Say the name Frank Lloyd Wright, and suddenly I'm 18 again, new to New York City and stressing out about one of my very first college assignments. I have no idea how I'm going to write five pages about the famed architect's glorious Guggenheim Museum a smooth white spiral rising from a long, low stretch of façade along New York's Fifth Avenue so I shiver on a park bench across the street from it, taking notes and making sketches for an entire afternoon.
Since moving to Phoenix, I also think of Taliesin West and the Wright-influenced Arizona Biltmore if someone mentions him. Wright's long been the namesake for the fine-dining establishment at the Biltmore, too, though I've never associated his name with food. For all of the restaurants I've been to in the seven years I've lived here, I'd never once gone there to eat. Frankly, it wasn't even on my short list of must-tries.
Recently, though, things have changed, and I've been excited to check the place out.
Wright's at the Biltmore
2400 East Missouri Avenue
Bosc pear and Maytag blue cheese tart: $11
Apple glazed duck breast: $19
Poached monkfish: $30
Duo of Colorado lamb: $34
602-955-6600, web link.
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 6 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wrights at the Biltmore,
2400 East Missouri Avenue, 602-955-6600, www.arizonabiltmore.com. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 6 to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Last fall, after renovations, Wright's reopened as Wright's at the Biltmore, unveiling a new menu concept that executive chef Michael Cairns and chef de cuisine Matt Alleshouse call American Lodge Cuisine. From the sound of that, you might expect edible architecture, with cantilevered entrees that evoke Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania. Sure, the presentations are lovely, but they're not that elaborate. If anything, think of an earthier, more noble connotation of "lodge," with sophisticated preparations of trout and buffalo, and seasonally fresh ingredients from the country's finest boutique farms. It somehow evokes hunting and foraging, but in an exquisite way.
Wright's is situated at one end of the Biltmore's main building, past the lobby and beyond a lively bar and lounge area, where a pianist was entertaining a crowd of drinkers and schmoozers on the nights I stopped by. Walking into the dining room, I couldn't help but stare at the high, dramatic ceiling, glowing with gold leaf and framed by sculptural-concrete Biltmore Blocks. One side of the room had floor-to-ceiling windows, with an illuminated view of a garden and fountain just outside. High-backed, dark-wood Mackintosh chairs were interspersed with round seats upholstered in a soft shade of bluish gray, and tables draped in cream-colored cloths were set with square plates, art deco-inspired wine glasses, and geometric votives. It was a classy, relaxing atmosphere.
From smiling hostesses and friendly, attentive servers to bread stewards who were eager to keep loading up my plate with warm garlic ciabatta, the service at Wright's was truly topnotch. Employees pulled off just the right balance of courtesy, professionalism, and warmth. I especially enjoyed visits from wine steward Philman Chan, who was as amiable with strangers as he was knowledgeable about wine.
Settled in at my table with good company, a nice bottle of pinot, and plenty of fresh-from-the-oven bread that tasted even better than it smelled, I was pretty content. But once the starters began to arrive, I felt that rush of curiosity and excitement that comes with each new bite. Like the escargot turnovers, for example. I've certainly eaten my share of flaky, golden pastries before, and escargot are familiar, too. But what about a filling of Oregon basil-fed escargot? Talk about incredible flavors these snails were something to be celebrated, not disguised, and a drizzle of pesto and lemon oil made the basil taste even more vibrant. Parmesan and Gruyère cream added richness without overwhelming the other ingredients.
Another stunning appetizer offered variations on the theme of duck. Thin pieces of smoked carpaccio were arranged on a plate, beneath slices of apple-glazed duck breast and a tangle of frisée salad, which had smoky chunks of confit hidden in it like buried treasures. Nestled atop all of that was a perfectly caramelized foie gras with a molten middle. So many discoveries in such a minuscule dish.
Less innovative but still pleasing were two enormous caramelized Diver scallops resting in a creamy heap of sweet corn orzo, which had the fragrance of Parmesan. Served with mache greens and a squiggle of white beet and horseradish sauce, the dish was an exercise in subtlety. Sweet, smoky, and spicy versions of ahi tartare, along with a pile of purple Tolleson potato chips, comprised the rather straightforward ahi tasting. Meanwhile, the Bosc pear and Maytag blue cheese tart nicely offset buttery pastry and rich cheese with tender fruit, sweet mini Compari tomatoes, and a faintly tart wine vinaigrette. It was topped with baby greens and crushed roasted pecans.
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Among the main courses, I'd be hard-pressed to pick a favorite, because each one I tried had something distinctive. What made the Colorado lamb dish especially good was a zesty chickpea ragout with lamb demi-glace and a tangy mint vinaigrette. Resting on top of it was a lamb loin chop that looked like a tiny T-bone, and moist slices of tenderloin. The thick prime filet of beef tenderloin had a "crust" of sweet onions and blue cheese that was actually moist and creamy, lending the meat an even richer taste. And juicy pieces of seared red trout filet, stacked on top of a root vegetable ragout, came with homemade gnocchi that had a soft Dijon kick. The whole thing was finished with Chardonnay butter and a spoonful of red caviar.
Wright's let monkfish finally transcend its reputation as poor-man's lobster, serving up poached fish that was more tender and flavorful than lobster could ever hope to be. (Granted, it got a boost from lobster aioli and saffron foam.) I loved the shallot tart and sweet, delicate mussels that accompanied it. And as for the aged buffalo loin, it had the kind of seared, caramelized exterior that needed no embellishment. That said, it was great with a dab of rosemary jus and forkfuls of white-cheddar mashed Yukon potatoes.
While none of the dishes resembled architecture, one dessert did remind me of abstract art: the "Elegance," a dessert vignette of moist hazelnut cake, orange marmalade in a pastry spoon, prickly-pear sorbet in a doll-size bowl made of sugar, and assorted other sweets. Mascarpone cheesecake was surprisingly dense and almost fudgy, served with roasted strawberries and vanilla pistachio ice cream. And the soufflés were outstanding, served hot and moist and ready to be deflated with a spoon. The best one was a seasonal peppermint flavor, filled with melted bits of candy and served with a light chocolate crème anglaise.
From now on, if someone brings up Frank Lloyd Wright, I'll think tarts instead of Taliesin, foie gras instead of Fallingwater. It's probably heresy to say this, but American Lodge Cuisine completely eclipses its venerable surroundings. And for people who care more about fine dining than art deco, that's a very good thing.