Cafe Reviews

Dine And Gone To Heaven

Of all the places I've yet reviewed for New Times, today's establishment is the one that least requires the quibbles and qualifications inherent in the nature of criticism. Quite simply, the Arizona Biltmore's Orangerie is a wonderful restaurant.

Okay, okay, okay. I can't yet vouch for its consistency. And a couple of the menu presentations slightly do miss the mark. And the bill is likely to induce tachycardia. But to dwell upon such factors is to define a championship season by the insignificant number of games lost.

The sports metaphor seems appropriate because of the two most impressive factors about the Orangerie: 1) the well-integrated quality of its service; 2) the risk dared and the successes achieved in its execution of its culinary concept.

It takes remarkable moxie to introduce ingredients such as Kumomoto oysters, pom-pom blanc mushrooms and chukar into the Phoenix market. A remarkable testament to the skill of the culinary staff is that almost none of the Orangerie's Blue Crab Dim Sum-Wisconsin Brie Soup-Sauteed Texas Antelope-sort of menu seems contrived or exalts trendiness over tastefulness. This is a powerful indication that Phoenix may yet come into its own as a dining area of distinction. Long-time Valley residents and visitors who have had the opportunity to dine at the Arizona Biltmore are wondering what the heck I am talking about. Antelope? Dim Sum? At the Orangerie? Well, to paraphrase a popular commercial, this is not your father's Orangerie.

Oh, the room itself remains as magisterial as ever. The ornate chandeliers still drip crystal, the ceiling stars sparkle, the world's largest philodendrons continue to consume the rafters, the carved bricks evoke the memory of Frank Lloyd Wright's vision of the Southwest. On the tabletops solitary anthurium rise elegantly from pyramidal crystal vases while matching oil-burning candles cast a lustrous glow. In the background a synchronized staff bustles attentively, while a talented harpist vocalizes such appropriately schmaltzy songs as The Rose and Looking Through the Eyes of Love.

Where there has been a significant change, however, is in key personnel, and frankly I am a bit in awe. Forming a culinary one-two punch are John Makin, the Biltmore's new executive chef, who was named one of the country's best chefs by Esquire and Food & Wine magazines, and Reuben Foster, the new executive pastry chef, who has won gold medals in each of the last three International Culinary Olympics.

I'm not fond of the word "greatness" in reference to such ultimately expendable pursuits as fine dining, but I'd be tempted to risk it with regard to the work of these two skilled culinarians.

Past this point, it's a little difficult to confront specifics because, as befits an excellent entity, there is so much to admire and savor in each of the components. Take the meal's opening bread service, for example. It includes a choice of red pepper-herb butter and classic sweet butter to accompany a tray of crusted rosemary rolls, seeded lavosh and cheese croissants. The offering harbors well--from the picturesque pinwheel swirl of the pepper butter to the subtle but savory manner in which the cheese is worked into the croissant dough, the entire evening's edibles simply beggar description.

Sorbet service involves a green powdered-sugar cactus set against a cocoa mountain range over which hovers a small and sumptuous orange-tarragon sun. Coffee comes with a fabulous condiment selection that includes shaved chocolate, cocoa, cream and two kinds of rock sugar. A cordial cart carries enough power potables for a potentate, including such rarities as Chateau Lafite Cognac, a 1959-vintage Hennessey cognac, and an 1851-vintage Madeira.

I do not mean to give short shrift to the main body of the menu. Complex and compelling, it simply moves in too many directions to be neatly circumscribed, and we'll just have to let Chef Makin's term "modern American cuisine" suffice. What is so impressive is that although the food is clearly fussed over, it avoids being fussy, maintaining a slight natural rusticity that enhances its appeal.

In any event, some of the items that do merit special praise are: Wild Boar Blue Corn Tamale. This appetizer involves a wonderful interplay of tastes and textures. The sweet acidity of tomatillo chunks and sun-dried tomatoes plays off perfectly against the milder sweetnesses of masa and beurre blanc and the meaty saltiness of the shredded boar. Texturally, this dish deftly moves from creaminess to graininess to pulpiness to chewiness, and every bite is a delight.

Wisconsin Brie Soup. This is a totally sensuous treat for lovers of well-ripened cheeses. If warm and slightly runny are good, the kitchen seems to reason, why won't hot and fluid be that much better? Roasted almonds and crisp garlic sticks add just the right amount of crunch.

Grilled Loin of Veal. Achingly moist and tender, this generous pile of sliced, pink veal is sensationally set off by a red onion-raisin marmalade and a Cabernet Sauvignon reduction. Imaginative plate garnishes include blue oyster mushrooms and roasted garlic.

Garlic and exotic mushrooms are attractive themes on this menu, incidentally, showing at their best in the earthy pom-pom blanc mushrooms and creamy elephant-garlic custard served alongside Roast Chinese Crispy Duck.

Alas, that duck is one of the evening's relative disappointments, representing a bad guess as to how much fat and salt may safely be consumed. It's also hard to develop a lot of enthusiasm for a complimentary appetizer of Goose Prosciutto, an almost-raw little tidbit of sliced goose weirdly served in a raspberry sauce. Perhaps the waiter meant to call this dish Goose Carpaccio, but it still would have been raw and weird. And finally in this vein (I told you there have to be some complaints), a ballyhooed Blue Crab Dim Sum appetizer seems flat against the strong sensations of other dishes.

But these are quibbles. The Orangerie is one of those rare restaurants where even "failure" is fascinating because the level of the attempt is so consistently courageous. For appetizers and main courses, when the Orangerie is good, it is very, very good; when it's "bad," it is still quite interesting. And when the Orangerie serves dessert, it's pretty damn near perfect.

It's difficult to refrain from simply cataloguing the peerless pretties on the pastry cart. Since dessert is such an indulgence anyway, I think I just might list a few: cappuccino cream served in an edible chocolate cup, hot pear tart served with homemade bourbon ice cream, banana-mousse omelet garnished with assorted fresh fruit . . . be still, my arteries. It's an excruciating dilemma--to choose from among these! Or to opt for a signature dessert souffle, an airy crown of ethereal flavor drenched with lots of warm creme anglaise.

I am turned on to the souffle before I arrive by the restaurant manager who takes my reservation. Informed that one of my guests will be celebrating a birthday, the manager recommends a souffle with a candle as a novel alternative to cake, and the subsequent presentation does, in fact, go over like gangbusters. This thoughtful and flawless handling of a special request is a fair indication of the level of service rendered throughout.

What is really so satisfying about the Orangerie service is its total appropriateness. After all, this is a resort as well as a fine dining establishment, so it is necessary for the staff to deliver a combination of friendliness and formality. Through obviously solid coaching and a deftly handled team-service concept, the staff manages without a hitch.

In all, the Orangerie represents the highly fortunate outcome of a great tradition trying on a fresh face. The effort is a most valuable addition to the local dining scene. Without equivocation, the recommendation here is "Go."