(Note: J. has asked to help with this review and I was, of course, more than happy to oblige that request. J,’s comments are set off parenthetically.)
The night was at hand for my anniversary dinner with J. I was sweating bullets.
It didn’t help that all the talk in the Valley was about the chef at Marie Elaine’s packing his bags and heading for someplace else. The newspapers, the local food blogs, and everyone who read the report in the Arizona Republic that the food scene in Phoenix was on the verge of extinction were atwitter with speculation on how bad this would damage the Valley of the Sun. While I thought the article was tripe, it still gave me pause because I wanted dinner with J. to be perfect.
(I also was quite nervous about the evening, as our last outing had ended on a very sour note. I knew Seth had been reeling from the experience at Vincent’s, and that he didn’t want a second weekend negatively colored by our “date night” experience.)
We had, after all, been together for six years and were starting our seventh (and, yes, we still live in different states). So, I wanted things to be more than perfect. I wanted perfection redefined.
After a long of hand-wringing, I ended up selecting Kai at Wild Horse Pass. I think I was drawn to the creative Native American menu they utilized as well as the good things that had been said about Kai on Chowhound.com. I made reservations through OpenTable.com and hoped for the best.
We left about 7:45 PM for our 8:30 PM reservation and I was surprised at how quickly we made the drive considering how far it is away from Arcadia. We pulled into the Wild Pass Resort and a very pleasant valet took our car and we entered the lobby of the resort. I was pleased with the surroundings, especially the circle of murals on the ceilings. We veered off to the left to the entrance of Kai and gave our name to the very friendly hostesses who welcomed us and then said our table would be ready shortly. Noticing the time, I didn’t mind waiting since we were 15 minutes early.
We took a seat in the bar next to the grand fireplace that was churning out flames. The dim lighting of the bar, the soft Native American flute music, and the numerous tall candles that surrounded the fireplace made the mood. “I am already loving this,” J. said. I couldn’t have agreed more.
(As you can see from the photo, the fireplace itself was gorgeous. I commented to Seth that, once we have our own home, I’d love to decorate the fireplace with candles along these lines. It was both lovely and comfortable at the same time.)
A few moments later, one of the hostesses approached us and asked us if we wanted a table inside the restaurant or outside on the patio, noting that the patio was a bit more intimate. J. and I quickly agreed to sit on the patio and we were then escorted through the restaurant and out a door onto a deck overlooking the resort and the backside of South Mountain. There were only two tables on the patio, not including the service table near the door. We took our seats and had the patio to ourselves. “Okay, now I am really loving this,” J. said. Oh, yeah.
(One thing to note was that the patio we sat on overlooked both the resort pool, which Seth later found out stretched around much of the resort itself, and measured approximately a quarter mile in length. It was shaped to resemble a river itself, and, on the night we were at Kai, the resort was showing a movie on an inflatable screen, which the children staying at the resort could enjoy while floating in the pool. The sound from the movie was somewhat distracting at times, but I never felt that it detracted from the experience. I rather felt that it was a nice thing for the resort to do for the kids, and that, were I in that age group, I’d love to do the same thing.)
We got comfortable in our seats and our waiter arrived welcoming us to Kai and letting us know a bit about the restaurant and inquiring if we wanted the martini menu. With our nods of affirmation, our waiter retreated into the restaurant while another staff member brought us Voss water (gratis). We were then presented with a choice of flavorings for our water. We could have a slice of Key Lime, Blood Orange, or Meyer Lemon. J. selected the Blood Orange and I had Meyer Lemon. A minor, but very nice touch.
(I was actually very impressed by this. Having done some bartending work in college, I was familiar with having lemons available, but usually they were cut in little wedges, as that tended to be easiest to handle. Everything was very meticulously sliced and presented to us, and the choice of flavors was something I’d never experienced prior to this evening.)
Our server re-appeared with dinner menus and the martini menu. He talked about the paintings on the dinner menus (each menu has a different scene scape). Before heading for the dinner menu, J. and I reviewed the martini menu and made our choices. J. went with A River of Milk and Honey Martini ($14.00) and I chose the Wa’ig Martini ($15.00). I also requested and Iced Tea ($3.00).
