Mary Elaine's, The Phoenician, 6000 East Camelback, Phoenix, 480-941-8200. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m.
This is the time of year when many folks take stock and count their blessings. Right now, I imagine the executives at the opulent Phoenician resort have sunk to their knees in grateful thanks.
That's because, after a turbulent year, their swanky, fine-dining showcase restaurant, Mary Elaine's, is once again firing on all cylinders.
The engine trouble started in the summer of 1998, when longtime chef Alessandro Stratta, blinded by neon, was lured to Las Vegas by hotel magnate Steve Wynn. (Stratta, a James Beard Award winner who brought Mary Elaine's to national prominence, currently heads Renoir, at the Mirage.)
The Phoenician spent months trying to replace him. Finally, management nabbed George Mahaffey, a high-profile hire who had won James Beard acclaim at two different restaurants.
But Mahaffey didn't spend a happy moment here. That's because the bosses wanted him to continue Stratta's French-accented menu, instead of cooking up his own ideas. Mahaffey bristled. "I wanted to be an American chef cooking for Americans," he said. He didn't get the chance. He was in and out of Phoenix in four months.
So Mary Elaine's drifted rudderless during the height of the 1999 season. The anxious resort asked Stratta to come back. But he said no. So the search for a chef went in a different direction. Instead of grabbing a big name with a big reputation, the execs rolled the dice and picked an up-and-comer who, they hoped, was ready to go to the next level.
It looks like they've rolled a winner.
Chef James Boyce isn't exactly a stranger to Mary Elaine's. He'd worked under Stratta for several years in the early 1990s, so he was familiar with the Gallic-style fare management wants. Most recently, he headed the kitchen at Loews Coronado Bay in San Diego, where he got excellent notices.
Elegant, formal and even a bit austere, Mary Elaine's isn't an easy place to warm up to. Perched on the resort's top floor, it commands a sweeping view of the Valley. At the table, the Wedgwood china and fresh roses suggest no expense is being spared. The sophisticated melodies of Tin Pan Alley masters, sung by Nancy Gee, waft in from the lounge next door. The sleek, well-dressed dinner crowd looks like extras in a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers restaurant scene. (Note: Mary Elaine's is one of a handful of local restaurants that require men to wear jackets.) As soon as you're seated, one of the on-the-ball staff brings over a footstool, so madame's purse won't have to rest on the floor. At the same moment, a waiter pouring Evian and San Pellegrino will inquire as to your preference.
But the initial iciness quickly thaws, and soon disappears completely. Credit the highly trained, professional army of busers, bread bearers, servers and sommeliers, who have mastered the art of pampering guests without either condescending to them or fawning all over them.
For an over-the-top experience, don't go past page one of the menu. There you'll find the "Chef's Selections," a masterful, six-course indulgence that will keep you here close to three hours. It's a staid group of dishes, nothing remotely trendy or cutting-edge. But the vibrant flavors and rich textures compensate for the lack of novelty. Come armed with an appetite, good company and plenty of conversation. And make sure you're a few hundred dollars below your credit-card limit.
Our dinner got under way with a tasting freebie, a soup spoonful of vividly green puréed asparagus and spinach, with a luscious corn fritter soaking in the puddle.
A fricassee of lobster begins the meal in earnest. It's a fast start, too -- fat chunks of stewed lobster meat burnished with chanterelles, ricotta gnocchi and the most intense roasted tomato I can remember eating.
But I couldn't dwell on this course for long. That's because the next one features the single best item here, and perhaps in the entire Mountain Time Zone. It's the voluptuous foie gras, a longtime house specialty that the new chef gets exactly right. The foie gras is seared, lightly drizzled with maple syrup and 100-year-old balsamic vinegar, then perfectly touched up with a few grains of salt. The result is stunning, a symphony of gorgeous flavors whose total goes beyond the sum of the individual parts.
The foie gras is a hard act to follow, but the fish course, sole meunière, makes a valiant effort. Like every dish on the "Chef's Selections" menu, the portion is surprisingly ample. And the kitchen doesn't neglect the details -- in this case, a nifty veggie accompaniment put together with salsify (a wonderful root vegetable, much neglected in America), cauliflower and leeks.
The chef puts his own mark on the next course, grilled Muscovy duck breast and a fanciful, deboned duck leg "osso buco." I don't recall star anise occupying a spot in Stratta's spice rack, but the kitchen now uses it here to good effect. A quirky side of cranberry bean succotash also helps sustain interest.
A cheese course follows, a pairing of mild camembert and pungent Stilton. Honey-cured strawberries provide just the right amount of gilding.
