Oasis in the Desert
The Royal Palms Resort in Phoenix offers a fabulous home base for any traveler looking to soak in the adventures, cultural or otherwise, of Arizona's Urban Heart.
By David Henley
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
From the Spring 2016 Travel & Culture Issue of Clef Notes Journal
For the sophisticated traveler, the Greater Phoenix area offers a host of lavish award-winning accommodations from boutique hotels to expansive estates. High among the list of the latter lives the Royal Palms Resort nestled contentedly at the base of Phoenix’s expansive Camelback Mountain, the dramatic backdrop to a Mediterranean haven offering intimate décor and stunning vistas alike.
Originally built in 1929 as a summer retreat for Cunard Steamship executive and financier Delos Cooke, the resort boasts grand manor-style architecture and exquisite Post World War II era glamour. Guests enter through a driveway lined generously with regal palms and welcomed by gracious bell staff at the foot of a 250-year-old fountain in the spectacular circular porte cochere.
With 119 custom-appointed casitas, lush suites and guestrooms, the property is rich in Spanish Colonial charm, framed by gorgeous palms, lush flower gardens, towering cacti and an abundance of citrus trees all dotting the meticulously cultivated landscape.
The service in impeccable. From the moment you enter the property, the welcoming staff meet your every need. From the helpful bellmen that greet you in the driveway to the affable front desk team to the capable concierge gurus, no request is too difficult and no need too trite. It’s all a part of the culture of service and commitment to excellence the Royal Palms works hard to foster. According to general manager Stephen Johnson, each staff member is "encouraged to present the 'royal treatment' with their own personal, authentic delivery," allowing for a "naturally fluid connection" of the resort's native service and standards, making each guest's experience one that is remarkable and unique.
The resort is anchored by a captivating mansion surrounded by lovely and distinctive enclaves, all the epitome of opulence and comfort.
First there is the Montavista Collection, Mediterranean-inspired guestrooms and suites that overlook a beautifully tiered garden terrace and tranquil reflecting pools and fountains, outdoor fireplaces, bougainvillea and dramatic views of Camelback Mountain.
Then there is the intimacy of the resort’s casita’s. With beautifully appointed master bedrooms, luxury bathrooms and private patios, each is individually custom designed and lavishly arrayed. There are also 30 new Valencia Casitas (the welcome result of a recent $1.2 million renovation in 2012) located in the resort’s stunning Valencia Gardens. The rooms burst with colors and fabrics rich in the Spanish Colonial style. Fireplaces imbue each living space with warmth and elegance, and wrought-iron four poster beds add a wealth of delicious comfort.
Finally, there are the villas. Set amidst lush private courtyards and colorful gardens, four stylish villas provide a robust dose of serenity and history, featuring grand scale furniture, stone floors and fireplaces and private patios to soothe and sate.
Dining at the Royal Palms revolves around the long-established T. Cook’s Restaurant near the property’s center. After an extensive three-month renovation during the summer of 2013, T. Cook’s began offering a brand new culinary experience while remaining true to its Mediterranean beginnings. Back in May of 2015, acclaimed chef Todd Allison was tapped to take the renowned fine dining retreat in a new direction. After years of diversion into new American cuisine, the James Boyce protégée took the pulse of long-time local guests and foodies and made the decision to bring the menu back to the rich Mediterranean tradition for which T. Cook’s was so well known. The result has been a refreshing take on bold flavors, traditional ingredients and artful plating that makes T. Cook’s one of the premier fine dinging restaurants in the greater Phoenix area.
Of course, Chef Allison knows a thing or two about new directions in fine cuisine. The San Diego born chef launched his career just down the road from the Royal Palms at the Phoenecian, where he cut his teeth as the right hand man to celebrity chef James Boyce for 10 years. From there he made the rounds at some of the premier restaurants on the West Coast, including Michael Mina’s Aqua, Anthology and Bollinger’s in San Diego, and Hilton Checkers in Los Angeles, where he was executive chef. His career came full circle when he was asked to take the helm at the Royal Palms early last year.
