Cafe Reviews

Seasons Eatings

Page 2 of 3

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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet