Phoenix-Scottsdale area an oasis for foodies

A grilled-asparagus salad at Rico's American Grill. Some vegetables and herbs used at the...

A grilled-asparagus salad at Rico's American Grill. Some vegetables and herbs used at the restaurant in the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak are grown in a garden on the resort property. NICOLE HANN PHOTO

KEVIN HANN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:19 PM ET

The legendary Arizona Biltmore is awash in the blistering heat of a September afternoon.

Nestled at the foot of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, the historic resort is known as the Jewel of the Desert.

Once owned by the Wrigley family of chewing gum fame, the resort is encompassed by 16 hectares of pristinely manicured lawns and gardens that have welcomed celebrities, heads of state and the rich and famous since 1929.

The Biltmore swimming pool was a favourite lounging spot for Marilyn Monroe.

Poolside is where Irving Berlin penned many famous tunes including White Christmas.

On this sizzling day, in the 41°C heat, many find comfort in the same cooling waters.

Others duck inside where Kevin Michael Doyle hosts a traditional afternoon English tea, a custom dating back to the early 19th century when the Duchess of Bedford ordered servants to deliver her tea and snacks to her bedroom.

Off the main foyer in the Biltmore, a line of tables are draped in fine linen, aligned with soaring glass windows offering a view of the tidy front garden. Jacaranda trees, sometimes full with thick lavender blooms, line the walkways and offer some shade to guests coming and going.

"Mrs. Wrigley loved to look out on the gardens," Doyle says. "This is a great people-watching area."

Doyle arrives with Raspberry Nectar, one of six iced teas on the menu, all of which are steeped tableside.

"Each one has its own personality," he says. "This one reminds me of being in the kitchen with my mother when she was stirring powder with water for Jell-O."

Moments later, a three-tiered tray arrives with a delightful selection of light sandwiches: Smoked salmon on pumpernickel with cheese and capers; egg salad with creme fraiche and scallion; turkey on cranberry bread with cranberry aioli and strawberry; and Waldorf Salad (smoked chicken salad, apple, celery, walnuts and grapes) in a profiterole. These are accompanied by an Arizona orange scone and buttermilk tea-cake served with berry marmalade, Devonshire clotted cream and lemon curd. Not to be missed are the pastries: Summertime raspberry truffle, cactus-berry creme brulee tart and a zesty lemon macaroon.

Next up is a pot of Green Mango Peach, a crisp green tea blended with honeybush, mango and peach. Its fruitiness is rivalled by the Blackberry Pomegranate, a lively black tea with natural blackberry, pomegranate and raspberry.

One of Doyle's favourites is a steaming pot of African Solstice from Tea Forte, a South African tea made with the rooibos herb and blended with berries and vanilla.

"It's been known to increase serotonin levels and it gives you a sense of well being," he says.

Doyle's friendly nature, knowledge of product and expertise in teas underline a serious attitude toward food that seems to be trending in Phoenix, especially at its finer resorts.

Kenneth Arneson, executive chef at Rico's American Grill at Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort, has launched a grass-roots movement toward food, one might say.

Arneson has crafted a menu that highlights vegetables and herbs grown in an urban garden outside the restaurant windows.

"When I first came here three years ago it was a flower garden," recalls the married father of two girls.

"I planted a few things to begin with. I let the plants grow to maturity and then harvest the seeds to re-plant," he said. "I grow enough of some things, like basil, that I never have to buy any."

Green waste from the kitchen is trucked to a nearby farm where Arneson purchases vegetables, then adds compost back into his garden.

"The garden has 26 inches of soil and 18 inches of it is compost," he says. "The soil is so rich, I only have to fertilize it twice a year with fish emulsion."

Beets and carrots from the garden have a high sugar content because they're so fresh.

Arneson's garden treasures are evident in his tasting menu.

A fragrant vegetable soup is stocked with corn, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms and chiles along with papardelle noodles.

Zesty red chile hummus is made with carrots and asparagus.

Seared ahi tuna is accompanied by an apple-tomatillo chile slaw infused with lemongrass and cherry tomatoes.

Arneson takes pork belly, brines it in pineapple, apple and sea salt for 48 hours, then sears bite-sized sliders for a decadent slider that's served with crisp jalapeno slaw.

A tender flat iron steak topped with chimichurri is paired with a warm taco salad tinged with tomatoes, parsley, mung bean, garlic and avocado.

