Cafe Reviews

BEYOND A REGIONAL DOUBT

Is Southwestern cuisine passe? Are pine nuts, jicama and black beans yesterday's ingredients? Do those of us who live here even care?

In the mid-Eighties, renewed national interest in the look and flavors of Arizona and New Mexico spawned hard-to-ignore trends in restaurants and decorating. But "hot" eventually cools. "In" becomes "out." Our nation has a roaming eye and it has moved its focus from the desert to places like the Pacific Northwest.

Ironically, "Southwestern cuisine" arrived in Phoenix at about the same time it hit the rest of the country, circa 1986, when Vincent Guerithault opened his namesake restaurant on Camelback. Suddenly, blue corn chips and mango salsa were everywhere. Pumpkin seeds and chipotle peppers became overnight kitchen essentials. Soon many places were doing Southwestern, most of them badly. No matter. As long as visitors disembark at Sky Harbor International Airport, you can be sure somebody will be pumping out quirky quesadillas and prickly-pear somethings.

Which brings us to the first restaurant under consideration today: Chef Lenard Rubin's Windows on the Green at Charlie Keating's--I mean, the Kuwait Investment Office's--Phoenician. Prickly pear pops up regularly on Windows' menu. Why, for a whopping $5.50, you can even order a prickly-pear margarita, the house specialty. It's large and sweet, but be forewarned, macho men, it's also pink.

As its name implies, Windows on the Green overlooks the Phoenician's golf course, from the upstairs level of the resort's clubhouse. A pro shop, men's and ladies' locker rooms and a snack bar can be found on the ground level. Accordingly, restaurant attire is "casual," but "no pool wear," pulleeze.

Of course, casual at the Phoenician is a cut above what you and I call casual. Like the main lobby up the hill, Windows on the Green is done in tony shades of beige and cream. Decorative accents include ornate Oriental vases and contemporary paintings. Small cacti in raffia-tied terra-cotta pots are positioned on each table. Furniture is on the order of elegant patio pieces. The chairs are made of woven, lacquered leather. There is even a clubby working fireplace. Posh, huh?

Windows on the Green, you will have understood by now, is not the place to come to eat on the cheap. With appetizers ranging in price from $6.50 to $9.25, and entrees costing anywhere from $15.25 to $22.75, a meal for two comes dangerously close to the century mark, as our local weather forecasters are wont to say.

But don't let that scare you away. Chef Lenard Rubin is doing some interesting things with Southwestern cuisine. And, while our dinner is not inexpensive, it is worth every penny. A master of visual presentation, Rubin backs up looks with taste. Our smoked-salmon appetizer is as pretty as dessert and nearly as delicious. It consists of a stack of delicate black-bean crepes--that's the Southwestern touch--layered with smoked salmon, watercress, marinated, thin-sliced red potatoes and pickled beets. I especially love the creamy horseradish sauce generously pooled on the plate. The condiment is the perfect complement.

Chicken, lime and tortilla soup also exceeds all expectations. In my experience, this is a soup that reads well on the menu, but disappoints upon arrival. Yet I keep ordering it, because it sounds so darn good. Persistence pays off at Windows on the Green. We ask to split a portion and each receive a bowl of clear-brothed subtle soup and saucers full of add-ins--crunchy, colored tortilla strips, chopped avocado and grated cheese. The end result is a most pleasing amalgam.

I've found that it is during the main course that most would-be Southwestern chefs run out of steam. (You've seen the menu: some kind of fish offered with some kind of exotic fruit salsa; the same old meats rubbed with chile or lime and served with posole.) Happily, at precisely this point in the meal, Lenard Rubin indicates the depth of his imagination and talent.

Take the swordfish, for instance. Rubin's pan-fried version charms me. It's dusted with mint and spicy Southwestern seasonings, served in three dainty portions leaning tepeelike above a dollop of white-bean-sesame puree atop Indian fry bread. Not only is the presentation visually arresting, but the flavors and textures of the dish are inventive and original.

Pan-frying is also the treatment given to the small, white-fleshed fish called John Dory. Three delicate fillets are sumptuously complemented by piquant black-olive pasta, crisp salmon-crab cakes, fava beans and a guero chile sauce. It's fabulous-tasting and satisfying, without being overly filling.

Dessert here is good, although it is not the high point of my meal. The pine-nut tart reminds me a little of pecan pie, but it's not nearly as sweet or rich. I like the scoop of homemade banana ice cream that comes with it. A chocolate taco, filled with sumptuous key-lime cream and embellished with rows of fresh raspberries, strawberries, kiwi and pineapple with apricot sauce, is at once gorgeous and delicious. Service is good. The roll boy knows his role. He dutifully brings the breadbasket and carefully describes the wondrous trio it holds. He also gives us an almost-perfect recitation of "What's in the butter." Windows on the Green serves three herb-infused kinds of butter or oil with its breads.

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Penelope Corcoran