…how do you begin to describe a meal at Kai – the only Forbes 5-Diamond restaurant in Arizona and perhaps the only “fine dining exploration of Native American Culture” in the world? Would it be easiest to discuss it as a “resort restaurant” where the meal is begun with an offering of citrus selections for the water and silverware is presented temperature appropriate? Would it make sense to talk about the culinary pedigree of head Chef Michael O’Dowd and his heavy reliance on refined French technique to display the beauty of rarely utilized locally farmed ingredients? Or perhaps I should start off in the manner that a meal at Kai begins – with a lengthy and informative story about the location, tribe, and inspirations of the meal that will follow. In reality I think any of the above would be appropriate, but in the end I think the best way to begin is in the mindset of a “destination” meal because from start to finish that is precisely what Kai is.
Stepping back for a second to set the stage, my original plan was to dine at Kai with a friend who was to be in the area but unfortunately had to cancel last minute. Having originally planned to order a la carte and swap dishes in order to taste a broad spectrum of O’Dowd’s more unique seasonal options I e-mailed the restaurant and inquired as to whether larger a la carte choices could be portioned down in order to fashion a tasting menu fitted to my interests I was told that not only would this not be a problem, but that they could do it for the same price as the restaurant’s traditional $200 “Journey” tasting menu – a nice touch to be sure as I’d expected to pay more. With these things in mind and a reservation set for 7:00pm I set my GPS and after navigating a long stretch of pitch-black road I found myself in front of the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort at 6:55 on the dot.
With the car valet’d (my rental Fiat sandwiched between a Ferrari and a Jaguar) and an escort leading me from my car through the lobby of the resort and to the restaurant’s door I was handed off to a pair of young ladies who were clearly expecting me (I’m rather certain the whole place was wired – more on this later) and on greeting me by not only name but title I was led through the bar to an enormous two-top in the dining room. Seated and with comfort assured here again was a sort of handoff because despite the restaurant being booked to capacity it would be less than a minute after the hostess wished me “have a lovely evening” before my server Quenton would arrive to welcome me to Kai and to offer me my choice of still or sparkling water.
With still water poured by one of the back waiters who appeared seemingly without bidding from Quenton it would be mere moments before yet another member of the team stopped by with a tray of oranges, lemons, limes, and starfruit with the inquiry of “some citrus for your water, sir?” – a presentation I’ve honestly never seen before and one which I declined largely out of surprise. Now seated and comfortable amongst the spacious confines (easily six feet between tables, perhaps ten) of Kai as light ambient woodwinds and nature sounds played overhead and the mountains appeared as dark giants in the distance through the windows I would next find myself greeted by the sommelier and his wares; a large wine tome which I declined but a diverse cocktail menu which commanded my attention.
With my menu largely preselected save for the final main course that I left up to Chef O’Dowd depending on what he felt was best Quenton would return after my beverage selection was made not with my first course but rather with two copies of the menu – one, a hand painted original by a former member of the tribe and the second a replica with my specific menu detailed inside so that I could follow along. Detailing that each menu at Kai comes with a story Quenton next explained to me the story of my specific menu and the details of the tribe and local history within – a nice touch in my opinion, though the details have since been forgotten.
With the menu now in hand and the kitchen sending a multitude of dishes to the full house around me my first taste of Kai would actually be my cocktail, shaken and poured tableside in the form of the Mesquite Bean Martini with Makers Mark Bourbon, Mesquite Bean Syrup, Fresh Lime, Sweet Vermouth, and Grapefruit Juice. Always preferring my drinks sweet this was a stunning example of balance with the sweetness of the syrup deftly tempered by the acidity of the grapefruit juice while the bourbon and vermouth blended nicely with the mesquite to form a nearly savory quality quite unexpected yet complex, warm, and pleasant.
Slowly enjoying my beverage the first food item to arrive from Kai’s kitchen would be the nightly amuse. Entitled Roasted Garlic Falafel with Lobster Salad and Cilantro Yogurt Pesto this was a tasty one-bite morsel with a nice crunch to the chickpea fritter giving some substance to the otherwise light and subtle lobster. A nice beginning, but perhaps a bit scarce in terms of its ability to really open the palate for the meal that would follow I personally would have preferred this served as part of a duo – perhaps and more savory or umami inspired soup.
With amuse consumed the next arrival at my tableside would be my primary back-server porting one of my favorite parts of any meal but particularly so at Kai – the house baked bread service. Always served warm and based on whatever had most recently come out of the oven the selection of breads at Kai consisted of at least nine options (perhaps more, but each time he came by there was something new to taste) delivered with local Arizona olive oil and an admixture of seeds for dipping. Amongst the options for the evening, some traditional Indian recipes and others simply excellent takes on classic hearth breads, my choices consisted of Cinnamon Raisin Pecan, Ground Seed Lazy Bread with Chiles, Jalapeno Cheddar, Roasted Garlic Bread, Cranberry Walnut, Mission Olive and Herb Lazy Bread, Whole Wheat Honey Oat, Rosemary Sea Salt, and Cherry Fig. Always a fan of unique breads each option was quite good but I found myself particularly drawn to the dense chew of the Native lazy breads as well as the crunchy sea salt and cherry fig choices.
