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.

Salad is a combination of endive, arugula and radicchio topped with slivers of smoked salmon and a vinaigrette dressing. It is far better than the peach sorbet that follows. We each receive half of a frozen sorbet "round." This icy concoction reminds me of the juice pops my mom made me in the Sixties. Our entrees soon arrive. The paupiette of salmon and scallops is an attractive blend of color and texture. Molded pink salmon encircles several white scallops. A beurre blanc punctuated with caviar dots and chive squares adds to the visual appeal of the plate, but the inclusion of ubiquitous baby vegetables bores me.

The Colorado lamb comes more well-done than I like. I ask for these peppery medallions medium-rare, but on arrival they are closer to medium. It's certainly no great tragedy; the lamb is still tender and flavorful, and a garlic-cream sauce complements it well. Unfortunately, those pesky baby vegetables also show up on this plate, as does an unsuccessful zucchini timbale that is unpleasantly cool to the tongue. Selecting dessert is a difficult choice at L'Auberge. I deliberate long and hard before settling on a banana Bavarian. Even then, I envy my dining accomplice's delicious flourless chocolate cake, which is cold like ice cream, only denser, and served with creme anglaise. My molded, banana-marzipan dessert, with a sponge-cake base and apricot-kiwi sauce, loses its impact after a few bites. I like it, but I can't go the whole distance with it.

Surprisingly, I would go all the way with L'Auberge again--even though I find the food only good, not exceptional. Especially if dinner here meant I'd be forced to stay again in one of L'Auberge de Sedona's cozy creekside cottages, with a fireplace, a cache of Evelyn & Crabtree bath products and a porch overlooking Oak Creek.

I'll tell you right up front that nearly everything about Los Abrigados' Canyon Rose surprises me--and not in a good way.

Under chef Todd Hall's direction, this restaurant has received so much good press that I arrive with high expectations. In short, I expect the level of food, service and atmosphere to rival any of Phoenix's finest restaurants. What I find is that it does not.

The reception at Canyon Rose the night my dining accomplice and I visit is no better than at a coffee shop. The young hostess is unschooled. She is not rude, but neither is she particularly gracious. Though we are guests with reservations, we go ungreeted for several minutes. Finally, she gives us the old "I'll be with you in a couple of minutes" line, pulls some menus out of a bin and, shoes slapping on marble, walks another party into the dining room. Talk about bad first impressions.

Then there is the dining room itself. I expect something plusher, something more intimate, something less "hotel dining room." Canyon Rose looks ordinary: It's got your Southwestern colors, your big semicircular booths, your color-coordinated abstract art, your nothing-special china. The lights have been lowered to create a sense of intimacy, but this merely makes the place look dingy. Worst of all, the shuttered Sunday-brunch-buffet setup and closed-up grand piano give the room an off-season feel. Call me jaded, but nothing on the menu appeals to me. I feel I've seen it all before. We finally settle on a starter of cold, wild-mushroom terrine which turns out to be a bland, yet pleasant, alternative to pate. The accompanying "roasted pepper aioli" tastes a lot like Thousand Island dressing.

The soup course is better. Both the black-bean soup and thick corn chowder are nicely spicy. This fiery quality almost, but not quite, makes up for the fact that both soups are served tepid.

For $23, my dining accomplice's entree consists of three shrimp and three scallops in a tomato-basil sauce. While it's true that the sauce is irresistibly good and that the seafood is prepared well and of good quality, $3.80 per tiny creature seems a bit steep, doesn't it?

I do not pick up any special "energy" from the red-rock clay my game hen is baked in, but it's fun watching our waiter crack the thing open. This ancient method of oil-free cooking guarantees the meat is succulent. Too bad the bird's raisin-carrot stuffing is too salty. As for the overly sweet hazelnut sauce served on the side, it seems better matched with vanilla ice cream than with this dish.

During our meal we watch our waiter hustle back and forth over the marble floor, from kitchen to table and back again. His frenzy and that of the rest of the waitstaff again bring to mind a coffee shop. Neither our strictly average peaches and sabayon in a pastry shell nor our grainy-textured chocolate-and-white- chocolate mousse restores the bloom to Canyon Rose. As I said, I'm as surprised as you. L'Auberge de Sedona, 301 L'Auberge Lane, Sedona, 1-602-282-1661. Hours: Breakfast, 7 to 10:30 a.m.; Lunch, noon to 3 p.m.; Dinner, 6 to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

Canyon Rose, Los Abrigados, 160 Portal Lane, Sedona, 1-602-282-7673. Hours: Breakfast, 7 to 11 a.m.; Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

l'auberge

L'Auberge does meet all expectations in the romance department. It puts you in the mood.

I envy my dining accomplice's delicious flourless chocolate cake, which is cold like ice cream and served with creme anglaise.

canyon rose

Under chef Todd Hall's direction, the Canyon Rose has received so much good press that I arrive with high expectations.

Call me jaded, but nothing on the menu appeals to me. I feel I've seen it all before.

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Penelope Corcoran