Cafe Reviews

Vu to a Thrill

I'm used to looking for hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants or modest indie bistros, but I didn't expect to have to hunt for one of the Valley's most exciting, high-end resort dining destinations.

Well, until now. For my first visit to Vu — the fine-dining spot at the Hyatt Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Gainey Ranch — I was on unfamiliar turf. The lobby was verging on hectic, and my friends and I wandered back and forth, looking for a sign. Even after we asked for directions, Vu was hard to find. Eventually, we spotted the two tiny letters on a discreet plaque and followed the arrow down a deserted hallway to set of glass double doors.

It's surprising that Vu is so quietly tucked away inside the hotel. Surely, the management is proud of chef de cuisine Brian Lewis, who took the helm at Vu last October after working at Oceana in New York, Bix in San Francisco, and, most recently, The Greene House at Kierland Commons. But to have an in-house culinary talent like him is beyond brag-worthy. Perhaps the Hyatt needs to invest in a neon sign.

Lewis was preceded by chef William Bradley, who led a successful relaunch of the restaurant two and a half years ago. The place underwent a complete overhaul, changing its name from The Golden Swan to Vu, and it got a nod from Esquire as one of the best new restaurants for 2005. Now Vu stands poised for even more accolades, thanks to Lewis' inventive flavor combinations and artful presentations.

I wish I could praise the decor as much as the chef. The dining room had lots of loud stripes and a pumpkin-y palette, with gauzy panels of orange fabric hanging around the upper tier of tables, that detracted from people-watching opportunities. A middle row of booths, spanning the room in a zigzag, looked out onto a lower level of tables, and, at the back of the room, there was a slick lounge that looked like no one had ever sat in it.

The real aesthetic appeal at Vu was the food itself. Chef Lewis' beautiful creations were meticulously arranged on large rectangular plates that functioned as pristine white canvases. A stripe of purée here or a careful assemblage of ingredients there made each dish a dynamic composition that could've been an edible Kandinsky painting. While we gasped at how good it all looked, we were even happier to deconstruct each work of art, bite by bite.

But not before our server gave an elaborate description of what we were looking at. For as intriguing as the menu descriptions were — with names of the boutique farms that produced some of the meats and vegetables — what we ordered turned out to be even more sophisticated. At most restaurants, you'd be lucky to have a waiter give you your entrée without asking, "And who had the duck?" But at Vu, not only did the right dish automatically go to the right person, but each was prefaced with an explanation. Our waiter had every detail memorized.

For example, the "Duo of Bobo Farms foie gras" appetizer, with a tasting of crimson gold apples, was more complex than expected. One perfectly seared foie gras was served hot, topped with gleaming black lentils, while a slice of chilled foie gras terrine came with a dollop of sweet tokai jelly.

Other starters were equally intriguing. The McClendon Farms market vegetable salad was a colorful heap of thinly shaved root vegetables and medjool dates tossed with tart ice wine vinaigrette and creamy crumbles of goat cheese. Burnt orange caramel and shallot marmalade made the agnolotti of Niman Ranch beef short ribs taste even more intensely rich, while the Devonshire horseradish foam that accompanied it had a surprisingly palate-soothing flavor.

One gripe about the soft, challah-like bread that was brought to our table: We each got half a slice, and were never offered seconds. Another piece would've come in handy with the red king crab raviolo, served in an addictively buttery sauce of melted foie gras and Amontillado sherry with toasted almonds. That was far too delicious to waste.

Painted Hills beef tenderloin was the most straightforward entree I tasted, but even that was exceptional, with a bold bordelaise sauce, wild mushrooms, a drizzle of herb oil, and fresh mache greens. Its side of whipped La Ratte fingerling potatoes was ethereal — creamy and flavorful.

Meanwhile, the "wild duck three ways," with tender pink slices of duck breast, a bite of duck sausage, and a dollop of duck confit, was served with unusual sauces painted onto the plate: a deep, dark Venezuelan cocoa, apricot purée, foie gras, and curried pistachio.

Hawaiian moi, a mild, pale-fleshed fish that used to be reserved for Hawaiian royalty, had a wonderful crispness, and pineapple curry and tamarind made it taste vibrant and light. As for the "Kurobuta pork two ways," it was all about bold flavors and luxurious textures. Slices of moist pork loin were fanned out on top of cooked cavelo negro, a tangy type of black kale that reminded me of cabbage. Next to it was a silky chunk of pork belly, whose richness was amplified by agave nectar, spiced quince, and pickled chanterelle mushrooms. Not for the faint of palate, but worth it.

Overall, Vu's portions were small, but including dessert, we got a satisfying amount of food. However, I recommend choosing dessert carefully. Pumpkin bread pudding was good but not great, its comforting flavor overpowered by sharply fruity cranberry gelato and pomegranate custard. And a tasty Valrhona chocolate torte, topped with soft banana cream that had been lightly brûléed, was paired with a too-sour passion fruit gelato.

But the roasted pear dessert was pure candy. Perched on one side of the plate was a tiny pear, roasted in brown butter, and on the other side, there was a miniature sticky bun with walnut gelato, tangy bubalus bubalis ricotta (made from water-buffalo milk!), and a wafer of caramelized sugar. Right down the middle, there was a crimson slash of huckleberry reduction and a slender "cigarette" of white chocolate.

And the eucalyptus honey crème brûlée was extraordinary. Our server said to take a bite of it along with a smidgen of grated smoked Gouda, then to refresh our taste buds with some of the tawny port sorbet. Wow — what an unlikely and genius combination of sweet crème and savory cheese.

I'd seek that out even if it took a GPS.