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March 14, 2011


The Menu Dominic Armato

Phoenix isn't a fine dining town. This isn't a value judgment, but rather a simple statement of fact. While plenty of valley restaurants produce innovative, upscale (and exceptionally delicious) food, the kind of no-holds-barred, go ahead and gild that lily approach to menu, room and waitstaff is pretty much limited to Binkley's and Kai. And even Binkley's is a little more relaxed off the plate than convention would dictate. The argument has been made with even more frequency in these recessionary times that traditional fine dining is a dinosaur; that it's a lumbering, outmoded culinary beast, on the verge of extinction as it gives way to the more nimble, adaptable mammals that scurry around its feet. And while I agree that this hardly seems the time to be sinking millions of dollars into such ventures, as I mused when we visited Chicago's L2O a couple of years back (which has since earned three Michelin stars and lost its head chef, in the same week no less), the spare no expense approach to upscale dining generates a unique kind of experience that I hope never goes away, even if it yields somewhat to the pop-ups, gastropubs and casual fine dining options that dominate the discussion these days. And so it was with high hopes that I approached Kai, which is as far as I can muster, Phoenix' only traditional fine dining restaurant.

Bread Service with "Lazy Bread"Dominic Armato

By traditional, of course, I mean the format, not the food. While the room is the kind of appropriately quiet, crisply and well-appointed space that exudes confident luxury, and the staff is both attentive and abundant, the cuisine is an amalgam of European and Mexican traditions applied to flavors and ingredients native to the Southwest. If Kai is to be the standard-bearer for fine dining in Phoenix, it will do so with a strong sense of local identity. At its best, this identity expresses itself as beautiful sunset vistas just outside the window, and striking original watercolors that adorn the front of every menu. At its worst, it involves some rather lengthy lectures on the foods and their provenance, threatening to turn the dining experience into a classroom experience. But of course, what constitutes the right amount of information is very much a personal preference. Your mileage may vary.

Lamb AmuseDominic Armato

Once the platitudes had yielded to the plates, we got to the meat of Kai's Southwestern identity, both literally and figuratively. Wishing to try more than a dish or two, and lacking the endurance for the 13-course "Journey," we opted for the abbreviated "Short Story" tasting menu. Bread service combined a pair of more conventional options, a cheddar and jalapeno loaf and another heavily scented with roasted garlic, with a traditional Pima item described as "Lazy Bread." Puck-shaped and laced with chiles, it immediately brought to mind the bread of Tuscany. Traditional or no, I really wish it contained some salt. Our amuse was far more successful, a moist and tender slice of seared lamb with a pineapple, fennel and piquillo pepper salsa and miniscule but potent touches of raspberry-chipotle and stevia sauces. The pineapple was almost too much for the meat, but the chiles kept it in check and it was a delectable and palate-awakening bite.

Kurobuta Pork TortaDominic Armato

The one item from the "Journey" that I couldn't let escape was the Kurobuta Pork Torta, and the staff graciously honored my request to work it into our dinner. It arrived up front, some assembly required. A small piece of bread, scented I believe with a native seed of some nature, was served with sandwich components for you to prepare as you saw fit. The centerpiece, a juicy and succulent nest of chimayo-spiced pulled pork, subtly sweet and quite delicious. The "condiments" included a fine date puree, crisp apple chip, saffron-infused Greek yogurt and cucumber, and the result when combined was both sophisticated and satisfying, upscale finger food nestled inside a steamy, warm and moist bun. I'm glad I didn't miss it.

Tomato TartDominic Armato

The tomato tart, I could have done without, and for very frustrating reasons. Conceptually, it was a beautiful dish. The base was a light buckwheat and saguaro seed crisp, smeared with a measure of creamy tart local goat cheese and mascarpone. On top, a light basil foam (I support foam when used with restraint) and "black ice," a granita made with balsamic vinegar and saguaro blossom syrup. Though the combination of flavors was mostly conventional, it was a beautiful contrast of textures and temperatures, both striking and delicious, with the exception of one component... the tomatoes. Macerated with olive oil, they were mealy and underflavored. While local sourcing is an honorable pursuit, I think it's important -- particularly at a fine dining establishment -- to recognize the limits of the practice. Though the menu trumpeted the dish's centerpiece as "local vine ripened heirloom tomatoes," from the moment I took my first bite, all I could think to myself was, "If these are the best tomatoes you can find locally, either get them from somewhere else or don't serve the dish." Or at the very least, take them off the tasting menu so their appearance in front of me is my mistake and not yours (I'm still adjusting to Arizona's wonky growing seasons, but tomatoes in mid-March isn't something I'd choose). The accoutrements, though delicious, completely overshadowed the star. A perfect tomato, I suspect, would have stood up just fine. But the thought never should have had the opportunity to enter my mind.

