If the guests of honor at the Princess Resort's swanky Marquesa were a bit second-rate, the food was equally underwhelming. Oh, Princess Resort chef Reed Groban did a fine job of preparing selections from recipes featured in the guest authors' cookbooks. But it's hard to work up much excitement over such typical fund-raising fare as miniature salmon cakes, sliced pork loin, little plates of pasta with white beans gone gummy after sitting out for a while, big breaded shrimp, and salad with bleu cheese dressing.
I found myself daydreaming about a daring escape. And just to make the time pass more quickly as the fest dragged on, I began talking to my friend about Deseo, a new restaurant I'd discovered. As I described the place in deep detail, I couldn't help but attract a gathering of eavesdroppers - other foodies drawn to tales of a local culinary find. When I wound up my tale, my listeners couldn't help but give out a gentle "ooh." I admit it. The attention went straight to my head.
But all the credit has to go to Deseo, the creation of Douglas Rodriguez, celebrity chef-owner of the popular Chispa and Patria cafes in New York City and Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia. He's won the James Beard Award for his eclectic, creative approach to Latin cooking and is considered the father of the unique cuisine now known as Nuevo Latino.
A few months ago, he arrived at the Westin Kierland Resort, and he is doing amazing things we've never seen in this bland burrito town. I'm absolutely impressed that, while our Deseo is under the direction of talented local chef de cuisine Mark Dow, Rodriguez himself makes time to visit our humble burg on a regular basis, maintaining his role as specialty chef for the resort bistro. Rodriguez is one of the chefs selling his book here tonight, in fact, and I point him out proudly to my new acquaintances.
A week after discovering Deseo's arepas dish, I tell my epicurean eavesdroppers, I was still stuck on how much I love it. Arepas is a simple snack, a comfort dish of Latin America. The griddled corn cakes can be eaten plain, similar to that staple of the U.S. South, cornbread. They're sometimes topped with salsa, spiked with crab meat, or blended with chicken, cheese and olives. One of my favorite variations has a creamy interior of goat cheese and a topping of freshly made chunky guacamole brightened with lemon juice and chopped tomatoes.
Those arepas before me at Deseo were better than any I'd had before. The crust on the two tidy cakes was thin and crisply golden. The insides were moist and rich, with sugary kernel flavor. The center of each cake was scooped out, donut-style, and filled with a shimmering, raw quail egg yolk. On top were thick eyebrows of decadently salty osetra caviar, and below was a crosshatch pattern of crème fraiche.
Even though I was in Deseo's fancy dining room overlooking a lush golf course, and though my mother taught me better manners, I scraped up every last bit of everything edible on my plate. I even studied my fork, searching between the tines for any remaining speck of fish egg, golden streak of quail ova, or an errant crumb of corn.
It's not a dig to say I could go to Deseo (Spanish for "desire") and be thrilled never to make my way to the entrees. With so many different flavors and so much variety in the starters, I found it difficult to commit to a single big entree plate. Several times, my girlfriend and I very happily made dinner of two appetizers each, along with glasses of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinean Cabernet.
Rodriguez's ceviche is spectacular, I told my party pals. Forget the sole and red snapper we usually see in the traditional Mexican dish, the raw meat gently "cooked" by the acidity of its lime juice marinade. The typical chop of onions, green peppers and tomatoes aren't in attendance, either. This is high-class ceviche, and perfect. A "rainbow" presentation brings Asian influences, with sashimi-grade slabs of layered halibut and salmon, capped with thick chunks of ahi and the surprising, wonderful addition of sliced red and green chiles. Once again, I found myself scraping up every last bit on my plate, finally using bits of Colombian cheese bread (stuffed with Parmesan and queso blanco) to sop the brilliant marinade of soy sauce, citrus juices, red onions and cilantro.
And who would have thought to serve popcorn and Corn Nuts in a classy room rich with dark woods, vast floor-to-ceiling windows, and a grand entry of a marble staircase? But the snacks are star sides of the Ecuadorian ceviche, served in a big bowl with pumpkin seeds and dried corn kernels to provide crunch against the plump shrimp cloaked in roasted tomatoes with cool avocado espuma (whipped froth).
I grinned when I got to reflecting on Deseo's delightful empanadas. There are three marvelous versions of the pillowy turnovers to tempt: duck confit with sliced foie gras terrine and prune-sherry sauce, roasted onion and cheese served on watercress tossed in black trumpet and truffle mojo (like thin salsa) with creamy morel sauce, and crispy crab with marinated cucumber and avocado.
Rodriguez is a master of offbeat ingredient pairings, I explained to my group. Consider his trio palm salad, uniting hearts of palm, endive, coconut gelle and bacon-wrapped dates in a shallot-thyme vinaigrette with bleu cheese sauce. It's crunchy, soft, tart, sugary and expertly balanced. Chicharron of shrimp, too, lands a double punch of sweet and sour, the fried shellfish tossed in a spiced candy coating of aji Amarillo with endive, cilantro and pickled jalapeños.
Yes, the place can be expensive (starters from $9 to $17; entrees from $21 to $31). Yet there's a remarkable bargain in the soup trio - a "tasting" of each of the restaurant's three blends that really brings pretty much full-size bowls. Just $11, and the intense, unexpected creations are priceless. The legumes in the black bean soup are cooked just enough to release their dark juices in the broth, and their skin pops on my teeth; a creamy-crunchy rice croquette rests atop a drizzle of sour cream. Corn chowder keeps the stew interesting with crisp kernels, cubed calabaza (like butternut squash), ham, carrot, lemony radish sprouts and the surprise addition of beer-battered crab fritters.
The description of coconut calamari soup brought my gathered group to respectful silence. This is the best Thai-inspired soup to be found, I chattered, the milky, opaque broth plump with tender squid, yucca, fragrant garlic, fresh herbs, tomatoes and crisp strings of real coconut. It's impossibly light, not too sweet, and blessed with complex textures and tastes. When I did finally force myself past appetizers, I wasn't disappointed. The big plates were topnotch and clever, such as the plantain-crusted halibut, pan-seared with sliced banana, sautéed spinach, bacon and cherry tomatoes. And I'm quite pleased with a lamb duet, partnering three tender chops gently rubbed in adobo with a potpie featuring shredded lamb under a sweet corn crust. The drizzle of mint sauce on the chops is spoon-licking good. A large slab of sirloin comes sliced with tomato, caramelized onions and bleu cheese a bit boring to me after a few bites, but greatly pleasing to my steak-loving companion.
Desserts at the fund raiser were no better or worse than what I'd seen at a million of these types of events: lemon meringue cake, fudge cake, fruit tart and strawberry Napoleon. Good enough, but a waste of calories in my mind, now that I've had Deseo's dynamite churros, three soft wands of cinnamon-dusted donut sticks to be dipped in dulce de leche (caramel) and smoky, not-too-sweet chocolate sauce.
By the time I was done dishing on Deseo, I was sure that those listening in were already planning their first trips there. I hope I'm right. Discerning foodies that they are, they won't be disappointed.