Saturday, February 14, 2009

Lunch at the Turquoise Room

This will be a serious blog about serious food.

No jokes, no snark – just admiration for delicious food served by a knowledgeable server in a beautiful setting. Food was always an important element of Fred Harvey’s hospitality in his hotels in the early 1900s, and the Turquoise Room at the La Posada Hotel in Winslow (AZ) maintains that tradition.

When the hotel was first built, the main dining room was located on the north side of the hotel so that guests could view the Painted Desert. The site of the current Turquoise Room was the former lunchroom, a more casual eatery. During WWII, the southeast corner of the Turquoise Room was made into the “Spam Room,” where as many as one thousand Spam sandwiches were made each day to feed troops traveling east and west on the Santa Fe Railroad. Even today, veterans from that time will come into the hotel and recall eating Spam sandwiches while sitting on the south lawn.

Today, the Turquoise Room is the only dining room in the La Posada Hotel. It is operated by chef/owner John Sharpe, who was born in England and who, after a long career in England, Switzerland, and California, was persuaded by Allan Affeldt to move to Winslow and operate this restaurant. The setting offers a combination of elegance and comfort. The ceiling is painted a shade of turquoise that borders on teal (architect Mary Colter’s favorite color) and the tufted cushions on the booths pick up the same color.

On the walls are displayed Navajo rugs. In his blog about the hotel, Chuck showed the Fred Harvey Private Dining Room with its stained glass window on the far end. That window (shown in larger form here) can also been seen in the Turquoise Room and was designed by Tina Mion, who, with her husband Allan, owns the hotel. This window depicts (in mirror image form): San Pasqual (left), patron saint of feasts; Saint Barbara, patron saint of builders and architects; and San Ysidro (right), patron saint of farmers. (I have a small wooden plaque of San Pasqual which watched over my kitchen in Pennsylvania and travels with me today.)

To celebrate our 41st anniversary, we decided to celebrate with lunch at the hotel. Our lunch began with our server, Frank, bringing a plate with four squares of the restaurant’s mesquite and butter glazed cornbread. Now, with its slightly coarse texture and unique flavor, this was like no other cornbread I’ve eaten. And the glaze had seeped through the squares, imparting a sweet and slightly smoky flavor. This could have been eaten in lieu of desert, but neither of our portions lasted that long.

We both ordered the house signature soup, a combination of black bean and cream of corn. The decorative swirl is a chili cream. What a combination. The smoky and spicy flavor of the black bean soup was offset perfectly by the sweetness of the corn. Each was excellent on its own but getting a taste of each together elevated the experience.

I was tempted by the lamb posole but decided on the Barbequed Saint Louis Style Pork Ribs. This was a meaty half slab with no evidence of fat. They were served dry, just as I like, with the sauce on the side. But these ribs didn’t need sauce. At first, to honor our surroundings, I tried to eat them with knife and fork. But I soon threw manners aside so as to not miss a morsel of meat. With these came a side of excellent cream slaw, shredded as I prefer, and a side of black beans. As with the soup, the beans were seasoned with cumin, a spice that I normally don’t care for. But, if everyone used cumin with the discretion of Chef Sharpe, I could become a believer.

Chuck ordered the Beef Fajitas and received a generous serving of seasoned tender meat that had been cooked with onions, green and red bell peppers, corn, and tomato wedges. The enticing aroma could be smelled from six feet away. With the meat came four flour tortillas, black beans, and both red and green chili sauces. The green sauce was chilies mixed with tomatillos and was simply awesome. The tart citrus taste from the tomatillos worked perfectly with the seasoned beef and vegetables. I could have eaten it on my ribs if only Chuck would have shared. Also on Chuck’s plate was what Frank described as a corn tamale. Tasting like moist cornbread with bits of whole corn, it was so good that I couldn’t keep my fork off Chuck’s plate.

We were full but still wanted to try one of the restaurant’s desserts. So we chose the gelato/sorbet sampler, three smalls balls served in an almond tulip cookie cup. We chose, from top to bottom, the prickly pear cactus sorbet, the hazelnut gelato, and the dark Belgium chocolate gelato. I had never tasted prickly pear and thought it had a taste of apple mixed with pineapple. But others think it tastes like kiwi or like melon mixed with mulberry. Whatever – it was light and only slightly sweet. Both gelatos had the dense creaminess that differentiates gelato from ice cream.

Chef Sharpe believes in using only fresh ingredients with an emphasis on local products. This month, one of the dinner specials is Columbia River Sturgeon, which is provided by the Nez Pierce tribe. The Churro lamb is raised by Navajo shepherds. Vegetables, in season, are purchased from the Flagstaff Farmers Market. And seafood is flown in fresh from New Orleans, Boston, and Nilinchic, Alaska.

Finally, a commendation to Frank our server. I have complained in this space about waitstaff who have no information on the food they are serving. Frank was able to answer all of my questions – and I had quite a few. I wish there were more Frank’s working in America’s restaurants.

This was a special meal in a special setting (and with my special traveling companion) and warrants the full complement of 5.0 Addies.

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