Written by Justin Lee Category: Food Reviews Issue: April 2014
Group Mid-Level
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With new maestros in the kitchen, Arizona’s most decorated restaurant doesn’t miss a beat.

Without a doubt, there’s no restaurant in Arizona quite like Kai. The highly decorated minister of Native American-influenced fine dining, located inside the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort on the southern fringe of the Valley, has long delivered one of the region’s most prized and respected eating experiences. “Cherry Sweet Grass Smoked Quail Breast with Slow Braised Mole Adobo Rabbit”? Pretty unique, that.

Celebration of Cold Weather Vegetables

Despite its AAA Five Diamond pedigree – a distinction the restaurant has now claimed eight years running – there’s also been some recent uncertainty about Kai as a premier dining destination. Anxiety struck the Phoenix food world in late 2012 when James Beard-nominated Michael O’Dowd vacated his long-held executive chef position at the restaurant, ceding control of his landmark menu – hyper-regional, indigenous Arizona cuisine sculpted with classic French traditions – to relatively unproven Conor Favre and chef de cuisine Joshua Johnson.

As it turns out, Kai is more relevant than ever. Favre and Johnson build cleverly on their predecessor’s affinity for heirloom agriculture and game, enhancing the focus on seasonality while adding a layer of slightly more modern-American, even global, fancies. Youthful yet polished service, unpretentious but dramatic atmosphere – the sunset vistas of the nearby Estrella Mountains are storybook beautiful – and of course, the of-the-moment food all create a sensory narrative diners both fresh-faced and jaded can appreciate.

Paced, measured and calculated from the moment you’re greeted to the moment you leave with edible gifts and a handwritten note from your server, Kai forces you to slow down and take everything in. The arc of your experience is the thoughtful culmination of a fine-tuned orchestra tailored just for you.

Pima Bear cocktail

Only a handful of items from the O’Dowd era remain, and the rest of the menu updates frequently – not only with the season, but sometimes by weekly whim, with careful tweaks to ingredients and garnishes to remain in a constant state of motion.

As such, Kai’s strength remains in its tasting menus. Though diners have an option to zig-zag the menu à la carte, to get the sharpest measure of what fulfills a true Kai experience, one of the two tasting menus – the “Short Story” ($135 without wine pairings) or the full “Journey” ($225) – remain the best snapshots of the restaurant’s breadth of brilliance. Sticker price be damned.

A bright leek and romanesco cauliflower cream amuse began one such journey, proving a strong clue to the careful and surprising culinary tailoring ahead. Poured tableside, the jade, velvety soup filled a restrained bowl of warm seeded local goat cheese, toasted brioche and the perfume of leek oil. It was soon followed by a smoky, mesquite bean-glazed cube of Duroc pork belly ($18 à la carte). Settled into a shallow pour of charred, sweet pumpkin soup, the dish was wonderfully accented with the hot citrusy punch of aji amarillo pepper, and its elevating contrast of a tart apple foam.  

The “Sous Vide Roots” ($18) starter showcases both the season and the chefs’ imaginative side, assembling a lineup of marinated baby vegetables – carrots, beets, mushrooms and asparagus – rooted in a soil of candied Arizona pecans, with heirloom tomatoes, coconut ginger foam, aged sherry-hazelnut mist and Spanish blue cheese.

escargot with truffle, wild mushrooms and caramel goat cheese

On my visit, the “Foie Gras in all its Splendor” ($30) – a menu mainstay that updates and changes frequently – was a welcome mid-meal sweet-and-savory play with the foie in mousse form, sandwiched between two soft-baked oatmeal cookies. This dish would have almost translated too sweet without its star-making quenelle of vibrant mint and foie gras ice cream to straddle any gap.

The long-winded “Chefs Gallimaufry of Sustainable Seafood with Ramona Farms Inspired Stew” ($45) entrée provided a demure bridge to the more carnivorous delights to come. A stew of seared white fish, sea beans and I’Itoi onions in a delicate broth of osha root tea, all paired kindly with a separate self-serving of a robust ragout of black-eyed peas and tepary beans, the dish is another example of balance and creative steerage – heavy and light, foreign and familiar.

One of the menu’s most assertive delights arrives with the escargot ($24) – a deep, wealthy braise of snails, caramel goat cheese, wild mushrooms and pork belly “nuggets” topped with a slow-to-melt ribbon of frozen truffle cream and a simple round of toasted brioche.

Grilled Tenderloin of Tribal Buffalo with a Smokey Almond cocktail

The grilled buffalo tenderloin ($48) – a notable O’Dowd vestige – crowns a thoughtfully layered dish, complementing what the otherwise lean steak naturally lacks, sitting atop a slightly spicy and nicely fatty merguez sausage and bean chili, ringed by a moat of smoky corn puree.

Bookending your dining experience at Kai, pastry chef Samantha Sharrar pulls no less effort with the restaurant’s sweets, including the gratifying “Gila River Mesquite Short Bread” ($13) crafted with roasted dates, figs, honey dust, spiced pears and pear gélee, as well as a combo of Fontainebleau cream and local Crow’s Dairy goat cheeses.

Cocktails ($14 each) are no afterthought to Kai’s impressive wine list – the inspired beverage program seems a Darwinian adaptation to the times. The Smokey Almond is an eye-opening meal companion featuring black tea-infused Copper City Bourbon, a nutty house-made orgeat syrup, pear brandy, fresh lemon and shaved nutmeg. Or go for something agave-based with the Pima Bear –  añejo tequila with elderflower liqueur, fresh lime and pink peppercorn syrup.

From the silverware temperature mimicking your dish’s temperature, to the plates that disappear the moment your last bite is enjoyed, to the tableside teachings and backstory behind everything you are served, you are continually reminded of the choreographed hive of eager service staff, discreetly but poignantly fanning about the dining room as you sip, spoon and savor. As hurried helter-skelter small plate menus and family-style suppers flood our high-end dining options, Kai is a rogue beacon to an ever-dwindling class of high-end, trophy restaurants – particularly in a town so defined by its casual dining habits.

Kai is a fossil, really. A marvelous artifact worth any drive to behold.

View from balcony at Kai


Kai at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort
Cuisine: Contemporary Native American
Contact: 5594 W. Wild Horse Pass Blvd., Chandler, 602-225-0100,
Hours: 5:30-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Highlights: Sous vide roots ($18); escargot, wild mushrooms and caramel goat cheese ($24); Grilled Tenderloin of Tribal Buffalo ($48); Gila River Mesquite Shortbread ($13)

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