Arneson is also dishing out his knowledge to kids in the community by hosting Little Chef's classes throughout the year. He teaches kids about soil and plants, then helps them harvest ingredients they'll turn into pizzas.

"There's nothing more satisfying than having a kid pull a carrot out of the ground and realize that's where it actually comes from, not from just the supermarket," he says.

Draped by the slopes of the Phoenix North Mountains, the Squaw Peak Resort spans 11 hectares, surrounded by 1,214 hectares of scenic Sonoran desert in the adjacent mountain preserve.

Built in 1977 and acquired by Hilton in 1991, the Spanish-Mediterranean style resort features 563 suites and 80 townhouse-like casitas with breathtaking panoramic mountain views. There are on-property hiking trails and a massive outdoor water park.

"A lot of people use us as a jumping off point to view the state," Hilton's Tessa Bajema says. "It's only six hours to southern California and five hours to Las Vegas, too."

A thrilling way to absorb the Sonoran Desert's beauty is from the sky.

Hot Air Expeditions operates hot-air balloon trips launching from the Cave Creek area off Carefree Highway (immortalized in the Gordon Lightfoot classic) 365 days a year. As the handcrafted wicker basket drifts between mountain ranges it offers spectacular views.

The trip ends with champagne and sumptuous catered breakfast, however, on our visit the flight unfortunately was cancelled because winds reached speeds of 25 kph and it was deemed unsafe to launch.

Phoenix has become a popular spot for Canadians in recent years. Predictably good weather has strengthened its reputation as a golf destination and, as more Major League Baseball teams switch from Florida to Cactus League parks, it's generating even more visits from people in cooler climes.

"There are 10 stadiums in the valley all within 10-15 minutes of each other," Trish Hendrickson of Visit Phoenix says. "The latest fad is 'stadium hopping' because you can go and see two or three games in one day."

Doug MacKenzie of Visit Phoenix says the average winter temperature is 22°C.

Hendrickson and MacKenzie agree the culinary scene is booming in Phoenix.

"One thing we're finding is the emergence of neighbourhood restaurants," MacKenzie says. "A lot of chefs here are hands-on, supporting local farmers and producers for their supplies."

Central Bistro embodies that spirit. The farm-to-table spirit is captured in modern French and Italian dishes, from handcrafted pastas to brick-oven pizzas to wood-grilled meats and veggies. Even the cocktails are branded farm-to-bar to highlight the extensive use of fresh local fruits. On tap are several quality, local craft beers and the wine cellar stocks more than 250 labels.

Some locals recommend the duck three ways: Smoked carpaccio, house-made duck sausage and duck confit rillette with pickled shallots, forest berries and toasted bread.

The wood-grilled artichokes with oregano and citrus aioli are a hit with the vegetarian crowd as is the Drunk Bread, a swiss fondue with white wine served with day-old crusty bread.

A purple potato pizza comes sizzling from the wood-fired oven, topped with mozzarella, gorgonzola, leeks and bacon.

Like the city itself, the atmosphere in this neighbourhood gem is relaxed.

Not too far away in suburban Scottsdale, a five-star luxury resort is taking hamburgers to the next level. The Phoenician is a sprawling complex with luxury and boutique hotels, canyon suites, nine pools and a world-class centre for well-being and spa.

Atop the clubhouse at its 27-hole championship golf course is Relish Burger Bistro, where everything is made from scratch daily, including buns and sauces. More than 70 beers are on tap and it can access a wine cellar valued at $3 million and the largest collections of tequila and vodka in Arizona.

A highlight on the extensive burger menu is the BLT -- a grilled kobe beef burger topped with pork loin, fried tomatoes, smoked gouda, a spicy relish and house-made steak sauce. It's juicy and filling.

"We're only five minutes away from shopping, dining and nightlife," Denise Seomin of The Phoenician says. "Our strength is in diversity -- couples, guys golf weekends, romantic getaways and families; they can enjoy intimate surroundings and still be close to everything."

In the past year, Westjet, Air Canada and tour operators have featured Phoenix as a prime destination for Canadians, MacKenzie says.

"We have 320 days of sunshine," he says. "You are almost guaranteed good weather. You are in the desert but you have all the amenities you need."

"And the best part," Hendrickson says, "is that we don't have to shovel sunshine."

NEED TO KNOW

-- For more information about the city and surrounding areas, how to get around, popular attractions and where to stay, play or eat, go to visitphoenix.com and experiencescottsdale.com. For all that Arizona has to offer, visit arizonaguide.com.


Videos

Photos