In 2003, when I was in culinary school, as part of my dining room class, I had to visit a restaurant in town and write a detailed review of it. My choice at the time was elements, the four-diamond restaurant at the Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain. At the time, the kitchen was helmed by Chuck Wiley and there were ups and downs to the evening. The ups – fantastic food, friendly waitstaff and great atmosphere. The downs – a very rude valet, a server that didn’t know the first thing about “up-selling” and strange plates with sloping sides that made eating out of them difficult.
Well, here we are, eleven years later and I returned to elements, this time with the same companions as the first time – my mother and grandmother – as well as an additional friend. We arrived a few minutes before our reservation and, as we came into the foyer, Iron Chef America winner and Food Network star Chef Beau MacMillan was there, greeting people. It’s important for a regular chef to meet their guests. It’s even more important when you are a national star like MacMillan. It was very refreshing to see.
We walked up to the front desk to check in and waited. And waited. Finally, the Chef himself, on the way back to the kitchen, said something to one of the servers, who immediately came up to greet me. Now, that’s impressive – a chef who cares just as much about the front of the house. As the server was talking to me, the hostess returned to her post and told me we were a little early and the seating would be “closer to your actual reservation time.” No problem – I had no expectation of getting in early. She offered the Jade Bar, off to the side, as a place for a drink while we waited. The bar was very nice, with floor to ceiling glass walls, affording magnificent views of Paradise Valley. My companions really enjoyed the Cosmos.
We got some drinks and waited. And waited… (I’m beginning to see a theme here). Finally, I returned to the front and inquired as to how much longer our table would be. This time, there were two hostesses and they seemed confused as to why we had not yet been seated. My guess is that they had given our table away to someone else, but they said they would make up another table for us right away. I returned to the bar to collect my guests and discovered that we could not transfer our bar tab to the restaurant, like you can in most fine restaurants. Oh well – not a big deal.
When we got to our table, we were one away from the window – another floor to ceiling number with fantastic views. On the table was a neat “yin-yang” salt and pepper shaker and very nice square smoked glass chargers with the elements logo. We were greeted promptly and offered a choice of bottled water, sparkling water or iced water. The latter was tap water, I’m sure, but they made it sound so much better than restaurants that use the “tap” term. We perused the menu and opted for the FIERY CALAMARI with LOP CHUNG, PEPPERONCINIS, FRIED HERBS and MISO SCALLION VINAIGRETTE for a starter. It was not too spicy and incredibly delicious. The appetizer was cleared and replaced with my soup – a delicious butternut squash number. It had a subtly spiciness that was fantastic. Unfortunately, it was a fairly large bowl and, I would guess, fortified with cream, so it was very filling.
Without much delay (finally, the waiting theme has ended), the entrées arrived. My mother had ordered the MISO GLAZED ORGANIC SALMON WITH SKILLET ROASTED VEGETABLES, SOMEN NOODLES, AND TOASTED CORIANDER. This dish was fantastic. Salmon is very difficult to cook perfectly and, in my experience, it takes a high class restaurant to do so. THIS was cooked perfectly. It was grilled, but was still incredibly moist. If I had to guess, they may have done a wet cooking method and finished on the grill. Alternately, the secret could be in the Miso Glaze. I guess only Chef MacMillan and his trusted Sous Chef know for sure. My grandmother ordered PLANCHA GRILLED HALIBUT WITH FENNEL, PEE WEE POTATOES, SAFFRON AND ROASTED SHELLFISH BROTH. Now, those of you that know me know I am not a huge fan of white fish. This dish, however, was absolutely fantastic. The broth was flavorful and delicious and paired very nicely with the fish.
My entrée consisted of BACON WRAPPED FILET OF BEEF WITH GARLIC MASH, BLUE CHEESE, BALSAMIC ONIONS AND MERLOT DEMI-GLACE. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Steak and mashed potatoes? At a four-diamond restaurant? Why on earth did you order that? I guess the best answer is – it was what I was in the mood for. The duck entrée looked delicious, but the accompaniments were unappetizing. I subtly suggested to the waiter that I would like to substitute, but he wasn’t falling for it. Many great chefs can get insulted if you try to mess with their dishes.
Now, I’m not saying that Chef MacMillan falls into this category, but I wasn’t taking any chances. Anyway, the filet was cooked perfectly and the demi-glace was a perfect accompaniment. If I had to make a complaint, the only one I would make would be the blue cheese was overpowering. Don’t get me wrong – I happen to love blue cheese on filet mignon. However, I prefer a nice creamy blue cheese sauce.
After dinner was cleared, we were very satisfied. A great meal in a beautiful setting with excellent company. However, in the interest of this column, we had to order dessert (what I won’t do for my readers). We ordered two items and four forks. The first dessert, SLOW BAKED APPLE TART WITH MOLASSES ICE CREAM & CARAMEL CAVIAR caused some trepidation at our table before ordering. Frequently, the apples in these types of desserts can sometimes be a little crunchy, which, in the opinion of the table (and this writer) renders them very difficult to eat. In my 2003 review, the apples WERE undercooked. Had they improved since then? You bet! This incarnation was cooked until the apples were nice and soft (and very easy to eat). The cold ice cream was a nice contrast to the warm gooiness of the tart. All in all, the dish worked really well.
As good as it was, the other dish was much better. I love crème brûlée. I love cherries. Who ever thought to combine them? The Pastry Chef at elements – that’s who. CHERRY CRÈME BRÛLÉE WITH CRACKED WALNUT SZECHUAN PEPPER BISCOTTI AND COCONUT SORBET was out of this world. I have always loved coconut sorbets and gelatos and this one was second to none. The crème brûlée was creamy and custardy, like a good one should be, but the cherry gave it a little more tangy sweetness. The only thing that didn’t do much for the dessert was the Szechuan pepper biscotti (which, by the way, is spelled wrong on their website). It tasted like bland with pepper on top – nothing to be too proud of. But the rest of the desserts were so fantastic, one can overlook one problem.
All in all, it was a superb evening. I don’t know if it was the leadership of Chef MacMillan, but this trip to elements was far superior to the previous one, eleven years ago. That trip was great, but this one was fantastic. It’s no wonder Chef MacMillan is an Iron Chef winner.
Sanctuary on Camelback
5700 E. McDonald Drive
Paradise Valley, AZ 85253
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