Not even pretending to be the sort of person whose mother didn’t have to lecture him to not “fill up on bread” as a child I was nearly finished with my first three choices when the first proper course of the tasting would arrive in the form of “Duck, Duck, Goose,” a clever troika of flavors in parenthesis that would not at all have been out of place on a Thomas Keller menu. Beginning left to right and continuing in that manner this fantastic dish would start sweet and subsequently cycle through savory and spicy before finishing on an aromatic note with Duck Mousse with Foie Gras & Sauterne Foam, Duck Pate with Blood Orange & Candied Jalapeno Crosttini with Black Garlic, and Goose Liver Brulee with Lavender Sugar Crystals. Having rarely seen goose liver on menus stateside I will note that while each of the three selections was textbook it was the last that held the most interest to me by far with the deeper mineral tones of the liver shining through with great aplomb yet nicely smoothed out by the mild sweetness and carefully applied floral notes.
Moving on with more bread, flawless service, and excellent timing the second course of my meal at Kai would prove to be the single best thing I ate during my visit to the desert – a plate where nearly everything screamed “heavy and overly complicated” but a dish where each element added something to the whole with the resultant product even greater than the sum of its parts. Entitled “Escargot, Truffles, Wild Mushrooms & Caramel Goat Cheese” this lovely presentation arrived with a piece of slightly sweetened Native “French Toast” at one end and a stew of Burgundy snails, Oregon truffles, and pork belly nuggets at the other. Teaming with notes of Meyer lemon and black garlic nage plus the sweet acidity of blis vinegar the dish was finally topped tableside with a slowly melting frozen Truffle Crema and dots of Tarragon Oil and Chive Oil that added an aromatic tinge both earthy and herbal that rose to the palate and sinuses melding all the flavors into a truly magnificent dish.
Admitting now that my selections tended toward the heavy and rich, course three would thankfully not be the a la carte ~4 – 5 ounce slice of Foie Gras I saw served to the table next to me but instead an a la minute composition featuring Foie Gras two ways – one mousse and one seared – served alongside Red Currant, Black Currant, Quince Paste, Buckwheat Sesame Seed Cracker, Truffled Black Olives, Maldon Sea Salt, Red Currant Reduction, and Foraged Micro Greens. Generally a fan of cold foie versus hot this was a dish where both preparations worked well with their accoutrements and using bitters in the form of the olives along with the sweetness of various fruits I really enjoyed the overall contrast between each half of the dish and how both highlighted the liver in entirely different ways.
Chatting with my servers for a bit as my next dish was prepared course four would be one of Kai’s signatures, a dish frequently featured both ALC and as part of the tasting entitled Kurobuta Pork Torta Spiced with Chimayo. Presented on two plates – one lengthy and the other a small bowl – and consisting of moist and smoky shredded pork, Arizona harvested Medjool Date and Quince Jam, Wild Lavender & Spearmint Madras Curry Yogurt, Apple Chips, and a Chia Seed Popover I was encouraged to sample the various flavors in varying combinations and like the flag-wrap presentation at Alinea I loved this ability to “play” with my food, experiencing different combinations and textures; the perfect bite for me a spoon of pork, a touch of the yogurt, and a knife-spread layer of the jam on a mouthful of popover.
Impressed by everything to this point the next course would be another highlight reel dish and served at the size of its full a la carte portion the “Prairie Squab & Spiced Cornmeal Dusted Sweetbreads” would also be quite the generous offering. Beginning first with the scarlet squab featuring a flawless sear and the hockey-puck sized sweetbread, crispy on the outside and creamy within, both of the proteins on this plate would prove exemplary. Moving next to the accoutrements – beneath the squab a round of truffled Iberico Lomo Gratinee Potatoes plus Wilted Summer Chard Leaves and under the thymus a dollop of stone fruit & grape Chutney with Truffle Croutons –one sweet and one savory once again, and both complimentary to their respective proteins without being overwhelming.
To cleanse my palate before my final savory I next received a hard Ping-Pong ball sized scoop of sorbet served in an elegant “nest.” Described as Intermezzo of Pumpkin Curry Sorbet with La Saba Syrup I have to say this, much like the amuse, was a bit underwhelming and while somewhat unique due to the savory notes I really did not sense much pumpkin at all. Certainly not the master of small bites like Kevin Binkley I could have just as easily cleansed my palate with a sip of water or some more bread…which I did.
