An Epic Cure

Chef Coleman leaves no stone unturned on the road to unadulterated indulgence.

IN THE DAYS OF THE excessive Roman Empire, opulence was a virtue. Often after lavish feasting, enormous pies would be brought to the banquet table. At the right moment, the crust would be broken open and live birds would stream out into the room. Sometimes small animals leaped out and scurried away. The diners roared their approval. This wasn't about hunger (one can only imagine what the frightened creatures deposited before their leap to freedom). No, this was about spectacle. This was about surfeit of the senses. Really, it was about boredom.

While we shall refrain from any reflection on the notorious vomitorium, we should consider that a wee bit of danger arrives with such extravagant excess, because in the end too much is never enough. In the whole world, there simply is not enough.

For the $2.5 million price tag, it doesn't really matter what anyone says about Stone Ashley. Eventually, most of us will step through the doorway at least once to quell our curiosity as to why anyone would pump so much money into a fine-dining venue in Tucson. With the impressive credentials and credibility of Victorio Gonzalez (former general manager of Picasso, the nationally renowned Las Vegas restaurant and recipient of the '99 James Bead Award, and former GM of Renoir, nominated for five stars), everyone will want to go to have a seat at his table to see what all the fanfare is about.

After having experienced a lovely meal in sumptuous splendor, I can say that the emperor is not naked. In fact the emperor is wearing such overtly opulent clothing, such finery and frippery, that one feels a bit humbled, a bit ostracized. As if one doesn't quite belong.

Who among us has not heard that the only time a man should look down upon another is when he's helping the other up? Not simply because he is so stuffed and drunk that he can't rise up from his chair. And here you will be seated in an expensive chair. A lovely chair. As a matter of fact I can safely say that the most compelling aspect of my evening at Stone Ashley was that chair. It was impeccably appointed, and so comfortable that I didn't want to rise up and return to my own shabby little life. I loved that chair. It signified a world in which I don't belong.

Well, anyone can see the imminent problem that surfaces immediately. Once you open that little Pandora's box it's hard to stop. Suddenly, the circumstance supercedes dinner. We begin to actively seek spectacle. This is Stone Ashley's intent, and the restaurant fulfills those intentions gloriously.

The food is excellent. Really.

Chef Coleman is well trained, smart and accomplished. Every plate will bring oohs and aaahs from the table. The food is clever and minute and clearly took a great deal of time to prepare. You should consider it carefully and admire it when it gets there. Again, this isn't about filling up or putting on the feedbag; this is a moment to consider. You've got a ringside seat. You're paying for indulgence and opulence and it will be served up to you on crystal and china.

Take, for example, the tasting menu, one of your dining options, which features four sample courses and dessert ($85). You can have your menu paired with wines for an additional $45.

The first course, Seared Sea Scallop with caramelized cauliflower, citrus fruits and salsify, is a studied plate. One succulent scallop dabbed with raisin/cumin purée, petaled by a section or two of blood orange and a bit of salsify is a bright miniature in delicate flavors. It helps not to be hungry to enjoy this tidbit, since the flavors are meant to be savored.

Next, you will sample a Duo of Foie Gras. Served on a long white platter, one serving of foie gras sat with a small wedge of roasted pineapple drizzled in 100-year-old balsamic vinegar. All the way at the other end of the platter sat a lovely foie gras terrine on a toast point. We dubbed this plating the Tabula Rasa: Enjoy your morsel, meditate on the white space. And, true, the foie gras was superb--buttery, silky, fleshy--just as it should be. Really, it should be illegal. But that's just the point. It's not and it's here just for you.

The slow-baked salmon was a fair portion of fish, served on a scattering of sea salt and dabbed with a crispy cucumber, melon and lime salsa. A timbale of couscous flecked with bits of red and yellow pepper provided a friendly side companion. A silky lime jus married all the flavors with a lustrous finish.

The grand finale, two broiled lamb loin chops, was served up with three merry chutneys. Served rare, these chops were sweet and meltingly tender. The chickpea sopa and jammy sweet onion and pepper chutney are a heady mix. A black olive tapenade and a light pesto provide the small touches that breathe life into the dish. O bravo!

In case you're still hungry, or should other diners at the table choose to foray out into Chef Coleman's menu, a solid choice is the warm lobster salad ($15). A conscientious mix of baby manilla clams, fingerling potatoes, wax beans, lobster and calamari is tossed with greens. Served warm, the greens melt in just the right way and are rounded out with voluptuous oven-dried tomato for a rush of sweet flavor. A light citrus dressing pulls this into a comforting and not pretentious plate.

Lara Coleman (Chef Coleman's wife) is an extraordinary pastry chef. The sampling of desserts included in the prix fixe showcased a spirited pumpkin meringue tart, a spiced and spiked twist on the traditional pumpkin pie. A molten chocolate cake served with a scoop of chestnut ice cream borders on a religious experience. The warm gingerbread cake served with a quince-candied lemon mascarpone center and apple sabayon sauce is ethereal.

As is to be expected, the service is attentive, formal and gracious. The sommelier, Wayne Marshall, is charming and will happily help you negotiate the exhaustive wine list. Be sure to ask about the One Bottle Wonders, which are quirky, rare finds.

If you get the opportunity to take a tour, there are many wondrous rooms full of lavish touches: the postmodern-nouveau chandeliers with hand-blown glass ornaments; the chef's room, which seats a private party of eight; the color-coordinated side function rooms; the 1,200 individually strung silk roses under glass in the bar replete with the 2,000 individual sheets of pressed green glass to look like the stems. It's all there.

Don't miss the Alice in Wonderland Bistro with the individually designed 26-foot-long sofas, the tilted chairs, the little throw pillows that look like olives. Just step through the looking glass ...

Perhaps one of the most curious and oddly appealing aspects of Stone Ashley's expensive remodeling comes from the fact that one condition for using the building was that everything must also be able to be removed without any harm to the original structure. Like an enormous dream, it must all be able to evaporate once again without a trace. But for now, it is here for as long as you agree to stay under its spell. Of course first you have to buy into the spell. And you will.

And you'll pay.

Stone Ashley. 6400 E. El Dorado Circle. 886-9700. Open for dinner nightly, 5:30 to 10:30. Full bar and excellent wine list. MC, Visa, AmEx, Checks. Menu items: $9-$85. Reservations: recommended.