The whole-roasted Cyprus sea bream
I can’t help it: I miss the pesto. And if you’re also a longtime fan of T. Cook’s—one of the city’s most romantic resort restaurants in one of the city’s most romantic resorts—the nips and tucks this lovely grande dame underwent last summer may pleasantly surprise or disappoint you, depending on your personal nostalgia index.
Gone are the ochre walls and myriad lamps that cast the room in a flattering golden glow. Gone, too, are the luxurious table linens that signaled formal service. And alas, that luscious housemade pesto (so popular it was bottled for purchase) has also gone the way of the dinosaur—a metaphor you should look to, by the way, for there’s a lesson in this.
Finished in soft brown tones, T. Cook’s “2.0” at the Royal Palms Resort looks more like the new Southwest than the old Spain, drawing a younger, sexier crowd. A clot of boisterous, well-dressed 30- and 40-somethings crowd the glittering granite-topped bar in The Mix Up, an expanded, renovated and vastly improved lounge governed by innovative food and drink.
Garden-to-glass cocktails are courtesy of nationally recognized master mixologist Kim Haasarud, who created her inspired beverage program in tandem with new Executive Chef Paul McCabe. For his part, McCabe—an Arizona native who made a name for himself in San Diego and is recognized by the James Beard Foundation as a rising star—has been tasked with re-energizing all the resort’s menus, adhering loosely to the Mediterranean theme. He seems to be the man for the job, simply but eloquently expressing his predilection for pristine local ingredients and bold composition. His menus are modern yet classic, edgy yet accessible.
Together, McCabe and Haasarud make hanging out in a bar all night seem like an excellent idea. Her Wild Saffron, a frothy blend of organic rye vodka, fresh pineapple juice and lemon, garnished with orange-y strings of saffron, is everything you want and nothing you don’t on a warm day. And served in a requisite copper mug with an appealingly frosty exterior, the American Mule is every bit as good: a fizzy riff on the traditional Moscow model, composed of Tito’s Handmade Vodka and vivid, housemade ginger beer.
Meanwhile, McCabe’s playful spin on the corn dog—crunchy, tempura-battered hunks of lobster, stuck on sticks—is luscious swished in creamy mustard soubise. And the chef makes bresaola, Toscana, soppressata and Spanish chorizo in-house, offering platters of meats and cheeses from America and Europe as well: duck pastrami, rosemary lamb salami, manchego, St. André, Cypress Grove’s Lamb Chopper and Valdeón blue. Served with housemade, seed-studded crackers, this makes for simple, satisfying noshing.
But rusticity isn’t the only note McCabe is capable of playing. His corn agnolotti appetizer—tiny pasta pillows stuffed with Maine lobster, chanterelles and roasted corn, the whole sweet assemblage strewn with shaves of summer truffle—is dainty and faintly decadent. At first blush, I wonder if $55 isn’t too much for a dry-aged, ultratender rib-eye, drizzled with marrow butter, although the fabulous onion jam (best spread right over the top) assures me it is not. Spanish octopus may be a tougher sell with the meat-and-potatoes crowd, but it’s a fine dish—the smoke and char of each firm, fleshy tentacle is offset by sweet almond gazpacho, slivered cucumber, black olives and aged grapes.
Crisp-edged Mexican grouper, served over al dente flageolets with guanciale (think bacon-like pork cheek), clams and crystallized shallots, is great yet not transformative. But the whole-roasted sea bream, an ultramoist, mild-tasting white fish from Cyprus, is completely off the charts: crisp-skinned and delicious in contrast to spicy padrón peppers, salty Gaeta olives and small, sweet blistered tomatoes that burst in the mouth.
There’s no question about desserts—I want whatever Pastry Chef Matthew Brotnov (formerly of Quiessence) is making. His rich dark chocolate pâté, overlaid with a tile of pistachio Florentine and accompanied by smoked caramel and pistachio ice cream, is one of the best desserts in recent memory. Organic peach frittelle—crispy puffs of dough stuffed with sweet ricotta and peaches and sided with cherry sorbet, crushed amaretto cookies and fresh basil—are also delicious.
Although I miss the elegant old gal I once knew, I’m eager to make better acquaintance with the lively young maiden in her place. Who knows? This could be the start of a beautiful relationship.
Royal Palms Resort and Spa, 5200 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix, 602.808.0766, tcooksdining.com
Breakfast: Mon.-Fri., 6:30-10:30am; Sat.-Sun., 6:30-10am. Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11am-2pm. Dinner: Daily, 5:30-10pm. Brunch: Sat., 10am-2pm; Sun., 10am-3pm
Menu: Cocktails, $10-$14; appetizers, $12-$27; entrees, $29-$55; desserts, $8-$12
Where to Sit
On the front patio overlooking the lushly landscaped lawn
What to Wear
Cocktail dresses and heels are de rigueur on weekend nights, but you can get by with resort casual.
What to Drink
Finish dinner on a sweet note with the frothy, sophisticated Fernet Flip, composed of Fernet Branca, Carpano Antica, whole egg and nutmeg.
Try the Pan Bagnat, a sandwich specialty of Nice best described as a handheld salade nicoise.