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Yippee Kai Yea

Kai (and its adjacent Kai Bar) brings innovative Native American cooking back to the Arizona desert.
Jackie Mercandetti

Sometimes I think I'll go nuts if I'm faced with another plate of ho-hum restaurant chicken-and-vegetables, steak-and-potatoes, or fish-and-pasta. So the opportunity to try something new – and not just a new restaurant, but a new style of cooking altogether – has me champing at the bit. I can't wait to try the new cuisine at Kai, the latest creation of James Beard Award-winning chef Janos Wilder.

Already nationally celebrated for his innovative French-Southwestern Janos restaurant in Tucson, Wilder has found another intriguing combination here: fine dining drawn from our state's Native American heritage, but with Mexican, Pacific Rim and European touches.

The inspiration is so obvious – Arizona's indigenous foods – it makes you wonder that no one's tried it before. But what exactly did our aboriginal residents eat? Fry bread, for example, is not a traditional Native American food, no matter how much the treat is associated with local Indians today. Fry bread is something the Indians came up with trying to create something edible from the weak rations our government shoved on them after herding them to reservation camps in the 1800s. Before they were forced to survive on federal commodities like white flour and lard, Native Americans ate the good stuff: sweet corn, squash, melons, fresh fish and venison.

But Kai isn't really trying to re-create that indigenous diet. Desert dwellers living here before the turmoil of Manifest Destiny probably weren't enjoying diver scallops, lobster and duck. And even if they did have access to scallops, I doubt that they would have seared them as Kai does, set atop wild rice with chipotle muscat sauce, Spanish chorizo, candied orange zest and Sevruga caviar.

There's really nothing traditional about the restaurant at the new Wild Horse Pass Resort on the Gila River Indian reservation ("Kai" is a Pima word for "seed"). But that's why it's so exciting, unexpected, and completely refreshing. Since Kai opened in October, it's grabbed my vote as one of our Valley's best upscale restaurants.

Wilder has come up with a delicious blending of the traditional and the modern, working with the reservation's resident Pima and Maricopa tribes to capture their "historical essence," but he's made those basics more interesting for modern mouths. He harvests the finest of the reservation's 35,000 acres of land and aqua farms to stock Kai's kitchen with fresh local fish, wheat, melons, pistachios, olives, citrus and vegetables. But he doesn't try to turn those ingredients into classic Native American fare such as stewed groundhog or pemmican, dried meat pounded into a paste and once valued highly since it never got any worse than the day it was made.

Though Wilder has since returned to running his Tucson business, Kai's chef de cuisine, Sandy Garcia, is doing a fantastic job with his vision. From nut-and-fruit-studded bread to fresh ground coffee, Kai is even more interesting than I could have hoped. Dishes come looking like earth and sky, and tasting of heaven.

"My chicken is blue," Elisabeth announces. She's studying the dinner plate our server has just placed before her, and indeed, there's a distinct azure shade to the breast, trimmed French style and looking like a huge, plump blueberry lollipop.

"It's almost purple," I muse, fascinated by the colorful portrait that is my sister's dinner. The blue bird is just one Crayola statement on her plate, contrasting sides of orange-hued potatoes, pine green garden leaves, and a riot of vegetables in candy apple red, gold and olive casts. She cuts into the indigo poultry, and discovers yet another rainbow, a pale green ribbon specked with scarlet running through the meat.

The sapphire stuff Elisabeth contemplates is a finely chopped coat of crisp blue corn tortilla chips. The pumpkin hue in the spuds comes from mashed sweet potatoes, laced with smoky chipotle and sugary molasses; the hunter green is wilted spinach leaf. The red and yellow are pear tomatoes, the olive tinge is slabs of tender chayote (Aztec gourd), and that poultry ribbon is minced chiles in butter. With the flurry of color comes explosive taste and texture, too -- moist, crunchy, fluffy, al dente, gentle and sharp with chile heat spiked in alternating bites.

