Phoenix Mediterranean restaurant Thea looks stunning, falls flat | Phoenix New Times

Toum with a view: Sam Fox’s Thea makes a mess of Mediterranean cuisine

The rooftop paradise courts international cachet, but beneath the glamorous exterior lies a deeply flawed restaurant.
The food at Thea might leave you wanting, but the view is lovely.
The food at Thea might leave you wanting, but the view is lovely. Dominic Armato
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I’ll say this. Sam Fox knows how to make a splash.

Phoenix’s cheesecake-funded über-restaurateur didn’t secure a third of a billion dollars for his empire by quietly going about his business, and his latest venture, The Global Ambassador, is anything but quiet.

Surely, you and The Global Ambassador have met? Since late last year, the ritzy epicenter of Phoenix’s upscale social scene has shifted to Fox’s first foray into the hotel business — a bustling, traffic-snarling glitterati magnet touted as a “restaurant-first” destination for the international jet set.

The Global Ambassador’s press page drips with honey-scented accolades, and though I’m no hotel critic, the praise seems warranted. The facade of Fox’s Parisian-inspired edifice strikes me as a little less Paris, France and a little more Paris, Las Vegas, but inside it’s a swanky, luxurious joint where I’d gladly spend some time.

My primary interest, however, lies in the phrase Fox uses to describe his latest opus.

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The fried calamari is a dish you've had at every neighborhood Italian-American restaurant ever.
Dominic Armato


Author & Edit Hospitality, Fox’s hotel company, has crammed four restaurants within The Global Ambassador’s white walls, and set the fifth — its gleaming, Mediterranean-inspired crown jewel, Thea — on the roof.

Rolling out a reproducible restaurant chain is one thing, but anchoring a top-flight luxury hotel with international ambitions is another. Thea is ostensibly designed to serve a different clientele with different needs — needs for which Fox’s usual dressed-up everyman schtick seems exquisitely ill-suited.

Is there anything a true sophisticate hates more than a faux sophisticate? Still, business acumen, gumption and a giant pile of money can produce just about anything, if you know how to delegate.

Delegate, Sam Fox has.

Fox is reportedly very hands-on with The Global Ambassador’s restaurants, but he’s brought on longtime local fixture Dushyant Singh as the hotel’s director of food and beverage and he’s imported New York semi-celeb chef Eric Kim Haugen as “head of culinary creative.” All of this leads one to wonder who has the most fingers in the pie, but I’m not sure it matters so long as the pie tastes good.

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Turkish meatballs are nicely seasoned, but buried in dull sauces.
Dominic Armato

The pie is pretty

The Global Ambassador is always a scene. On Friday and Saturday nights, it’s a zoo.

Finding Thea means pushing through a crowd of supermodels and supercars before navigating multiple layers of bouncer-patrolled velvet ropes en route to a hidden bank of elevators that whisks you to the rooftop deck. Whether or not you get off on this kind of performative exclusivity theater, it’s tough to deny that the patio is stunning.

It's a vibe up there, as the kids say, where the well-heeled wildlife sips spritzes and skinny margaritas and gazes down upon the Valley, lounging on giant puffy sofas and wiggling to a disco funk remix of "Rock the Casbah" in a scene that would probably kill Joe Strummer if he weren’t already dead.

Said spritzes are a little lightweight but appropriate to the setting and deftly designed by beverage director Sean Traynor. They’re easy to drink and nothing that makes you think too hard.

That’s good, because the menu is kind of a puzzler.

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Thea's "Goddess of All Dips" is a mixed bag of Mediterranean flavors.
Dominic Armato

Mediterranean in name only

At most restaurants, “Mediterranean” is either a euphemism for Arab cuisine or a failure to commit.

At Thea, it's a collection of diverse, overlapping culinary traditions sharing common threads that could potentially be woven together with skill.

The problem is that they aren’t.

Great grilled octopus requires nothing more than fire, lemon, salt and a nice, lusty olive oil. Sure, you can dress it up if you like. But it doesn’t need to hide. The octopus at Thea is hiding — dull, re-warmed seafood whose shortcomings can’t be disguised by throwing on buzzy condiments like zhoug, toum and a smattering of fresh herbs.

