Pure Inn-dulgence

The Arizona Inn's Signature Good Taste Extends To Its Kitchen.

A LOCAL ICON, the Arizona Inn exudes class out of every chink between mortar and brick.

However, despite the resort's renown, I have seldom heard anyone rhapsodize about the meals they've eaten there. It's a destination for special occasions or the elegant Sunday brunch, but I don't recall anyone effusing about the food. Of course, I don't recall a single negative word either, but my curiosity is piqued. Can the Arizona Inn have remained so widely celebrated over the last 70 years solely on the basis of reputation?

Although I have been fortunate enough to enjoy a few lunches, brunches and breakfasts at this venerable hotel, I have never had the pleasure of dining there. It seems appropriate to make dinner the standard by which to judge the Arizona Inn's kitchen.

It is difficult to separate a meal here from the ambiance. High-backed cushioned chairs accent the dining room's plush interior, featuring a lovely Santa Fe fireplace tucked cozily into one corner. Lofty windows look out onto a patio lit with several twinkling white lights. Soft, golden light suffuses the room, while piano music drifts in amiably from across the hall. Tie-and-vest waiters stand at attention. Every element inspires a languorous, luxurious meal.

A complimentary pre-appetizer of spiced ground chicken and oven-dried tomatoes folded into flaky layers of crisp puff pastry and drizzled with an avocado and mascarpone cheese cream set the tone of the evening beautifully. Little more than a mere taste, the graceful hors d'oeuvre succeeds in teasing the appetite. Sufficiently intrigued, we ordered asparagus and brie also baked in puff pastry and topped with a surprising raspberry and poppy seed dressing ($9.50).

Although the dish initially sounded a bit odd, it turned glorious on the tongue. Once sliced, the melted brie (with just the right amount of ripe bite) slid out of the pastry to reveal cut spears of emerald-green asparagus. Fresh raspberries dot the rosy sauce, contributing only enough fruity sweetness to make the dish interesting. We were so pleased that we were loathe to continue ahead to the main course, and briefly considered making a meal out of a second order of the heavenly concoction.

The dinner menu is a marvelous blend of classic and nouvelle, with a few regional twists adding intrigue and flair.

Specials are always noteworthy. It's been rumored that many of the more successful ones eventually settle onto the standard menu. Whether they shine but once or become regular staples, these dishes allow the creative kitchen staff to play with the freshest ingredients.

The night we visited was no exception. Two entrees, one featuring beef tournedos, the other highlighting a cornucopia of fresh seafood, drew our attention instantly. We settled on the tournedos and a luscious-sounding halibut from the main menu.

The beef tournedos ($23) feature a beehive of caramelized onions atop six generous slices of medium-rare, pan-seared tenderloin served with a port wine reduction sauce. Sautéed wedges of purple Peruvian potatoes, baby carrots and more verdant asparagus complete the platter, which couldn't look more sumptuously delicious. Appearances are no empty promise, with meat so buttery and tender a knife is almost superfluous. The amber onions are a wonderful fusion of sweet and toasty, and the wine sauce subtly enhances the meat rather than disguises it.

The halibut with crab-meat crust ($24) is an enormous and succulent filet of fresh, pan-seared fish served with a tomato beurre blanc atop a mound of herbed risotto. The crispy crab-meat breading is light and airy, and perfectly complements the halibut's creaminess. The risotto's silky tang of tomato and fresh herbs such as tarragon, marjoram and cilantro gives each bite its own distinct character. Julienned yellow and green beans, yellow squash and yet more asparagus complete the dish with a delicate crunch and vibrant flavor.

Following the clearing of our dinner plates (and the necessary "please box this" request), we considered the dessert tray. Though not extensive, the selections appeal to most every taste. Fruit selections were excluded from the evening's offerings, however, which included three chocolate confections and a crème brulée gently suffused with ginger. We chose the derby pie and a mocha napoleon ($5.50 each).

The derby pie is actually a dense, tiny golden cake, studded with walnuts and chocolate chips and served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. This goodie conjured thoughts of oven-fresh, gooey chocolate chip cookies. What a sinful and utterly agreeable delight!

The mocha napoleon turned out to be the only real let down of the evening. Although its multiple layers of chocolate wafers and mocha mousse make a favorable visual impression, the dish is mysteriously without flavor. Except for a vague sweetness, it might as well be a piece of brown Styrofoam. Given the outstanding quality of everything else we sampled, this was an odd denouement indeed.

The timely and impeccable service was ubiquitous without ever being suffocating. The wine list leans heavily toward domestic vintages, but the selection is broad enough to please all but the most demanding of connoisseurs. The wrapped dinner mint presented as we exited the dining room was a fitting farewell to a fabulous evening.

Perhaps The Arizona Inn isn't the subject for much chatter because there's nothing new to report. It's been exceptional for over half a century, and it continues to be so.

The Arizona Inn. 2200 E. Elm St. 325-1541. Open for breakfast 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. and lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and dinner daily from 6 to 10 p.m. Full bar. V, MC, DC, DIS, AMEX, CH. Menu items: $4-$28.
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