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April 14, 2011


Beef Heart with Pickled Vegetables, Arugula and Balsamic Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: Somebody at our table earned us special attention. I was with a couple of other fellas who are industry-connected (though not to Prado, specifically), and not only did the chef visit us 3-4 times, but the extras that turned up on the table definitely exceeded your typical amuse. They kind of buried us in food. Per personal protocol, I compensated on the tip line, but we obviously got their best foot forward.  

Well, here was a pleasant little surprise that kind of snuck up on me. Not that Prado at the Montelucia resort is any big secret. It's just one of those places that had been languishing on my "places to try" list for the better part of a year, when a buddy dropped me a line out of the blue and asked if I wanted to go check it out with him. Resort restaurants catch a lot of flak, often deservedly so. There's something very... safe... about so many of them. "Hotel Food" is a derogatory term for a reason. But I have to say, these guys are defying convention. With a new chef, they're making some noise over at Prado.

Oysters with Cucumber and WasabiDominic Armato

Prado is a dark place (making for lousy photos... sorry), and has the look of a Spanish restaurant that's been around for a few decades. But it's well-kept and comfortable and perhaps even a little romantic if you're tucked away in a corner. Chef de Cuisine Peter DeRuvo took over the kitchen earlier this year, and though I never visited Prado under his predecessor's watch, my dining companions seemed impressed by the kitchen's evolution since then. Prado is kind of a Mediterranean two-for-one, netting you the Italian-inspired Prado menu as well as any of the Spanish tapas you might like to order off the menu of the adjoining Mbar, if you're so inclined to request that menu too. Both menus are marked by enough tradition as to feel very familiar, but not so much that the kitchen is constrained by convention. Some other Mediterranean and global influences work their way in as well, but the core spirit is plainly evident.

Prawns with Rosemary and CitrusDominic Armato

A small amuse of oysters kicked off the evening, and immediately set the tone. I missed the precise manner of mollusk, but it was liquor-rich, splashed with Cava mignonette, cucumber brunoise and the faintest hint of fresh wasabi root (which was as far afield as we'd reach, globally speaking). What marked it was total restraint, the varied accompaniments -- which could easily have been completely overwhelming -- used very sparingly, as just the faintest accent to a good oyster. Another amuse that floated our direction was a chaotic pile of thinly-sliced truffle mortadella, beautifully moist and spongy. I didn't get the truffle, but I didn't care. Made in house, this mortadella was a succulent and superlative specimen.

Beets with Chevre, Citrus and AlmondsDominic Armato

At this point, plates started hitting the table at breakneck pace. We had seafood, hot and cold, off both menus. The cold was a yellowtail crudo over thick slabs of avocado, with a splash of oil and a touch of chile and wasabi. As with the oysters, this was a dish with remarkable restraint. The fish was some beautiful product, only barely accented with a little spice and its creamy avocado base. The hot arrived in the form of prawns, skewered with rosemary and grilled, served with citrus segments. They were beautifully cooked, still tender, and a little oil, salt, citrus and smoky rosemary was all they needed. This was, however, the only moment when I felt I wasn't getting killer product. The heads tend to go before the tails, and while the tails were absolutely lovely, sucking the heads didn't produce that beautiful, briny sweetness I adore.

Yellowtail Crudo with AvocadoDominic Armato

Any chef who's willing to put heart on the menu knows the way to mine. I'll resist rehashing the lecture, but suffice it to say that I'm always beyond pleased to see this cut represented, particularly when represented so well. It was plated with pickled radishes and ramps, slivers of bread and butter pickle, arugula, balsamic and a bit of grating cheese... almost a play on the widely beloved (if not strictly traditional) beef carpaccio. The knock on heart is that, as a muscle that's in constant use, it's tough. Not so, here. Given its medium rare color, I was shocked by how tender it was, possessing the soft, melting qualities of a filet with the full flavor of a tougher cut. I've no idea of the process, but it was a winner. My lone complaint would be that the vinegar in the pickles got a little too aggressive, and started to distract from the meat. But this is picking nits. There's absolutely nothing wrong with heart done this well.

Burrata with TomatoesDominic Armato

Cold vegetables were also exceptionally well-represented. Milky and sweet burrata came with punchy, sweet little tomatoes, basil oil and some toasted bread. No gilding the lily here, and no need to. My lone guilty complaint (guilty because it's such a small thing) would be that the use of olive bread was subtraction by addition. With a dish like this, a little salty punch is good. A huge chunk of briny, salty punch is too much. But let's not lose sight of the fact that this was excellent product, perfectly and simply presented. Roasted beets were no more gussied up, and were all the better for it. Beet salads are so tired, which is why it's refreshing to get one that treats them with such respect. For starters, it was an unusually compelling selection of varieties, each with a very distinct character. And though the photo looks a little busy, don't be fooled. A couple of citrus segments, an exceptionally mild chevre, some crisp marcona almonds and a smattering of flat leaf parsley, this was, again, an exercise in restraint where so many others would have been saturated in vinegar.

