Cafe Reviews

Frank & Albert’s Kicks Up the Arizona Biltmore with a Spectacular Patio and Poached Grouper

You'd be forgiven for never having visited the Biltmore Grill.

As you might guess from the name, it was the main casual restaurant at the luxurious Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, geared toward hotel guests craving breakfast, lunch, dinner, or just a few drinks at the bar. It wasn't really about you, the local customer looking for a night out on the town, but that's okay. Every high-end hotel needs a place like that — a functional spot that feeds the masses whether it makes it onto anyone's radar or not. (The hotel also has a cafe, a poolside eatery, and a fine dining restaurant, Wright's at the Biltmore.)

In any case, the Biltmore Grill is long gone now, closed last year for a $6 million renovation. And the good news is, its replacement — two-month-old Frank & Albert's — has amped things up considerably.

The name, by the way, refers to the hotel's architect, Albert Chase McArthur, and his famous collaborator and mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright.

People are already talking about this place, and I'm not referring to out-of-towners. From the craft cocktails and gorgeous design of the dining room to accessible Southwestern-inspired comfort food, there's plenty here that's worth checking out. Although the resort feels tucked away, it's only a stone's throw from one of the city's busiest intersections, 24th Street and Camelback.

And I'll say this right now. In a city full of restaurants with great patios that celebrate the Arizona climate, Frank & Albert's has the most appealing one yet. It's beautifully landscaped, with a big fireplace made out of decorative "Biltmore Blocks" (a signature design element at the hotel), a large fire pit surrounded by more seating, and yet another fire pit in the middle of a glass-walled room that opens up to the outdoors.

Inside, the current take on Arts & Crafts décor is sleek but warm, with geometric motifs, dramatic lighting, and an earthy, autumnal color scheme that compliments the wood features. Even if you're just stopping by for a beverage, it's a cool place to hang out and sip a candied apple martini (a cinnamon-y concoction made with vodka and apple purée, topped with a brûléed apple slice) or an Arizona beer (including Four Peaks, Oak Creek, Nimbus, and Cave Creek Beer).

Executive chef Todd Sicolo and chef de cuisine Conor Favre deliver comfort food with a stylish sense of playfulness and numerous regional touches. Many ingredients are sourced from within a 100-mile radius, but they don't overdo the "Southwestern" shtick.

"Smoked then pulled" pork nachos were the most intriguing appetizer, and also the biggest surprise. While the sound of pulled pork makes me think of something sloppy and slathered in rich sauce, this was nothing of the sort. The presentation was actually elegant, with petite hand-pressed tortillas stacked with smashed avocado, black beans, roasted tomatoes, and Manchego cheese. The pork was moist and mildly smoky, but otherwise unadorned. Eating it felt almost healthful, so I polished off the whole thing.

Charred chicken lollipops made fun fireside nibbles, with chile and mango sauces for dipping, as did thick, white corn-dusted onion rings, which were as light and crispy as tempura, teamed with buttermilk dip and chipotle ketchup. Delicate house-smoked salmon got a flavor boost from fragrant lemon-garlic aioli, and was served with thin flatbread crisps.

The organic celery Caesar was a welcome twist on the traditional salad, all crunch and flavor with a jumble of celery root, leaves, and stalk, big croutons, and creamy, garlicky dressing. A small salad was nearly entrée-size, so I imagine the large would be quite filling.

Although the "Desert Flats" flatbreads weren't billed as salads, they had the same kind of appeal, with baby greens and various ingredients heaped on a large, bubbly oval of crispy dough. Visually, it was a pizza, but the experience was more about the cool toppings than the oven-baked crust. One topped with chorizo, chocolatey mole, diced cactus and green chiles, cilantro, sweet corn, and Oaxaca cheese was overwhelmed by way too much pungent red onion, but I liked the balance of figs, balsamic, and red onion marmalade with chunks of chicken and creamy Black Mesa Ranch goat cheese on another Desert Flat.

Fresh Rocky Point grouper, poached in Queen Creek olive oil, was a highlight. It was simply prepared and seasoned, so moist that I couldn't leave a single speck uneaten — good fish really doesn't need much embellishment. On the side, a salad of crisp, fresh green beans, oranges, candied pecans and tangy orange reduction was just the kind of bright, citrus-y note that enhances seafood.

But while the fish was impressive, the pork chop undoubtedly wasn't — starting with the meat itself, which was fatty and not juicy in the least bit. Caramelized organic apples might've helped the situation, had there been more than a spoonful of them (and had they been caramelized), while the promising "wood stone-roasted honey corn bread" was merely a bland, barely reheated corn muffin. Wah wah.

Meanwhile, ketchup-glazed meatloaf really was comforting: two thick, beefy slices nestled on a cloud of buttery, delicious mashed potatoes. Garlic-tinged sautéed spinach and a handful of onion rings made it into a completely satisfying meal.

Of course, when you're going for comfort food, you need to get the full experience with something sweet, and the dessert menu certainly covers the waterfront, from sundaes to warm brownie cake to rich, chocolate-flecked Mud Slide Pie.

This time of year, go for the Tableside S'Mores. There's nothing more to it than marshmallows, Hershey's chocolate bars, graham crackers, and a bunch of skewers to roast your own treats over an open flame, but the experience in this cozy setting is a lot of fun.

I'll be heading back to Frank & Albert's just for that.