In mid-January of this year, my wife had I had to go to Arizona for a conference, and we were looking for places that were unique and/or different -- food we couldn't get in Berkeley, or rather, foods that were "typical" or "classic" to the area. (Why travel to Paris and order pizza?) At first, this seemed (at least to us) a relatively simple and even obvious idea. In reality, however . . .
So after a couple of things "fell through" (including a lunch at Barrio Café, when they decided not to open until 5:00), our "fall back" position was Elements, the restaurant within the "Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort and Spa" -- self-described on their website as "Celebrate the rebirth of elements, as Sanctuary introduces the evolution of a favorite restaurant into a stunning new experience of Arizona luxury dining. Discover the cutting-edge kitchen for new cuisine, new style and new decor that lives up to the spectacular setting."
Uh, yeah. Well, moving past that, at least we had Executive Chef Beau MacMillan -- he of Iron Chef (he won) and the Food Network ("Worst Chefs in America"). How bad could it be?
Not bad at all, actually. But on the other hand, it wasn't exactly great , either. It's not classic American for, but rather "modern" American infused with Asian influences from miso to kimchee, ponzu to hijiki, and more.
The view from the dining room can be spectacular -- but we (there were four of us) were seated as far away from the oversized picture windows as possible. (Not that big of a deal, as our reservations were long after the sun had set.) Indeed, the interior design of the restaurant is also stunningly beautiful. Unfortunately for the design of the room we were in, it was also exceedingly loud . . . .
We started with appetizers: fiery calamari (fried herbs, pepperoncini, miso scallion vinaigrette) and shishito peppers (crisp garlic, sesame). Both were very good, but not great. We also had the ahi tuna tartare (cucumber, toasted pine nuts, green onion, sesame crostini), and fire roasted bone marrow (Korean chile glaze, shrimp toast, coriander peanut salad) -- both were delicious.
The drawback here was that we'd ordered all four at the same time, but only the first two were served . . . and when we were finished with those two, the next two arrived as a separate course. Now, once the tartare and the bone marrow were served, we sort of figured it out: the calamari and shishito peppers were large enough to share; the tartare and bone marrow were not. Ergo, the waiter decided to bring out the "shared" appetizers first, but as this was never explained to us, we kept wondering where the rest of our appetizers were . . .
Indeed, the service was polite, even friendly, but it was also "off" all night long. Things like water was brought to the table late, and only refilled if we asked. The bottle of Champagne was served barely cool, let alone chilled. (Wouldn't it have been better for the waiter/sommelier to explain the wine wasn't chilled, and we could either wait a while while it sat in an ice bucket OR -- sorry -- we could select another bottle?) Unfortunately we weren't given an option, and were served a Champagne that hovered between lukewarm and barely cool -- which was definitely NOT cool.
Speaking of the wine list, overall it's rather good with reasonable prices (save the "reserve list"), although dominated by California wines -- mostly Napa -- with a smattering of French. No local (Arizona) wines, which was something of a surprise as they can be surprisingly good, even excellent. No Spanish wines, either.
Entrées included braised short ribs (truffled mac & cheese, crisp kale parsnip salad); bacon-wrapped filet of beef (caullflower, roasted shallot, asparagus, blue cheese, zinfandel syrup); maple leaf farms duck (forbidden rice, cherry-braised cabbage, fragrant black bean drizzle); and Maine lobster udon "carbonara" (pancetta, oyster mushroom, Thai basil, tomato jam) -- all four were delicious, but -- whether it was our own expectations that were too high, or the meal itself -- it just seemed like it was missing that certain something, that spark, that would have made the meal not only memorable, but would have made us look forward to when we could return.
Instead, it's more of a "been there, done that, got the T-shirt" sort of experience.