I found myself heading down to Tucson for a series of meetings, and we were staying at a resort that I had never visited. Normally, this meeting, when in Tucson, is at the La Paloma and we will dine at Janos, on the property. Now, we were heading to Lowe’s Ventana Canyon. A quick search turned up the Ventana Room at the resort, http://www.ventanaroom.com/home.html. A few searches later, turned up some rather mixed reviews of the Ventana Room - some on Chowhound and some on other fora. Most were from ‘02 - ‘04, but I read them carefully, trying to piece together some sense of this dining spot. Still, all mixed. Some loved it, some hated it. I gathered their menu and wine list and poured over both. OK, a bit on the expensive side, but that’s to be expected at a restaurant with four Mobile “stars,” and five AAA “diamonds.” Menu looked good and creative. Same for the wine list. Well, we WERE staying at the resort and would be doing one business dinner through their catering dept., so I decided to chance it and not plan on driving over to Janos, regardless of how much I love that space and its food and playful wine pairings. We’ve done their wine-room for several largish groups, and it has always been wonderful. However, I just did not want to do any driving after the dinner that I planned.
I booked for four to celebrate a long past-due promotion for one of the attendees and his wife. We were to arrive at ~ 5:30PM, change and attend a reception in the resort. The reservation was made for 7:30PM, window table requested. Well, traffic was horrendous all of the way from N. Phoenix to the resort. Changed, almost in the hallway, en route to the room. Made the reception, albeit a bit late. Gathered the other couple and tried to break away from the reception. This became a “best laid plans... “ situation, with everyone having to talk to me, my wife, or the other couple. I finally sneaked out, just as a panic call from Phoenix came in with a systemic computer crash, that had to be worked around. I made my way to the Ventana Room, on the mezzanine level (2nd floor) of the resort, overlooking the lobby. I explained that my wife and our guests were “close” behind and that we were going to be about 20 min. late for our seating. No problem. The hostess provided me with the full wine list, and I sat around reading and waiting.
Everyone finally arrived and we were promptly seated (25 min. late for the reservation) at the window, overlooking the lights of N. Tucson and the surrounding area - lovely. Instantly, our main server was at the table, with breads, a very nice French butter with a lovely decoration imprinted in it. Aside: this butter was a real sticking point with some of the earlier reviewers, most of whom thought that it was rather mundane and that far too much was made of it by the staff. It was excellent and lovely and went well with the assorted breads.
Next, a tray of pepper (different ground pepper, including a rosette, not “peppers” in the sense of those wonderful little yellow, red, or green guys that add so much “life” to SW dishes, but different peppercorns) plus a French grey salt. Aside: apparently, sometimes this tray is filled with different salts, and was another sticking point with some reviewers. Again, I tried everything with the French butter and the breads, just to experience it all. Now, I know a few peppercorns, with which we cook, but most of these were new to all of us and quite interesting.
As it appeared that we’d opt for the chef’s tasting menu, I inquired about a “sommelier’s pairing” for the various courses. Our server stated that they once did this, but had discontinued the option, so I ordered a Chartron et Trebuchet, “Clos des Chevaliers,” Chevalier-Montrachet 1er Cru ‘00 (US$150) to start the evening, planning on monitoring the table’s mains and then ordering a few reds (or whites) to accompany these. The sommelier arrived with the bottle of Chardonnay, presented it and provided us with very nice white Burg glasses. Excellent wine, served fittingly. He introduced himself as Gordon Gilbert, and acknowledged that the main server had informed him that I was interested in wine pairing with the meals. I allowed as how I had been informed that this was no longer an option, but he offered to provide same to us, if we wished. Now, I have to say that the Ventana Room’s wine list is very full and that they offer some very interesting b-t-g selections, but, never having dined there, I was glad to pass on doing the “heavy lifting” and letting Mr Gilbert do it for us.
Because our party did three four-course tasting menus and one five-course (mine) menu, I’ll try to list all of the choices made. Some shuffled the order of courses, so one might have had dish A as a starter, and another, dish A as the fish-course. Also, remember that we had begun working on the Montrachet and that the conversation was flowing. Here is the bulk of our dining, though not in the order that the dishes were served:
The Red Soup, Lobster Consommé, Manilla Clams, Bouchot Mussels and Baby Octopus. This was accompanied by a Morgadio, Albariño (Alvarinho), Rias Baixas ‘04. Very flavorful with great textural counterpoints. Wine was right-on for this soup and enhanced the clam/mussel broth.
The Dover Sole, wrapped in Potato Ravioli, Serrano Prosciutto, Braised Celery Cipollini Onion Sauce, with the Rochiolli, Russian River Valley, Pinot Noir ‘04 and the Anne Gros Bourgone Pinot Noir ‘03. The Sole came to different folk at different times, hence the two wines. This side of London, it was as good a sole, as I have tasted, and both PN’s went very well with the light, delicate fish. Because one common flavor profile in PN’s is “bacon,” the Prosciutto fit right in with both of these.
The Wild Dorade, wild Mediterranean Dorade, with Braised Sweet Organic Vegetables, in a Velvet Shallot Sauce. The wine was the Torbeck “Les Amis” (Grenache) ‘02. (Note: this is a US$135 bottle, and it was served b-t-g!). The Dorade was light, flaky and almost sweet. The Grenache was wonderful with it.
