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March 22, 2010


Salt and Pepper Dominic Armato

Time to get this show on the road.

With Napa done, there's a trip to San Francisco I've been holding off on writing up until the cat was out of the bag. But you know, we've been in Phoenix for nearly three months, now. Time to start acting like it. Frisco can wait.

Food-wise, I'm still getting settled in. Combing through some neighborhood joints, checking out ethnic markets, getting to know some local food nerds... starting to make Phoenix home. And last weekend, the opportunity for an evening out presented itself, so we figured we'd check out one of the area's culinary stars.

He's now getting national exposure on Food Network, but Beau MacMillan has been a big name around these parts for a while now, having spent the last decade heading up the kitchen over at Sanctuary resort. Much has been made of the revamping of their flagship restaurant, Elements, and it reopened early this year with a brand spanking new kitchen and a revised menu to boot. Nestled into the north face of Camelback Mountain, it's always had a spectacular view, and while I can't speak to its previous vibe, the look these days is the kind of Ariona chic I've already come to expect from local restaurants -- modern, dim, and highly, highly image-conscious. I walked in not knowing the slightest thing about MacMillan's style, and intentionally so. Why form any preconceived notions when I can just go and see for myself? All I knew was that the fellow was awfully popular around these parts and that the early buzz about the reopening was rather positive.

I'm not sure why I was surprised to discover that the menu is so heavily Asian-influenced. It isn't as though I had any reason to believe it wasn't. It's just that I can't remember the last time I've seen a menu with such a full-on Asian fusion vibe. Fusion's a dirty word these days, but I'm a full supporter... provided it's done skillfully.

Albacore TartareDominic Armato

We got off to kind of a ho-hum start, selecting the albacore tartare off the raw menu to share. A hockey puck-sized ring mold of albacore -- fairly large dice -- sat atop an equal portion of shredded cucumber. A smear of "sesame hummus" was off to the side, along with splash of white soy that I believe had been punched up with something acidic, and garnishes were abundant... a half a cherry tomato, a small lump of avocado, a pile of onion sprouts and a fried lotus root chip. It certainly sounded like a combination that would have worked. We wouldn't have ordered it otherwise. But it somehow didn't come together. I think the issue was one of balance. The cucumber was, I believe, completely unseasoned, and the sesame hummus was very much a simple, base flavor without sweetness or acid. All of which meant that the only bright flavor in the entire dish was the miniscule splash of white soy. That got you through two, maybe three bites, and then it lost all cohesion. Admittedly, it's better than getting a tartare that's swimming in an overbearing sauce -- a far more common problem -- but without a bright contrast, the other components didn't bring anything out of the fish, and it quickly devolved into a pile of rather plain-tasting albacore, which, let's be honest, isn't the most distinctive-tasting raw fish in the sea. This past summer, a dish I had at L2O made me forget why I'd stopped ordering tuna tartare. This one reminded me.

Sweet & Sour Braised BaconDominic Armato

My starter had exactly the opposite problem. Three thick slices of braised pork belly (identified as bacon, but if there was any smoke there I wasn't getting it) were piled up with wilted watercress, mushrooms and a small helping of pearl pasta, and the entire plate was dressed with an exceptionally sweet Chinese mustard sauce that was further smacked by some manner of sweet and sour drizzle. There were good points here, but they got lost as the dish completely drowned in its sauce. Texturally speaking, I loved how the pearl pasta worked against the pork. And the meat was handled very well. It was tender, delicious and it absolutely honored the fat. Problem was, the only way I could tell was by pulling some off to the side and mopping up whatever sauce I could before tasting it on its own. I thought it a shame, really, to take a nice piece of pork belly like that and completely obliterate it with such a powerul sauce. Use half the amount and it still might've been twice as much as there should be. Just a bad call, in my opinion.

Hot & Cold Butter LettuceDominic Armato

My ladylove went with a salad for her first, selecting the hot & cold butter lettuce. It wasn't bad as much as it was kind of puzzling. It was a little overdressed for my tastes, and featured bleu cheese, whole cloves of roasted garlic, fried onions and slices of Chinese sausage. What I couldn't get past was the Chinese sausage. I love Chinese sausage, but I couldn't figure out what it was doing here other than attempting to maintain the menu's Asian theme. You think salad, bleu cheese and sweet dressing, you think bacon. Which isn't to say that that's what should have been there. I only point out that that's what you might typically expect, because while I'm no clairvoyant, it seemed as though the sausage was supposed to be a creative Asian substitute. Except it didn't work. It wasn't a problem so much as it was superfluous. Salty and smoky bacon with a sweet dressing is a round contrast of flavors. Sweet Chinese sausage with a sweet dressing is one note. Without having access to MacMillan's brain, it just seemed like a choice meant more to look good on the menu than to actually taste good.

Short Rib RavioliDominic Armato

My ladylove's entree, of which I only had a couple of fleeting tastes, was the strongest of the evening, but even this one didn't sit quite right with me. Short rib ravioli are plated with sugar cured shallots, tomato jam and horseradish hollandaise. First off, it's another sweet bomb. That said, this was some pretty tasty sweet. The hollandaise, the tomatoes, the sweet shallots -- this was an aggressive and delicious combination of flavors. But once again, the dish was all sauce. The pasta might as well have not been there, and there was a gaping hole where the short rib should have been. The deep, meaty flavor that should have served as the base of the dish wasn't there. What I got was delicious. It just felt like the foundation of the dish was missing.

Many Spiced NiragiDominic Armato

I'm having a frustrating time trying to express why my entree didn't work for me, but it didn't. The many spiced niragi came seared and sliced with a bed of forbidden rice, lobster ceviche, avocado puree, slivered mango, cilantro and what I believe was a white soy reduction. The problem here was one of cohesion, and I think I know why. The mango was mango. The rice was rice. The avocado, while it looked to have something blended in there, played like a plain avocado puree. And I don't know what about the lobster made it a lobster ceviche. I can't imagine how I missed the acid, if it was there, but it tasted like steamed lobster meat to me. So take all of these things, and line them up side-by-side on a long plate next to the fish. Not much compelling about that, right? Okay, now stack those elements on top of each other. Is it really any better? When you have a plate with a number of elements, a common cooking mantra is that even if they're meant to go together, they should all taste great individually. Failing that, while it looked lovely, the niragi came across more as a collection of ingredients than a cohesive dish. For reasons that I just can't put my finger on, they didn't tie together, and the result was unsatisfying.

I read back, and this looks brutal. I don't really intend it to be so. Nothing we ate was bad. But at the same time, every single dish had problems. Of the five I tasted, there wasn't a single one where I could just sit back and say, hey, that's a good dish. And what surprised me was that the problems didn't appear to be mistakes, but rather they seemed to be the result of poor choices. Or at least ones I didn't agree with. I was really disappointed. I'd heard good things and was very much looking forward to our dinner. And it sure sounds like I'm the one in the minority, here. Maybe I'm totally off in left field on this one. But I walked away disappointed by Elements.

5700 East McDonald Drive
Paradise Valley, AZ 85253
Mon - Thu11:30 AM - 2:00 PM6:00 PM - 9:30 PM
Fri - Sat11:30 AM - 2:00 PM6:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Sun7:00 AM - 2:00 PM6:00 PM - 9:30 PM


Not much has been heard about Elements since the tweaked menu debuted, so this was an interesting glimpse. I want to try it sometime soon. A good, fair piece.

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