In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Mountain Shadows on Lincoln Drive in Paradise Valley was the coolest resort in town, a swank stopover for Hollywood celebs and a living-large hangout for locals who loved its Space Age design, lagoon-style pool and elegant fine-dining restaurant. Mountain Shadows was the restaurant where I first ate veal Oscar and glided across a dance floor with my dad. Everything about that gracious place, from its tableside desserts to its gold-embossed matchbooks, represented a glamorous, grown-up world I was eager to enter.
By the late ‘80s, however, the once-hip haven had the claustrophobic, suspended-in-amber vibe of an old folks’ home. I nearly wept to see it. By 2004, the entire resort was gone, a Valley icon shuttered and gone to seed. Driving past that old wreck was always a heartbreaker.
It took a while – 13 years, if you’re counting – but Mountain Shadows has risen from the ashes at last, and part of the resort’s impressive comeback involves its new restaurant, Hearth ‘61. Alluding to the gas-assisted, wood-burning oven positioned at the front of the exhibition kitchen, the name also suggests a warm, inviting place to gather over a meal. (The number 61 commemorates the year Paradise Valley was incorporated.) But let’s forgo symbol and allusion and get to the nitty gritty. Both Hearth ‘61 and the stylish new resort in which it’s housed do a splendid job of honoring the past without miring themselves in it, and like the originals they supersede, the new incarnations are very sexy and a lot of fun.
Westroc Hospitality – the boutique resort collector (Hotel Valley Ho, Sanctuary) that orchestrated the glam rebuild – hasn’t missed a thing, incorporating midcentury design elements, artwork that glorifies the resort’s storied past, and jaw-dropping views of Camelback Mountain and the surrounding desert. Like the old days, every employee I’ve encountered has been cordial and deferential. Meanwhile, Hearth ‘61 is turning out thoughtful, energetic American food and drink that exudes the sophistication, if not the formality, of the original Mountain Shadows restaurant.
Of course, my enthusiasm may have something to do with the brain trust in the kitchen. Executive Chef Charles Wiley, a Westroc lifer who continues to helm Café ZuZu at the Ho, is the jefe here, backed by chef de cuisine Alfred Muro, a talented up-and-comer who spent five years at Binkley’s. The two have collaborated with executive sous chef Christopher Brugman to create a menu of inventive classics and surprises.
Dinner begins with an amuse-bouche – specifically, a dainty dab of chicken liver on rye toast with caramelized peach and basil. It’s just so Binkley’s, and high-end in a way that belies the coffee shop vibe created by linen-free tables, partially tiled floors and ‘60s-era light fixtures. Casual and elegant are not mutually exclusive concepts, however, and the eloquent proof lies in the meal that unfolds, beginning with an ultra-refreshing Peachy Mule cocktail (Belvedere peach nectar vodka, lemon juice, thyme, cranberry and ginger beer) and bread service that includes Parmesan-flecked house-made pesto.
Like my cocktail, two fabulous starters seem tailor-made for hot weather. Persian cucumber and shaved turnip bring coolness and crunch to spicy, sesame seed-studded ahi tartare, served with blistered shishitos and crispy chunks of puffed rice for scooping. Both plate and puffed rice come dusted with piment d’espelette (the bright-red paprika of southwestern France) for a touch of color and subtle, citrusy heat. Ahi tartare may be commonplace these days, but it’s seldom this good. Ditto for Hearth’s lightly poached jumbo shrimp – chopped, mounded and set in a cool green puddle of the tastiest gazpacho I can remember, a spicy-sweet ambrosia of brined cucumber, honeydew melon, Calabrian chile and mint. The broth is laced with slippery strips of lightly pickled kohlrabi (a cousin to cabbage), which lend sweetness and firm, juicy texture. And while warm, shredded duck confit, served over Noble Bread crostini with smoked fingerlings, caramelized fennel, candied pecan and pickled red onion, doesn’t scream “summer,” per se, it does say “delicious.” (Noble also makes the proprietary loaf found in the bread service.)
Creamy burrata, served with citrus-smoked beets, grapefruit, greens and pistachio, is lovely, but an Asian-inspired salad of lightly seared, chile-dusted ahi paired with a crunchy heap of Napa cabbage, pickled radish, sugar snap peas, cashews and Thai herbs, tossed in creamy wasabi-goddess dressing, is flat-out terrific, a heady mix of contrasting textures and flavors.
Entrees are seldom as exciting as appetizers to me, but that’s not the case with ruddy, aromatic rack of lamb, rubbed with warm Moroccan spices and roasted in the hearth until its exterior is crunchy and caramelized. A smooth marmalade of tart-sweet preserved lemon and a smear of bright mint sauce bring the melding of traditional Middle Eastern and British lamb preparations into perfect harmony. And if delicate whole-roasted branzino – a Mediterranean sea bass – glistening with brown butter and strewn with salty olive relish doesn’t seem quite as extraordinary, the fault may lie entirely with meat-loving me. Burnished miso-glazed game hen, its interior stuffed with a bundle of fresh herbs, lacks only a side of mashed spuds to make it a stellar comfort food meal, while thyme-scented agnolotti, stuffed with tender short ribs and topped with a dollop of horseradish crème fraîche, takes comfort food to its highest, dreamiest level.
Wiley’s signature healthy touch is evident everywhere, including a side dish of ancient grain risotto, combining red quinoa, Sonoran wheat berries and chewy farro in a textural interplay enriched with Parmesan. Those same grains become a vegetarian lunch/brunch/dinner option with charred eggplant, shiitake mushroom, asparagus, roasted pepper and salty ricotta salata. A grilled cheese combo of fontina, herb-roasted tomatoes and olive relish would be great served on crusty bread, not soft focaccia, and a change is already in the works, I’m told.
Like Hearth’s savory stuff, pastry chef Sean Beck’s desserts may rearrange your thinking. Sick of bread pudding? Try his light, almond-studded version and be prepared to love it again. Made with airy brioche and served with whiskey caramel sauce and a scoop of brown butter ice cream, it’s the best of its kind I’ve ever tried. Vanilla-lavender panna cotta, layered with raspberry coulis, shortbread crumble and whipped cream, may not rival Rancho Pinot’s perfect version, but it’s sweet, light and awfully pretty.
While vastly different from the original restaurant, Hearth ‘61 feels like a fitting continuation of the Mountain Shadows legacy. Too bad there’s no nearby dance floor to glide across, because by the end of the meal, you’ll be up for a twirl.
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