Dining at KAI
I’d been pining to try KAI for several years, ever since I’d tried their food the three years in a row at the West of Western (WOW) Culinary Festival, an event no longer in existence. One of my girl friends has celebrated her birthday and her mother’s birthday at Kai for several years in a rowI.
Considered one of the top dining destinations in Arizona, if not the nation, KAI is one of only six restaurants in the U.S. to receive AAA Five Diamond status. It has also been awarded the Forbes Five-Star Award, an Award of Excellence from the Wine Spectator, a Gold Platter Award from M&C Magazine, “One of the top new restaurants in Phoenix” by Food & Wine Magazine, and the Golden Plate Award from AZ Food & Lifestyle Magazine for “Best Appetizer of the Year”.
Located at Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa in Chandler, KAI’s new Native American Cuisine marries modern influences with the culture, history, and indigenous food ways of the Pima and Maricopa tribes. The décor, classy and uncluttered with cool, crisp lines and pastel colors, pays tribute to Native traditions. Each table holds a single rectangular peach onyx vase with a flower and a carved basket-shaped candle holder, both hand-made in Mexico. Authentic woven native American wall hangings and other local art adorn the walls.
This is the place to go for an elegant meal. A dear friend took me there in late January to celebrate my forty-sixth birthday. He had been wanting to go for years.
Photo credits: Rachel Albert ©Copyright 2011
From the moment we set food on the premises we were treated like honored guests. Multiple servers attended to us, explaining about the menu and the ingredients. They answered our questions and ensured that we had an exquisite dining experience.
Let the valet park your car. It’s worth it for the thank you card and white and dark chocolate squares the vallet will leave in your car at the end of the evening! If you have special dietary needs (I requested gluten-free), let the staff know when you make your reservation. They will gladly accommodate your requests. They brought me gluten-free toast points, lightly grilled and served with Queen Creek Olive Oil for diping.
Menu offerings include feature fresh, locally grown ingredients from the Gila River Indian Community. Their award-winning chefs pair familiar ingredients in unexpected ways and less familiar ingredients, such as Chollo Buds, Suguaro seeds, Tepary beans, Black Iberico Chorizo, and Huitlacoche (pronounced wee-tlah-KOH-cheh), a fungus that grows naturally on ears of corn. Mexican Corn Truffle is probably a more appealing term for this earthy and somewhat smoky flavored fungus used to flavor quesadillas, tamales, soups, and the sweet sauce that accompanied my goat cheese cake.
KAI’s seasonal menu includes a la carte offerings divided into sections: The Birth (appetizers), The Beginning (slightly more filling starters), The Journey (the core of the meal), and The Afterlife (dessert and drinks). If you’re undecided about what to order, you can select from two tasting menus, one a Short Story, the other a longer Journey. Both allow you to sample a broader array of dishes.
Before I proceed, let me assure you that my photos don’t do the meal justice! I have yet to master evening, low-light photography with my digital semi-automatic compact camera. I almost didn’t want to post them (well, I still don’t, but I will post some of them).
I didn’t want to interrupt the meal anymore than I did trying endless settings and angles! (My friend was already accustomed to me taking pictures of food when we went on restaurant outings, so he was cool with i!) Day time shots on my kitchen table with light pouring through the window come out much better!
One of my new year’s projects is spend an afternoon study my camera’s instruction manual (studying all the features I don’t know) and possibly take a few photography lessons from the guy who did the photography for the cover of my Ice Dream Cookbook. But I digress!
If you take the appetizer, entrée, and dessert route, as we did, you’ll still enjoy surprises along the way, like the the amuse-bouche (bite size appetizer) we each received after the bread and before our appetizers: a small mushroom-sized and shaped tomato gelee or terrine perched on top of herb leaves and shredded crab meat and a refreshing palate cleanser, before our entrees arrived: a melon-ball sized scoop of apple cider sorbet drizzled with raspberry coulis, served in iced demitasse cups resembling birds’ nests.
Photo credits: Rachel Albert ©Copyright 2011
For an appetizer, I ordered a de-constructed salad inspired by the Local Farmers & Children of the Gila Crossing School: micro greens, Crow’s Dairy Feta Cheese, Queen Creek Olive Oil, Timbale of Roasted Eggplant & Tomato Confit with White Honey Lime Drizzle. My dining companion ordered Pan Flashed White & Green Asparagus with Blue Foot Chanterelle Fondue, Cholla Buds, topped with a poached Desert Quail Egg, Red Currants and Aged Sherry. I’m not usually a big fan of eggplant and I thought I’d try it anyway. The combination of flavors worked. Still I probably wouldn’t order that again. I’d try something else.
Next, I ordered Grilled Tenderloin of Buffalo from the Cheyenne River Tribe with Smoked Corn Puree, Cholla Buds, Merquez (blood) Sausage, Scarlet Runner bean chili, and Saguarao Blossom Syrup. I found the portion of buffalo tenderloin more than ample. It was cooked exactly the way I like it (medium-rare).
My friend ordered Spanish Sea Bass Swimming in Native Stew Scented with Truffle Saffron Broth with Sweet Grass Steamed Cockles, Octopus, Cholla Buds, Mexican Anchovies, Black Iberico Chorizo & Tepary Beans. If you follow a GF diet, order this dish without bread.
The beans that garnished both of our plates were tender, fragrant. That was my first experience with blood sausage (dotted with white rice). I loved the texture and mildness of it. I’m motivated to cook buffalo tenderloin at home. The grill would set it off best!
For a the Afterlife, I made my decision in advance: goat cheesecake! This one varied slightly from the version I’d sampled at the culinary festivals. I loved the presentation. Maize Cheesecake with Indigenous Seeds: Roasted Corn Cheesecake (made from local goat cheese) Encrusted in Caramel Corn & Local (pumpkin) Seeds, with a tiny dollop of Curry & Fig Chutney & Huitlacoche Syrup. It had just the right amount of sweetness and not too much caramel corn. Plus it came with a crunchy caramel Tuille, a decorate strip of candy shaped like a long stick. That was my birthday cake! On a subsequent trip I would love to try their Seasonal Sorbet sampler.
My friend had a thick and rich chocolate pudding (thickened with flour, so it wasn’t gluten-free) served in a wine goblet with two hazelnut shortbread cookies and a green olive.
With our check came four delicious house-made (dark and milk chocolate) truffles, that I could barely make room for (Ipreferred the dark chocolate). The two chocolates deposited in my friend’s car (one white, one dark) by the valet I saved for the next day. The thank you card, I opened immediately!
Would I go back? In a heart beat…Will I? Yes, when another occasion arises and someone treats me! I’d love to see how their menu changes with the seasons. As my friend said, “this is not just a meal, it’s an experience!” A quarterly visit would be divine!
Kai is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Reservations are recommended by phone or through OpenTable. Call 602-385-5726. They have a business casual dress code. No denim, hats, T-shirts, or shorts, and no open toed sandals for men.
Located within the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort
5594 West Wild Horse Pass Blvd.
Chandler, AZ 85226