Cafe Reviews

Expense Account

I wanted to fall in love.

For years, I've been curious about a certain elegant stranger with the whole package: good looks, exquisite taste, and an impressive pedigree. I knew it would take money to get acquainted with this seductive presence, but for the effort, I'd be rewarded with a few hours of ecstasy, an unforgettable experience. For all the fawning I'd heard about this A-lister, I half expected to find enlightenment, too.

We had a great time together, and we parted on friendly terms, but I wasn't swept off my feet. What can I say? The chemistry just wasn't there.

The grande dame I'm referring to is Mary Elaine's, The Phoenician's legendary fine-dining establishment, and to say her reputation precedes her is an extreme understatement. Even before I stepped foot in the hallowed eatery, I had to consider the gravity of its culinary-Ivy League achievements.

Mary Elaine's is considered one of the country's best restaurants, a recipient of AAA's Five Diamond Award. Its chef de cuisine, Bradford Thompson, was honored with a James Beard award this year. Wine Spectator bestowed its Grand Award on the restaurant for its $3 million wine cellar. Adding to its allure, The Phoenician recently debuted its own exclusive blend of bubbly, from a California winery owned by the same company that makes Cristal. And no, it's not an urban myth: Men really are advised to wear jackets at Mary Elaine's.

Not that I mind getting dressed up. In fact, I love it, and all of my dining companions seemed thrilled at the chance to break out the nice jewelry and fancy attire. Comparatively, people dress like slobs just about anywhere else in town — even at the swankiest Scottsdale hot spots, jeans have become the uniform for men and women alike. I'm guilty of it, too, but if I have a rare opportunity to get glam, I'll take it. Not long ago, The Phoenician changed its dress code from "jackets required" to "recommended," but from there it's a slippery slope. I caught a glimpse of a clueless guy in short sleeves at Mary Elaine's, and he looked like he was headed to Margaritaville while his poor wife, dolled up in a dress and heels, trailed behind.

It's hard to put my finger on exactly why I was underwhelmed by Mary Elaine's, but it had to do with high expectations. Nothing offended me, and at the same time, nothing dazzled me, either. At ordinary restaurants, that's usually okay, but Mary Elaine's is supposed to be extraordinary. What should have been an experience to remember turned out to be nothing more than a pleasant meal — and I've had plenty of those.

The atmosphere was a generic, predictable vision of luxury that you could conjure with your eyes closed: big chandeliers, heavy, exposed nailhead chairs, crisp white tablecloths, and wall-to-wall carpeting swirled with turquoise and brown. A wall of windows on one side of the dining room offered up a beautiful view of the city, but it never distracted me from the fact that I was sitting in a hotel restaurant reeking of corporate ballroom rather than reveling in distinctive, intimate style.

The place was a big deal when it opened at the end of the go-go '80s, a legacy of Charles Keating Jr. before his S&L crash-and-burn. But since then, the Valley's become home to lots of unique, high-end restaurants, and competition's a lot stiffer. And Mary Elaine's stands in a bit of a time warp — I cringed when the gal playing piano in the lounge started singing her third Andrew Lloyd Webber tune.

To its credit, Mary Elaine's service does live up to its reputation. I encountered more than half a dozen employees, and they were all attentive and professional. Black napkins for black-clad guests were a somewhat over-the-top courtesy, as were small, upholstered stools for the ladies' handbags. The master sommelier had an effortless knowledge of the wine list, and I enjoyed our waiter's elaborate description of a platter of cheeses. There were a couple of disappointing, unexplained substitutions with our desserts — apparently the kitchen was out of what we wanted — but we weren't charged for the most glaring snafu, and we even got a box of chocolates as a consolation, followed by an assortment of petits fours and the most mind-blowing salted caramels I've ever had. Throughout the evening, there was a steady, unobtrusive flow of fresh bread, water and wine.

To be sure, the creative, French-inspired cuisine was delicious, a succession of beautiful dishes that elicited more than a few oohs and aahs from my friends. The chef sent out complimentary amuses bouches to get us started — pastries filled with smoked sturgeon, and tiny espresso cups of soup, a purée of roasted endive with a touch of Stilton. The portions were bite-size, but the flavors were concentrated and vibrant.

Appetizers were just as rich. House-smoked salmon was served with miniature latkes and chive cream. Shaved black truffle and Reblochon cheese gave dimension to a warm Yukon potato tart. Tastes of hamachi and kampachi tartare (a twist on sashimi) were paired with dollops of both fish done up as ceviche, with creamy spoonbill caviar on top. And a nice portion of sautéed foie gras, served in a brioche crust, was beyond buttery, so fine that it dissolved before I could chew it.

Entrees weren't quite as decadent, but close. Four Story Hill Farm duck breast came with meatballs of duck sausage, drizzled with sticky Clementine honey glaze. Cocoa nib mole was a spicy foil for the gamey flavor of slow-poached lamb loin. Tender fennel-braised veal shank hardly needed a knife; and moist, roasted wild striped bass tasted almost sweet, with an aromatic touch of porcini essence.

White truffles from Alba, Italy, are only in season the last few months of the year, and Mary Elaine's showcases them with three menu items. I tried the Vialone Nano risotto, a smooth, thick bowl of short-grain rice, made extra creamy with melted bone marrow and mascarpone. It was simple and subtle, the better to savor the earthy, faintly garlicky flurry of paper-thin truffle shavings on top. One pound of white truffles goes for about $2,000 these days, so the delicacy turned a humble bowl of risotto into a $150 extravagance.

Which brings me to the most obvious point about Mary Elaine's rarefied aura: the expense. While precious ingredients like Iranian Sevruga, foie gras, or truffles can help justify the cost, those only get you so far. Honestly, I don't know how any chef's genius cooking could compete with Mary Elaine's long-standing reputation for high-roller prices.

How high, you ask? Oh, somewhere close to $200 a person for three courses, wine, and gratuity.

My friend summed it up best as she sipped on her luscious cream of Jerusalem artichoke soup, one of the cheapest things on the menu at $23: "I feel like I'm eating a bowlful of money."

It's hard not to think about money when you eat here. You start to wonder what makes something cost twice as much as it would at other "expensive" restaurants. You start to question whether it tastes twice as good. You start to think about the award-winning chef, and how the sheer prestige of eating your exorbitant meal is somehow stealing his thunder, putting pressure on every plate that comes out of the kitchen. And even if money's no object, you might decide that Mary Elaine's service and food just aren't getting the truly opulent surroundings they deserve.

Or then again, maybe you don't think that at all, because you've spent more than a grand and you really, really want to believe it was worth it.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig