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Kai...is it still exceptional?

lkomar Feb 27, 2013 07:19 PM

I am in Phoenix for another 4 nights. I wanted to take some relatives out for an exceptional dinner. I was intending to take them to Kai but did not check the Chowhound boards before leaving Toronto. Since arriving here one Chowhounder has mentioned that the chef at Kai left in Dec 2012. Can anyone confirm this? And if this is true, has anyone eaten there since the change of chefs? Is is still exceptional? Other suggestions welcome, Binkley's seems to have had excellent reviews. Many thanks in advance.

  1. w
    willyum Mar 1, 2013 03:32 PM

    We've dined at Kai 21 times the past three years, including twice since O'Dowd left. I never actually saw Chef O'Dowd at the restaurant in all those meals, he was more the executive chef for the entire resort, overseeing all the various food services. He obviously had major input into the menus at Kai but wasn't actually cooking.

    The "new" guy, Joshua Johnson, has been there for several years as the sous chef and is the Chef de Cuisine now. I've talked to him several times at the wine tasting events etc and for sure the restaurant is in good hands with him running the kitchen. Pretty seamless transition.

    Last time we ate off the regular menu (another time was the special Valentine's Day menu two weeks ago) we had the sea trout and the pumpkin/squash soup for starters, the foie gras and escargot for the 2nd course (everything on the 2nd course menu is really good), and we both had the wagyu for the main entree since it was a new item and we had eaten everything else on previous trips. Other main entree items we've especially enjoyed in the past were the lobster/scallops/shrimp dish, the buffalo tenderloin (which is always excellent) and the lamb.

    Pretty rich fare, especially with foie gras and wagyu (took a couple extra days in the gym to work that off) but a great meal.

    Go for it, it's still 'exceptional', I feel.

    5 Replies
    1. re: willyum
      Bill Hunt Mar 1, 2013 07:28 PM

      Now, you have me by many trips, but Chef O'Dowd did visit us on two, of about 5 visits.

      We need to get back down there, and give the new team a try.

      Thank you for your report.


      1. re: Bill Hunt
        willyum Mar 1, 2013 08:02 PM

        Bill, I know you enjoy good wines so I'll mention this in case you are not aware of it.

        Kai has special Wine Pairing meals four times a year (I think it's the 2nd Tuesday of April, May, June July). They have a fixed menu, usually seven courses, with luxury food items and partner with a specific vineyard and serve that vineyard's wines with the meal, usually with the grower present.

        These have been some of our favorite meals at Kai because they come up with a totally new menu each time and really kill it since they only have a limited number of things to cook, kind of like Per Se or French Laundry for a day.

        So last year the wines were from Washington state with DeLille Cellars, Oregon with Elk Cove, Arizona with movie director Sam Pillsbury and his wines (Sam had a lot of good stories :), and Paso Robles (Halter Ranch, I remember that one because we stocked up on their 2007 Ancestor Meritage it was so good).

        This year they are doing four different areas of Italy. We will surely make two of them, possibly three. Maybe we'll see you there.

        1. re: willyum
          Bill Hunt Mar 1, 2013 08:05 PM

          I was NOT aware of their wine dinners, so am very thankful for your mention of them.

          As we are in North Phoenix, we like to stay down there, when we dine, or at least hire our regular driver, to drop us off, and pick us up. Still, a stay is the best course of action.

          Greatly appreciated,


          1. re: Bill Hunt
            willyum Mar 2, 2013 08:09 AM

            Bill, here's a link to last year's Wine Dinner Series. Probably they'll post the 2013 list for Italy soon (the one I linked to is from March 6, 2012, so I'm guessing early March for the new update). You can email Rosina and get a copy of the menus in advance once they are nailed down.


            1. re: willyum
              willyum Mar 2, 2013 08:18 AM

              One more thing ... here's a link to a CH post I did last summer after the Halter Ranch wine series meal at Kai.

              This was probably my favorite ... the wine - food pairings were exceptional for this one, especially the Syrah with the pheasant and wild game raviolis and the Bordeaux-like Meritage with the wagyu. After this meal I suggested to Chef Johnson and Frank (manager) that they add wagyu to the 'normal' menu and I was happy to see it added after the fall makeover.


    2. Rubee Feb 28, 2013 10:24 PM

      I also love Binkley's, but we've been to Kai since the change and had another spectacular meal. We were a party of 5 (4 of us had been before) and we all thought it was wonderful. Chef Joshua Johnson worked for years with Chef O'Dowd and thus it was a seamless transition. I don't think you'd be disappointed, it is still exceptional.


      One of my friends posted an Instagram picture from our dinner. I forget her fish dish (trout?), but others were signature dishes such as the escargot with wild mushrooms, the lobster dégustation, and soufflé:

      From my order, two standouts were a vegetable starter, and the pecan-crusted lamb with mole:

      1 Reply
      1. re: Rubee
        willyum Mar 2, 2013 05:04 PM

        Rubee, that was a nice write-up on Chef Johnson. Thanks for posting the link (did you write the article?).

        My wife and I will be dining with Chef at Alinea in Chicago in April. I'm really interested to see how he takes to Grant Achatz' techniques and cuisine. I know he sneaks a little bit of molecular techniques in the wine dinners at times :)

      2. Bill Hunt Feb 27, 2013 08:18 PM

        Have not been, since the chef change, so cannot comment on what it's like now.



        2 Replies
        1. re: Bill Hunt
          lkomar Feb 28, 2013 01:41 PM

          Many thanks for answering, I have read your comments on the Phoenix board with interest. I checked the menu at the downtown Sheraton and it seems like a very standard restaurant menu and does not seem to have been influenced by the arrival of Chef O'Dowd at all. I also checked the menu at Kai and it seems unchanged. Not sure whether we will go there tomorrow night or not. I may call both restaurants and check whether their menus are what is posted on line or not.

          1. re: lkomar
            Bill Hunt Mar 1, 2013 07:20 PM

            First, Phoenix has been a city, where "resort restaurants" have been "cutting-edge," though not always. At the end of the day, there are often corporate dictates, that trump a chef's personal direction. That just happens.

            Giving a particular chef leeway to do their particular "thing," should be part of the corporate design, but all too often, it is not.

            Much of what a chef can do is based on the corporation/management. Chef A might be able to carry their personal vision to restaurant Z, but Chef B might be handicapped with restaurant X. That just happens.

            Though not "resort related," I have some observations on Chef Michael Mina in San Francisco. When he was Exec. Chef at Aqua, things were great. When he moved out, and opened Michael Mina's at the St. Francis, he was great. When he opened a dozen Michael Mina corporate restaurants, things got a tad shaky. He restructured the St. Francis location to Michael Mina Bourbon Steak, and it just missed the cut. He bought the old Aqua, an appointed a new Exec. Chef there, and things are being sorted out, but not up to what they were, when he was Exec. Chef there. Even when one is the primary individual in a corporation (just like with a Hilton, a Marriott, or even a Ritz-Carlton), things can go a bit "off."

            For Chef O'Dowd, I have not dined with him at the Sheraton, so cannot comment. I wish him the best, as we enjoyed his fare at Kai, over the years.


        2. hohokam Feb 27, 2013 08:02 PM

          Michael O'Dowd did leave Kai and is now at another Sheraton property (Downtown Phoenix).

          I can't comment on any change (or lack thereof) in the quality of the experience.

          1 Reply
          1. re: hohokam
            lkomar Feb 28, 2013 01:42 PM

            Thanks for answering.

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