Two of the Valley's swankiest hotels have given their dining rooms a long-overdue makeover. Early this year, Ritz-Carlton management finally scrapped the stuffy, pretentious The Restaurant (what an awkward name). It's been replaced by Bistro 24, a casually elegant operation featuring French-themed American bistro fare. Over at the Arizona Biltmore, the entire restaurant team has been swept away. The bosses have hired a new executive chef to oversee all dining operations, and brought in a new chef and pastry chef to breathe life into Wright's, the resort's moribund fine-dining restaurant.
Let's give the suits some credit. First, they recognized that something was broken. Then they had the good sense to hire the people who could fix it.
Bistro 24 is one of the best-looking places in town: smart, stylish, sophisticated. Enter through the hotel (there's also a street entrance) and you'll pass the snazzy bar, adorned with three tilted mirrors. A parquet floor, colorful bistro murals, vintage black-and-white photos, a magazine rack stacked with old issues of Life, pretty wicker bistro chairs, sheaves of wheat on the wall and perfect lighting all create good vibes before you've even looked at the menu. From any table in the room, you can hear the bartender shaking cocktails, a sound that subliminally suggests fun and good times. But the schlocky, piped-in Julio Iglesias has got to go. I don't know why Bistro 24 feels compelled to inflict music on us, anyway. But as long as it's going to, someone needs to go through the catalogue for audio decor that can hold its own with the rest of the setting.
Fortunately, the food doesn't need much tuning up. If you're searching for wild game, exotic grains, cutesy baby vegetables or trendy presentations, you'll have to look elsewhere. But if you're looking for ample portions of high-quality bistro fare with a mild Gallic accent, Bistro 24 can hold its own against any competitor.
Soft, pretzellike breadsticks and a routine French loaf get the meal modestly under way. But there's nothing modest about the exceptional chicken liver pate. Fashioned in-house, this pate is everything it's supposed to be--thick, creamy, intense. Grab some bread, slather on Dijon mustard and sip a Ravenswood merlot. (Bistro 24 has an extensive wine-by-the-glass list, some three dozen choices, most in the five-to-six-dollar range.)
Mussels mariniere is another outstanding way to edge into dinner. Perhaps the cook was distracted, but somehow I ended up with a bowl crammed with two dozen bivalves, steamed in a fragrant, champagne-tinged broth heavy with garlic and parsley. At $6.75, I'm not sure how Bistro 24 can make money on this, but I certainly don't want to arouse the company accountants.
Smoked salmon is also effectively done, paired with a bit of crisped potato and embellished with capers. And if it's soup you pine for, forget about the late-summer heat and dig into the formidable French onion soup, one of this town's best models. A thick raft of four cheeses floats on a broth that's notably rich and hearty.
The straightforward entrees don't break any new culinary ground. But Bistro 24 isn't trying to reinvent the bistro; it's trying to perfect it. And sometimes it comes pretty darned close.
The main dishes tilt heavily toward seafood, and the chef knows what to do with it. The Friday-night bouillabaisse special is right on target. This Americanized version of the French fish stew comes stocked with ahi tuna, salmon, whitefish and shrimp, as well as the largest whole prawn (about half a pound, with head and antennae still attached) and scallop (the size of a hockey puck) I've seen in Arizona. Potatoes, tomatoes and the traditional rouille-lined slabs of bread punch up the aromatic broth.
Grilled salmon is terrific, at least potentially. Ours came wonderfully moist on the inside and crusty on the outside. But the kitchen's coordination was off--the salmon arrived lukewarm. I suspect it was ready before our group's other entrees, and sat around cooling off for several minutes.
Timing wasn't a problem with the crispy-skin whitefish, a deftly prepared filleted slab accompanied by garlicky mashed potatoes and French green beans. And if you prefer your seafood teamed with greenery, the shrimp and scallop salad, served with spinach, avocado and mango, makes for light, tasty eating.
There's one beef dish on the menu, and your group's carnivore won't have any complaints. It's an outstanding steak au poivre, 10 ounces of butter-soft sirloin crusted with peppers and served with a mound of thin, crispy French-style frites. Lamb lovers aren't neglected, either. Lamb tenderloin is trimmed off the bone, brushed with olive oil and rosemary, then grilled to juicy perfection. Thin-sliced grilled zucchini and artichoke hearts (fresh, not canned) complete this hard-hitting platter.
The dessert highlight is a summery mango tarte Tatin, with caramelized mangoes and crisp, flaky crust. The chocolate souffle isn't as airy as it might be, but after you pour in the heavy vanilla-bourbon sauce, it all seems academic, anyway. The warm chocolate cake was a bit of a disappointment. The waiter promised a molten, puddinglike interior, but the cake had been cooked a bit too long. The result was incredibly rich, and incredibly dry.
