Friday, November 28, 2014

T. Cook’s

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PHM0214Flash-1-2aA semi-sacrilegious makeover at the Valley's most beloved resort restaurant tastes divine to us.

It was a calculated risk. Widely recognized as the most storied “romantic evening” restaurant in the Valley, T. Cook’s at The Royal Palms underwent a remodel last summer to modernize the decor and cuisine. Logically, a new executive chef was brought on board: Paul McCabe, an Arizona native with extensive resort experience and a “Rising Star Chef” nod from the James Beard Foundation.
Based on the buzz, I expected an extensive – if not heretical – overhaul. Faithful patrons can breathe a sigh of relief. Where once we found an elegant resort restaurant serving Continental cuisine speckled with Mediterranean influences, we now find one serving modern American cuisine speckled with Mediterranean influences. Heresy? Hardly. But still worth getting excited about.

Heavy new chairs upholstered in a patterned color palette of tangerine, olive and eggplant replace the heavy, monochrome upholstered chairs of T. Cook’s yore. The fireplace, framed in bold, geometric black and white tiles, is now more conspicuous. In the evening, a pastry cook sets up a station in front of the mantel to assemble whimsical desserts. Despite these contemporary flourishes, the new T. Cook’s retains its warm, Spanish Colonial charm – along with its valet-only parking, hefty price-point and cloistered mystique. If Garbo was a restaurant, she’d be T.Cook’s.

The lounge got a makeover, too – and an official name, The Mix Up, to go along with a dedicated menu. Garden-inspired cocktails like the sweetish blackberry bramble shrub ($12) share space with “zero proof” (read: non-alcoholic) drinks. My favorite: the quaffable salted cucumber Rickey ($6). Diners can go light with a top-notch charcuterie board ($15 to $27), or a mini-skillet of fiery buffalo chicken-fried oysters ($10). I loved the peppery barbecue sauce on the roasted mushroom and scallion flatbread ($13), but the obligatory bar burger ($17), smothered under a glob of housemade American cheese topped with an overcooked slab of pork belly and a duck egg, isn’t worth the napkins. I’d also replace the flaccid hash browns with the terrific French fries I had at lunch during a later visit.

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Happy hour at The Mix Up doesn’t offer much in the way of bargains, but what do you expect from a top-tier resort? It’s a classy place to meet after work for a drink and a bite.

One of my favorite spots to dine at T. Cook’s is the charming courtyard patio, but only during daylight hours. After the sun goes down, it’s seriously dark – too dark to read the menu and appreciate the artistry of the plate compositions, let alone accurately navigate fork to mouth. Wherever you sit, expect significant seasonal changes and tweaks on the menu based on availability and chef’s whim.

For starters and snacks, light eaters will swoon over sea bass crudo ($13), thin slices of mild-flavored, lemon-spritzed fish, complemented with piquant radish coins and jalapeño rings. The ubiquitous roasted beet salad ($12) paired with whipped yogurt, pistachio brittle and Valdeón blue cheese is fine, but venture out with Spanish octopus ($16). Two long, curled tentacles crisscrossed on a slate-black plate show visible grill marks. Intensely smoky and extraordinarily tender, the octopus outshines its supporting cast of compressed cucumbers, black olive “dirt,” plumped Flame raisins and chopped Marcona almonds.

Another imaginative starter is stone-seared foie gras ($25) – not so much for the protein as the presentation. A generous knob of foie gras is seared on a skillet in the kitchen before it’s brought tableside on a 500-degree river rock. Guests can choose to take it off the rock for medium-rare, or leave it on for more cooking. Served with a soft, cinnamon “snickerdoodle” cake and a cruet of orange-infused veal demi-glace so lusty I wanted to sip it straight from the vial, this sharable starter is “rock” solid.

The “Grains & Greens” section is stacked with dishes that can be shared or eaten as a light entrée. Parsnip agnolotti ($18) should not be shared under any circumstance. Three tender pillows of handmade pasta encasing sweet parsnip puree sit in a shallow pool of browned butter, hidden beneath ribbons of persimmon, chunks of Maine lobster and slivers of black truffle. It’s worth fighting over. So is an indecently delicious croque-madame ($17), buttered sourdough piled with a heap of shaved Italian ham, dribbled with mustard Mornay sauce and topped with an over easy duck egg.

Under “Meat & Game,” the safe and rewarding route is an aged rib-eye cap ($42), two charred hunks of heavily marbled beef resting on a bed of roasted black trumpet and enoki mushrooms, partially draped with a thick, creamy manchego sauce. Less safe but equally rewarding is antelope ($40), paired with butternut squash and Swiss chard, and served as a duo of seared tenderloin and chunks of braised shoulder. Though tender, it can be dry because of the animal’s free-range leanness. The maple demi-glace helps, as does a remarkable risotto made from sunflower seeds.

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Loup de mer; Dark chocolate pâte

Rouget ($32), under the “Sea & Ocean” section, is a strong-tasting filet of red mullet atop a healthy portion of rabbit Bolognese, an odd ragù with strips of tough rabbit. The top of the plate is painted with a swath of squid ink and a few rings of cuttlefish. The dish is pretty but not palatable. A far better bet is whole roasted loup de mer ($32), a mild, flaky white bass with crisp skin, although the dish mutated between visits; one iteration featured roasted sweet potatoes, while another had Padrón peppers, Gaeta olives and burnt lemon sauce.

Expect polished service by servers who know the menu implicitly, including expert wine knowledge. They’re also pros at upselling a drink or coaxing a dessert order out of you – for the record, you only need to know about one, the dark chocolate pâte with smoked caramel, pistachio lace and ice cream ($12).

Was the risk of renovating a beloved icon worth the reward? That’s to be determined, but it is already one I’d recommend, with minor caveats, to someone searching for a special meal, romantic or otherwise.

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T. Cook’s at The Royal Palms
Cuisine: Contemporary American
Address: 5200 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix
Phone: 602-808-0766

Website: tcooksdining.com
Hours: 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily
Highlights: Stone-seared foie gras ($25); Spanish octopus ($16); antelope ($40); loup de mer ($32); dark chocolate pâte ($12)

 

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