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Wig Out

Not much happens in Litchfield Park. A community of just 3.1 acres and 3,800 residents, this place's only appeal to "outsiders" has always been the Wigwam Resort. The Wigwam is a gorgeous luxury property, a historic jewel, and home of the national-award-winning restaurant the Arizona Kitchen. The resort is a...
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Not much happens in Litchfield Park. A community of just 3.1 acres and 3,800 residents, this place's only appeal to "outsiders" has always been the Wigwam Resort. The Wigwam is a gorgeous luxury property, a historic jewel, and home of the national-award-winning restaurant the Arizona Kitchen. The resort is a point of pride, and the restaurant has been such a stunner that locals have driven from all points of metro Phoenix to dine at the far-west Valley spot.

Let me emphasize the phrase has been. Because while the Wigwam Resort itself has only gotten better over the years, something has gone terribly wrong at the Arizona Kitchen. Despite being one of only six Valley restaurants to receive both the coveted Mobil Four-Star and AAA Four-Diamond ratings, the only award I can bestow is on myself, for having survived a painful series of meals here.

I'm confused. The restaurant's Mobil rating was granted again just last month, and this is the sixth consecutive year the AAA designation has been awarded. Those folks are tough. But apparently not tough enough, because this is not the Arizona Kitchen I fondly remember.

My Arizona Kitchen was a showcase of dramatic culinary techniques, emphasizing ingredients of our region -- chayote, chiles, blue corn, nopales (cactus), Anasazi beans and mesquite flour. Appetizers were adventures, like blue corn piki rolls filled with shredded capon; entrees were dreams, such as sirloin of buffalo slapped on the grill, then plated in a puddle of rich Cabernet vanilla bean chile negro sauce with silky sweet-potato pudding.

Today, those ingredients (sans the buffalo and capon) are still here. Dishes are still inventive, like tamarind honey-glazed duck breast with foie gras and corn bread pudding with ancho chile duck jus. But something is falling apart between kitchen counter and dining table, leaving food that looks wacky, tastes weird, and speaks nothing of an elegant, refined experience.

And, odd for such a high-end operation, the restaurant is now open for breakfast and lunch, welcoming the tee shirt and shorts crowd with open arms.

What in the world is going on?

I'm impressed with the Wigwam property's recent $6 million renovation. A fashionable and exclusive resort since it opened in 1929, it's still grand and glorious in that unique Arizona style. Fountains, flowers and expensive artwork galore, sparkling pools with private cabanas, wood ceilings, flickering fireplaces and galleries of black-and-white photos of the grande dame in her old days -- how can we not be charmed with such a place?

I find out with my first glance at a tostada. In all my years of exploring bizarre foods, this thing ranks right up there. Instead of the traditional flat tortilla with layered toppings, this looks like a muffin wearing a Viking hat. At the base is a tall round of crispy, burned-tasting, crumbly blue corn. Topping that is a pile of salty-sweet (orange and vanilla-scented, I'm told, though it reminds me of barbecue) shredded pork. There are thin curls of salty zucchini, blue corn frizzles stuck in the creation like horns, a hairpiece of radish sprouts, and a mild sauce of roasted garlic zucchini crema. As winds up being the case with much of the food I find here, the Kitchen's chef is hung up on wowing us with elaborate menu descriptions that become merely crazy on the plate.

It's true that I find an amuse-bouche (freebie nibble sent out by the chef) to be actually amusing, but not in a good way. There are enough ingredients on this teaspoon-served bite to be an entree: a sea scallop topped with a cube of raw ahi, floating in fennel-coconut foam. Even without the aggressive spritzing of lime (my jaw actually locks from the sourness), it's too many flavors in too little space. We follow it up with jalapeño fry bread dipped in cardamom honey, and the riot of disappointing fare begins.

For me, soup is one of the world's all-time most perfect foods. It's where chefs can do some incredible magic with unlikely ingredients -- I think it's something about the natural-bred comfort of hot liquid that brings out the best in vegetables, meats, spices, and even fruit. Not so with the Kitchen's corn chowder, which, even if it didn't arrive tepid, would be a flat affair of sludgy creamed kernels dotted with hominy. My server is proud of the tepee design that's been drizzled atop with red bell pepper sauce, and the cacti of nopales purée, yet the art doesn't add to the flavor. I never need to experience a bland chicken mole rojo, either -- served as a soup, but too thick like enchilada sauce sodden with Oaxacan cheese.

