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Jewel in the Desert

For me, reviewing restaurants is so personal, so subjective, that it's hard to imagine anyone doing it with an actual checklist in hand. But for employees of AAA whose full-time job involves judging more than 60,000 dining establishments across the nation, determining a restaurant's Diamond Rating comes with a set...
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For me, reviewing restaurants is so personal, so subjective, that it's hard to imagine anyone doing it with an actual checklist in hand. But for employees of AAA whose full-time job involves judging more than 60,000 dining establishments across the nation, determining a restaurant's Diamond Rating comes with a set of rigorous, objective guidelines.

So what does it take to get the prestigious Five Diamond Award? Turns out that 18 aspects of the dining experience are closely scrutinized, from telephone etiquette when a someone calls for a reservation, to the presentation of the check at the end of the meal. The criteria for food are especially tough. Presentation must be "extremely imaginative and exclusive in concept and outstanding in execution." Ingredients must be predominantly "specialty and exotic items." And when it comes to preparation, "execution of all methods is flawless and meticulous."

Is it a big deal? Consider this: For 2007, only 58 restaurants in the entire country were Five Diamond Award-winners.

Arizona has four such establishments. Or should I say, had four, until Marquesa at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess closed just a few weeks ago. That leaves us with Mary Elaine's, The Ventana Room in Tucson, and Kai. Located at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, part of the Gila River Indian Community, Kai's been making waves ever since it opened back in 2002. But this is the first year it's gotten such high honors — and it's one of only six new additions to the list.

The restaurant's current creative triumvirate — consulting chef Janos Wilder (a James Beard Award-winner), executive chef Michael O'Dowd, and chef de cuisine Jack Strong — deserves to bask in the attention. And now that I've finally visited Kai, I'm ready to heap praise on them, too.

Like his predecessor, Sandy Garcia, who is from New Mexico's San Juan Pueblo tribe, Strong is Native American (hailing from Oregon's Confederated Tribes of Siletz), and his heritage lends heft to cuisine that celebrates indigenous cultures and crops in the most sophisticated ways. Unique Southwestern ingredients like cholla buds, heirloom squash, saguaro seeds, and nopalitos mingle with more recognizable gourmet components such as chanterelles, truffles, and foie gras. Even the bread basket has three kinds of traditional Native flatbread along with cranberry bread and crusty ciabatta rolls.

My dining companions and I got a kick out of reading the menu. Talk about elaborate — every element had exquisite provenance, from the name of the tribe that raised the buffalo, to the name of the school attended by the children who harvested the greens for my salad. Seriously. And while I'm tempted to say it was all pretentious, I can't be snarky. Honestly, I loved poring over those details, trying to conjure the flavors in my mind. And as for the kids' lessons in lettuce and local agriculture, I'm sure Alice Waters would approve.

So how were the "Lettuces Hand Picked by the Children of the Gila River Crossing School"? As fresh as could be, tossed with blood orange vinaigrette. Each bite was a dance of sweet and savory, thanks to the addition of date cake, a tiny chunk of Humboldt Fog goat cheese, and a mix of heirloom tomatoes and sobrasada (soft Spanish sausage). The Three Sisters Composition — an elegant arrangement of sweet corn panna cotta, strips of pickled squash with golden beans, and venison carpaccio topped with a pinch of microgreens — played with a similar flavor dynamic. And the asparagus appetizer was savory all the way, with sea salt and a touch of sherry vinegar to balance out the richness of quail egg, chanterelles, and shaved truffles.

Seared scallops are a ubiquitous starter, but at Kai, they were exotically seasoned with a dusting of dried mango and sandalwood. Risotto, too, was anything but mundane. Here, it was flavored with caramelized pumpkin, Iberico pork loin, Asiago cheese, and Cortez Island oysters. And the "Tres Pescado Ceviche" had some of the most astonishing flavors of the evening. Tender slices of shark were dressed with an aromatic mix of Meyer lemon, vanilla, banana essence, and spicy-sweet mora rojo chile; corvina and eel were topped with tomatoes, tapenade and lime; and buttery yellowtail was zinged up with chihuacle negro (a kind of Oaxacan chile), mint and lavender. When the dish was presented, the waiter removed a mesquite smoke-filled flask from atop the yellowtail, and everyone at the table sighed at the delicious aroma.

More unusual tastes arrived with the entrees. Moist Kurobuta pork tenderloin, rubbed with toasted ground coffee and Hatch chiles, had an intensity that reminded me of good mole. On a related note, the mole that accompanied the pecan-crusted, oven-roasted rack of lamb was addicting — good thing I had cornbread pudding to soak it all up. Duck breast marinated in mint and white sage tea was one of the highlights of the evening, paired with plump foie gras and sweet membrillo-fig puree. And the juicy, perfectly grilled buffalo tenderloin was served on top of a spicy heap of cholla buds, mushrooms, smoked corn puree, and huge scarlet runner beans, drizzled with saguaro blossom syrup.

It's amazing that we made it to dessert, but the leisurely pacing of the meal, combined with several amuses-bouche and palate cleansers, helped us to the final course. Three Sisters crème brûlée was a trio of mini-portions; squash, fire-roasted corn, and anise tasted surprisingly good in the form of sweet custard. Mesquite meal-crusted goat's milk cheesecake, served with hibiscus syrup and a wedge of Humboldt Fog, was creamy but mercifully light. And the Mexican chocolate soufflé was warm and rich, the kind of comforting dessert that makes you feel like all is right with the world.

I felt that way throughout the evening, thanks to lots of little details. When we got our menus, inset with charming watercolor paintings by Pima tribal elder Mike Medicine Horse Zillioux, our waiter gave us a brief explanation of the historical events that inspired them. We were presented with a choice of citrus fruits to add to our water. Flatware was chilled or heated according to the dishes we were eating. A lovely view of the resort, soft Native American flute music, and subtle decor added up to a soothing atmosphere. The only thing I could've done without was the simultaneous delivery of dishes by a team of waiters — when there was a snafu about who got what dish, the precisely choreographed presentation made it more obvious.

Still, the service was sincere and gracious. As if we'd had any doubt, there were chilled bottles of Voss water, a small box of chocolates, and a hand-written thank-you note in our car.

I'm sure that the AAA people had a field day with their checklists at this place. And now that I've checked it off my must-visit list, I have the urge to put Kai right back.

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