Photography by Rob Ballard
Despite its beautiful design and a new menu, the Arizona Biltmore’s flagship restaurant is decidedly less than the sum of its parts.
Back in the mid-’80s, most of Phoenix’s fine dining options were found in hotels and resorts. The hautest spots in my salad days as a reviewer were La Champagne at The Registry and L’Orangerie at the Arizona Biltmore. Both were deliriously posh, where French cuisine reigned and service was impeccable, if a tad stiff.
But times change, and so do restaurants. L’Orangerie is now called Wright’s, and the excellence I remember has conspicuously fled the building.
Things look promising enough from the outside. The restaurant got a handsome makeover with the name change a few years back, and James Beard Award winner Alex Stratta – a longtime Valley chef (Mary Elaine’s) who picked up a pair of Michelin stars in Las Vegas before returning to Arizona three years ago – recently came on as chef de cuisine. A celebrated chef, a storied venue: What could go wrong?
A lot, it turns out – some of it little stuff, admittedly. But little stuff adds up – especially when I’m spending $350 on dinner for two. At those prices, I expect food I’ll still be gushing over a week later and the satisfying sense that my money was well spent. First impression? Half-hearted, faintly dried-out dinner rolls served with just enough prickly pear butter to cover one roll, not two. The words careless and chintzy come to mind.
The staid menu wouldn’t raise the pulse of a food freak by a digit. A spring vegetable escabeche that accompanies two roasted, sweet Selva prawns is a ho-hum assemblage of cucumber, cherry tomato, radish, green bean and lettuce, commodity vegetables available all year long. Thrown haphazardly on the plate in a pale green puddle of unpleasantly sharp basil-yuzu sauce, they don’t seem to be pickled, either – as “escabeche” would suggest – nor does the dish evoke spring.
Butter-poached lobster tail, the centerpiece of a second warm appetizer accompanied by soft Savoy cabbage, oven-dried tomatoes and wild mushrooms, is pleasant but hardly memorable. Meanwhile, a diminutive – and I do mean diminutive – lobe of barely seared foie gras, set atop a slice of toasted bread and drizzled with local honey, would make me happier if the seasonal rhubarb and cherries I thought I was getting hadn’t been swapped out for grilled pineapple.
There are high points. Buttery carpaccio (Wagyu beef tenderloin), dotted with capers and sided by an arugula-endive salad composed of artichokes and black truffle cheese, is rich and satisfying, and I love the accompanying crostini, smeared with silky, aromatic eggplant. I’m not half as enthusiastic about Maryland lump crab and papaya-lime slaw. The crab is nearly indiscernible, and the teeny-tiny salad is dwarfed by an oversize plate decorated with loops of orange-ginger sauce. The only thing memorable about it is its $23 price tag.
Desserts are similarly disappointing. The restaurant’s signature soufflé selection has been whittled down to an individual-size chocolate soufflé, and the clafoutis isn’t clafoutis at all, but rather bad flan given a gritty, partially torched, crème brûlée-style top.
In short: Everything about the food seems phoned in, and frankly, Wright’s has never seemed so wrong.
Wright’s at the Biltmore
Cuisine: Modern American
Contact: Arizona Biltmore, 2400 E. Missouri Ave., Phoenix, 602-954-2507, arizonabiltmore.com
Hours: W-Su 6-9:30 p.m., Brunch Su 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Highlights: Seared foie gras with fruit and honey ($22); Wagyu beef carpaccio ($18); asparagus risotto ($16); sea scallops ($42); rack of lamb ($52)