My dining companion and I are debating whether to order wine this evening. Not whether we want it, because of course we do. But whether we should, because the drive home from the new Acacia at the Four Seasons Troon North is a good half-hour. Along dark, winding streets lined with sharp cactus and big, scary boulders. Through open desert where suicidal bunnies are known to leap from the lush landscape in front of cars with inattentive drivers.
At first, we decline any alcoholic beverages. But the Four Seasons is a world-class resort, my companion comments, a chain renowned for its multistar ratings. And Acacia is the high-desert enclave's flagship dining room, I rationalize. Likely most diners visiting this upscale retreat will want to know about Acacia's wine service, and really, it's my duty to clue them in.
Thus convinced, we ask our server about dry white wines by the glass. Rather than bring the wine list, she raves about the Acacia (no relation) 1997, adding that a half-bottle would be a great choice, giving each of us just a little more than a glass to enjoy. Ah, economy of scale, I figure, and nod eagerly.
She returns to pour my "taste," a full quarter-goblet, and then, gasp, notes a speck of cork floating in the golden liquid. It's truly tiny; I barely see it myself even after being told it's there. But I agree to let her remove the glass and make it right.
When she returns, however, she's simply got a new glass, and the same half-bottle. A good fourth of my wine serving has gone down the drain with no offer to replace it. Looking back, I should have protested. But, at the time, it seemed small -- improper service, no doubt, but not really worth a complaint.
When the bill comes and I see that this dram has cost us a whopping $31, it's no longer small, but an insult. Acacia Chardonnay, after all, is a pleasant enough California wine, but I've seen recipes from its own vineyards for Acacia Chardonnay Daiquiris (mix with Meyer's dark rum, lemon and lime); and Acacia Chardonnay Margaritas (mix with dark tequila). Hardly serious enough for $15.50 a glass and certainly too expensive for our server to throw away.
The error is a surprise. Training at this world's leading operator of luxury hotels is impeccable -- it's what has kept the properties repeatedly in Travel & Leisure's Top 100 World's Best Resort awards. Many details are obsessive (one evening, a busser keeps moving our bread basket back after we nudge it from the inconvenient center of the table, then shyly admits he's been told it must be placed exactly in the middle. Plates, even bread saucers, he adds, are only presented with the decorative half facing left). The Maitre d' tells us the resort tries to hire people with at least four years' experience, and that most of the staff has been onboard since last December's opening.
So perhaps our wayward wine server is a newer employee, like the waiter who loudly exclaims, "Good Lord, no questions?" when we're not confused by the menu, or another server who leans so close to me at face level when talking that I shrink back in my cushy leather chair. Another newcomer might be the server who applauds my choice of a dish with nage, then incorrectly tells me, "You know, that's just a fancy-schmancy name for butter sauce." Or even the one who pulls out a flashlight to spotlight our entree in the softly lit dining room. Or maybe the valet, who calls out, "Is this youze guizes?" as he sprints past, waving our car keys in the air.
Perhaps we've just caught the resort on a difficult evening, because to be fair, I should point out that most of the faux pas occur during a single visit. Yet, it's our first sojourn, and the oversights are jarring enough that as regular upscale diners, my companion and I would not have returned here.
I know that it takes time to work out bugs in such a massive undertaking as a resort opening, but after five months, come on. This is, after all, as The Four Seasons' own literature boasts, a rare jewel of renowned luxury. One evening, Congressman J.D. Hayworth stops at our table, gripping our hands in his huge, meaty paws and enthusing, "Isn't this restaurant great?" He doesn't know us, but maybe thinks he should: it's that kind of place.
Acacia does look quite presentable. We're welcomed with lavish polished wood floors, wood rib-and-beam ceilings and a massive two-way fireplace. There's little view of the sprawling Sonoran desert when seated inside, though, with vistas blocked by casitas and concrete patios. Dining outside is greatly preferred, with sumptuous sunsets fading to sparkling city lights. But the patio is morbidly dark (here is where the flashlights come in handy), and I don't see any misting systems anywhere -- wonder what management will do when the desert soon fires up its wicked dragon breath.