A word about coffee. At $2.75, it's not just the caffeine that will give you the jitters. But if you must end the meal with a java jolt, you're best off reaching in your wallet for an extra buck and splurging on the French press coffee. It's much better than the house cup.
The service side of Bistro 24 isn't quite as strong as the rest of the operation. At one dinner, we were handed breakfast menus. At another, the servers couldn't figure out who got what. And someone needs to come by and sweep the breadcrumbs off the table.
But these are venial, not mortal, sins. And as long as Bistro 24 continues to send out first-rate fare in such amiable surroundings, I'm willing to forgive it.
Wright's, Arizona Biltmore, 24th Street and Missouri, Phoenix, 955-6600. Hours: Dinner, 6 to 10 p.m., daily; Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m., Monday through Saturday; Sunday brunch, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Wright's has been, or should have been, an embarrassment to the Arizona Biltmore's operators. For years, the beautiful dining room at this world-famous resort has put out some of the snooziest, most overpriced fare in town. On one visit, I felt as if I had been mugged, forking over $27 for a dreadful pasta dish, $29 for a lackluster veal chop and, unbelievably, five bucks for a cup of coffee.
Well, it looks like management has decided to move in another direction. It's about time. It's brought in a new culinary team with a novel set of marching orders: Give customers their money's worth. With its $12 appetizers, $26 pasta, $32 steak and $8 desserts, Wright's is still aimed strictly at high-end tourists and locals with deep pockets. But now, at least, it's no longer insulting them. If you're part of the money-is-no-object crowd, you won't mind parting with some of that money here.
The new chefs seem to be operating under severe artistic constraints: Apparently, management feels the hotel's guests don't want to eat anything trendy, or even particularly creative. The menu looks distressingly staid. But the entrees and desserts are so well-crafted that their familiarity doesn't slip into contempt.
Appetizers are the weak link. Ceviche isn't prepared Mexican-style, and that's a mistake. The kitchen puts together mahimahi, ono, halibut and scallops, with a bit of avocado. But without an ethnic boost from cilantro, lime, onion, tomato and cucumber, all this starter does is attempt to mollify skittish folks who are probably too frightened to order ceviche in the first place. Priced at $11, the three coconut-battered prawns come out to about two bucks a bite. They're not worth it. And the peanut-crusted lobster cakes sound better than they are. They're held back by an innocuous basil-curry sauce that falls way short in the flavor department.
Main dishes are another story. Wright's kitchen deals with quality ingredients, and it has the good sense not to hide their charms. Herb-crusted beef tenderloin is a marvel, a triumph of taste and texture, as good as any in town. It's paired with thick mashed potatoes, zipped up with a load of kalamata olives. Venison loin is outstanding--tender and powerful, effectively complemented with Swiss chard risotto and mushrooms.
I'd come back in a minute for the superb Colorado lamb, two exquisite double chops that you can't help picking up and gnawing to the bone. A fragrant roasted fennel sauce adds to the lamb's charms, and the grits casserole side suggests that the kitchen has abilities that aren't being fully tapped. Salmon is also well-handled, coated with pepper, pan-seared, baked and moistened with a champagne-ginger sauce, accompanied by scented jasmine rice.
Desserts are masterful. The pistachio souffle is the Platonic ideal come to life--ethereally light and richly flavorful. The chocolate sampler produces an almost intoxicating chocolate high. After nibbling on intense chocolate cream, chocolate marzipan, chocolate leaf, chocolate sorbet, chocolate cake and chocolate cookies, you'll sense those feel-good chemicals streaming from your brain. And the luscious trio of caramelized pineapple, Florentine cookie and coconut ice cream demonstrates that when it comes to sweets, three isn't a crowd.
When dinner for two reaches triple-digit cost, you have a right to expect polished service. At Wright's, the staff is bustling, friendly and well-meaning. However, it is not yet polished. We got lunch menus at dinner. The waiter couldn't find a way to set down a shared appetizer on the small, cluttered table. (After a few uneasy moments, I solved his problem by suggesting he remove the flowers and salt and pepper.) "Who gets the deer?" inelegantly queried the server carrying the venison entree. When the souffle arrived, it came with a small pitcher of sauce. "Creme anglaise?" I asked. "Nope," replied the waiter. "It's a vanilla custard sauce," he said, supplying me with the English term.
On the one hand, Wright's has come a long way. On the other hand, it had a long way to come from. And it still has a ways to go, especially if it hopes to attract diners who aren't staying at the resort. But at least it's heading in the "Wright" direction.
Pate du jour
Mango tarte Tatin
Herb-crusted beef tenderloin
Colorado lamb chops