Julia Child is convinced that we have taken the fun out of food. This icon of kitchen magic often laments that Americans have become so terrified of fat that they are stripping away one of the most glorious aspects of eating.
"Because of media hype and woefully inadequate information," she writes in her new recipe collection, The Way to Cook, "too many people nowadays are deathly afraid of their food."
It's an alarming trend she's seen evolve since the late '80s, and she's quick to chastise our cowardice in her numerous books, articles and television appearances.
Of course, this is a lady who cites butter as her favorite ingredient.
The trick to fat, she says, is moderation. Not as a main course, like my sister Elisabeth who, as a young child, went through a thankfully short phase of munching butter by the stick. Ick.
I like Julia's solution. "An imaginary shelf labeled 'indulgences' is a good idea," she suggests. "It contains the best butter, jumbo size eggs, heavy cream, marbled steaks, sausages and pâtés, hollandaise and French butter cream fillings, gooey chocolate cakes and all those lovely items that demand disciplined rationing."
Such foods are for special occasions, she concedes, but when that occasion comes, diners must enjoy every decadent mouthful. Yet even everyday sustenance must be respected, she insists. Meals need not be fancy, but they must be delicious, from the proudest chicken to the most magnificent meatloaf.
So it is with this justification that I happily return again and again to Lon's at the Hermosa. It's difficult to resist the siren call of executive chef Patrick Poblete's fare. Billed as American comfort cuisine with a Southwest flavor, Lon's menu is a glorious romp through familiar classics updated, respected and, yes, draped with heavenly fat.
The restaurant is butter-rich just for its location within Paradise Valley's Hermosa Inn. Hand-built in the 1930s by cowboy artist Lon Megargee as his home and studio, this gorgeous adobe hacienda has been reborn as an intimate resort. With just 35 guestrooms and dense desert landscaping, it is easy to miss when motoring down the residential street fronting it. No mistake, this, but by demand from its affluent neighbors who have long fought any type of commercial enterprise within their exclusive environs. After a devastating fire in 1987, Casa Hermosa was rebuilt to its original charm despite the squawking of area homeowners.
I applaud the lack of the yawning porticos and gleaming walls of glass found at many other Valley resorts. This is Arizona at its finest, from the saltillo tile patio anchored by a softly bubbling fountain to the flickering chimeneas at the restaurant's entrance. The beehive fireplaces enchant, their flames crackling with pungent wood and dancing sparks.
The Southwestern flavor welcomes guests warmly inside with its mocha-toned decor, gently worn leather armchairs and forged metal stair rails. Yes, as my dining companion giggles, Lon's wall-mounted logo portrait does sharply resemble the maniacal spokes-cowboy for Black Angus.
But what's with the tired new age music management pipes in? Tinkling wind chimes and breezy pipe melodies should be contained to Sedona, not this retreat of low-slung beamed ceilings and original adobe walls.
Chef Poblete has been Lon's culinary artist in residence since 1995. A graduate of California Culinary Academy, Poblete emphasizes the fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs grown in the 10,000-square-foot garden outside the restaurant doors. But what may have begun as a trend in the Golden State many years ago has taken hold here for good reason. The bold flavors of fresh produce are an even match for Lon's rich sauces and deep butter nuances. The garden also spurs Lon's seasonal menu to a true celebration of local harvests. Certainly playing sharecropper is extra work for the chef, but we expect nothing less.
Such high standards demand obsessive attention to detail, and mostly, Lon's succeeds. When the kitchen produces something good, it is awe-inspiring. When things go wrong, however, they are an unparalleled disaster. Such is the burden of an artist.
It is also the prerogative of an artist to take license with presentation. Appetizers, the most dramatically plated items at Lon's, vary in their design. One evening, crispy tiger prawns ($9.50) delivers three large crustaceans wrapped in wonton. Another night the prawns arrive costumed in a delicate tempura jacket. They're equally satisfying, nestled on a bed of creamy broccoli risotto in a garlic schircha sauce (a Vietnamese-style hot sauce that's milder than it needs to be).
House smoked salmon crostini ($8.95), meanwhile, appears once with the salmon already applied to the sliver thin toast, and another time with the fish mounding the center of the plate. No matter, they're both doting mates to the marinated cucumber slices and slightly sweet red onion cream cheese. Escorted by baby greens in a full-flavored vinaigrette effectively dusted with salt and pepper, this appetizer makes a satisfying meal in itself.
We order the Atlantic salmon and Oregon dungeness crab cakes ($10.95), and are thoughtfully warned by our server that they are much more salmon than crab. Indeed, the two racquetball-size cakes are lush with slivered salmon that dominates the moist crab and diced red pepper. Slightly oily pea sprouts and a punch-packing horseradish confit provide the perfect sharpness.
With its sensual flavors and seductive ambiance, Lon's is a romantic restaurant, and it is here that I discover a new love. Restaurants of all persuasions now feature sesame-seared ahi tuna, but none with such passion as Poblete's. This is a coup de fishdom -- deep red medallions edged in pepper and crowned with a starburst of wafer crackers ($8.95). A light napa cabbage and jicama slaw capped with bean sprouts offers an often overlooked enhancement of taste and texture.
A lighter segue into dinner is Lon's soup of the evening, a competent French onion served one night ($7.50). In a refreshing approach, a large, flat dish of vegetable-rich beef stock is reduced almost to a glaze, topped with toast and Gruyere. Partnered with Lon's full-bodied sourdough bread and torridly garlicked butter, it's a soothing friend on a cold winter's night.
