She did a good job pushing the food. The chef crafts each dish to order, she had told me proudly, frying the chicken tenders fresh for the salad, and hand-patting seafood into patties for each crab cake appetizer.
It sounded ambitious for an eating establishment where meals come with a side of the ringing cha-ching of slot machines, but then again, I'll gladly eat at any number of Las Vegas casinos. These days, the restaurants along The Strip are among the best in the world (even Bellagio's most casual cafe, Noodles, has a stunning collection of authentic dishes from Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, China, Vietnam and Hong Kong). And has anybody been to Mandalay Bay lately? It's a fantasia of fine dining -- Charlie Palmer's Aureole with its wacky wine angels, Red Square with its caviar tastings, and the new Rumjungle, with its giant fire pit and trendy rodizio suppers.
So when casinos -- and their accompanying accouterment of spas, nightclubs and, yes, restaurants -- started popping up along the outskirts of Phoenix like so many cherries on the slot machine, I had high hopes. It was so exciting when Kai opened up at the Wild Horse Pass Resort-Casino south of Ahwatukee. Kai is one of the best restaurants we have, brought to us by James Beard winner Janos Wilder, and featuring indigenous delicacies with a twist -- like lobster fry bread with roasted corn, avocado and garlic butter.
But alas, my Willows waitress slid me too quickly into the real reason her cafe exists. Since almost everything here is made from scratch, she explained, whatever I chose would take at least 15 minutes. She suggested -- slyly and with a big smile -- that instead of drumming my fingers at the table, I do my waiting at one of the slot machines just outside the restaurant. She could come get me when my food was ready.
I'm not a gambler, see. Whenever I get the urge to lose all my money with no hope of ever getting anything in return, I simply call a handyman to "work" on my house. And Kai aside, I'm still suspicious about most Valley casino experiences: Usually it's lost wages, watered-down cocktails, and, despite my waitress' boasts, mediocre food.
I have yet to be proven wrong. The best thing about The Willows, ultimately, is that it's open 24 hours, and is sometimes better than Denny's.
The poor showing doesn't make sense. Management just pumped $50 million into expanding Casino Arizona. The casino has a real chef running the flagship restaurant, the upscale Cholla, bringing us dishes like peppered elk with artichoke risotto. Cholla is topnotch, so I know this cooking crew can do better.
The slots promise huge rewards, and the menu gives a good come-on, too, with an eclectic mix of American, Asian, Cajun-Creole and Southwestern favorites. Doesn't this sound good -- egg rolls stuffed with garlic-ginger shrimp, snow peas, shiitake mushrooms and leeks with Thai barbecue sauce? Or broiled tenderloin tournedos with wild mushroom étouffée, grilled asparagus spears and roasted garlic mashed potatoes? And the place sure looks nice, too, an interesting circle-within-a-circle architecture dolled up with lots of modern blond wood tables and chairs, plush sage velvet booths, linen napkins and fresh flowers. The gray-green carpet and tile walls exude class, and I like the contemporary Indian art. Praise the people, especially, who decided to keep The Willows smoke-free.
But when the food finally shows up, inevitably my plate holds coffee-shop fare, under-seasoned and overcooked. This is the classic disappointment, of handsome-looking but flavorless shrimp cocktail, and chicken capellini in an invisible-tasting sauce of tomato, basil, garlic and olive oil. I'd love to sneak in the kitchen and see how cooks can suck the life out of well-meaning ingredients.
That chicken my server gushed about? It's coated in coconut batter so thick and stringy that the breast is a chore to chew. The salad it rests on is acceptable, a bed of spring lettuce littered with cardamom (gingery-sweet spice), cashews, carrot shavings, orange zest and dried currants. But the dressing is a disaster, labeled as citrus-honey yet arriving as gunky oil tinged with orange. A Cobb sandwich is simply weird. Long triangles of grilled crusty country bread quickly grow sodden under a soggy salad of chopped lettuce, tomato, jalapeño bacon, smoked turkey, watercress and avocado in pools of a too strong bleu cheese-Dijon dressing.
Several dishes are simply harmless, like a barbecued beef that's impressive in its girth and creatively spiked with snappy shredded poblano, charred red onion and pepper jack cheese in a nicely sweet sauce. It goes great with lacy thin homemade potato chips. I also might come back -- in a case of 2 a.m. munchies -- for a crab cake poor boy. This is a successful marriage of moist golden-fried seafood, spicy roast corn-chipotle aioli, grilled ciabatta roll and a crunchy slaw of red, green and yellow bell peppers, jicama and purple onion. I like it with a side of cottage cheese dotted with fresh, diced jalapeño.