Second Helpings

The Reign of Spain: It not only wasn't broke, it was running in tip-top condition. But the culinary team at the Scottsdale Princess resort decided to fix it anyway. And I'm crushed.

What's been "fixed" is the swanky Marquesa, one of the best restaurants in this time zone. Over the past decade, it's gained national recognition for its exquisite Catalan-themed Spanish fare. (Catalonia, the region around Barcelona, has its own language and unique gastronomy.) Ever since I first ate here eight years ago, I've admired the kitchen's artistry: guatalle I escalivada (grilled quail breasts); sopa de musclos (saffron-scented mussel soup); rap de la costa casserola a l'os (sautéed monkfish with white beans and clam sauce); and filet formatge de cabrales (filet mignon draped with blue cheese). After every meal, my first impulse was always to call Iberian Airways looking for the next flight out.

Accolades, prestige, reputation. What more could the Marquesa want? The answer won't surprise anybody: more fannies in the dining-room seats.

Management concluded that the restaurant's focus had become too narrow: Catalan cuisine, the thinking went, is too specialized, too unfamiliar. Resort customers didn't want to eat Catalan food every night of their stay. And too many locals tended to think of the Marquesa as a special-occasion restaurant.

So what's the new focus? All together now: Mediterranean. That's right, with just a few exceptions, the Marquesa is going to serve just what every other high-end, fine-dining restaurant in town is serving.

The main-dish list has been ruthlessly pared down to eight entrees. Most of them have little national character. Instead, they sport muted Mediterranean touches: rack of lamb in a mustard-oregano sauce; roasted poussin with preserved lemon, olives and couscous; red snapper marinated in harissa; beef tenderloin with foie gras in a sun-dried cherry sauce; and a seafood stew mislabeled as a "Marseille bouillabaisse."

Only two entrees remain from the Marquesa's glory days, the duck breast glazed with honey and pimenton, and the signature paella Valenciana.

The appetizer list also has gotten a much-unneeded makeover. No more poached skate; no more shrimp with saffron potatoes and truffles; no more cuttlefish stuffed with shrimp, dried apricots, pine nuts, fried capers and chocolate sauce. Instead, there's beef carpaccio, garlic prawns, a lobster-veal terrine and ravioli filled with duck confit and foie gras. The only holdover: the wonderful red peppers, stuffed with crab meat and fontina cheese.

Last year, looking to boost business, the Chaparral Room at the ritzy Camelback Inn ditched its long-running, highly praised classic continental menu (beef Wellington, steak Diane, flaming desserts) in favor of trendy Mediterranean fare. I can't tell you if the bottom line improved. But I can tell you that the new fare was completely undistinguished. Let's hope that history doesn't repeat itself at the Marquesa.

Suggestions? Write me at [email protected] or New Times, P.O. Box 2510, Phoenix, AZ 85002.

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Howard Seftel