The mystery behind the disappearance of the Anasazi Indians, the Southwest's original inhabitants, has long puzzled students of the region. They've hypothesized that disease, war or drought put an end to those ancient tribes.
But I'm not convinced. I have a more plausible reason for why they vanished, and it has nothing to do with bacteria, aggression or lack of water. The solution struck me after wallet-busting meals in two high-profile local restaurants: The Anasazi must have been driven out by the cost of Southwestern fare. With no cheap McFood or microwave alternatives, native culture toppled under the assault of $7 appetizers and the bludgeoning of $25 entrees.
Evidently, these prices don't scare today's Valley dwellers quite so easily, judging from the crowds at Arizona Kitchen and Windows on the Green. Of course, nowadays, we're a lot more prosperous than the Anasazi, who also lacked modern financial mechanisms that encourage upscale restaurant dining, like expense accounts and business-meal write-offs. A few months ago, the bill of fare at Wigwam resort's Arizona Kitchen was significantly revamped, and now the food is just as sophisticated as the tax laws. With the help of Lin Austin, an ethnobotanist who studies Native American foods, the chefs put together a bold, 90s-style, Southwestern menu. This is how, centuries ago, Coronado and his top aides might have eaten, if they'd brought along some inventive, open-minded cooks willing to learn from the natives. The circular restaurant has a woodsy, casual, Southwestern charm. The open kitchen area is framed by pots, pans and ristras. Occasionally, huge flames shoot up from the grill, momentarily producing silence in the very noisy room. (Most of the time, we couldn't hear each other's voices across the table.) During our April visit, management kept the fireplace blazing for romantic effect. And an unobtrusive guitarist dressed in Spanish colonial garb strummed away on traditional ballads like "Love Me Tender." When the bread server wanders by, musical musings disappear. Ignore his spiel about the sourdough or onion rolls. Instead, instruct him to hand over his supply of the heavenly, fresh-baked Indian fry bread, studded with zippy jalape¤os. Then grab the cruet of cardamom-scented honey and pour yourself some pleasure. It takes some powerful appetizers to divert attention from the fry bread, but Arizona Kitchen is up to the task. Blue-corn piki rolls feature a slender cylinder stuffed with shredded capon, spinach and goat cheese, in a puddle of smoked-bell-pepper sauce. Equally compelling are fried chipotle ravioli, stuffed with smoked quail, in a snappy, white tepary bean vanilla sauce.
More adventurous diners can also take advantage of the Southwest's bounty. Rattlesnake fritters no longer tempt me--several encounters have convinced me that rattlesnake meat has all the juicy charm of a Michelin tire.
But the wild boar Anasazi bean chili was right up my alley. The meat was mild, and so was the chili heat level. Sweet, blue corn bread and a velvety habernero avocado cream furnished most of the flavor zest. The main dishes have a sure-handed Southwestern flair. I'm going to climb out on a critical limb and say that Arizona Kitchen's grilled medallions of venison are not only the best I've ever had, but the best I ever expect to have. Exquisitely tender meat comes drenched in a heart-stopping blackberry zinfandel cocoa sauce, a kind of Arizona mole. When it comes to venison, the buck stops here. The roasted pheasant also displays a strong regional touch. Breast and leg are glazed with a sweet chipotle and pomegranate honey, then sliced and fanned across the plate. Alongside is a mix of wild rice, long cultivated by Native Americans, and quinoa, a grain favored by the Incas. The platter's sweetness may initially put off unsuspecting diners, but after a few bites, most people won't have any second thoughts. Folks who'd never think of ordering venison, wild boar, pheasant or grilled buffalo sirloin (it comes in a cabernet vanilla bean chile negro sauce) are not left out in the cold. The menu offers a butter-soft filet mignon, lightly dusted with mild guajillo chile powder and moistened with a two-fisted prickly pear merlot sauce. The medallions of lobster with scallops had everything right, almost. One spoonful of the luscious smoked coconut lime sauce will stop conversation faster than an Elvis sighting. If I could, I'd keep a bucket of it in my refrigerator. The cilantro pasta and scallops had no imperfections. But the lobster tasted "off." Seafood is a tricky item to serve in the desert. Arizona Kitchen's difficulty with it just reinforces my inclination never to order seafood, except at a few reliable places.
