly restored by the big shots at Westroc Hospitality, the muckety-mucks who maintain a little resort you may have heard of called Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain. And though the VH may have played hostess to the likes of Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe in the past, you never get that feeling of faded hipness, on which venerable hash shacks like El Chorro and the Pink Pony trade. At Valley Ho, you can actually delude yourself into believing that you've hopped in Christopher Lloyd's souped-up DeLorean and gone back to the future to party with the Rat Pack at the Sands during the filming of the original Ocean's Eleven.
In short, this inn is so cool that for the moment it hardly seems to matter that the menu at its main eatery, Café ZuZu, is as inconsistent as the Suns minus Amaré Stoudemire. I say "for the moment," because although this revivified VH is a guaranteed hit bar-wise, and bound to be the next "it" watering hole, swiping that mantle fair and square from The James, the kitchen needs to step up its game if it's to be worthy of the hotel's roadside sign stating "Good Eats Here." Also, the service lacks that snap, crackle and pop of efficiency. And in the long run, without these vital ingredients, the Valley Ho's pimps might as well scrap the cafe altogether, leaving the kitchen to peddle room service and bar snacks.
Maybe I should put it all down to working out the kinks. But Westroc has more money than God, and it should've already ironed out those kinks with one of its bricks of gold bullion. The first night I stopped by, the waiters and waitresses were walking around with glazed eyes and bumping into each other as if they'd just stepped out of Dawn of the Dead, without a manager in sight. Most of the servers seemed severely inexperienced, as if this were their first restaurant gig ever. You could sense their hesitancy and trepidation as they approached a table, or tried to avoid approaching it. I almost wanted to put my arm around them and say, "Don't be afraid. Come closer. I just want you to refill my water glass, sport."
To be fair, on subsequent visits, I lucked out and got the one veteran on duty, and I should add that any blame for poor service lies with the hotel, not with the servers. If you're going to hire 'em green, it's your job to train them.
Café ZuZu is in the far back of the hotel's first floor, past the retro-chic lounge and bar. It's not closed off by dividers, so you can witness some of the martini-swilling and elbow rubbing in the distance or on the patio. But by comparison to the lounge, the cul-de-sac Café ZuZu occupies is a little ho-hum. Sure, there are faux rock walls, faux wood-grain tables, and rust-hued circular booths. The same finger-poppin' tunes are piped in, yet the somewhat staid space gives one the impression it could quickly be converted to accommodate a Lions Club meeting.
Comfort food is ZuZu's putative métier, but it's not one it's mastered. Some items are better than you'll get at a regular diner, like the mac 'n' cheese with Tillamook Cheddar and strips of ham, the beanless bowl of chili with thick hunks of tender sirloin in a spicy broth, and the gourmet meat loaf, a blend of veal and beef ground so smooth that it's radically different from the coarser version Mom usually drowns in tomato sauce. No ketchup needed here, as there's a rich mushroom and veal stock sauce that tops it. ZuZu also nails such classics as spaghetti and meatballs. And the French fries are house-cut and twice-fried. I like, I like.
I also dug the grits, made cheesy with mascarpone, although I would've appreciated them minus the mascarpone as well. The broiled plum tomatoes were simple, sweet and tasty. But what was the deal with the steamed clams, served cracked, with at least one or two shut tight both times I ordered them? Those that're closed should be removed, and I can't enjoy the garlicky broth if my tongue keeps catching a jagged bit of broken shell.
Too many of the entrees were flawed. Take the chicken and dumplings, where the dumplings were adequate, but the gravy not as thick or as flavorful as it should have been; or the tuna noodle casserole with egg noodles and breadcrumbs, but no cheese?! Like they say in Wisconsin, the cheese makes the hot dish. The beef stroganoff? Needed more sour cream. And the signature ZuZu burger? Oddly dry, and on a stiff, slightly stale-tasting bun.
Save for the root beer float and the huge, decadent piece of devil's food cake, the desserts seemed off their mark. The meringue on the lemon meringue pie was flatter than Kevin Spacey's toupee in Beyond the Sea. And the apple pie with a slice of melted Tillamook was passable, but why melt the cheese and leave the pie itself cold? Bizarre. But then, most Scottsdale chicks look oh-so-hot at first, but leave you dissatisfied in the end. Why should this Valley Ho be any different?
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