The Valley's resort managers may not be trained physicists or mathematicians. But they're well aware of Newton's formulation that bodies at rest tend to remain at rest. Vacationers who are happy enough to golf, swim and go horseback riding without leaving the hotel premises aren't likely to stray when it's time for meals. During the tourist season, resorts have a built-in dinner clientele. On the other hand, resort managers have to find bodies to occupy their dining rooms during the slow months, when visitors to the area become as scarce as liberal Democrats. That means attracting us, the year-round residents. This time, inertia works against them. Once I turn on the air conditioner and begin summer hibernation, I exhibit all the mobility of a saguaro. Only top-quality restaurants have a chance of luring locals out of their lairs. That's why just a few resort kitchens, like Etienne's Different Pointe of View, Top of the Rock and Mary Elaine's, thrive in May like they do in March. They're worthy dining destinations in their own right, not simply the lazy guest's path of least resistance. Two Valley resorts, Orange Tree and Scottsdale Plaza, have recently given their main restaurants complete makeovers, hoping to take a step up in class and win local favor. In one instance, there's some promise; in the other, it's back to the drawing board. Orange Tree's restaurant, Capers, has a new name and a refurbished look. New china, table linens and staff uniforms spruce up the informal room. The dining area is two-tiered, and diners at most tables look out through French windows at a lighted fountain. Each table has a small candle set in an unobtrusive glass holder--perhaps too unobtrusive. A man at the table next to us inadvertently set his newspaper aflame, igniting swift staff response. That was the meal's service high point. Management might want to consider refurbishing some of the servers, too. Our waitress was so dour that I imagined she'd just heard her application to work at Planet Hollywood had been rejected. After she went through the list of salad dressings, for example, we asked her if there was a house dressing. "Oh, I guess you didn't hear me say it," she said, sniffing. No, dear, I'm paid to listen, and you didn't mention it. Even more unbelievable was how she and other staff treated a guest's jacket, which had fallen off his chair. Four times we watched employees dance over and around it, unwilling to stoop down and retrieve it. If my wife hadn't marched over and picked it up, the jacket might be lying there still. The food is another story, and it's generally a happier one. The new chef has redone the menu, and he calls the offerings "transcontinental" fare. What that seems to mean is something from here, something from there and sometimes something from both here and there on the same plate.
Take the chicken piki starter. Eight small, phyllo-dough pouches come filled with spicy, cumin-accented chicken, accompanied by a zippy, Thai-style peanut sauce nestled in a blue-corn tortilla. It's all over the map, but it works. The spanakopita starter is slightly less worldly. It's Greek phyllo dough again, this time stuffed with feta cheese and spinach. What sets it apart is a very un-Greek honey-and-lemon dipping sauce, which provides an appealing, sweet-and-tart touch. The onion soup is wonderful, one of the Valley's better models. It's a crock of rich broth, which, unlike so many others, is heavier on onions than on the salt. It's properly layered with bread and a slab of crusted cheese. The main dishes are perfectly enjoyable, but fall short of inspiring those quivers of "I can't wait to come back again" excitement. Price may be a factor: At $14.50 to $21.95, Capers' entrees cost about as much as those at Vincent's, Christopher's Bistro, Eddie's Grill or RoxSand. Out-of-towners may not know or care, but food-wise locals can't help measuring Capers' platters against the competition's. The kitchen does know how to work with fish. The thick hunk of ahi tuna is skillfully done, grilled to perfection. It comes with a pungent, Japanese wasabi mustard and mango chile chutney that furnish bold taste accents. So why couldn't the kitchen dream up something more inspired than the mound of insipid rice it sent out alongside? Breast of chicken is the basis for some of the dullest entrees in creation, but Capers manages to give its Brazilian version some flair by spooning on a peppy, cherimoya-passion fruit sauce. And like all the main dishes, this one sported a diverting medley of squash, carrots and broccoli crowns. Pork tenderloin stuffed with pur‚ed spinach could have used some flavor boosts. The mild peppercorn sauce wasn't up to the task. The pallid, angel-hair-pasta side dish suffered from the same blahs. No reason to be shy with the herbs and spices. An overly light hand also dimmed the rack of lamb. These were good-quality chops, but almost none of the "encrusted in hazelnut mint Dijonnaise" got through. And the two measly Tater Tot-looking spuds didn't fulfill their part of the starch bargain. It's a bit hard to take a pricey restaurant serious as a gastronomic destination when it contracts out for desserts, as our waitress told us Capers does. Certainly, the chocolate cake and strawberry cheesecake we selected from the desultory dessert tray held little interest.
But Capers is moving in the right direction: The menu is small and manageable, the room is comfortable and the food has some imagination. If the honchos can punch up the staff, muscle up the side dishes and turn desserts into a sweet science, Capers can be a contender.
Remington's, Scottsdale Plaza Resort, 7200 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 951-5101. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.
I don't know what it will take to turn Remington's, Scottsdale Plaza's featured restaurant, into a contender. If this place were a fighter, the boxing commission wouldn't let it enter the ring. Remington's gets its name from a Frederic Remington sculpture, "Coming Through the Rye," which is stationed just outside the dining area. Inside, it's an upscale-looking room, with plaster pillars supporting overhead beams, and a curved ceiling painted to resemble a cloud-speckled blue sky. Our group admired the pretty glass globes with floating carnations parked on every table. Just as the eyes are considered the window to the soul, I've always thought the breadbasket is the window to a meal. Good bread, goes my adage, means good food to follow.
Well, thinking about the tasty bread here arouses in me the same emotions John Bobbitt must feel when he recalls first gazing into Lorena's eyes: a charming experience, but hardly a reliable indicator of things to come. The appetizers started the journey down the culinary slope. Stuffed mushrooms Aztec sounds pretty exciting. But it's just supermarket-variety mushrooms, topped with a slice of ho-hum chicken sausage, moistened with innocuous mole and red pepper sauces. Cashew chicken fritters and onion soup were just as unremarkable. Somehow, my guard slipped, and I let the waiter talk me into ordering caesar salad, a $5.25-per-person error in judgment. No hailing this pile of kitchen-prepared greenery. The main dishes aspired to mediocrity, but couldn't reach that lofty height. We concentrated on the specialties, too, so the quality of the nonspecialties can only be left to the imagination. The Texas mixed grill won't enhance the reputation of the Lone Star State. It featured three boring grilled shrimp, the same chicken sausage that decorated the stuffed mushrooms Aztec and three miserly chunks of beef brochette.
About halfway through the course, the manager dropped by with a bowlful of extra meat. "Your portion looked small," he told my astonished friend. It was a gracious gesture that couldn't completely wipe away the kitchen's ineptness in sending out such a puny platter and charging $21.95 for it. And, it's my sad duty to relate, the meat was chewy. The smoked rack of lamb took entree honors by default. It wasn't very memorable, but I couldn't find any glaring deficiencies. That wasn't the case, however, with the Sedona grilled quail and Santa Fe roast pork. The quail was meaty enough, but salty to the point of inedibility. And the pork, stuffed with spinach and mushrooms, was so off-putting that I had to restrain an impulse to flee. The look, taste and texture were completely wrong, reminding me of pressed meat. Dry as dust, it crumbled at the first touch of the fork. Desserts are embarrassing. Even the waiter looked abashed. The dessert tray featured exactly one cake, an indifferent chocolate raspberry; flan; a less-than-intense chocolate tulip filled with an unpleasant, runny, pistachio mousse; and bowls of berries. In a meal filled with low notes, these hit some of the lowest. At this point, there's only one way to view Remington's--as a last resort.