Cafe Reviews

Si World

La Hacienda, Scottsdale Princess resort, 7575 East Princess Drive, Scottsdale, 585-4848. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m.

The line between "high" and "low" art keeps moving. Once upon a time, Shakespeare and opera were the staples of mass entertainment. Then, in the 19th century, they became associated with elite culture. Now, the pendulum is shifting again. While many college English departments no longer require students to read the Bard (he's an irrelevant, dead, white, European male), movie executives with their fingers on the pulse of popular culture find he appeals to today's audiences: Othello, Looking for Richard, William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet have all recently played the multiplexes, alongside the latest Jim Carrey and Tom Cruise epics. The three tenors, meanwhile, outsell Coolio and outdraw Garth Brooks.

The distinction between "high" gastronomy and "low," everyday fare isn't as clear as it once was, either. After all, fresh, high-quality ingredients can be the mark of a fancy meal or a simple, home-cooked midweek dinner. Prepared by the right hands, even homespun dishes like meat loaf or spaghetti and meatballs acquire character and charm.

When it comes to food, labels don't matter. I have the same sentiments about food that Duke Ellington had about music. A composer of symphonies, ballet scores, jazz and pop tunes, Ellington was asked what kind of music he liked best. He thought for a moment. "Good music," he replied.

That point was driven home to me after recent visits to La Hacienda and La Pinata. La Hacienda offers sophisticated Mexican regional specialties in upscale surroundings. La Pinata is a neighborhood spot serving the usual Sonoran suspects. But despite their differences, it's what they have in common that's most pertinent: good food.

One of the featured restaurants at the swanky Scottsdale Princess resort, La Hacienda seems to go through chefs the same way Imelda Marcos goes through shoes. The last chef's stint didn't last as long as the Jackson-Presley marriage. The latest hire is Lenard Rubin, whom foodies may recall once led the kitchens at 8700 and Windows on the Green.

Actually, it doesn't matter much which chef is in charge. The executives overseeing this resort's restaurants always seem to keep the operation purring.

And purring is what I feel like doing after an evening here. The sprawling place recalls the Mexico of the Spanish colonial grandee: low, wood-beamed ceilings, multiple fireplaces, a flagstone floor, roving mariachis and thick, wood-framed windows looking out on spotlighted palms and cactuses outside.

As you might expect, La Hacienda's fare is not the kind you'll find in local taco parlors or Mexican villages. It's pricey, elegant and astonishingly tasty.

At first glance, there's nothing very elegant about the chips, salsa and bean dip. (In fact, the salsa is completely ordinary.) But the beans are a knockout, bold with cumin and epazote, a pungent herb essential in Mexican cooking.

The appetizers are breathtaking, some of the best in town. The ancho chile, stuffed with roasted chicken, dried fruit, pistachios and walnuts, comes moistened with a trio of spoon-licking sauces. It's close to sublime. So is the mushroom crepe, enlivened with huitlacoche, a fungus of almost trufflelike intensity, all doused in a hearty sherry sauce. Where else in town can you encounter a nibble like cabrito mixote, braised goat meat mixed with peppers and veggies wrapped in a banana leaf? And if you're just getting over a winter cold, as I was, the spicy chicken-tortilla soup, flavored with epazote, white cheese and pasilla chile, will open your sinus passages with a flourish.

For some reason, however, La Hacienda follows up the wonderful appetizer course with a basket of banal cheese rolls and right-out-of-the-plastic-bag flour tortillas. It's an unworthy touch. Someone should be making the tortillas from scratch.

Happily, the main dishes make it easy to push the basket aside. The menu is heavy with seafood, one of the glories of Mexican cuisine, and the kitchen does the ocean fare justice. Mexican Gulf tuna is gorgeous: thick, meaty slices of lightly seared fish, crusted with crispy potatoes and paired with corn pudding and a colorful mix of asparagus with red and yellow peppers. This platter is as enjoyable to look at as it is to eat.

Baby red snapper is one of three entrees sporting a "good health" emblem. But it's too good to leave to the counters of calories and fat grams. A filleted slab is coated with a sharp Veracruzana sauce, fragrant with olives and capers. Cracked wheat and a squash-stuffed tomato make compelling accompaniments.

The Gulf shrimp is remarkable. You get five giant U-10s--that means no more than 10 to a pound--marinated in lots of lemon, then grilled. If you've forgotten why shrimp is a delicacy, these beauties will refresh your memory. Sides of sweetened butternut squash and garlic-and-pepper-draped spinach are good enough to divert your attention from the crustaceans.

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Howard Seftel

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