Scientists say the world started with a Big Bang. Mary Elaine's pastry chef ends the fixed-price meal with a Big Bang. I'll forgo the usual adjectives and simply report that the cannoli, made with a brandy snap shell filled with pistachio-studded mascarpone, surrounded by dried fruit and moistened with a port reduction, should be declared an official Arizona landmark.
Wine plays a big role in the Mary Elaine's experience, and the "Chef's Selections" menu gives you a chance to expand your horizons. Whoever puts this creative list together enjoys taking risks. For $55, each of the six courses is paired with wine, and the unusual, around-the-world selections should open the eyes of sticks-in-the-mud who can't imagine drinking anything except California Chardonnay and French Bordeaux. And if you enjoy discussing the wines in detail, as I do, the good-natured sommeliers will not only talk your ears off, they just may pour gratis glasses of wine as well, as ours did.
The lobster fricassee is teamed with a glass of joyous Henri Billiot champagne, a small Grand Cru vineyard that recently started making its own bubbly. If you find this in a wine shop, grab it.
I expected Sauternes with the foie gras, but the nectarlike tokaji from Hungary induces the same sort of gastronomic swoon. A slightly sweet German Riesling cuts right through the sole meunière's tangy lemon butter sauce. It's not easy to complement the taste of the duck's star anise, but the peppery shiraz-Grenache blend from d'Arenberg in Australia is very impressive. Nobody could improve on the pairing of cheese (especially Stilton) and port, and the Late Bottled Vintage from Warre's (1986) shows why. Dessert, meanwhile, comes with a yummy, fortified South African muscat, sweet and sticky.
If you're not up for six courses, the à la carte menu offers several thrills. Appetizers are pricey, precious and delicious. Buttery, sashimilike ahi tuna, robustly boosted with white anchovies and a black olive tapenade, gets you quickly primed. The half-dozen baked oysters, touched with a creamy horseradish glaze, are equally effective.
The chef lets loose a little bit with crispy crab cannelloni (more like egg rolls than cannelloni, really), garnished with Swiss chard, water chestnuts and sunchokes. But I'm particularly partial to the hard-hitting flavors in the portabella and mascarpone ravioli, heaped with lots of Burgundy-braised escargots. I'd be even more impressed if the Cave Creek supplier shipped in gastropods that weren't quite so chewy.
Main dishes are a somewhat stodgy bunch, with an emphasis on fish: swordfish, striped bass, John Dory, turbot, Arctic char and sea scallops. (At least there's no salmon.) For meat-eaters, there's one steak dish, a rack of lamb, veal tenderloin and -- do my eyes deceive me? -- buffalo.
One entree, however, jumped off the page: stuffed, cider-braised quail teamed with sweetbreads. It's an intriguing duo, made even more intriguing by offbeat sides of hominy, fava beans and chanterelles. Perhaps the bosses might consider letting the chef loosen up this part of the menu with a few more creative outbursts.
Filet mignon is tried-and-true, and the kitchen brings an extra spark to the beef by tossing on lots of maitakes -- mild, firm, fleshy mushrooms -- and smoothing it all in a rich cabernet sauce. The potato-shallot cake side is another bonus.
Wild Atlantic striped bass doesn't show up on many local menus. The chef, though, clearly knows what to do with it. This delicate fish comes bathed in a saffron-scented broth, dotted with cockles and slivers of fennel.
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At $45, the "Châteaubriand" of buffalo is the most expensive entree here. The kitchen has the right idea, topping it with foie gras and providing béarnaise sauce on the side. If you're very quiet, you may hear your arteries hardening. But because buffalo is much leaner than beef, it can get overcooked. Our "medium" piece of meat came out much closer to well-done.
Desserts are breathtaking, especially the chocolate ones. You can feel your brain releasing those good-time chemicals the moment you bite into the warm, intense chocolate soufflé tart. And you may need a paramedic on standby to deal with the effects of the wicked "Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate." It's a sampler, plenty for two or three chocoholics to work themselves into a lather. (And if you really want to go into orbit, get a glass of Banyuls, a sweet red wine that pairs perfectly with chocolate. Mary Elaine's pours Domaine du Mas Blanc, the best.) Meanwhile, the caramel apple napoleon, sautéed apples on praline puff pastry plus praline ice cream, might be a star elsewhere. Here, though, it's running in tough company.
Along with the fare, wine, service and setting, there's one other component of a Mary Elaine's dinner that needs addressing: money. This is the costliest meal in town. And if you're not careful, it can be extra-costly. On both my visits, the bill contained charges for items we did not order. It's not too much to ask that a place like this correctly total the check on the first try.
Last year's bumpy stretch of road is at last receding in Mary Elaine's rearview mirror. Right now, in the hands of its new driver, dinner here is rolling along so smoothly you can barely feel the wheels touching the ground.