The menu aims high, promising "artistry for every palate -- fresh and original interpretations of the tastes of the Southwest." Under the direction of Chef Daniel Mules, it sometimes succeeds; other times it fails miserably. Overall, the food is like the service -- well meaning but with challenges yet to overcome.
Dinners start with a small tray of focaccia toast and bland sun-dried tomato mustard cream cheese (think Sam's Café but without the spirit). It's a quiet nibble, but the larger basket that's brought later is better. Corn-studded jalapeño bread has a peppery tinge, while the chewy baguette is sturdy enough to take on the frozen butter served alongside. And though buttery lavosh is sometimes extraordinarily salty, it keeps drawing me back with its feather-light crunch.
I thought minimalism had died with the '80s, but Acacia brings it back in its appetizers. A slow-cooked tuna loin medallion ($14), for example, brings a piece of fish roughly the size of a domino. Sharing its sushi-style tray is a tablespoon of salty Dungeness crab salad, dots of citrus remoulade and a meager cluster of pea shoots that lacks characteristic bite. At this price, and with this portion size, the tuna should be exquisite, meticulously selected for its crowning flavor and rapturous texture. But it's a tough, cranky fish with a disturbing, rindlike skin. Laced with connective tissue, it's difficult to cut and almost impossible to pull apart.
An unpleasant seafood smell accompanies our choices -- my companion and I aren't sure whether it emanates from the tuna or from his prawns ($12). Crusted in pleasing black pepper and coriander, the three crustaceans are large, but not the jumbo variety. Accompanying mango red-onion chutney is nice, taken in tiny forkfuls with baby mache lettuce in prickly-pear vinaigrette, but as a whole, this dish fails to excite.
Sautéed jumbo sea scallops ($14) read so provocatively: paired with wild forest mushroom ravioli in braised fennel saffron cream with vanilla-bean infusion. The three scallops we receive, though, while enjoyably sweet, are too close to flabby. The sauce tastes simply of cream and the ravioli, while stuffed with hearty mushroom, is ruined by tough pasta. The same cruelly durable pasta also crashes one evening's appetizer ravioli special ($10). It's too bad, because the large pocket boasts a marvelous interior of slightly bitter haricot vert (green beans) and luscious goat cheese in a full-bodied pesto sauce.
When the kitchen's on, though, it's on. Roasted Californian squab ($12) is fabulous, the tender, dark-meat bird cooked to a juicy, crisp-skinned edge and laced with salsify (oyster plant) and Applewood-smoked bacon gratin, all perched on a velvety shallot sage jus. I feel like a rude giant nibbling the little bird's dainty breast and matchstick-leg combo, but it's good enough that I pick apart the bones with my fingers to get every last morsel.
Tortilla lobster soup ($10) is another winner, thoughtfully presented as a second course when we order it to share alongside appetizers. Unasked but greatly appreciated, it has been split by our waiter (Nuh, who with his soothing Turkish accent and graceful skills finally brings us the Four Seasons experience we expect), into what must be full portions at no extra charge. It's a thin broth, but impossibly rich, its tomatoey goodness topped with our choice of chopped red onion, sour cream and diced avocado with red and purple tortilla frizzles. I hate to give away the ending, but it's a doozy: there's a large chunk of fresh lobster at the bottom of the bowl.
A simple salad is genius. Crunchy arugula and shaved fennel are enhanced with orange segments, electric black olive and absolutely delightful Parmesan vinaigrette. Is it possible to have a "juicy" vinaigrette? I don't know, but this dressing has my taste buds in overdrive.
