Cafe Reviews

OUT WITH THE INN CROWD

For years I've been hearing about Sedona. The red rocks. The vortexes. The shopping. And, yes, the restaurants. Cozy L'Auberge de Sedona has long been touted as a most romantic spot for dinner. And Canyon Rose at Los Abrigados has garnered kudos for chef Todd Hall, including an invitation to demonstrate his way with food at the James Beard Institute in New York earlier this month. For all of these reasons, I decided to take a couple of days to resynchronize myself with the crystal capital of Arizona. A lot has changed since I last visited Sedona in 1985. Now there are outlet malls, Burger Kings, fancy homes and developments galore. But you know all about that. You've probably been there a million times in the last six years. You probably have a time-share in a condo.

And if you do, chances are you've spent an evening or two at L'Auberge de Sedona. This log-cabin French restaurant on Oak Creek is well-known to Phoenicians. Especially to those sensual souls who long to dress up for an intimate dinner far from the heat and bustle of the city. Where the serenade of cicadas is the noisiest thing going.

If you've never been, there are three things you should know about dinner at L'Auberge. First, it is formal. Men are required to wear ties and jackets. Second, it is a prix-fixe, five-course meal with two seatings. And, finally, the menu changes nightly, but if you expect the food to be as great as that of Vincent Guerithault on Camelback or Mary Elaine's at the Phoenician resort or Christopher's, you will be disappointed. That said, let me emphasize that L'Auberge does meet all expectations in the romance department. There's just something about sitting at a table for two in a restaurant out in the country, surrounded by couples--new and old--all dressed up and on their best behavior. It puts you in the mood, even if you weren't when you walked in.

What I like best about L'Auberge is that it offers diners the opportunity to commune with nature while enjoying a sophisticated and civilized meal. On the late September evening we are there, the large windows of the patio room where my dining accomplice and I are seated have been thrown wide open. The cottonwoods along Oak Creek are illuminated and we can hear water moving slowly over the rocks below.

Yet L'Auberge has all the accouterments you'd expect to find in a nice French restaurant. The china is Villeroy and Boch's "Pomeroy" pattern, a design of pink flowers framed with green vines that brings to mind the work of Maxfield Parrish. Fresh wildflowers grace each table in a captivating arrangement enhanced with a raffia bow. Table linens are pink, lighting is kind and each table has a candle, of course.

The staff is formally attired in black tuxedos. They do their jobs well, though with a trifle more pretension and attitude than is truly necessary. This is especially true of the sommelier. Note: It always pays to educate rather than intimidate.

Dinner here begins with a "gimme." Our freebie is a tiny, buttery pastry resembling a miniature elephant ear. I am not overwhelmed by it, nor by the selection of two rolls that follows. One is a puffy, sourdough "French" roll, the other a big, glazed rye roll. They are adequate, but more like well-meaning, country-style imitations than the genuine articles.

The meal begins in earnest when our appetizers arrive. My accomplice has ordered the seafood lasagna, I, the smoked trout. His is an artistic interpretation of "lasagna." The two shrimp and two scallops in this appetizer lie under a canopy of pasta dough and atop another piece. A yellow, slightly seafood-flavored butter-cream sauce, dotted with smidgens of chopped red pepper, completes the plate. Though the quality of the seafood is good, this is not a particularly compelling dish.

The smoked trout is better. This appetizer consists of three strips of trout, plus two toast triangles and small piles of chopped egg, capers, bermuda onion and parsley. My only wish? More toast.

Because dinner is prix fixe and everything is preordained once selections have been noted, the atmosphere at L'Auberge is nearly free of anxiety. Diners here are relaxed. They are here to enjoy the now. Many are staying overnight at the inn, in one of L'Auberge's country-French cottages or somewhere else in Sedona. For some, dinner and breakfast the next morning are included in the price of the accommodations. For once, there is no rush. The food just continues to come.

The soup course is unexceptional. My chilled, strawberry-banana soup reminds me of something I might have drunk for breakfast in the Seventies. My accomplice's crab-and-corn chowder is flavorful, but I'm disappointed it isn't chunkier. Once again, chopped red pepper is used for color.

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Penelope Corcoran