Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Phoenix High Life -Elements

As a food lover, there is nothing better than going to a restaurant that leaves an indelible impression on the soul. Great food, all by itself, is impressive enough but combine great service in a terrific venue with a rock star celebrity chef and you might find yourself at Elements in Phoenix, Arizona. Elegant, sharp and inspiring are just a few words that can describe the sense that you get as you drive into the Sanctuary Resort and Spa nestled gently into the foothills of Camelback Mountain. Set off any main road yet only 20 minutes from downtown, this place feels secluded. The Frank Lloyd Write inspired design looks more like art than architecture. A cascade of buildings blends seamlessly into the hillside and I’m targeting just one.

Elements is the creation of Chef Beau MacMillan. Recognized for his work in other noteworthy kitchens around the country, MacMillan was recruited to Arizona in the late 90’s to reinvent the offerings at this transitional property. After a major renovation, Sanctuary and Elements were born and MacMillan would soon be recognized as a major player on the national food stage. His offerings are seasonal, clean and above all else, creative. A few years ago, MacMillan defeated Bobby Flay in Food Network’s Kitchen Stadium in Battle Kobe Beef. Since then he has appeared on numerous programs including the first season of Worst Cooks in America opposite Ann Burrell as the cooking mentor for ridiculously bad cooks. As his face becomes more known to the foodie community, his food remains constant and delicious.

A few years ago my mother and I dropped into Elements to simply have a cocktail and appreciate the views. We sat and relaxed sipping Martinis while chatting and taking in the dessert sun. I recall thinking that I’d really like to get back for a meal. Now my time had come. Visiting on business, we planned this dinner night a week or so in advance. After picking me up from the hotel, Mom and I met my brother, David, and his girlfriend, Brianne at the Sanctuary. The first thing you appreciate when walking into Elements is the expansive appearance of the room perpetuated by the all glass walls. The desert views are breathtaking as the sun sets beyond the looming rock formations above and valley below. This is just the beginning of a spectacular dining experience. The only disappointment I can claim was that Chef MacMillan had just left for the day. I was hoping to meet him but I guess I would have to settle for his food.

Seated against the desert backdrop along the wall, I perused the menu with great excitement. The menu design is exquisitely simple with the focus on clean fresh preparation. Things like butter seared scallops and bacon wrapped filet are dishes that can be found in plenty of restaurants but the preparation and attention to detail are the hallmarks that Elements is known for. My appetizer was Foie Gras 2 ways.

A creamy Foie Gras custard was topped with a perfectly seared Foie Gras slice. Atop that was a vanilla quince compote and dotting the surrounding plate were a few pink peppercorn caramels. In 2 sentences, I described every ingredient in this dish yet this preparation was beyond elegant and most delicious. Brianne’s beef carpaccio looked perfect too, albeit a bit smaller of a carpaccio than I’m used to seeing. The entrée I chose was Hawaiian Opah.

This large Pacific fish is much like tuna with a slightly milder flavor. My first and only other experience with this fish was in Hawaii some years ago and I’m glad to have found it on a mainland menu. Seared on the outside with a light pink flesh on the inside, this buttery Opah was akin to fatty tuna belly. I immediately thought that I need to get back to Hawaii. Served with the fish was a crispy sushi rice cake topped with some rock shrimp and pickled cucumber. I thought the dish was perfectly prepared and I was able to successfully reproduce the rice dish at home. It was amazingly simple but delicious. Even Lisa liked it. The dessert menu, which I typically shy away from, was also an eclectic treat. Dessert wines, teas and the remerging dessert cheese course are available. I went with the pumpkin and cream cheese mouse while David did the Bananas Foster.

Again, perfection. A cinnamon, white hot chocolate was served alongside my beautiful piece of cake that was unlike any hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted. I loved the spice with flavors that reminded me of hot spiced cider, only in chocolate. What a wonderful way to round out a great dining experience.

I have to say, this restaurant is a destination unto itself. Nowhere else that I’ve eaten in Phoenix combines such scenery with great culinary acumen. You will, however, be set back a bit by a visit to Elements. The average appetizer or salad averages around $15 and the entrée is about $32. Dinner for 4 with a great bottle of wine and a few cocktails was just over $500 but our wine was $100. While there are plenty of places in this city to get a great meal at a fraction of the price, Elements is a rare gem that should be savored. Popping into the bar for a cocktail and an appetizer or salad would be a very affordable way to soak in the ambience. There was plenty of the dressed up stuffy crowd but there were also people like me wearing jeans and just enjoying the night. It is a resort after all. I did love this place and this night. There is no better way to enjoy the company of family than over a great meal and Elements helped us fit that bill.

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