When he did, what he wanted to do most was listen to those local guests and regulars who pointed to T. Cook’s rich history when queried about what they liked to see in the restaurant. And some of that meant getting back to basics. Chef Allison began developing his own twist on authentic Mediterranean cuisine with a return to the old T. Cook’s tradition of bread service with home made pesto. He also instituted a culinary mandate to get back to basics in fine dining and in the process, found himself nurturing the next generation of culinary experts along the way. Allison explained, “I tried pulling some really traditional recipes out, making gnocchi from scratch, making ravioli, making pasta, teaching all these young kids that I have coming out of culinary school so that they’re not opening packages from the freezer. We are a scratch kitchen. We make everything from scratch, which is something you hope most chefs are doing…so it’s a great thing to teach these kids and get them to embrace good culinary practice.”
As for the flavors, Chef Allison is all about balance. “I gotta give credit to James Boyce for everything that he taught me,” Allison insists. “Every dish needs to have balance. You know you have acid, salt, sweet and textures too. You have to have balance, and that’s hard to teach some of my cooks. Extracting flavors from the ingredients enhances the dish. Instead of chopping the garlic, you crush the garlic so that the oils release…There are a lot of techniques you can teach these kids they might not exactly understand coming out of (culinary school). So it’s definitely something I try to do in every dish; you want to ensure there’s balance in everything you do.”
And balance is a huge part of every bite you taste on T. Cook’s menu. Not overly done and tightly held to the Mediterranean staples, Chef Allison’s new menu, launched back in September, is a testament to simple but succulent delights that satisfy at the heart of the culinary experience.
My favorites? Try the braised all natural beef shortrib. Cooked to perfection, the meat is served boneless and plated atop an equally well-cooked bowl of soft parmesan risotto. Sauteed chanterelle mushrooms add the perfect balance of taste and texture to each component of the dish, along with the satisfying contrast of crispy leeks for a delicious garnish.
There is slate of straightforward, but enticing, salads from which to choose. The most exotic of the mix is made up of picked golden beets and crow’s dairy goat cheese. It offers a tasty cranberry pistachio pesto with watercress and barrel aged sherry bourbon, a flavorful option you won’t soon forget.
And entrees abound in bold tastes, lovely textures and lively accompaniments. Try the grilled New York strip steak. It’s plated atop a bed of bright heirloom squash, tender zucchini, potent olive demi and finished in a light savory chimichurri sauce. A garnish of blistered shishito peppers adds a dash of pop to a gorgeously dressed plate in this dish.
T. Cook’s offers a diverse wine list with vintages from around the globe, and the wait staff is very knowledgeable. They can certainly point you in the right direction for acutely spot-on pairings with every course.
Other dining options on the property include the Mix Up Bar, just steps from T. Cook’s. The bar brings an energetic and fresh cocktail concept to the Royal Palms, delivering drinks crafted with an, often unexpected mix of the season’s freshest ingredients, herbs, juices and seasonings. Their Happy Hour menu boasts the most succulent burger this side of the Grand Canyon. Draped in American cheese and topped with crisp tobacco onions, it’s packed with a tender barbeque shortrib and sates the appetite and the eyes alike.
There’s also a la fresco dining and a Cabana Grill adjacent to the resort’s swimming pool that serves light fare of salads, sandwiches and beverages to guests...you guessed it, poolside.
The resort also lays claim to the award-winning Alvorada Spa, a warm, convivial retreat extravagant with intimate ambiance and romance. Distinguished by the Spanish Colonial design of the hotel coupled with distinctive European influences, the spa intertwines the indoors and outdoors in a one-of-a-kind, non-clinical environment. Bathed in natural stone, aged timbers, rich colors and texture and furnishings that are as welcoming as their staff, Alvorada offers seven interior treatment rooms and a lavish amount of outdoor treatment space amidst a tableau of lush gardens, lively fountains and grand fireplaces.
Guests may relax by the Watsu massage pool or refresh in the rejuvenating Vichy showers nearby, and the fitness center and full-service salon complete the experience during your stay.
Royal Palms Resort and Spa - A Destination Hotel - Front Drive (photo courtesy of Royal Palms Resort and Spa - Phoenix).