Filler Pricey But Pathetic

The Food Is Blah And The Service Is Poor At Westin La Paloma's Desert Garden Restaurant.
By Rebecca Cook

THE RICH (or at least those with large sums of disposable income) truly are different.

Chow They drive better cars, live in fancier homes tucked inside securely gated communities, they send their children to better schools, and they take snazzier vacations to places like Tahiti and the Swiss Alps.

The rich, however, do not necessarily eat better than the rest of us.

Case in point: meals at Westin La Paloma, a four-star exclusive resort in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains, a place where the living is easy and the dining leaves a lot to be desired.

At present, the general public has but one option if they want to break bread with the beautiful people at La Paloma. La Villa, the more formal dining room, is currently closed for renovation, leaving the Desert Garden Restaurant the only option for non-guest, non-member folks.

With a revised eclectic menu inspired by new Executive Chef Serge Delage, the Desert Garden has taken on the guise of a bistro. Situated on the windowed lower end and outdoor patio of the main entrance building, the Desert Garden offers diners a truncated view of the Catalinas, as well as the sight of guests sunning and frolicking at poolside (the latter not always being the most appetizing of visions).

Reservations are recommended but, on the two occasions I was there, hardly necessary, as very few tables were occupied, even at the height of the lunch or dinner hour. Obviously, many people have already discovered what I was soon to find out: mediocre food and abysmal service at top-of-the-line prices do not a successful restaurant make.

Lunch was a disaster from start to finish.

Once seated, we were promptly ignored for the next 15 minutes. We finally managed to put in drink orders, but, once they were delivered, we were forgotten again for another quarter of an hour. As a result, the lemonade with the unidentifiable floating object in it could not be returned for several minutes, leaving my companion thirsty and me extremely irritable.

In an attempt to thoroughly sample the lunch offerings, we ordered three items: the Caesar salad tossed with peppery-crusted fresh salmon, a sandwich of ginger-spiced shrimp, spinach, crisp onion and tomato served on scallion bread and accompanied by a Szechwan coleslaw, and a seared herb-rubbed chicken breast that came served atop angel-hair pasta with a tomato coulis.

The best of the three was the thyme-scented chicken, which was tender and moist. It perfectly complemented the faintly sweet tomato coulis and al dente-cooked pasta.

The other two dishes, however, bordered on inedible.

Image The shrimp sandwich, admittedly a novel blend of ingredients, was a soggy mess of undercooked shrimp, coarsely julienned strips of cucumber and red bell pepper and, perhaps, one spinach leaf and diced fresh ginger. Nary a crisp onion was to be seen.

The coleslaw, so intriguing in the abstract, consisted of nothing more than shredded cabbage tossed in a sweet-and-sour sauce. Tres chic.

The Caesar salad with salmon was an embarrassment. The wedge of salmon fillet was far from fresh and cooked until sere and tasteless, except for the overpowering pepper taste, which could not disguise the pathetic quality of the fish.

There was only a modicum of dressing on the salad, and that tasted more like bottled Italian rather than the salty, tangy, garlicky flavor you'd expect with a Caesar salad. Wedges of tomato and no croutons raised the question of whether anyone had consulted a cookbook recently to verify what a Caesar salad is.

We almost missed out on dessert because the menus weren't printed and our waitress apparently could not be expected to recite the day's offerings. Although she seemed reluctant to do so, she did finally let us make some selections.

It should come as no surprise that the desserts were average at best, ranking right up there with the best Sarah Lee has to offer. The only thing that saved the day was the delicious Starbuck's coffee, which the Desert Garden serves exclusively.

Dinner was more successful (all things being relative) but, given that we were one of only four tables present, the service was relaxed to the point of being non-existent, and the food, while better in quality than at lunch, was way over-priced for what it was.

A vegetarian dish of sun-dried tomato risotto rice with green peas, roasted potabello mushrooms and shaved parmesan cheese was very good but, at $15.25 for a modest serving that came without soup or salad, a bit pricey.

I ordered the grilled filet mignon with homestyle creamy horseradish mashed potatoes and roasted shallots served in a reduction of their own juices.

My steak, which was ordered rare, came to the table cooked medium to medium-well and had to be returned. In the interim, I requested a drink, which did not arrive until our waiter came back with the steak several minutes later. (To their credit, the Desert Garden seemed to realize we were having a less-than-stellar dining experience and bought us a round of drinks on the house to apologize).

The best part of my dinner was the mashed potatoes, which, when combined with the shallots, made for comfort food at its finest.

Avid golfers may revel in the delights of La Paloma, but connoisseurs of good eating would be better served by dining elsewhere. Tucson is full of good restaurants; the Desert Garden is not one of them.

The Desert Garden Restaurant at the Westin La Paloma Resort. 3800 E. Sunrise Drive. 577-5822. Open seven days a week for breakfast TW

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