For my final menu selection I gave Chef O’Dowd the choice of the local venison or the buffalo – a decision he made largely based on the quality of specific cut of buffalo they’d received that day from what I was told by Quenton and again arriving in full a la cart portion the Grilled Tenderloin of Tribal Buffalo would not disappoint. Easily a five ounce round cooked medium rare and topped with Sauteed Pequillo Pepper, Grilled French Green Beans, wilted Squash Blossom, and Smoked Corn Puree with Cholla Buds plus Merquez Sausage and Scarlet Runner Bean Chili with Saguaro Blossom Syrup this was the exact sort of dish I’d come to expect at this point in the meal; a tightrope act of sweet meets savory tinged with smoky southwest flavors at times familiar and at others just out of my culinary experience. Generally not a fan of hefty portions of red meat I will admit that a smaller portion of the buffalo would have sufficed I certainly was not about to send any of it back especially considering the smoked corn puree and saguaro blossom syrup which were nearly dessert quality on their own but lovely as a condiment to the chili and tenderloin.
Having hoped for some unique Arizona cheeses my next course would be a bit of a letdown given the non-local nature of the cheeses but to be honest a “letdown” including well aged Formaggio de Capra, Terraluna, Roaring 40’s Blue, and Barely Buzzed alongside Honeycomb with Raspberry Caviar, Peanut Butter Crema, Balsamic Vinegar, Housemade Crackers and Microgreens is not really disheartening at all. Again ample in portion I particularly enjoyed the semisoft goat Formaggio de Capra and, more surprisingly, the Australian sourced Roaring 40’s which married beautifully with the honeycomb.
Having already mentioned the chilled silverware with cold courses and heated silver when warm it was no surprise when a warm lightly scented town arrived prior to dessert – a duo beginning with perhaps Kai’s most well regarded item of “Maize Cheesecake with Indigenous Seeds.” Finally a “tasting” sized portion as I was actually beginning to get full (keep in mind the 9 or so slices of bread) this unique semi-circle of roasted Corn Cheesecake Encrusted in Caramel Corn & Local Seeds was plated at the distal end of a long plate and with just a bit of well-cooked-polentaesque grit the cake itself was creamy, sweet, and surprisingly light. Topped with a tall caramel triangle and paired with Curry & Fig Chutney plus a drizzle of earthy yet sweet Huitlacoche Syrup this was another dish I can’t imagine being served anywhere else with the same balance and effect.
Again chatting with Quenton about his recent trip to Napa (apparently all my fine dining servers in Arizona had been in The Bay Area when I was up there a month prior) my final dessert would arrive in the hands of his assisting back-server along with a warning of “be careful, this is very hot” and indeed it was, the Mexican Chocolate Souffle’s ramekin radiating a palpable heat at easily a two foot distance. Large, tall, proper, and aromatic with notes of cocoa and “Kai’s Sweetened Dry Mole Spices” the soufflé was subsequently punctured tableside with the addition of a thick and smoky Wattleseed Anglaise and without hesitation I can say that although non-traditional in texture the flavor was outstanding…a sweet meets savory brownie with notes of cinnamon, cumin, pepper, and clove punctuating the chocolate and melding with the Anglaise. Like the cheesecake this is the sort of dessert I imagined when I requested its addition to my menu and I’d encourage any and all to do the same.
At this point quite full considering the sizable lunch at Barrio Café and all of the large courses plus bread Chef O’Dowd would now emerge from the kitchen to say hello and to inquire regarding my opinions – thoughts I shared at length complimenting his almost unsurpassed skills at taking multiple hefty ingredients plus complex spices and blending them into surprisingly distinctive masterpieces where no part seemed superfluous. Thanking me for such kind words and talking some more about the nature of my visit I explained to him I was in town for an interview and with that he wished me both luck and a return visit should I decide to settle in the area; a nice gesture from a seemingly very humble and talented man.
With Quenton now returning with the bill and a pair of mignardises – Dulce de Leche and Dark Chocolate Truffles – I was asked if there was anything else they could do for me and on declining I handed him my credit card to run the bill while I enjoyed my last bites of the evening. With the bill paid and yet another thanks from the team to myself and from myself to the team I was again escorted to the front door of the now largely empty restaurant and subsequently to the front of the hotel where I found my car not only ready and waiting, but containing a personalized hand written card from Quenton thanking me for my visit – pure class all the way and again making me wonder if the whole place is wired to achieve such an effect.
No stranger to fine dining whether stateside or in Paris I will simply state that although some may not appreciate “resort” restaurants or the somewhat longwinded ostentatiousness of Kai’s presentations there is not a doubt in my mind that this is a restaurant deserving of its 5-star accolades and the sort of restaurant that would invariably garner at least two if not three Michelin Stars if the Red Guide ever came to town. A refined experience with an exquisitely talented chef preparing ingredients both common and unique in ways that are novel even to the experience diner Kai is not just a restaurant, but truly the exploration of native and local flavors that it sets out to be.