AMONG THE CHEF set, there's no higher honor than a four-star rating from the Mobil Travel Guide, handbook to the worldly and well traveled. Such a distinction indicates an establishment offering exquisite food presented with panache, in an atmosphere of genteel comfort.
Only a handful of local restaurants have been crowned with the guide's laurels; among the elite is The Ventana Room at Loew's Ventana Canyon Resort. However, after a recent dinner there, I can't understand why.
The Ventana Room sits on the second story of the Loew's resort, an expanse nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains. The resort is a chic, upscale vacation environment, offering golf, swimming, tennis, hiking and three separate dining options. The Ventana Room is the jewel in the resort's culinary crown.
The Ventana Room is undeniably lovely. The length of the dining room stretches along a southern exposure, ostensibly offering diners a dazzling panorama of the city lights below. However, we were seated in an obscure corner, which afforded only a view of a concrete-textured pillar. Golden light suffuses the room, which is presided over by a delightful harpist and a coterie of tuxedoed waiters.
The maitre d' projected noticeably bored contempt as he led us to our table, an attitude that most of the other staff echoed throughout the evening. Ensuring the comfort and contentment of all guests, it seems, is not a Ventana Room concern.
As he poured the chilled Evian water, our server described the night's special. The featured entree was Kobe beef ($70), an animal fed on milk, cornmeal mush and beer, massaged frequently, and soothed continually with classical music, then slaughtered and consumed by the upper class. Feeling a bit nauseated by both the details of the unfortunate beast's existence and the price on the plate, I selected from the menu.
Service is another four-star criteria, on which The Ventana Room scores only fair. Because we were not promptly ready with our order, our server disappeared entirely for 20 minutes. Our deliberations appeared to vex him, and he eventually sent over another waiter, who unfortunately was not able to answer the questions we had concerning the menu. After another delay we were able to proceed fully informed, but it was clear the staff was highly displeased with us.
Among our attendants, the most personable was the sommelier, who, although very congenial, was nonetheless unfamiliar with the Merlot we were considering.
We began the evening with oysters on the half shell (six for $12), which were delicious. Ocean fresh, tender and perfectly complimented by a zesty horseradish cocktail sauce, they admirably whetted our appetites. A champagne vinaigrette also accompanied the oysters, but proved irrelevant to the dish.
A baby spinach Caesar salad ($12) and a toss of mixed greens, spiced pecans, sliced pears and blue cheese ($12) were adequate but unremarkable. A toasted grid of crunchy parmesan cheese highlighted the Caesar, while a lovely sweet-sour port wine vinaigrette distinguished the mixed greens. The latter's red Asian pears were attractive, but unfortunately flavorless save a whisper of sweetness.
My dinner companion and I both opted for seafood entrees, the house specialty. The Ventana Room also boasts an impressive selection of wild game.
The salmon Wellington ($28), two tender fillets stuffed with cut asparagus and enveloped in golden folds of puff pastry, was visually dramatic but otherwise disappointing. A disagreeably pungent aroma of fish overwhelmed the dish, while the asparagus was undercooked and fibrous.
The pan-seared Chilean sea bass ($30), coated with a tangy ginger apricot glaze and set atop a mound of lobster mashed potatoes, improved our mood. The sea bass was fresh, flaky and delicate, and the potatoes were luscious and mellow, although the chunks of tender lobster won us over only gradually. However, at times the dish's ethereal flavors almost escaped perception.
We concluded the evening with selections from the dessert cart: the signature crème brülée ($9.75) and a baked-to-order Bailey's Irish Cream soufflé ($15). As our waiter did not suggest ordering the soufflé ahead of time, we waited 30 minutes for it to arrive, and were never once offered a cup of coffee during the interlude. The crème brülée, encased in a tart-like crust and infused with bits of raspberry and vanilla, was superb. The soufflé, on the other hand, was flavorless and mushy at its center, and worth neither the wait nor the price.
The prices at The Ventana Room are some of the most exorbitant in town, and the food is unable to justify them. In four years of reviewing restaurants, only one tab has approached The Ventana Room's: a six-course tasting menu at Janos, which included quality wines. It was a meal most definitely worth the price -- a scenario The Ventana Room failed to repeat.
The Ventana Room is an experience best avoided, despite the Mobil guide's commendations. Superb local restaurants abound, and Tucsonans know where the stars truly shine.
The Ventana Room at Loew's Ventana Canyon Resort. 7000 N. Resort Drive. 299-2020. Open 6 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 6 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Full bar. All major credit cards, checks. Menu items: $12-$45.