Cafe Reviews

TURN DOWN THE RADICCHIO!LETTUCE PRAY THAT EDIBLE EXOTICA BITES THE DUST

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We opt for salads. Expensive, stupid salads. Three of the four menu listings employ some kind of gimmick. Tiny bundles of sherry-splashed asparagus with hollandaise sauce are tasty, but too fussy to be relished wholeheartedly. A salad of mixed greens with smoked pineapple and fried noodles is sweet but goofy, like something you'd order in a 1960s Polynesian restaurant. As for entrees, translate each menu item and you're down to your basic fou fou choices. There's sea bass and prawns and lamb chops and free-range chicken. The cheapest item is $18.50 ("grilled striped Hawaiian marlin, sauteed red beet tasso, green onion beurre blanc"), the most expensive item, lamb chops, checks in at $27.

"I guess you're not paying for what you get," Goat theorizes as he peruses his five pesto-dabbed prawns. "You're paying for how it got that way." As usual, Goat is highly perceptive this evening. Despite its mouth-watering menu write-up, my rice paper-wrapped salmon turns out to be nothing special. Portions are small, as if we're being saved for something. Which, perhaps, we are.

It's called "dessert."
Hours have passed. The busboy loudly crumbs the table after all remnants of the meal have been removed. The parade of desserts begins. Each is brought to us in turn and described by our waiter. They don't look nearly as large as when our actual selections are set before us. As is customary with fou fou cuisine, the dessert plate is as large as the entree. And we have plenty of room to eat, considering the long wait and tiny portions we've endured already.

The most compelling aspect of the Orangerie's desserts is their architectural design. Walls of chocolate stand upright. A cookie bridge arches over a banana cream concoction. Eating them is a lot more boring than looking at them.

The Biltmore's premier restaurant is worn out. The china is faded. The tablecloths are stained. The gauzy curtains have seen better days. The Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired room is as dramatic as ever, but the sparkle, the sheen is long gone.

Even the rose presented to me with our bill can't sweeten this fou fou deal. I have seen the emperor and he has no clothes. There are better, less contrived places to spend $122 on dinner. Unfortunately, Missouri's at Seventh Street isn't one of them.

Late last year, John Makin left his post as executive chef at the Arizona Biltmore to start his own restaurant in the location which formerly housed Mr. Louie's. But he hasn't abandoned fou fou cuisine. No, not entirely.

Though his culinary style is toned down from his high-blown Orangerie days, Makin's "American provincial" cookery might best be described as "politically correct fou fou." The menu, which changes daily, is subdued and simplified, because, after all, there's a recession out there. Local produce and herbs aren't just utilized, they're promoted: The dinner menu announces that 50 percent of the proceeds from two asterisked items each night go to a "newly created fund to establish a permanent Farmers Market." Yet beneath all this homegrown shtick, the basic fou fou impulse to combine unusual ingredients "because they're there" remains. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

When it works, the results can be marvelous. "Grilled treasure shark with prosciutto-wrapped prawns on balsamic herb cream" is a lovely combination of sweet and savory tastes and textures. I also like "fall greens with sherry vinegar dressing and artichoke gratine," but consistency is a problem. On my second visit, the "designer greens," as our waiter terms them, are bruised and brown edged. Not even edible flower petals strewn atop the salad for color can hide this fact.

When Makin's fou fou impulses get the better of him, no one wins. A tenderloin of beef carpetbagger-style is overwhelmed with pruney morel mushrooms. I realize I should be thrilled with the kitchen's generosity, but I'm not. Furthermore, the inclusion of three plump, naked oysters on the plate is not what I'd deem aesthetically pleasing. Traditional carpetbagger-style calls for a slit in the side of the beef, into which these items are inserted; hence, the origin of the name. Frankly, this would make more sense.

While the language of the menu is easier to understand than the Orangerie's, don't count on your waiter to help you out if you have questions. When we ask for clarification about menu items or food served, we receive blank stares, misinformation or jokes. Makin owes it to his staff and his customers to see that his representatives in the dining room don't create more confusion. He's still dabbling in fou fou, after all. Questions are only natural.

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Penelope Corcoran