Calamari is solid enough, battered and fried and served with a chunky, underseasoned tomato sauce. But I think of all the brilliant ways calamari is prepared throughout the region, and somehow the best Thea can come up with is the kind of appetizer that would feel more at home alongside bottomless salad and breadsticks.

Thea’s signature appetizer sampler, the “Goddess of All Dips” consumes a hefty chunk of menu real estate, complete with flowery illustrations, and the sextet is a mixed bag. Baba ghanoush fails to capture eggplant’s natural sweetness while deftly highlighting all of its more astringent, bitter qualities. And why they’ve topped it with a blob of dank pesto Genovese is anybody’s guess. Muhammara is watery, underpowered and overly sweet, but the artichoke dip is creamy and flavorful so long as you don’t catch a tough, stringy leaf between your teeth. Ricotta whipped to a textureless fluff with honey and figs might as well be dessert, while crispy chickpeas and a nice spice mix add some welcome zip to otherwise unremarkable hummus.

My dining companions agree that it’s a fun spread to pick at with bread and crudites, but when I ask which of the six they look forward to ordering on its own, the table goes silent. Like a cheap buffet, once the wide-eyed appeal of variety and excess is stripped away, the dish that remains tastes better at my corner gyro shop.

The metaphors keep coming.

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Thea's saganaki is a flop, failing to capture the fun and flavor of the original dish.
Dominic Armato

Flaming out

Flaming saganaki trips and faceplants before it even leaves the kitchen. A timid facsimile of the explosive Chicago-Greek classic, it perfectly — and quite literally — encapsulates Thea’s lukewarm take on the cuisine.

Rather than firing it tableside in a searing hot pan, Thea’s flambeed kasseri cheese is first cooked in the kitchen, transferred to a barely warmed skillet, then splashed with a bit of booze your server lights in a cup and gently pours over the top.

There’s fire, yeah, but where’s the kaboom?

The showmanship of the original has always been kind of corny, but more than that, it’s functional. Without that scalding metal pan, Thea’s cheese gets pasty on the bottom, it never achieves a sizzling crisp crust, and its core quickly solidifies, robbing you of the ooze and pull that makes the dish so wonderful.

Turkish meatballs are nicely spiced, but they’re overworked and tough, and they’re buried in the same tomato sauce and tzatziki you’ll find all over the menu. It seems there’s no sauce Thea can’t spread across half a dozen dishes.

Speaking of which, “Parma” flatbread is a flaccid sort without much personality. They’ve debased prosciutto di Parma’s primary allure by converting its supple texture and funky sweetness into fried, jerky-like salt shavings, paired — in an encore appearance — with the same muddy pesto Genovese that adorned the baba ghanoush.

When we order Spring Tabbouleh, we get a salad mostly composed of pea tendrils and sugar snaps in a candy-sweet lemon vinaigrette. Only a light smattering of bulgur wheat and a few token sprigs of parsley make a cursory nod to the original. There’s nothing wrong with taking creative liberties, but at what point is the underlying culture just a collection of buzzwords for the mood board? I always try my best to assume good intentions, but I’m struggling not to see this as a deeply cynical exercise.

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Sushi... yes, sushi... at Thea Mediterranean Rooftop in Phoenix.
Dominic Armato

That’s when the sushi arrives

You heard me.

“Why is there sushi on the menu?” we ask our server.

“Because everybody loves sushi!” she cheerfully replies.

Everybody loves mac and cheese, too, I nearly blurt out. But this poor woman didn’t design the menu so I stifle my inner smartass.

Joke’s on me. The rice is a little leathery, but the sushi is one of Thea’s better offerings. Really, though, the bar is low.

Fox proudly highlights Thea’s Spaghetti alla Nerano, inspired, he says, by his travels on the Amalfi Coast. Setting aside the dubious combination of Southern Italian cuisine and beurre monté, the dish is a disaster. The pasta has no bite, the sauce is a sticky, overpowering morass and I cannot fathom what the kitchen thinks a pile of acrid, burned zucchini slices adds to this mess.