After the departure of our waiter, we made our dinner selections. J. was having a tough time deciding between seafood or meat and I suggested a split in the difference. So, with that in mind, J. opted for the Tres Pescado Ceviche ($18.00) followed by the Grilled Tenderloin of Buffalo ($43.00). I was intrigued by the Hand Picked Lettuces Salad ($12.00). For my entree, I was drawn to the Kurobuta Pork Tenderloin ($34.00).
When our server arrived with our drinks, we placed our order and then sat back under the stars and in the cool breeze and sipped our drinks.
(What drew me to the River of Milk and Honey martini was the ingredient list: Happy Bear Mesquite Tree Honey sounded quite interesting, and the combination of that, Armenian vodka, Limoncello, Meyer lemon juice, and soda was quite appetizing by appearance. The presentation was intriguing, as the glass came out with the small amount of soda water pre-poured, and a short shaker which our waiter shook liberally prior to pouring. I took my first sip, and the proportions of the ingredients were perfect: slightly sweet, but not overly so, just balancing out the tartness of the lemon, and smoothing out any rough edges the vodka might have had. However, it did have a pleasant little kick to it. I made sure to enjoy it slowly, as I did not think it would be seemly to get toasted on a night such as this.)
The Wa’ig Martini (”wa’ig” means “water”) was a glistening blue drink in a traditional martini glass. The concoction of blue curacao, pineapple juice, and vodka was stellar. Tangy, slightly sweet and packing a punch from the alcohol, I thought the drink was superb. I also liked the small skewer of Madeira-soaked cherries. Amazingly delicious.
After receiving our drinks, we received an amuse bouche of a sweetbread pate (complimentary). I had never had sweetbreads before, so this was a new experience for me. I tried a taste and was pleased. It was creamy, savory and slightly sweet, all in one. The small accompanying sauce had a Dijon overtone, but I couldn’t place all of the flavors. Still, it was delightful.
(I felt much the same as Seth did regarding the sweetbread amuse bouche. I also had never tried sweetbreads, and was pleasantly surprised by the complex flavors of the pate. The sauce was a nice complement, and gave the sweetbreads an added sharp tang that pleasantly melded with the dish itself.)
As we finished our drinks and sweetbreads, we were presented with small plates with matching dipping bowls. One of the staff sprinkled a selection of ground nuts and seeds into the small bowl and covered it with locally produced olive oil. We were then presented with three kinds of bread: a sunflower bread, a heartier bread featuring chiles, and a traditional Pima bread. All were exceptional, especially the traditional Pima bread which was pure heaven when dipped into the olive oil. I also loved the full and robust flavor of the olive oil. It was wonderfully addictive and I would love to see that as something I could purchase in local markets someday.
(I need to note two things regarding the Pima bread. First, our waiter indicated that several tribal women had come to the resort to teach the chefs how to make the bread in the proper tradition, and relayed a story that they had given some of the staff the “what-for” when they were joking around during the process of learning. Seth relayed to me, and the waiter confirmed, that that was due to the Native American spiritual element to breadmaking, and that it was not something to take lightly.
Second, there were actually three different types of the hearty bread that evening. The first, which you see, was filled with fruit [I want to say raisins, but I’m not 100% sure]. Seth was more of a fan than I was, as the fruitiness of the bread detracted from the fruitiness of the olive oil, in my opinion. The second type, I don’t recall the exact makeup, as neither Seth nor I asked for that one. The third had some form of chiles in it [chipotle, perhaps], and was my favorite by far. The slight heat and kick of the bread complemented the olive oil tremendously, and was a small taste of heaven for me. I could have made a nice meal out of the Pima bread, the olive oil, and a nice salad.)
My Hand Picked Lettuces Salad arrived with a full explanation as to what was on the plate. The beautiful green were from gardens on the Gila River Indian Community and picked by the children of the Gila River Crossing School. They were dark green, crisp and exceptionally fresh. The sizable mount of greens had then been tossed with a Blood Orange Vinaigrette. Along side the greens were an Artisan Date Cake, a Timbale of Heirloom Tomatoes and Sobrasada, and a small wedge of Humboldt Fog Cheese. All of it was quite grand. The salad was exceptional. The combination of flavors was incredible from the bitterness of the greens, the tang of the vinaigrette, the sweetness of the date cake, the savory nature of the timbale, and, oh, the Humboldt Fog cheese, which is fast becoming one of my favorites. Simple and yet complex on so many different levels.
