The Lowest of Loews

Ventana Canyon boasts two fine restaurants--but the Canyon Café isn't one of them.

Owned by one of the largest diversified financial corporations in the U.S., Loews Ventana Canyon Resort has been lauded as a premier world-class resort by the likes of Conde Nast and the Zagat survey. Camped out on over 90 acres of prime Foothills property, the resort sprawls luxuriously, boasting pleasure for all who enter its domain.

The Ventana Room has consistently racked up culinary achievement awards, and the spin-off Flying V certainly pleases those who want to relax and sup in fine fashion once they've finished playing their 18 holes. And yet their companion restaurant, the Canyon Café, is seldom heard from. This lesser sibling, the not-quite-so pretty sister, is housed in the very center of this shimmering fantasyland. Spacious and comfortable, the Canyon Café offers up a casual menu that is meant, one suspects, to please those who are not quite worthy of attending either the Ventana Room or the Flying V. What doesn't make sense is how a world-class hotel cannot invest the same quality and care into all its venues.

Sadly, the Canyon Café doesn't feel like it belongs in a stellar hotel, or really even a moderately serviceable one. Take, for example, Sunday brunch. Brunch is a popular event, and even more so if you can unwind and relax in a luxurious setting. Brunch at the Canyon Café is certainly a lavish affair. For $30 a person, you can wind your way through rooms of food, more offerings than you can possibly even entertain the notion of sampling.

Buffets have never entirely won me over. Food prepared for the masses that is left out at room temperature only to be exposed to grubby fingers, explosive sneezing and the random fondler leaves me, well, not quite hungry.

The Canyon Café made a considerable effort to cover every possible aspect of brunch. An entire section was devoted to fresh fruits and cheeses. A cold seafood station was heaped up with a mountain of chilled shrimp, mussels and bowls of caviar. An entire breakfast bar offered breakfast meats, eggs and potatoes. And should that not satisfy, we browsed a salad bar, a hot vegetable line, an omelet station, a crepe station, a carving station, a hot grill and a pasta station. An entire mirrored room celebrated desserts, which apparently many diners felt compelled to manhandle as they sliced and slashed away. Entire cakes had been squashed as various diners mashed and wedged slices onto their own plates. The more we wandered and looked, the worse we felt since the sheer gluttony of it all was faintly repulsive.

Can we really complain about an endless, tempting buffet of food? Well, yes we can. Especially when the scope was so grand that the quality and integrity of most dishes was tempered by sheer volume. Given the stature of a resort and all the culinary awards and hoopla, even something as casual as a café should probably sport fare that rises above mundane. Or at the very least, it shouldn't taste as if it had been prepared for a staged mass feeding of thousands.

But don't listen to us. The place was packed. So much so that our server was so harried on the day we visited, she barely paused to wave us on to the buffet. Breathlessly she informed us of what the tour de force included, brought a cup of coffee and then disappeared for a solid half hour. This wasn't inattention on her behalf; she simply had way too many tables to handle without a body double. She managed to deliver the bill long after we were ready to go.

We left feeling as if we'd been to an enormous rehearsal dinner for a distant relation whose name we couldn't quite recall. Nothing ever rose into the realm of anything personal, intimate or particularly compelling. The food had been cooked for an enormous number of people, and even the individual stations couldn't quite dispel the feeling that we had witnessed something slightly obscene, embarrassing and overdone.

Naturally, we returned for dinner.

After all, we had heard that the Canyon Café recently acquired Rick Vogt as its chef. Chef Vogt's culinary training includes the Phoenician, and it didn't seem fair to judge a chef strictly by his buffet.

This time we sat outside and were visited by a pair of ducks. Nearby, children played games and leaped into the pool. A warm breeze and gentle night settled around us, and we felt expansive, forgiving, ready to be pleased.

We started with a light appetizer and a salad. The Prince Edward Island mussels were served in a roasted garlic vodka cream sauce ($14). The succulent golden flesh of a PEI mussel is a hard thing to ruin, yet roasted garlic vodka cream sauce did a pretty good job. An awkward and strange combination of flavors, the sauce dominated the mussels' potentially buttery flavor and left an odd, strained aftertaste.

The smoked salmon salad, however, was outstanding ($11). A judicious ginger-yogurt dressing spiffed up a light toss of greens, crisp Bermuda onion and a liberal serving of capers. Delicate rolls of smoked salmon had the chance to enjoy being served exactly as they should have been: unadorned.

Roasted halibut with saffron risotto served in a caper sauce ($24) sounded appealing. The halibut was cooked just right: slightly golden on the outside, and tender and moist inside. The saffron risotto was a disappointment, though. Although the arborio was infused with saffron, it was not cooked correctly; some mouthfuls tasted still crunchy, others dry and cakey. The caper sauce was a complete mystery as it was nothing more than a gluey roux with nary a caper in sight.

The other entrée we sampled, rosemary-marinated lamb chops with couscous and a smoked tomato sauce ($29), was an equally disappointing encounter. Ordered medium rare, the lamb was served bloody raw. Although the kitchen obligingly re-cooked and re-plated the dish, the flavors still didn't quite pull together. The couscous was cooked correctly, but the smoked tomato sauce was unidentifiable. Tasting scorched and slightly salty, there was no tomato in evidence whatsoever.

Dessert was uneventful. Lemon, lime and orange tartlets ($9.50) turned out to be small frozen shells filled with bland creamy citrus-flavored fillings. The triple berry crisp ($8), on the other hand, was impressive, a flaky tall cylinder bursting with berries and finished with a sugar crumb topping.

Again, we found the service to be kind of spacey. We were, however, amused by an enormous catering occurring across the pool. Enormous trays full of covered plates kept rolling out of the kitchen, rattling with bone-jarring noise and dropping, with alarming regularity, entire plates. Interestingly enough, the more plates that shattered, the more servers came to wrestle the cart quicker, through more twists and turns and more disaster. Of course this comedy of errors was humorous only to the uninvested bystander. But the general level of ineptitude and lack of concern spoke clearly about the general timbre of our experience on both occasions.

We departed more than a little thunderstruck that up here in the elevated clouds of glory, at one of the country's finest resorts, such mediocrity passes unnoticed and uncorrected. But perhaps the sheer indulgence and splendor of the palace keeps attending royalty from noticing what truly bubbles in the pot.

Canyon Café. Loews Ventana Canyon Resort. 7000 Resort Drive. 299-2020. Open 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Sunday brunch served 11 a.m.-2 p.m. MC, Visa, Am Ex. Full Bar. Menu items: $5.50-$30. Reservations: recommended.
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