(2010) by Galina Dargery
Montelucia Resort & Spa
4949 East Lincoln Drive
The photo above, with a view of Camelback Mountain, looks very much like a stage set and in Technicolor tones. But that's the way sunsets really are in Scottsdale, brilliant enough to make the coyotes howl. Sitting in Prado, the Montelucia's restaurant, is as good a place as any to watch these displays, and you'll dine well, too. Three years ago this was one of the most exciting Spanish restaurants in the USA, headed by, oddly enough, an Italian chef. Now, Executive Chef Michael Cairns has broadened the menu to appeal to a wider range of guests, and the results, while admirable haven't quite the cogency of a restaurant that is, after all, named after a museum in Madrid.
The hotel/resort itself is a fine place, spread out around that pool above, but those iron gates do not make it easy to get to and from your room in flanking buildings; I got trapped one night and had to holler to get sprung. The rooms themselves are beautifully suited to the terrain, in a southwestern style that is both commodious and very comfortable.
Prado is a good-looking place, inspired more by Italian villa architecture than Spanish or Southwestern, but those styles fit together amicably in the large space with its open kitchen and large lounge area. The room is designed so that, while the tables along the patio may be favored, there isn't a bad sight-line in the place, just some tables cozier than others.
There are now plenty of Italian dishes on the menu, beginning with an extremely rich and buttery polenta with mushrooms, corn kernels, and herbs; I thoroughly enjoyed, in season, the soft shell crab lightly fried crisp. I tried two pastas, one of tagliatelle with hearty pork sausage, bitter greens, vegetables, charred tomatoes, chili, and sharp pecorino, a dish a little labored but tasty; potato gnocchi were sautéed crispy and served with sweet English peas, prosciutto, basil, mint, and pecorino, both pastas available as a main course.
Wild striped bass came steamed in a bag, which allows for welcome juiciness; it was served with mushrooms, artichokes, tomatoes, ginger, white wine and scallions, while well-roasted, very flavorful chicken came with roasted squash, cous cous, and marinated eggplant, carrying over the Mediterranean flavors. Of the two desserts I sampled, I highly recommend a fine rendition of good old strawberry shortcake.
Sitting inside that night, with the intense heat of the day somewhat abated, I looked out on that pool scene above, with its uplifted palm trees, and lighted walkways, and above it all and beyond the mountains a silver scythe of a crescent moon had nestled in for the night.
Prado is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. At dinner starters run $11-$15, pastas (full portions) $20-$24, and main courses $27-$39.
7001 N. Scottsdale RD
Shinji Kurita is nothing if not dedicated.
On the night I visited the shadowy restaurant, I
was one of only three occupied tables. And, asking
my Scottsdale friend if it was an off night,
learned that it was not unusual for a midweek
night. It seems that Kurita is one of those chefs
who works strictly by the numbers--not of
customers but of pieces of the finest seafood he
can buy that morning. So, if he only has, say, six
perfect pieces of toro, then that's all he'll
serve. And he won't fill up the restaurant
with people who don't appreciate his dedication.
7114 E. Stetson Drive
Silvana Salcido Esparza (right) is finally happy.After running several popular Mexican cafés in Scottsdale, making endless trips south of the border for ingredients, and trying to wean gringos off enchilada platters, she's doing what she was apparently born for — translating her formidable pasión and knowledge into a reality.
"Whenever I go to Mexico, I make it a point to do two things: visit the main church and find the town's mercado," she says. "I would extend my stays in remote towns so I could wait for the mercado ambulante —the traveling market, where I find the heartbeat of Mexico. I can only hope to honor that tradition at Barrio Queen." Every inch of it is an expression of Esparza's cultural roots, including the Día de los Muertos skeletons. I could see Quentin Tarantino blocking out his next movie here without touching a thing. Everything people love about true Mexican food is intensified by Esparza, from the cochinita pibil tacos brimming with juicy spiced pork to the barrio chicken with piñon cream. You won't find better chiles en nogada outside of Mexico City, here done with apricots, pecans, and pomegranate seeds in a velvety almond cream. Esparza's food is exactly what it says in street lingo on Barrio Queen's T-shirts — A TODA MADRE — "totally awesome!"
The menu's larger than it needs to be, not only stressing the kitchen but, given the quality of everything here, difficult to choose among, from the grilled corn on the cob served with cotija cheese, cilantro and lime to the marinated pork cooked with orange rind and Coca-Cola, served with green chile and Oaxacan cheese. Those are just two of many appetizers. Then there are soups, salads, a whole bunch of savory tacos and quesadillas, enchiladas, tostones, burritos and much more. Everything I tasted was scintillating, packed with juiciness and levels of flavor, some cheese here, some avocado there, huitlacoche, garlic, shrimp, more and more and more.