(The first thing we’d noticed when my appetizer was served was that the ceviche itself had a glass filled with smoke inverted over the food. The waiter explained that the smoke was Hickory smoke, and that it had been prepared in order to infuse the ingredients of the ceviche. We later found out that this style is called a cloche.
The tigerfin shark fillets, on the left, were meaty, but delicate in flavor. The pickled chiles were a wonderful addition to the taste. The corvina and eel [or uni, as the waiter had called it], on the right, were wonderfully fresh and tasty, and meshed well. The ceviche, however, was outstanding. The smoke infused with the fish, and gave the entire dish a wonderfully smoky taste, which enhanced the mint and lavender tastes. I’m sure Seth will tell you I was making yummy noises throughout the dish.)
In order to clear our palates, we were brought small servings of a lemon sorbet that was very mild. On top of the sorbet sat a drop of hibiscus syrup. It was perfect for clearing my taste buds. However, it was a hands-down winner simply for the presentation. The sorbet was served in a frosty cup that looked like a cracked egg shell. The beautiful design of the serving cup was a work of art. On top of that, the spoon was all but frozen solid. This was spot on for presentation and purpose.
(About ten minutes later, my Grilled Buffalo Tenderloin arrived. Hands down, this is the best meat dish I think I have ever been served. The buffalo was medium-rare, as I had requested, and sat on top of barbecue runner beans, cholla cacti buds, and spicy chorizo, and was topped with small mushrooms and a drizzle of saguaro syrup. I cut into the buffalo, scooped a bit of the beans, buds, and chorizo onto the meat, and bit in. I was in heaven. The buffalo was almost falling apart in my mouth, and all the flavors meshes perfectly, and were making my senses sing. Seth asked how it was, and all I could do was close my eyes and hold up a finger to ask him to wait. I wanted to savor this moment for a while before I spoke. I offered him a taste, and while he didn’t quite have the overwhelming response I did, he wasn’t far off.)
My Kurobuta Pork Tenderloin came in a gigantic bowl. It was a stunning presentation with the strips of tenderloin resting against each other in a cone shape served atop flash-fried Swiss Chard and sauteed dried fruits. The tenderloin had been rubbed with toasted ground coffee and Hatch chiles. Crispy fried plantain slices were sticking out of the serving, looking like antennae, and a reduction of the natural juices surrounded the stack. The pork was fork tender and the combination of the fruit and pork was stellar. There was just the slightest touch of spiciness and the juices kept everything moist and flavorful. I fell in love with this simply because it was such a treat. I think I would have liked it to be a bit more spicy, but there was nothing at all to complain about this entree. I was more than happy at my selection. Truly a wonderful dish.
We spent the last part of our meal sopping up the juices from our respective dishes with the last of our bread. Noting that we were finishing up, our server invited us to have dessert and I wasn’t going to pass up the chance. Everything was going so wonderfully well, I was hoping the desserts would be as fantastic as the rest of the meal. So, after being presented with a dessert menu, J. and I made our selections. J. jumped at the Goat’s Milk Cheesecake ($12.00) and I couldn’t miss the Three Sisters’ Creme Brulee ($12.00). We requested refills on our beverages and sat back listening to a Native American flute version of “Amazing Grace.”
(Additionally, while waiting, Seth and I were discussing various things, and suddenly, I heard something off in the desert. I asked Seth to be quiet for a moment, and listened intently. The howls of coyotes roaming the reservation broke the silence. I grinned, and said “How perfect is that?” Seth beamed, and agreed that it was just another moment where it seemed as though everything about the resort, the reservation, and the evening were aligning to make it as magical as possible.
When my dessert arrived, I was a little surprised at the presentation of the cheesecake. I’m used to seeing a slice of cheesecake, rather than cheesecake masquerading as half of a cheese ball that had been rolled in crushed pistachios. The cheesecake was accompanied by another wedge of Humboldt Fog cheese, and a gelee of blood orange and champagne, as well as saguaro and hibiscus syrup dabs on the plate. I took a bite of the cheesecake. I came close to tears because the dessert just pushed my opinion of the meal up to the best meal I’d had in my life. The goat’s milk cheesecake was pure perfection: creamy, sweet, slightly tart, full of flavor, and silky smooth in texture. Another moment of Seth asking for an opinion, and me holding up a finger to him, while closing my eyes and savoring.