Spanish Sea Bass StewDominic Armato

Thankfully, I was ready to let bygones be bygones by the time I was midway through the next dish. Described as "Spanish Sea Bass swimming in a native stew," I'm unsure whether "swimming" or "native" is more deserving of scare quotes. I've no doubt that octopus, clams and black sausage are native to somewhere, but I'm pretty sure it isn't the Arizona desert. In fact, though it incorporated such Southwestern ingredients as tepary beans, iitois onions and more of the previous course's tomatoes (put to much better use here), this dish was Spanish through and through, and thoroughly delicious. After the intoxicating broth had been spooned over the rest, and our server had disappeared into the bowels of the kitchen, I briefly panicked when I realized I had no spoon. It took all of 2.2 seconds for me to realize that this was the express purpose of the (literally!) foot long grilled crouton that extended well beyond the confines of the bowl. This was the fine dining equivalent of dunking your bread into your soup, cutting off seafood-soaked chunks of crusty bread and eating it along with the rest. There were nits to pick. The sear on the fish should have been crisper, and less would have been more with the beans, but downing that soupy crouton along with the flavorful fish, the sweet clams and octopus, the earthy, toothsome body of the beans, the dusky funk of the sausage... yes, I rather enjoyed this dish.

Strawberry SorbetDominic Armato

Sorbet as a palate cleanser is, admittedly, a little trite. But heck, I'll take a nice sorbet as it comes, made here of strawberries with a syrup made of smoky plums (salty, too... umeboshi, in a lone Asian touch, perhaps?). And then it was on to the final savory course, buffalo tenderloin atop a smoked corn puree, chorizo and poblano chili and mushrooms, adorned with slivered runner beans, more chiles, cholla buds and a lone squash blossom leaf. As tasting menu finales go, it's a choice that's both safe and expressive, satisfying the filet set (who would most likely mistake it for beef if not told otherwise) while bringing some interest for the more adventurous among us. This dinner marked my first experience with cholla buds, tender, vegetal little morsels that brought artichokes to mind, though asparagus seems to be a more popularly referenced analogue. It was a perfect piece of meat, and though meltingly tender isn't generally my cup of tea (give me toothsome and flavorful any day), it was skillfully handled and stunningly presented. My only complaint would be that the "chili" beneath shared enough characteristics with, shall we say, lesser chilis that I found it difficult at times to shove thoughts of things like hot dogs and french fries out of my mind. It wasn't that the flavors weren't delicious, they just had... baggage. For me, anyway.

Buffalo TenderloinDominic Armato

I have, on many occasions, mentioned my traditional cheese course disability, and here's no exception. Plated with a pedestrian balsamic syrup, a toasted pecan, thin crackers and a rather delicious bit of honeycomb, we received a pair of cheeses. On the left, a gouda still wet behind the ears at only one year of age, dense and almost creamy and very easy to enjoy. On the right, a more "challenging" French bleu, lightly veined, pungent and spicy, though child's play for enthusiasts of the breed. Fine specimens both, and my issue with them is entirely personal and philosophical. With classical French cuisine? Certainly. But after a complex and creative meal, two slabs of cheese with three completely predictable accompaniments always strikes me as a letdown. I have friends who will give me the evil eye for speaking such blasphemy, but respectable and traditional though it may be, there's nothing on the menu I wouldn't have rather had than a simple cheese course.

Cheese CourseDominic Armato

Dessert was a perfect finish, both in terms of taste and theme. Corn works extremely well in a sweet context, it's a cornerstone of the cuisine, and it's flexible enough to work into a dessert in all sorts of interesting ways. Here, it gave a delicious savory quality to a dense and smooth piece of cheesecake. Popped and crushed, it provided a nice textural crust. The crisp that sat atop the cheesecake had an extremely intense corn flavor, and even the grassy shoots worked as more than a garnish. My only surprise was that the dollops of sweet, black sauce were made with truffle rather than huitlacoche, which would seem the obvious choice for a corn-themed dessert. But no matter. The truffle provided a nice, earthy contrast and perhaps the kitchen was following the rule they should have followed for the tomatoes, above. With sweet date puree adding a fruity element, it was a very nice dessert.