Salads easily could be split and shared, but my dining companion and I are so enamored of the flora that we covet our individual orders. His mixed salad ($7.50) is a beautiful palette of baby greens, stripes of whisper-thin cucumber and tomato, feta crumbles and clever chopstick-shaped breadsticks mantled by tart balsamic vinaigrette.
I prefer it to the chopped salad ($7), thick with romaine, tomato chunks and fresh basil, only because the salad's Parmesan blizzard is overbearing. After a bite of the accompanying harshly Parmesaned lahvosh, it's difficult to appreciate the subtle appeal of Lon's homemade Caesar vinaigrette.
Marinated mozzarella with watercress tossed in a tangy-sweet sun-dried tomato vinaigrette ($8.50) borders on bland, but by no fault of its ingredients. With such generous portioning of the naturally demure cheese, it's simply too much of a good thing after several bites. The same fate befalls roasted baby beets with endive ($9), an intimidating mound of green cabbage, jicama and candied walnuts in a chevre dressing. So intense is the sweetness of the beets and nuts that a little goes a long, long way. For full appreciation, share these dishes.
The kitchen shines its brightest with the more simple entrees. Here is the heart and soul of Poblete's concept and talent. Pan-seared trout and grilled swordfish specials ($29.95 each), for example, are so finely crafted that it pains me to even try any menu offerings other than fish. These are huge fillets, perfectly prepared and anointed with just the right amount of our cherished butter. Butter melts slowly over the roe atop my crisp-skinned swordfish, soaks into pliable fingerling potatoes and nestles in contentedly with an al dente ratatouille of red pepper, zucchini and squash. Oh, it's good!
More butter graces the half-dozen pan-seared Maine scallops ($24.95), perfect representations of how lavish scallops can be when they are fresh, firm and gently prepared. Spiked with lemon grass, the buerre blanc tempers the scallops' simple sweetness and laps against the deftly done citrus risotto and broccoli/cauliflower combo.
Rack of lamb ($25.95) is definitely an American favorite, although the best lamb, like Lon's, comes from New Zealand. Why? Because in New Zealand, it is against the law to use hormones and tenderizers. I vote to make fat illegal, too (sorry Julia), as half my frenched ribs are more blubber than meat. The remaining four ribs are lovely, however, cherry red and tender in the distinction of prime young spring lamb. The accompanying mashed potato is sturdy with chunks of roasted garlic, zipped with a ratatouille side of sautéed tomato, green and yellow zucchini and onion.
Hardly anything is more traditional than pan-roasted chicken ($20.95), although even the most skilled home cook would be hard-pressed to produce a more impeccable breast. This bird is huge, towering over a mellow celery root purée and drenched in an assertive roasted garlic jus.
While that archetype of comfort food, meatloaf, is conspicuously absent, Poblete caters to better-fed households with wood-grilled filet mignon ($25.95). The juicy cut, expertly medium rare as requested, melts under the knife. My dining companion finishes every bite, spooned up with horseradish mashed potatoes and a mild roasted onion and carrot relish.
Butter returns to enhance Maple Leaf Farms breast of duck with light-as-air herbed potato gnocchi, Brussels sprouts and foie gras sauce ($23.95). I suspect even non-duck eaters would enjoy this dish, pleasant with its crispy-skinned, well-marbled poultry. The gnocchi are also available as an entree ($18.50) and deserve their starring role.
While most would not count ostrich as a traditional comfort food, Lon's special ($24.95) uncovers some quite attractive pan loin. Prepared in its preferred medium-rare, ostrich reflects the taste of a very mild filet mignon -- good, but not gutsy. For my money, stick with the beef.
When it comes to Poblete's more creative offerings, strap on your seat belt for a rougher ride. Strong flavors are unleashed with wild abandon; they crash rudely in the mouth. A thick Gorgonzola cream sauce, for example, puts penne pasta in a headlock with its bitterness, completely obscuring the shyer nature of portobello mushroom and wood-grilled chicken ($18.95).
Fusilli with rock shrimp, fish of the day, green lip mussels and roasted pepper coulis ($18.95) stomps on the taste buds with strong-tasting seafood, but we forgive the dish for the good nature of its sauce. How could we cavil anyway, given the kindness of the kitchen? We asked to split this entree as an appetizer and were presented with two virtually full-size portions.
The kindness of the waiters saves us again when I order the truly awful house smoked pork chop ($25.95). This dish is not simply a misstep; it's a catapult to the death. I understand that mesquite is one of our most strongly flavored woods, but this poor chop has been so grossly over-smoked that it's inedible. The first bite sends a charcoal briquette to the back of my throat. And while the acrid fumes decrease the farther into the two-inch chop I dig, my senses are too bludgeoned to take more than a few bites. Adding insult is the smoky prosciutto-infused risotto underneath. Fuchsia-tone braised apples and red cabbage are more like pickles and offer no relief.
But our waiter is professional and sincere, offering me another entree when he sees my distress. I decline, and I can see this bothers him; can't he offer us drinks, dessert, anything? He promises to tell the chef to test the smoke levels, and I have no doubt he does so immediately.
I console myself with the pastry chef's sampler ($14.95 for two). What a treat, to indulge in small portions of lemon crème brûlée in a crispy ravioli pocket; chocolate mousse studded with toffee, mocha and meringue; plum, raspberry and macadamia nut upside-down cake; warm French apple galette with cinnamon stick ice cream; vanilla bean ice cream in espresso sauce; and strawberries dipped in white and dark chocolate tuxedos. It's a huge plate smattered with luscious diced fruit, drizzled with chocolate sauce and dressed with mint leaves and cookie curls. Capped with steaming cups of rich, black coffee, we find the selection ample for one evening's party of five.
It's the perfect ending to an all-American experience: indulgent food and lots of it. Julia would be so proud.