There's no doubt a lot of work goes into making most of these dishes -- I can see the charm in such complexities as espresso-cured venison medallions with apple, red lentil and venison chorizo casserole; or braised lamb shank with chipotle cream cheese, preserved baby carrot torta and sweet corn sauce. But like the seemingly innocent fish I sample, they arrive amateurishly prepared. My ahi tuna looks like a Chia Pet, sporting an Afro of radish sprouts on a bed of swirled mashed potato, zucchini swirls, baby squash, charred tomatilla salsa and achiote lobster sauce. The fish is dry, dry, dry, salvaged only by an excellent crispy pepita (pumpkinseed) crust. Halibut is a bit better, if equally overdressed, thanks to topnotch, moist fish. It's inventively mesquite-dusted (with ground mesquite pods), paired with mashed potato, vanilla fennel confit, and an interesting passion fruit mulatto chile sauce.

Returning for lunch, I've got even lower expectations. This midday menu is an attempt at pleasing everyone run amok, with hints of Southwestern, Thai, classic American, Mediterranean, deli, and Italian. There's chicken angel hair pasta salad tossed with roasted poblanos, pine nuts and sweet-chile sesame dressing; chicken sate with Asian slaw; Cobb salad (ruined by featuring diced ham instead of bacon); chicken with olive tapenade and Spanish manchego cheese; a Reuben sandwich with sauerkraut and Swiss; pizza and sausage-manchego pasta.

And little of it pleases me. Why gunk up perfectly excellent iceberg wedges in a salad overloaded with tart ranch dressing, strong bleu cheese, sun-dried tomato, sweet sherry roasted onions and bacon bits? I take just a few sips of white bean soup before pushing it aside, too -- it's impossibly high in sodium, and otherwise wimpy with confetti andouille sausage bits, celery, white beans and a broth that promises tomato basil pesto but ends up as thin water. A soup du jour of wild rice mushroom is clogged with salt, too, highly uninteresting with just chunks of carrot to add color to the murky beige canvas.

I can subsist on a club sandwich, layered with the expected insides on seven-grain bread. Gulf-style fish tacos are fine -- just beer-battered cod with cabbage, avocado and pico de gallo, and thankfully lacking the menu-advertised smoked chile sauce. At $13.50, though, seared Pacific salmon is a letdown, bringing a small fillet with its merits drowned out in a too hefty slathering of green chile butter.

Just when I'm about to give up on this place completely, I find that Arizona Kitchen crafts a killer breakfast. I enjoy a commendable eggs Benedict, the thick cut Canadian bacon and poached eggs slicked with a slightly sweet hollandaise. Smoked salmon is delicately scented with tequila, then curled atop a toasted bagel with cream cheese, chopped eggs, red onions and capers. And two creative dishes surprise me by being really special -- the Litchfield omelet is a hit, stuffed with ratatouille, fresh spinach, avocado and jalapeño jack cheese alongside crispy skillet potatoes, fruit and toast. Eggs Atlantic are terrific, too, essentially eggs Benedict with tequila smoked salmon instead of ham, and choron sauce instead of straight hollandaise (choron is hollandaise spiked with tomato). The recipe supposedly includes truffles; I don't taste any, and that's fine with me -- the pungent mushrooms are a bit strong for the start of day, anyway.

In re-crafting the restaurant, a new chef has been brought in. He is Kurt Zuger, and has an impressive résumé, including positions at New York City's famed Helmsley Hotel, the Arizona Biltmore resort and the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess resort. Yet I'm thinking he's being reined in at his new job. In fact, Wigwam's director of operations, Dan Dickhart, tells me that they're hoping to appeal to a broader range of guests (meaning those staying at the hotel).

Dumbing down menus for visitors is understandable for resorts in this slow economy, and I have no doubt the Wigwam is responding to the very real demand for food that may look exotic, but won't challenge a non-foodie's taste buds. For me, though, I now have absolutely no reason to visit Litchfield Park at all.

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