Tripe with Polenta and Duck EggDominic Armato

Furthering the kitchen's commitment to the quinto quarto, we received a generous helping of Trippa alla Fiorentina, with a pile of polenta and a stunningly perfect fried duck egg. This is tripe for those who think they don't like tripe. Thinly sliced and converted into a warm and sweet tomatoey stew, I wager that no fewer than nine out of ten diners selected at random would have absolutely no idea they were eating organ meat. The polenta was coarse and creamy and heavily herbed, an appropriately rustic partner to a homey (if unusually well-executed) dish. Add the egg yolk's drippy richness, and I could've polished off a big honking bowlful.

Ribs with Rosemary and BalsamicDominic Armato

The ribs were a surprising addition to our selections, not only because they seemed a touch incongruous, but also because of the memories they evoked for me. The supporting flavors, rosemary and a fine 20 year balsamic, were decidedly Italian. But the ribs were prepared in a fashion that actually brought to mind the ribs I've had in China. This wasn't the tender yet toothsome smokiness of American BBQ, nor was it the boiled fall-off-the-bone faux BBQ meat Jell-o that's widely popular in the States. Rather, if I had to guess, my money's on roasted, fried, and then finished on the grill, resulting in the kind of juicy on the inside yet golden and crisp on the outside character that I'm accustomed to getting on the other side of the Pacific, with the added bonus of a little wood smoke. My natural instinct was to start looking around for the little bowl of salt with Sichuan pepper. But the vinegar and rosemary was a delicious European angle on a method of rib preparation that I'm used to encountering in an Asian context. Very good stuff.

Rigatoncini with Lamb SausageDominic Armato

We could have stopped there, completely sated, but there were pastas to devour. The first was a delicious, chunky concoction that dressed rigatoncini with tomatoes, wilted greens, beans, Schreiner's lamb sausage and some grated pecorino. To my tastes, the pasta was hanging on the precipice of being overdone, and the ingredients didn't quite fuse in that perfect, intangible way, but again, this is based on exceptionally high standards set by the starters. This was a very good pasta, anchored by the fabulously sweet and spicy sausage, and the acidic pop of charred tomatoes. Even the beans, scant though they were, provided this kind of earthy baseline that made it a very round dish, flavors hitting from every direction.

Spaghetti Nero with SeafoodDominic Armato

It should go without saying that .923 (12/13) is a sensational batting average, but the spaghetti nero was the one dish that didn't work. And it's a dish that drove me insane because I'm still having a hard time figuring out why. Call it personal pride, but I feel like it isn't good enough to say something didn't work. I want to be able to point to a reason. It's why I ate half a plate of the worst Ma Po Dofu I've ever tasted ("Why are you still eating that?" "I'm trying to figure out why it's so bad!"). The pasta was great, made in house and possessed of a nice bite. And when it comes to seafood, I'm not afraid of the funk. But this was somehow muddy and unsatisfying. Heavily reduced and herbed, was the tomato sauce just too busy to support the seafood? The clams and mussels were obviously last-moment additions, tender as they were. But it almost tasted like one of the seafoody elements was introduced early on and then reduced along with the tomatoes, resulting in a fishy intensity that took it a little too far. I love dishes like this because they really taste of seafood -- of the SEA -- not nondescript protein that happens to have come from the sea. And when a pasta like this hits, the funk is there but it's very fresh and distinct. It tastes like the sea. This didn't taste like the sea, and while I'm not sure why, I think that's what killed it for me.

Scallops with Bulgur WheatDominic Armato

The entrees came roaring back, however, with a beautiful scallop dish. These fellows were monsters, lightly seared, tender and sweet, atop bulgur wheat and garnished with caviar and black truffle. The black truffle was pointless, a symbolic gesture that wasn't voluminous enough to register on the palate. Either do it or don't, I say. But complaints end there. I loved the caviar, providing a potent briny punch that worked especially well against the sweet scallops. The bulgur wheat and light dusting of raz el hanout swept in a bit of Northern Africa, while a naturally sweet and tart sofrito and whole tomatoes held down Southern Europe. Even the citrus nage, which would emerge as the dominant element in so many other restaurants, played a very subtle supporting role here. The dish was a great use of some great product.

Cheese BoardDominic Armato

Long after we'd thrown in the towel, a cheese board magically appeared with no fewer than seven mostly fresh, sweet and subtle specimens, plus quince paste, tomato jam, marcona almonds, honey and toasted bread. I have no idea what they were. My brain was already in full food coma mode. But while we savored, they gave us a chance to reflect on a meal that was really exceptional, and not only for its scale. Nobody is reinventing the wheel at Prado. For the most part, these are classic flavors, married with grace and restraint, if perhaps a touch of panache. The flavors are clear, they're well-balanced, and they spring from great ingredients that are treated with reverence. DeRuvo isn't providing a cerebral experience that's a challenge to the mind and palate. Surprise isn't his goal. He's just putting out dishes that are easy to sit back and enjoy for their most compelling natural qualities, which I suppose makes perfect sense for a resort's flagship restaurant. DeRuvo has made Prado's food very easy to like, and I find that I like it quite a lot.

4949 E. Lincoln Drive
Paradise Valley, AZ 85253
Mon - Sun7:00 AM - 10:00 PM


No usual rant against the boring cheese board? (You will never convince me that a cheese board isn't awesome. ;) )

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