Before we go any further, let’s just get one thing out of the way. The newly renovated and re-tooled El Chorro Lodge is a beautiful restaurant. The interior design is a tasteful update of a venerable classic, and the setting is spectacular. It exudes an “old Arizona” charm without being kitschy, and I wouldn’t mind passing considerable amounts of time sipping a drink outside at El Chorro while watching the sun set behind the hills of Paradise Valley.
I just wish I hadn’t stayed for dinner.
If this review was just about the architecture and interior design, I’d stop here and say “It’s really beautiful, take the architectural tour.” But El Chorro Lodge is a restaurant, and instead of serving food that befits the setting, the kitchen is doling out lackluster renditions of boring classics with such an amazing lack of pride that it might as well be banquet food at a substandard resort. It’s not just bad, it’s embarrassing and I know they can do better. But banquet food is often bad because they're putting out huge quantities of food and lack the time for detail, which is exactly what's going on here.
But, really, I should have known. All the recent publicity surrounding the re-opening has been about the appearance. People knock Scottsdale for being about style over substance, but El Chorro Lodge wins the award. Nary a word has been mentioned about the food which is actually quite surprising considering that several industry friends of mine have had very positive things to say about Chef Charles Kassels’ abilities. But so much is wrong with the food that it’s hard not to think that someone was too busy at design meetings to spend time thinking about food and service. Or, even worse, did they think that the setting, alone, would be enough to keep the tables full? Maybe.
Sadly, it appears that El Chorro’s culture of mediocrity is doing nothing to deter throngs of gray-haired diners from bringing-in their three generations of offspring for a celebratory dinner. Seriously, the place is like God’s Waiting Room. Each serving area ought to be fitted with an automated defibrillator, and they should offer colostomy bag changing stations instead of diaper changing tables in the restrooms. Get your walker tuned-up while you eat. The customer profile at El Chorro Lodge is about as vivacious as the nursing home intake office, with a similar menu to boot. I expected to see guys in leisure suits prowling the parking area, covertly dealing doses of Viagra, Lipitor, and liver spot creams. Jack Kevorkian would have a heyday here. Okay, I’m being ridiculous and excessive. But, seriously, the age difference between me and the next youngest diner was so wide that I almost felt like some sort of pervert...and I’m pushing the big four-oh.
Trust me – I appreciate a classic. I absolutely loved The Other Place which was way over-the-hill and reeked of mothballs, but still served awesome king crab legs, a delicious old-school table-side salad presentation, and a killer prime rib. (No pun intended, as a server at The Other Place once told me that she had seen several patrons die in the restaurant over the years.) And I dig the Rat Pack vibe at Durant’s, which has also stood the test of time and several different owners. But being “classic” doesn’t give you carte-blanche to skimp on the important things like food quality, technique, presentation and service.
Case in point: my Prime Rib served with creamed spinach and au gratin potatoes, one of the night’s specials. Instead of medium-rare, as I requested, this flavorless hunk of beef was three different shades of gray inside but, oddly, pink on the outside. The horseradish cream, plopped on the same plate as my spinach and potatoes, clearly came straight from the jar and had zero punch whatsoever, not to mention a thick “skin” on top that came from sitting pre-prepared in a refrigerator prior to serving. The spinach and potatoes were commendable only in that they didn’t suck. At nearly $40 this entrée was downright insulting. If you want good prime rib, go to Don & Charlie’s.
Yes, as bad as it was, I think I had the best entree of our group. Two people ordered the Pan Seared Duck, consisting of a confit leg and pan-seared breast. Instead of a crispy exterior, the breast was greasy and the skin was soggy and it appeared to have been prepared earlier and simply re-heated prior to serving. The Forest Mushroom Ravioli in a mushroom broth was described as “bland,” and I think she was just trying to be polite.
Although pricey, all the entrees at El Chorro Lodge come with a basket of Sticky Buns, a relish tray (think buffalo wings with carrots and celery, minus the buffalo wings), and your choice of soup (in this case, Steak and Onion or Gazpacho) or salad. I opted for a Caesar Salad which was probably the highlight of the whole night for me. Whole leaves were lightly dressed, and had a lemon tanginess that was nicely offset in flavor and texture by the coarsely ground black pepper.
Dessert was a yawn, consisting of predictable offerings like Crème Brulee, Sticky Bun Bread Pudding, Chocolate Cake and Gelato. Somehow, our server had to ask what flavors of gelato were available that night, as they change daily. Maybe the other nights are more exciting, but on this night we had a choice of chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and orange. Orange Gelato was about as unconventional as the night got, and ordering it would probably have turned just as many heads as arriving at the El Chorro Lodge valet parking stand with an Obama sticker on your Prius, instead of a “Drill Baby Drill” sticker on your Bentley. You get the picture. The chocolate cake was good but otherwise unremarkable. It’s hard to suck when Valrhona chocolate is involved.
The list of other failures is long and undignified. My Sauvignon Blanc was served at red wine temperatures, and my Merlot was ice cold. Managers and bussers circled our table after we finished dessert like sharks in a feeding frenzy and I felt pressure, whether perceived or real, to give up our table as quickly as possible. No one thanked us on the way out. If the teenagers working at Chili’s can get these details right, so can the sizable management team at El Chorro Lodge. These kinds of failures simply aren’t excusable at this price point.
If it sounds like El Chorro Lodge left a bad taste in my mouth, then you read correctly. Despite a knockout setting that makes me want to move in, the food is a complete afterthought. Although progressive food isn’t going to fly with the El Chorro Lodge demographic (can you just see the looks on their faces if they were served foams, dusts and gelees that weren’t aspic?), it doesn’t mean that the classics can’t be prepared well. Every restaurant deserves a second chance; everyone has an "off night." My first experience at Modern Steak was dreadful, but many of my complaints had been addressed on my second visit and it's someplace that I would definitely return to. I just hope that someone else is paying when I return to El Chorro Lodge.
So, my recommendation is this: go to El Chorro Lodge for a sunset cocktail and some sticky buns, but until they work out the kinks go somewhere else for dinner.
Photos of the meal can be found at www.ericeatsout.com
Don & Charlie's
7501 E. Camelback Road, Scottsdale, AZ 85251
El Chorro Lodge
5550 E Lincoln Dr, Paradise Valley, AZ 85253
7014 E. Camelback Road, Scottsdale, AZ 85251
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