Acacia's entrees are equally hit and miss. Grilled Pacific blue nose snapper ($28) brings a manageable-size chunk of somewhat mushy fish competently grilled and served over al dente flat pasta with a ragout of globe artichokes and fresh peas (spring peas, our server says). But the artichoke is in hiding, and the peas taste rehydrated -- even then, only halfway resurrected. The dish rests on little neck clam broth, dotted with tiny bits of carrot and a few chewy shellfish.
Dry-rubbed double lamb chops ($32) are better, served in an updated classic garlic lime sauce and topped with quenelle. The two roasted chops are grilled rare rather than requested medium, but are better for it -- they arrive perfectly juicy and well flavored. A side of Aztec potato hash is actually minced, mashed Peruvian purple potatoes -- a spectacle we appreciate only after it's been dissected with the flashlight.
Another evening's special is petite fillet of beef ($30), grilled and topped with melted, nutty-toned foie gras. Accompanying confit and roasted shallot potatoes are excellent partners, especially the gorgeous chunky mashed potatoes zipped with peppercorn. Yet the medium-rare requested beef is cold in the middle, and the entree paddles furiously to keep its head above a virtual lake of overpowering Madeira sauce.
The same red port wine jus threatens to capsize my sautéed organic veal tenderloin ($31). The two thick loins are tender and tasty with a sweet, just-burned aroma, but drown beneath a soup bowl full of sauce. Mushroom hominy is much too fragile to survive the tidal wave and clings hopelessly to a side of wet -- very wet -- spinach.
Heavy saucing also sinks a white King salmon fillet special ($29), not because of its quality, but because the menu describes it as a bouillabaisse. I'm expecting a lighter seafood broth, but find a creamy, buttery-rich concoction dotted with squash, braised fennel and fingerling potatoes. The sautéed fish is exceptional, though, crisply crusted and topped with three pale shrimp. Pork loin ($29) is lovely, too, a happy parade of medallions marching around a mound of pesto orzo and very sweet shredded spaghetti squash topped with dried tomato frizzles. The meat's been rubbed in a curious cinnamon chile blend that pleases me greatly.
Perhaps saving the best for last, Acacia rewards our patience with well-crafted desserts (all $8) created by executive pastry chef Anthony Patafio. His signature Pinnacle of Chocolate is said to model Pinnacle Peak -- I say it looks more like a Hostess Ding Dong. Regardless, it's a delicious dark chocolate fondant (fudgey mousse), topped with a thin chocolate-wafer fan and accented by brandied cherries, almond crunch and spirals of white and dark chocolate. A special, white-chocolate passion-fruit custard, is flanlike, partnered with blackberry coulis and crisp vanilla wafer.
I find champagne soup to be a bit odd but refreshing, like thick mimosa or melted sorbet centered with a semisweet vanilla cream pillow plus raspberries and pink grapefruit slices. The soup bowl is overkill; I'd be just as satisfied with a third of the serving. Acacia's dark chocolate soufflé only takes about 10 minutes, we're told, but it tastes as if it's had greater consideration. It's very hot, quite joyously bitter, a bit heavy and unfortunately collapsed. We don't care; we scrape up every last bit, including its side of homemade vanilla ice cream and unsweetened whipped cream in a waffle cup.
Inside tip: If desserts aren't your raison d'être, Acacia's meals end with a complimentary tray of cinnamon or shortbread cookies, little chocolate candy cups, cakes and such. Quite nice.
By the way, Acacia does have an impressive wine list, with almost 200 selections from the States and Europe. When I do finally get my requested single glass (Moletto Pinot Grigio, Italy 1998, just $5), our favorite server presents the bottle for a preliminary taste. And Acacia pours an honest Absolut Citron martini, served tableside from a classy silver shaker.
I suppose I should give The Four Seasons a little more time to get its act complete. And I should be grateful for the little things: For instance, that I didn't ask for red wine (I might have been brought the Chateau Margaux 1995 Bordeaux -- for $683 a bottle). And most important, that no bunnies were harmed in the writing of this review.
Contact Carey Sweet at 602-744-6558 or online at [email protected]