Kai Restaurant

Lee Allen
1/15/11

The already luminous Kai Restaurant, a showcase for creative Native American food, is glowing even brighter with the addition of more stars and diamonds, the latest of which comes in the form of the elite Five-Diamond accreditation given by AAA --- following on the heels of Forbes Travel Guide’s highest rating, a Five-Star Award.  The unique dining establishment near Phoenix is part of the Gila River Indian Community’s culturally-themed resort/spa complex featuring traditions of the Pima and Maricopa tribes.  “These awards are a tribute to our staff, recognizing the passion, talent, and commitment of the many lives connected to this success,” says General Manager Bunty Ahamed.

Executive Chef Michael O’Dowd terms his cuisine “Native American with global accents.”  He says, “Our aim is to elevate the simple flavors of local and regional origin to a pedestal not previously attained.  We work diligently to present traditional recipes in a new setting, trying to write the future for Native American inspired cuisine.”

Restaurant Manager Frank Giannotti adds, “The accolades we’ve garnered weren’t part of the plan.  We relied on an idea incorporating layout and logistics that would give us a platform for self-perpetuating inspiration.  Our food is spectacular, our service staff performs like a syncopated rhythm, and as a cultural genre, we’re untouched.”

There’s no exaggeration there.  A meal at Kai is more than mere food, it’s a dining experience – and more.  The staff combines culture and courtesy with creative cuisine to present a veritable symphony for the senses.

On a recent visit, with Native American flute music playing unobtrusively in the background, server David Nezzie offered a “Hello…how are you?” welcome presented in local tribal tongue.  “You’ll see a lot of cultural influence tonight,” he said as he presented menus adorned with original watercolor art.  “Storytelling is an important part of our culture, and these paintings done by a local artist depict nearby sacred mountains and the Gila River that once flowed at their base.”

As Nezzie explained menu offerings, he became a cultural guide and historian, calling attention to Chef O’Dowd’s story-like outline for the meal ahead, a repast which began with light appetizers called “The Birth.”

One dish featured vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes, marinated in a local olive oil blended with herbs and garlic, and served over a buckwheat and Saguaro cactus seed tart with two types of cheeses, a mascarpone and a local goat cheese.  The dish was topped with Black Ice – frozen crystals of balsamic vinegar with Saguaro cactus blossom syrup – capped by a frothy whipped basil leaf foam.  As the toppings melted and coated the tomatoes, a delicious flavor twist emerged.

Another starter was the mesquite-grilled squash puree with shaved truffles, Rio Zape beans, and cool-weather mushrooms.  The truffles disintegrated into the puree, infusing the thick soup with a savory richness.  The puree offered another now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t topping surprise: aji amarillo cotton candy – yes, cotton candy – that left behind the same vaporized sweetness you get from a mouthful of the wispy confection at a county fair.

Other appetizers include pan-flashed white and green asparagus with blue foot chanterelles, complemented by cholla cactus buds, a delicate desert quail egg, red currants and aged sherry – a dish beautifully arranged for color and composition.

And that’s just the beginning, sort of a taste bud teaser.  The more robust starters, called “The Beginning,” have a range of options.  The signature appetizer of lobster is prepared three ways: a butter-poached lobster tail teamed with an airy avocado mousse; a cool panna cotta of sweet-corn custard flecked with lobster bits; and a mesquite-meal cobbler with a rich lobster-meat base and a burnt Irish Porter cheese layer – the trio accompanied by a buttery popover or fry bread.   The cobbler in particular is a gustatory delight.

The main courses (there are seven to choose from) are in a group called “The Journey.”  The most popular choice is the grilled tenderloin of buffalo from the Cheyenne River Tribe in South Dakota.  This melt-in-you-mouth meat is served over a sampling of sausage containing Mexican chorizo, scarlet runner bean chili, smoked corn puree, cholla cactus buds, and Saguaro cactus blossom syrup flavorings.

For the undecided, there are two tasting menus.  “Short Story” offers six items from appetizers through dessert, while “Journey” takes diners on a more extended trip that runs a gamut of eleven gastronomic treats.  Both are available with wine offerings suggested by the house sommelier.

“Despite our uniqueness, we’re not pretentious,” says Sous Chef Joshua Johnson.  “We just want to offer the best quality service, the best quality food, and let our ingredients, our presentations, and our service speak for itself.   Since we opened our doors, it’s been a straight ride to the top.  We need to stay grounded and continue our day-to-day mission of making things better.”

Kai management and staff are proud of the AAA and Forbes kudos but do not intent to rest on their laurels.  “Not much mention has been given to this region of the U.S. by Michelin, which also has a start rating system, but we’re looking forward to that possibility as our next goal,” says Giannotti.

SIDEBAR:

Kai, the Pima word for seed, is part of the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, “a total destination resort that showcases the heritage, culture, art and legends of the Pima and Maricopa tribes,” according to Public Relations Director Stephanie Heckathorne.

Blending nicely with the 372,000 acres of high Sonoran desert terrain that make up the Gila River Indian Community just outside Phoenix, Arizona, the resort (on 2,400 of those acres) offers 500 culturally-themed guestrooms that reflect the traditions of local native peoples.  That theme is reinforced at the Forbes Four-Star Aji Spa, the 36 holes of Troon golf, horseback adventures at Koli Equestrian Center, or on a boat cruise to Rawhide Western Theme Town and an adjacent casino.

Opened in the fall of 2002, the $170 million resort complex strives to be an authentic representation of the Gila River Indian lifestyle.

“What makes our location and services so unique is how devoted and parochial we are in our endeavors to be culturally authentic,” says cultural concierge Ginger Sunbird Martin.  “It’s a privilege for our people to be able to showcase our heritage and communicate our story to the world.”  Sunbird Martin, a Pima herself, also serves as liaison between the resort and the Tribe’s Cultural Theming Committee that oversees all cultural efforts from employee attire to menu tastings.

This adherence to authenticity has worked well enough that AAA has included Kai among their exclusive group of 2011 Five-Diamond restaurants in North America and the only such ranked dining establishment in Arizona.  Forbes Travel Guide has also given their highest rating, a Five-Star Award, to Kai as one of only 23 similarly rated eateries in all of North America.

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