Barrio Queen has a set a standard that the formidable Silvana has sharpened through years of research and love of the kitchen. It is a summation of Mexican diversity and regionalism but also very much a personal expression of her own soul.
Open for lunch and dinner daily; check menu for prices, which are amazingly modest.
Hotel Valley Ho
6850 E. Main Street
At a time when Scottsdale was mostly farms, the construction of a modern hotel did not portend great success, but the Hotel Valley Ho, opened in 1956, suggested that this small town was about to get bigger and more attractive to tourists looking for sun and quiet. The hotel was a sister property to the Westward Ho in Downtown Phoenix, both owned by John B. Mills and husband and wife Robert and Evelyn Foehl. The couple lived on-site to make sure a guest "felt wanted."
The place was designed by Edward L. Varney, whose work included Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Stadium, the Motorola Building, and others in a post-war, 1950s style that came to be known as Populism, a specific look, with bright colors, no reference at all to past architecture, an emphasis on the swimming pool, and space age furniture that was quickly becoming a dominant look of the the west. It was the first in Scottsdale to have central air conditioning, making it a year-round hotel. Its 99 rooms cost $7.50 a night, with TV, some with kitchenettes, and it attracted a celebrity Hollywood crowd that came for the privacy, including Bing Crosby, Tony Curtis and wife Janet Leigh, and Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, who had their 1957 wedding reception in the hotel ballroom.
As the years passed, the novelty of the hotel passed, too, in favor of more modern styles of architecture. In 1973, Robert Foehl passed away, and the hotel was acquired by Ramada, sold in in 2002 to a highest bidder who wanted to raze the old dinosaur, but, happily, the deal fell through. MSR Properties, a local company run by the Lyon family, bought the property and were committed to restoring the now historic hotel's original look and atmosphere, re-opening in late 2005. The results are splendid, beyond what could have been hoped for at a time when modern amenities are so requisite in a contemporary hotel.
But drive to the entrance and you expect to see Pontiacs with huge fins, horse-coillared Edsels, and red T-Birds parked there. Check into the lobby and you'll feel like Bobby Darrin and Sandra Dee might come through any minute. Lounge by the pool and you'll feel you're on the set of a Warner Bros. movie like "Palm Springs Weekend" and expect Esther Williams to come swimming up to the edge. Up in the rooms, all done in Populuxe colors--lime, mango, violet, avocado--you'll feel quite ring-a-ding-ding and want to order up a bottle of Scotch and plenty of ice.
This is not a fantasy: this is the real deal, a marvelous refitting of an era that had style to burn. This is not a nostalgic reverie; the Hotel Valley Ho--funny name and all--is a living museum of Southwest American culture from the Atomic Age.
It was the kind of look once widely adapted in a cheaper, cheesy rip-off by motel chains around the U.S., but none ever did it with this high level of panache.
I wish I'd had the chance to dine at the restaurant at the Valley Ho, especially since one of the West's best, Chuck Wiley, is executive chef. But I will be back and give it a try. As a matter of fact, I can't wait to get back to this unique hotel and away from all its corporate-style competitors.
... AND ONE CITY OVER. . .
NORTH Fattoria Italiana
4925 North 40th Street
I had what I thought would be a light lunch in Phoenix at this bright, spacious Italian eatery, but everything I tasted was so good that I stuck around and tried more and more, from good breads and arancini rice balls to charcuterie, first-rate puffy pizzas and pastas, including one with spicy rock shrimp, chilies, tomato, garlic, fennel and garlic, all overseen by Chef Chris Curtiss. The room is wide open, and, even during the day, there was live entertainment by a guitarist. Families were gathered around and it's a great place for kids or after any event in town. The kitchen is open, too, the entire staff friendly, and there's a branch in Tucson.
NEW YORK CORNER
69 West 55 Street (near Sixth Avenue)
PizzArte is a good
name for a place that features excellent pizza
and modern art, but it doesn't do justice to
Neapolitan Executive Chef Antonio Pisaniello's
complete menu of Campanian dishes.
PizzArte is open daily for lunch and dinner. Prices for antipasti are $12-$18, pizzas $11-$24, pastas $16-$25, main courses $22-$32.
LOOK! UP IN THE SKY! IT'S A BIRD,
IT'S A PLANE! IT'S . . . A CHICKEN!
RUN THAT BY US AGAIN?
"Lightness has its limits: the Sonoran cheese crisp, a thin flour tortilla beneath melted cheese, roasted tomatoes and threads of roasted poblanos, had a way of staying behind on its pizza stand while other things on the table disappeared. Like, for instance, the scalding pan of chorizo fundido, in which Mexico looks Switzerland calmly in the eye and says, `I’ll see your cheese fondue and raise you some green chiles and a heap of crumbled spicy sausage.' (Switzerland folds and leaves the room.)"—Pete Wells, "Playing Cool With a Mexican Palette: El Toro Blanco in West Village," NY Times 1/9/13
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