Written by Geri Koeppel Category: Food Reviews Issue: October 2011
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The chef de cuisine on premises, Kirsten Seltzer, does a fine job of interpreting Bianco’s visions, which deftly deliver what staid resort diners demand while not boring the bejeezus out of those of us who want more. You’ll find all the usual suspects: chicken, fish, pork, beef, pasta – but nothing is common about them. The quality and preparations, for the most part, are top-notch. Produce and herbs come from the on-site farmers’ market and garden as well as Arizona growers and artisans. Best yet, the prices are more than reasonable.

Even if the dishes had been ho-hum, the dining room and resort would make the visit worthwhile. Local sports legend Jerry Colangelo and JDM Partners bought The Wigwam in December 2009 and sunk $7 million into renovations. They also reverted the name to its original and simple form, The Wigwam. Arrive early for the reservation or stay late and wander around: If you’re lucky, property historian Les Sossoman will greet you and offer a mini guided tour. The main building is a labyrinth of rustic yet elegant rooms decked out with old photos and memorabilia, including photos of the restaurant’s namesake, Paul Litchfield, a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company executive who was key in creating the state’s cotton industry.

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Litchfield’s took over the space previously occupied by Red’s Steakhouse. The warm, rustic woods and dark brown and burgundy nailhead-studded leather booths remain, but the ambience is cozier and more refined. And there, right in the center of it all, is a kitchen with a wood-fired oven. From nearly every vantage point, diners can gawk as their dishes are prepared seemingly effort-free by the calm chefs.

Most of the output ranges from really good to fabulous, and even when it misses the mark, it’s still not bad. Some of the starters I thought would fall flat totally wowed me. We were told the fire-roasted tortilla soup ($8) recipe was award-winning, and I believe it. Chunky, rich and full of peppers, it was one of the best renditions of this dish anywhere. Spinach fettuccine ($10) was an odd choice for an appetizer, but once I had a mouthful of the silky, light-as-air noodles and delicate tomato sauce with fresh basil, I understood.

The biggest surprise: sweet potato hummus ($8) with green and black olives and orange wedges. I wondered what these ingredients had to do with each other – until I took a bite of each in succession and powerful flavors emerged. More typical offerings included a respectable cheese trio ($14) with goat, sheep and cow milk, and salads. Get the farmers’ market salad ($8), which bursts off the plate with crisp apples, fennel and pomegranate seeds. The Seacat Garden Romaine salad ($9) and the Duncan Farms roasted beet salad ($9) were not as successful because someone drowned them in dressing; I beg all of the chefs in town to lighten up on the dressing! It’s an epidemic.

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Entrées were mostly exceptional, especially the pan-roasted Idaho trout ($19) and wild-caught salmon ($25). Who says you can’t get good seafood in Arizona? The flaky, flavorful trout with crispy crust, spinach and pecan sage brown butter was one of the most memorable seafood dishes I’ve had in a while. The salmon was one of the best I’ve had in ages, too, with a sweet but subtle glaze and a side of mushroom risotto with a complementary sweet tinge, thanks to local honey.

And someone in the kitchen is clearly a pro at pasta. Cavatelli ($17) with house-made pork sausage and a hearty dose of tangy shaved parmesan was one of the best dishes of the lot.

This being a resort, we must have steak, and the Arizona grass-fed beef tenderloin ($29) was exquisite. The chefs charred it just right, giving it a crisp crust that provided a satisfying counterbalance to the tender interior. On the other hand, a grilled Cedar River New York steak ($26) also had an expert crust and was cooked exquisitely, but the meat itself had almost no flavor. And New Mexican charred lamb chuletas ($26) were fatty, but that and the New York were the only dishes I wouldn’t order again.

The dessert list is brief and basic but wonderful. Torched crème brûlée for two ($12) is topped with compote made from oranges grown on property, a wise twist that works much better than berries. Apple tartin ($7) with delicate slices of Willcox fruit on a flaky pastry-like crust, served à la mode with caramel sauce, was superb.

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Hallelujah that the cocktail program is given as much love as the food menu. The rosemary gimlet ($10) uses fresh rosemary grown on site in the chef’s garden, and sangria ($9) tastes as if it were made with fresh-picked fruit.

The wine and beer list features a commendable selection of top Arizona producers, too, following the local philosophy.

Service was the weak link here; staff seemed awkward and poorly trained. On one visit, long gaps between courses left us feeling forgotten; on another, we were nearly rushed out. One particularly hapless waitress admitted it was only her fourth day on the job. Why didn’t she shadow anyone for a week or two and take a test on the menu before they let her loose?

I’m guessing this will get smoothed out over time, and regardless, Litchfield’s rises to the occasion in so many other ways. It’s much more than resort dining: It’s a new jewel of culinary accomplishment in the West Valley.

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Photos - From left: Inside Litchfield’s • sweet potato hummus with oranges and olives

Cuisine: American
Address: 300 E. Wigwam Blvd., Litchfield Park (The Wigwam)
Phone: 623-935-3811
Hours: 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. daily
Highlights: Farmers’ market salad ($8), sweet potato hummus ($8), tortilla soup ($8), spinach fettuccine ($10), Arizona grass-fed beef tenderloin ($29), cavatelli ($17), pan-roasted trout ($19), wild-caught salmon ($25), torched crème brûlée for two ($12), apple tartin ($7)

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