Desserts continue the Southwestern theme. I doubt the conquistadors ever nibbled on anything like the intense chocolate Kahl£a taco, a chocolate shell crammed with rich, Kahl£a-laced chocolate mousse. But I bet they'd have liked it.
I'm certain they would have fallen for the guajillo-chile-flavored ice cream, too. It's topped with a crushed pistachio and vanilla bean salsa, and served in a striking turquoise "bowl" of hardened sugar. Is there a dentist in the house?
In comparison, the Arizona lime tart and citrus flan seemed a bit tame.
Arizona Kitchen serves big-time food in a big-time setting at big-time prices. Keep a sharp eye out--I fully expect the more well-to-do Anasazi to come marching back. Windows on the Green, Phoenician resort, 6000 East Camelback, Phoenix, 941-8200. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 6 to 10 p.m.
Windows on the Green is as beautiful as everything else at the Phoenician resort, Charlie Keating's onetime playground, now run by the Sheraton folks.
The dining room is beguiling. The main body of the restaurant is circular, wrapped around a spiral staircase. The fireplace crackles with a comforting blaze. Small alcoves off to the side give patrons an option for dining privacy. Gorgeous pots, plates and paintings, scooped up by Mrs. Keating on trips to Mexico and South America, line the walls and shelves. They're riveting, showing just what you can do in restaurant design when you have both taste and unlimited access to other people's money. The Southwestern-inspired food here is just as riveting, showing what a chef with culinary imagination can do when he feeds diners with deep pockets. I do wish, however, that the service could have kept pace with the other dining elements. It's out of joint with the rest of the operation.
I'd call it casually officious: Bola-tied servers with nametags (nametags!) provided robotlike, push-button descriptions of the dishes, made too much small talk and called me "Sir" so many times my wife thought I had been knighted. There must be a middle ground between familiarity and obsequiousness, and the managers of Windows on the Green need to find it. Happily, once the food is delivered, all seems right with the world.
The Southwest game grill appetizer plate is perfection: a fork-tender grilled wild boar chop, chile-infused strips of rabbit loin and three thin slices of venison sausage, accompanied by a spaghetti squash cake. The cracked conch/green cabbage enchiladas are also a knockout. They're cold, and embellished with toasted pumpkin seeds and a sprightly, marigold mint dressing.
And don't hesitate to mop up the sauces with bread. The blue-corn-jalape¤o rolls, marigold mint bread and chile-cheese muffins are addicting, especially if you swab on the prickly pear or red chile butter. The entrees have a Southwestern flair that never gets too cutesy. Windows on the Green's antelope, cured with chile and sugar, is sweet, sharp and smoky, flavorful but not overpowering. It comes with a "tumbleweed" of crisped potatoes and a leaf-wrapped pouch of chayote and black-bean salsa.
The meaty pork tenderloin is just as invigorating, marinated in beer, lime and garlic, and served with an outstanding, chile-poached pear and savory shredded cabbage. Management had the foresight to put a vegetarian plate on the menu, an idea I wish more restaurants would take up. The "Vegetables of the Southwest" platter, the least-expensive main-dish option at $16.75, includes a dainty dollop of pur‚ed butternut squash; a bite-size sweet-potato tamale; a lightly fried chile relleno; a black bean and goat cheese souffl‚; and an avocado wedge coated with tomato jelly. As at Arizona Kitchen, I was least excited by the seafood--in this case, the achiote-rubbed swordfish in a poblano-cucumber salsa. I'm just not convinced that earthy, Southwestern seasonings take seafood to a higher level.
Desserts do take you to a higher level, massaging your eyes as well as your taste buds. (Good thing, too--you don't have to be a lumberjack to still be hungry after appetizer and main dish.) The cajeta crepe, with creamy, caramelized goat milk and fruit, is a delight. Filled with high-powered chocolate mousse, it's adorned with almonds and a curly "raspberry" tail to resemble a hedgehog. The chocolate taco, though, drew the most "oohs" and "aahs." Here, it's a chocolate shell stuffed with vanilla mousse and eye-catching layers of berries, bananas and kiwi that tasted as good as they looked.
Windows on the Green sees itself as a casual place where guests can unwind if they're not up for the resort's ultrafancy dining spot, Mary Elaine's.
But don't let the relaxed dress code and the servers' easy banter fool you. This is serious Southwestern food at serious prices.