Right next to the host/hostess' stand at Westward Look's revamped Gold restaurant sit a couple of recent AAA Four Diamond Award plaques.
That can't help but raise a diner's expectations. After all, only six Southern Arizona restaurants currently enjoy that honor (and only one, the Ventana Room, has earned Five Diamond honors).
What, exactly, does it mean to be a Four Diamond restaurant? Let's look at the criteria from the AAA Web site (ww2.aaa.com/aaa/common/Tourbook/diamonds/whatisthis.html), and see whether Gold fits the figurative bill on our two visits.
• A Four Diamond restaurant is geared to individuals in search of a distinctive fine-dining experience. For the most part, Gold qualifies. The view of the city at Gold is one of the most wonderful in town, and the menu ... well, let's look at the next criterion.
• Often orchestrated by an executive chef and an accomplished staff, menus reflect a high degree of creativity and complexity, using imaginative presentations to enhance high quality, market-fresh ingredients. Gold qualifies here, too. Executive chef James Wallace's menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner all exhibit creative touches; we had trouble deciding what to order, because so many things sounded good.
On our dinner visit, we ordered the Dungeness crab tower ($11) from the "chilled offerings" section of the menu; the lobster and toasted corn risotto cakes from the "hot off the presses" section (cute); the hearts of romaine salad ($8) and the soup of the day—green chile corn chowder ($6)—from the "salad and soup" section (not so cute); and the molasses cured pork tenderloin ($24) and the "short stack" with filet mignon, yellow fin tuna and a day boat scallop ($29) from the "now for the main event" section (back to cute!).
The breakfast menu has less creativity, but includes some intriguing dishes, including the two we ordered: the Westward Look eggs Benedict ($11) and the breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs and chorizo ($8).
(And now, a side rant: The breakfast menu at Gold's Web site was not the same as the actual menu at the restaurant; an entire section of breakfast sandwiches was missing at the restaurant. How hard is it to make sure accurate, up-to-date menus are online, dammit?!)
Interestingly, the AAA criteria don't include anything about execution—how well the restaurant delivers on what's promised by the menu—and Gold had some problems here.
The Dungeness crab tower consisted of tiny cylinders of a crab/avocado/etc. mixture, and three small slices of blood orange. Thanks to the orange, the dish was fantastic: The sweetness and the acidity of the orange brought out the subtle flavors of the crab concoction. It's a genius dish. Unfortunately, we ran out of blood orange before finishing off the towers, and without the orange, the rest was rather unremarkable.
A bigger sin was committed with the lobster and toasted corn risotto cakes, with jicama slaw and smoked chile remolade. I took one, and Garrett took the other. I was instantly smitten: The cake was an utter delight, packed with innumerable complementary flavors, and exhibiting a creamy, pleasant texture. Meanwhile, Garrett took a bite and wrinkled his nose before declaring the cake to be awful. After a moment or two of confusion, we traded cakes and figured things out: The cakes were night-and-day different. Garrett's cake must have been the last of a batch, as it consisted mostly of corn breading, and little else; on top of that, it was overcooked, and had the texture and taste of an overdone tater tot. The chef who sent this out was not paying attention.
Fortunately, no sins were committed in the preparation of my soup; the corn dominated, and there was just a hint of chile, but I enjoyed it.
Our entrées were both big successes (with one glitch). Garrett's pork tenderloin was perfectly prepared, juicy and delicious. My entire short stack was also lovingly prepared to order: The small filet was medium-rare; the tuna had just a light sear; and the scallop was taken off the grill and plated at just the right moment. The accompanying mashed potatoes on my plate and vegetables (carrots, broccoli and asparagus) on both of our plates were also prepared well.
That glitch: The caraway spaetzle cake that came with Garrett's pork. As one could guess, it had a sort of licorice taste; unexpectedly, it also had the texture of (bad) licorice: hard and dry.
On our breakfast visit, there were no problems. My Westward Look eggs Benedict were typical in every way, save one: The house-cured loin bacon elevated the dish; it was far better than average ham or Canadian bacon. I also asked for a side of the chipotle hollandaise that comes with the Sonoran eggs Benedict (eggs, corn tortillas, chorizo, tomato and black beans, $11), and enjoyed the mild heat it offered. Garrett's breakfast burrito (which I got for him to-go) was tasty, largely due to the spicy, savory chorizo.
• The equally proficient service staff demonstrates a strong desire to meet or exceed guest expectations. A wine steward is typically available to provide menu-specific knowledge on wine selection. While service during my breakfast visit was impeccable, dinner service, unfortunately, had ups and downs. Everyone was pleasant, but we had longer-than-average waits between courses, and dirty plates stayed on the table far longer than they should have. These delays, in part, led to our decision not to get dessert ($7 to $9, including a tempting crème brulee in a phyllo cup with seasonal berries).
• The ambiance is highly refined, comfortable and well-coordinated, incorporating quality materials and a variety of upscale design enhancements to give a first-class impression. Gold qualifies here; the renovated room is pleasant, with various visually appealing touches, including a wall partially covered with small tiles (gold and other earth tones), art including a prickly pear sculpture, and an earth-tones carpet with red highlights.
• The overall dining experience is typically expensive. I'd say Gold doesn't necessarily meet the criteria—in a good way. While the food here isn't cheap, it's certainly not out-of-whack expensive.
In the final analysis, Gold fit most of the criteria for those proudly displayed AAA Four Diamond Awards, although the service and the execution on our dinner visit could have been much better. Maybe it was just an off night for Gold; I look forward to returning and seeing if that, in fact, was the case.