Shrimp Scorpio — overcooked and swimming in a light tomato sauce with orzo — looks pretty but sings in a sour monotone. If you’re going to make a dish that celebrates the glory of a simple tomato, you have to start with a glorious tomato. These might be excusable at the corner gyro stand, but I can think of 353 million reasons why Sam Fox should be able to get a hold of decent tomatoes.

On one visit, the general manager spies me coming in the door and the skirt steak I order is fabulous — tender and juicy and cooked to a pinpoint temperature. I’d eagerly eat it again, so I do. The next visit, however, I engage in a little skullduggery to ensure no one will know the steak is for me.

It’s significantly less fabulous. Not bad, but not nearly the same. And it has company.

Oh, hey, there’s that pesto Genovese again, slathered over the top of my steak like a blanket of wet moss. Stick around long enough and Thea’s duller condiments will keep circling back to kick you again.

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One of Thea's better dishes, a grilled skirt steak, is smothered in a muddy pesto.
Dominic Armato

Missing the mark... or not?

Desserts are fine, but does it matter? Either you’re four spritzes deep and too busy flirting with somebody you met at the bar or you’re so frustrated by dinner that a decent piece of cheesecake or baklava isn’t going to turn the evening around. I walk out of Thea completely stuffed and completely unsatisfied. It’s the precise inverse of Mediterranean food. I know I’ve eaten, but I don’t remember enjoying it. And this elicits a telling question.

Who is this restaurant for?

Hotel restaurants, by reputation, tend to play it safe. But Fox isn’t opening a Sheraton, here. Thea may look the part of an elite player on the global stage, but it serves a collection of misfires and half-measures that display either a deep ignorance of what makes Mediterranean cuisine tick, or a complete indifference to representing its component cultures with integrity.

I’m not sure which interpretation is less charitable.

Either way, anybody who’s spent some time eating their way around the Mediterranean will see right through it. And international elites who plunk down big money for luxury hotels and jet off to Santorini for lunch sure as hell won’t be fooled. It’s hard not to conclude that marketing bluster aside, Thea’s true mark lives within five miles of the restaurant.

That says some interesting things about Fox’s relationship with Phoenix.

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Shrimp Scorpio might work well if it were built on better tomatoes.
Dominic Armato

Sam Fox’s legacy

I’ve heard some former Fox fans grumble that he lost his magic when The Cheesecake Factory ate him. I would contend that where the food is concerned, Fox never had it in the first place, and the sale to a massive conglomerate has given people cover to admit what they kind of always knew.

One gets the sense that Fox’s restaurants launch with honorable intentions and good bones that he slowly whittles away as he converts them into money-printing concepts and chains. But Thea feels like a phony huckster right out of the gate, and the only thing more tiresome than restaurants like this is the cacophonous buzz surrounding them.

At a time when our local talent is fighting for respect on the national stage, in glides Fox’s Greek goddess, sucking the oxygen out of the room and reinforcing every negative stereotype visitors have about the Phoenix dining scene.

And that might be the big shame of the Sam Fox story. No one is better positioned to push the ball forward, yet few people seem less interested in actually doing so. That’s his choice and his right. But when the year’s most heralded homegrown restaurant opening is a loud, sexy rooftop scene slinging mediocre faux-Mediterranean, it makes it awfully difficult for us to complain that we’ve been typecast.

Not that my complaining means anything. I have no illusions about the futility of shaking my fist and wishing things were better. Sam Fox and the local scenesters don't care what some geeky food critic thinks about the Valley’s latest hotspot. But if nothing else, consider this an intervention.

Have some self-respect, Phoenix. You deserve better.

Thea Mediterranean Rooftop

4360 E. Camelback Road
4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; 12 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Cocktails $18-$21; Mezze $7-$22; Sushi and flatbreads $17-$24; Mains $23-$59; Vegetables $12-$15; Desserts $7-$13.
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