The olive oil that starts our meal is grown and pressed on-site, and dotted with sesame and pumpkin seeds. We slather it over superb crusty bread, crunchy and sweet-tart with apricots and pumpkin seed, or cranberries and hazelnuts. Kai also provides fantastic freebies, too, each pre-dinner nibble as intricate as an entree. A tiny square of grilled ahi is rubbed in rust-colored achiote on a bed of roasted corn, wild rice, diced tomato and a drizzle of chihuacle-negro (a rare Oaxacan chile). And beef tenderloin brings a miniature cube piled over decadently fresh mushrooms, mango relish, port-soaked pears, crumbled blue cheese, guajillo oil vinaigrette (a delicate chile) and chihuacle-negro.

My visit to Kai is the first time in quite a while that I've found salmon I truly crave, the moist fillet grilled to a crunchy skin glazed in a subtle maple broth, alongside creamy pumpkin risotto so perfect it could be a main dish, and bittersweet cippolini onions. Rack of lamb is expertly done on its own, enhanced even more with a chunky pecan-crust, a chubby round of mushroom-infused cornbread pudding, and a mole sauce fashioned from ingredients supplied by Native Seeds SEARCH (a Tucson-based nonprofit that protects and cultivates ancient indigenous agricultural methods). Wilder's interpretation of steak and potatoes is innovative, too, grilling a large, bone-in New York strip with melting rounds of multi-green chili butter, alongside bacon-chile creamed corn and crisp, garlic-drizzled gaufrettes (thin, latticed potato wafers).

Some touches are purely lavish, such as a lobster fry bread appetizer, the thin dough capped with an entire four-ounce Maine lobster tail instead of the meager seafood chunks I'd anticipated, plus roasted corn, avocado and garlic butter. Another entire, butter-braised lobster tail comes paired with seared ahi, presented on a bed of mashed potatoes and a splash of carrot broth. And shrimp cocktail is more dramatic than usual, the jumbo shrimp dressed in spicy tomato broth poured from a silver martini shaker. There's nothing I don't love, in fact, from chicken soup, bringing fistfuls of breast with blue and white hominy, pico de gallo and just a splash of rich stock, to a tender leg of shredded quail wrapped in bacon, then mounded with caramelized onion and corn purée on a johnnycake.

Did our state's original residents feast on desserts such as these? Kai's signature confection, a bombe, arrives as a pyramid layered with chocolate and caramel and with a cap of spun sugar and a flute of rich bananas Foster milk shake served alongside. Fry bread takes a sweet twist this time, topped with Kahlúa ice cream, soda shop frills, pecans and strawberries.

Yes, the whole Kai thing is spellbinding, and even more remarkable considering it's tucked into a Sheraton out in the middle of nowhere. Elisabeth and I had to drive for a long time on I-10 toward Tucson, two miles south of that last bastion of civilization, Chandler Boulevard. We had to pass by the magnet of Wild Horse Pass, its glittery-smoky casino, with "hot" slots, "fast action" poker, "live" keno and "high-stakes" bingo. I wasn't too surprised that there was no one to greet us at the pueblo-style resort valet, or that it took effort to get attention from the staff lounging behind the concierge desk.

Yet fancy Kai fits. As much as for the casino, people are coming here for the two Troon-managed golf courses, and the luxury Aji spa facility (featuring a Kahagam facial, with a mask of mint and lavender that blends, appropriately enough, into a "beautiful blue color" that's supposed to symbolize radiance). The look is entirely first-class, to be sure, with views of the surrounding Estrella and South Mountain ranges through a two-story glass wall behind a massive boulder-backed waterfall – after the sun sets, the velvety black embracing Kai's windows is like a blanket of serenity. Elisabeth wants to return during daylight and thoroughly wander the resort's re-creation of the Gila River that winds through the property; I'm hoping sometime to catch a glimpse of the herds of wild horses that still roam free over the reservation's 372,000 acres.

Thinking about Kai's stunning setting and unique cuisine, I'm reminded of another evocation of the West that sacrificed historical accuracy for good reasons. The 1972 Paul Newman Western The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean portrayed a West that never was and said so in its tag line: Maybe this isn't the way it was – it's the way it should have been!

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Kai

5594 W. Wild Horse Pass Blvd.
Chandler, AZ 85226

602-225-0100

www.wildhorsepass.com


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