I also tried the cheesecake with some of the Humboldt Fog. The combination was spectacular. The sharp tang of the cheese mixed with the sweet and light cheesecake, and the complementary flavors just added another complex layer to the entire dish. I fell in love with this dish, and would likely propose to it, were I not with Seth.)
The Three Sisters’ Creme Brulee was culinary creativity at its finest. As an Arizona native, I had heard about how trio combinations of food were often referred to as “Three Sisters” in various native cultures. This lived up to its name. The first creme brulee was squash based with pepita seeds on one corner. Slightly sweet, but robust in flavor, the satiny texture was a pure delight. The seeds had been caramelized a bit and the crunch was a welcome addition. The second creme brulee was anise with red beans. This had only a touch of sweetness, but didn’t fall into the savory category. It was very unique and had a wonderful taste of licorice and beans, and a sprig of mint just to add to the mix. In a way, it reminded me of many Asian desserts made with beans. The final brulee was corn based. Again, the sweetness was faint, but that was a pure attribute. The biscotti served along side was light and crunchy. The presentation was also notable as each brulee was in a geometric dish containing the circle, square and triangle. Beautiful.
By this time, J. and I were full, but not stuffed nor uncomfortable. We were having just an amazing time. But, the evening wasn’t over yet as our server presented us with a polished serving tray containing four house-made caramels (complimentary). Two were plain and two were topped with crushed hazelnuts. Wow. No, WOW! They were excellent. Creamy, chocolaty, and sublime. They were the perfect ending to our meal.
We were ready to request our bill and I was somewhat sweating the damage. Our server returned with our check and the total was $173.36 including tax. It was a steal for everything we received and the treatment we had from our server and the staff. This total was only a few dollars more than what J. and I had spent at Mastro’s just a year before. It was worth every penny. I handed over the bill with payment to our server and we relaxed while we awaited his return.
As we waited, we could hear a small acoustic group warming up in the bar located below the patio deck where we were seated. They started with their first song and, oddly, it mixed well with the flute music that was still wafting from the outdoor speaker near our table. I then realized that I had heard the song the band was playing before. No, I knew that song. Then, I burst into a giggle and turned to J. “Oh, that’s too funny!” I said. It turns out the band was playing an acoustic version of “Breathe” from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (and doing quite well with it).
Our server returned and we profusely thanked him for our meal and the service. The service was probably the best service I have ever had in a restaurant. Drinks were always kept full except for one time when our server apologized for not filling it sooner. When plates were taken away and new courses were being served, two staffers would do a sort of minuet in taking plates away from one side and placing our food from the other, all in a choreographed maneuver. It was not pretentious or stuffy. It was unexpected and professional.
We left the restaurant to retrieve the car and it happened that our car had been pulled up to the porte corchere a few moments earlier. We traded our ticket for the keys and when we entered the car, we found a surprise inside:
Two glass bottles of Voss water, a box of chocolates and a hand-written note from our server thanking us for our patronage were sitting on the dash and in the drink holders for our return to the vehicle. Classy on so many levels. J. and I were in somewhat of a stunned silence as we just sort of took in the entire experience. I put the keys in the ignition and started the car. The clock on the radio kicked on and it was just a few minutes shy of 11:30 PM. We had been at Kai for three hours. Funny, it seemed to pass so quickly.
We drove back to I-10 along Wild Pass Road, smelling the fresh desert air coming in from the vents. There was so much going through my mind at the time, all of it positive and wonderful. This was everything I had hoped for in an anniversary dinner: great food, great service, a comfortable atmosphere and the love of my life with a smile.
(How could I not smile?)
All of the anxiety I had was gone, even the anxiety from a poorly research article in the Arizona Republic all but proclaiming the end of the culinary scene in Phoenix.
However, the culinary scene in Phoenix is clearly alive and well.
Kai is proof of that.
Kai at Wild Horse Pass
5594 West Wild Horse Pass Boulevard
Chandler, AZ 85226
Dress: Smart business Casual on up.
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday - Dinner Only
Notes: The patio is intimate with only two tables.
Additional photos can be found at www.feastinginphoenix.com