The Foie Gras Firm and Soft, Muscat Flavored Mallard Duck Foie Gras in a Port Wine Reduction, accompanied by a Hoppler TBA, Burgenland Riesling ‘01. Lately, I have had Foie Gras at least 30 ways with about 20 different wines (see Elsewhere in US board for Kauai and Oahu dining), and this was very good. It was probably down the list a tad, but came in about #4 out of 30, with the Greenhouse, Mayfair, London being tops this Quarter. The Hoppler was very, very good. I am more of a “seared” Foie Gras fan, but the pâté was as good, as I have had. Only the pairing of an apple-infused seared Foie Gras with a Canadian Late Harvest Cider (Greenhouse) was a better match. This was better than La Mer’s Foie Gras Three Ways.
The Brothelle of Biarritz, Bay Biscay meets the Pyrenees Mountains, with Dry and Cured Meats, Cooked and Sashimi Grade Sea Food with Tomato Olive Oil Infusion. This was paired with a Ch. de Pierreux Beaujolais, Brouilly ‘03. I did not get to taste this one, but it got raves, as did the wine.
The Five Flavors, Terrine of Eggplant, Zucchini and Bell Pepper in Tomato Confit with Maui Onion with a Brundlmayer, Gruner Veltliner, Kamptaler Terrassen ‘04. The wine was so nice, that others at the table added a glass of it, just for fun.
Tiger Prawns, a Red Curry Prawn Cake with Tiger Prawns, Beaumes-de-Venise infused Kabocha Squash with Porcini Mushroom Salad. For this dish, two wines from above were served: the Rochiolli, RR Valley ad the Ch. de Pierreaux BJ Brouilly. This dish got three raves, along with the wines. I didn’t have it, but did get a glass of both wines, again in the name of science.
The Scallop, from Cape Cod with Pan Seared Porcini, Carrot Spaghetti and Sweet Vinegar, served with Brundlmayer, Langenloiser Steinmusse, Kamptal Riesling ‘04. Maybe not the biggest, and maybe not the best, but this was a wonderful scallop and the Riesling was perfect, even with the “sweet vinegar.”
The Kobe, a Summerfield Kobe Beef Filet wiht Candied vegetables and a Tarragon Chervil Emulsion. OK, I’m a big Kobe fan and an inveterate carnivore. I was surprised that everyone got this dish, even my wife, who is more inclined toward having three fish-courses. This was a new #4 on my tenderloin chart. Yes, it was a domestic version of Kobe and fell only behind a Japanese Kobe, a Colorado tenderloin in a small restaurant in Winter Park and the pinnacle, the “Filetto Di Manzo Alla Griglia Con Lasagna Di Melenzane, a grilled beef tenderloin with an Eggplant-Goat Cheese Lasagna and Sun Dried Cherry Sauce,” that I recently had at Dondero’s at the Grand Hyatt, Poipu, Kauai, Hawaii, which may well remain #1 for perpetuity. With that tenderloin, I had the a ‘98 Tommasi Amarone Classico, but this time, we had an ‘00 Shafer Hillside Select, Napa, Cab, which was decanted about 45 min. before this course hit the table. We did the entire bottle. This is a US$225/btl. wine. The wine, BTW, was wonderful. I have long been a fan of Shafer, whether it’s their Fire Break Sangiovese/Cab blend, their Red Shoulders Ranch Chardonnay, or their regular Napa Cab. I have only had a small handful of the “Hillside Select” Cabs, but all have been great. This was no exception. Even being so young, with the decanting, this wine really came into its own, halfway through the course. I saved what I could for the cheese course.
I cannot comment on the desserts, as I got a six-cheese course to finish the meal. My only problem was that I was out of the Montrachet (heck, it was opened almost 2.5 hours earlier), and there were only a few drops of whites. I still had some of my Rochiolli, the Brouilly BJ and the Hillside, and I was glad that I did. I did hear a lot of oh-h-hs and ah-h-hs, but cannot recall any dessert at my table.
I had planned on visiting the Port “trolley” for dessert, but even though we only had to make it to the elevator, then down a hallway to our rooms, just could not do it. I do not even think that I looked at the Port list, but did have a ‘77 Warre’s b-t-g in the bar the next night, so I assume that the dessert wine list is worthy.
In all, I’d rate the Ventana Room as excellent. Yes, it was expensive, $1,200 for a party of four, but then you must look at the wines that we had. We also tipped, based on the full tab, plus an additional gratuity for the sommelier, based on his pairings. This is not an inexpensive restaurant, when dining as we did, but I feel that it is a very good value for what we got. The room is very nice, the service is about as good as it gets: very attentive, but never overbearing. The glassware is top-notch, even when we had lesser wines b-t-g (are you listening Different Pointe of View?) and they were all spotless and did not have any trace of disinfectant or soap. I did not see the logo, but would guess that they were all Riedel Vinum, or equal. The wine service was as good as it gets, and not just because I got a tour of the cellar after the meal. Our meal ran a full 3.5 hours and we were the last diners, by a long shot. At no time did we feel rushed, even as we ordered coffees long after the last diners had gone to bed. For an elegant, well-paced, and prepared, meal in Tucson, I could not recommend the Ventana Room more highly. I still love Janos, but I think I’d give the Ventana Room the nod in that part of AZ. I am already planning on returning for pleasure in the late Spring, especially as I missed the golf at the Ventana Canyon courses this trip. Everything was as close to perfect, as one is likely to find. In Europe, I think that our experience would warrant at least 2 stars, if not 3. I place this meal in the caliber of the French Laundry, La Gavrosh, the Greenhouse, Menu, Michael Mina’s, Gary Danko’s, Commander’s Palace (when they are ON their game), Vincent’s on Camelback and any other spot, that I have had the pleasure to dine.