Maize CheesecakeDominic Armato

Some simple chocolate truffles, alternately flavored with vanilla and coffee, ensured that no chocoholic would do without, and we were off. Though I would have liked to have gotten an even larger slice of the menu -- tomato tarts and buffalo tenderloin seem like "safer" items selected to ensure broad appeal -- I was reasonably impressed by Kai and would actually like to get back and make some selections of my own. It wasn't an issue-free meal, which it really should be at this level, but there's enough creativity and compelling flavor going on that I find myself perfectly willing to endure a few hiccups to try a little more. If ours was a representative sample, the entire experience isn't tight or polished enough to stand out among the nation's giants. But it isn't worth visiting simply because it has a category all to itself in Phoenix. Kai does a very respectable job of holding down Phoenix' fine dining scene, and I look forward to returning.

5594 W. Wild Horse Pass Boulevard
Phoenix, AZ 85048
Tue - Thu5:30 PM - 9:00 PM
Fri - Sun5:30 PM - 9:30 PM


"At its worst, it involves some rather lengthy lectures on the foods and their provenance, threatening to turn the dining experience into a classroom experience."----skilletdoux

I've recently read food reviewers pronouncing their bemusement at such menu details as, say, Farmer Brown's Rhode Island Red Hen's Eggs Omelet or Birdseed County Sweet Corn Mush, when the alternative is bound to be a debriefing by Steven Asperino. Maybe with a laser pointer. Reading glasses, please!

Dom, as you are relatively new to the West, by way of Chicago, Boston and Baltimore, let me suggest the "fine dining" standard as being suited waiters and patrons is a very old school (i.e., not Western) approach to eating. As a native southern Californian living out East, I am constantly amused at the places that go out of their way to be stuffy in the name of luxury. With the exception of San Francisco (and even there, its not as common as it is out East), a "luxury" dining experience is not necessarily mean the hushed dining room experience you described here. Just an observation from a bi-coastal life.

I should have added, that of course, you have probably noticed this as well, but its always struck me that if I go to a nice restaurant in San Diego, LA or Phoenix in a dress shirt and slacks, I'm properly dressed, even over-dressed sometimes. Maybe its the heat, maybe its the surfer/cowboy regional culture, or something else. Out here in DC, even a mid-level restaurant often means a jacket; in San Diego, the same place might be ok with shorts.

The last time I went to Kai was in mid-summer. We also had the Tomato Tart and the tomatos were exceptional, likely because they were in season at the time. Really makes you wonder why they have that item on-menu at the moment. Also, the online dessert menu claims that the cheesecake is currently served with huitlacoche syrup . . . it's strange that they would switch to truffle when they have a good opportunity to showcase an underappreciated southwestern ingredient.

I know full well that it's dangerous to make a food judgment based on only a picture, but I must say, just looking at the picture of the tomato tart makes me doubt how good the tomatoes would be. A vine-ripened tomato should not be almost white.

Rabrab... well, yeah, I'd be careful about making that judgment based on a photo. There are heirloom varieties that are white by nature, no matter how ripe and delicious they are. That said, having eaten them myself, your doubt is well-placed :-)

Hmm. I'll have to look into those varieties...

With heirloom tomatoes, I actually go on the general rule of 'the uglier it is, the better it tastes'. The first time I actually, truly tasted tomato, it was an ugly lump of brown and green. It was divine.

Kai has run afoul of at least one local farmer lately. Specifically, they've listed that they're using a particular farmer's produce on the menu but haven't actually purchased it from them. As a result, they've burned a few bridges here in town. Given that track record, I'd view the stated origin of their products with skepticism. There's also been a fair amount of turn-over in their kitchen over the past few years, with some of their most talented chefs leaving. Apparently, you can't advance past a certain point in the Kai kitchen brigade unless you're Native American...

Tim... I don't care to trade in too much speculation here, I don't like to assume too much based on a name, and it's a tiny piece of the picture to be sure, but an EC named O'Dowd and a sous named Johnson seem to suggest otherwise.

Who's the farmer in question?

I think Vincent's on 32nd qualifies as a fine dining establishment in both format and food. That is, unless it's no longer there -- it's been a while since I've lived in Phoenix.

Saxdrop... it's still there, though if it's to be considered fine dining, then it's sort of the forgotten stepchild of the Phoenix fine dining scene. I haven't been yet, so I don't know that I'm in a position to classify it. But I can't say I've seen it touted as a fine dining restaurant. Upscale, certainly, but I don't get the impression it's thought of as fine dining.

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