Christmas in Sedona, Arizona isn’t what it once was. The great recession continues to clam causalities. In 2013, after 22 years, the Red Rock Holiday Fantasy at Los Abrigados Resort and Spa was cancelled. The festival featured nearly one million lights illuminating over two-dozen fanciful displays designed and fabricated by over 40 families and organizations. Luckily, the cherished traditions of lighting the luminarias (6,000 in all) and the Festival of Trees in Tlaquepaque’s Arts and Crafts Village courtyard are alive and well.
There is still plenty to occupy one’s time and fulfill one’s soul in the winter. When winter frosts the peaks of the red rock with white powder, it’s easy to see why Forbes Traveler magazine named Sedona “One of the Prettiest Towns in America”. Hiking and mountain biking at Red Rock State Park allows for communing with nature’s splendor. High-end resorts and new age spas will facilitate your spiritual journey and relax one’s mind and body. Taste buds will be enticed when sampling beverages from Northern Arizona wineries along the Verde Valley Wine Trail and tasting dozens of olive oils at the Verde Valley Olive Oil Traders in Old Town Cottonwood. Unfortunately, one’s culinary appetite is not as easily satisfied.
When flying into the area, the mesmerizing scenery will distract you from concentrating on the volatile high dessert winds and the growling in your stomach. Just off of runway 3 on a 500-foot high mesa is The Mesa Grill at “America’s Most Scenic Airport” (KSEZ). The restaurant’s floor to ceiling windows allows you to gaze out at one of the most beautiful views anywhere. The red sandstone formations “glow in brilliant orange and red when illuminated by the rising or setting sun.”
With a breathtaking backdrop as a first impression, I REALLY wanted to enjoy myself. The Mesa Grill has the raw materials to be a great restaurant – not just a great airport restaurant. It has some outstanding reviews allowing it to win a Hundred Dollar Hamburger Best of the Best Award for 2014. The metallic, industrial looking interior is balanced by the high ceilings and cascading natural light. It has an airy, open and relaxing feel. The exterior patio, with its large fire pit and meandering gardens, is the perfect place to have a drink or simply plane watch.
Mesa Grill bills itself as an “American Grill” so satisfying, traditional and flavorful combinations should populate the menu. The bill of fare takes the most popular, Americanized dishes and assumes familiarity will equal comfort not contempt. At lunch, Guacamole con Ceviche, Fish and Chips and Eggplant Parmesan appears next to a Southwestern Pulled Pork sandwich, Mexican Turkey Wrap and a French Escargot. Are we in a dinner, deli, cantina, bodega or French bistro?
The good news is there is less confusion on the plate then on the menu. The fried calamari was crisp textured, light and tender. The butternut squash soup with ginger was balanced, creamy, nourishing and tasted of the season. The spinach salad with citrus and mango was light and refreshing. A tangy salsa, “kicky” Southwestern coleslaw and a soft flour tortilla accompanied the Baja inspired grilled tilapia fish tacos. They were everything they should be: bold, smoky and robust.
The bad news is shortcomings kept rearing their head. What is an appetizer of Maryland soft shell crab and a Caprese salad of mozzarella and tomato doing on a menu in Arizona in the middle of November? At best, the crab will be frozen and taste bland and impotent. At the worst – as it was – it’s flat, dry and fishy. The tomatoes tasted as expected: red, watery cardboard. Both the mixed greens salad and the Caesar were swimming in dressing, overpowering the lettuce.
At Mesa, one right equals two wrongs. The burger section sported some interesting, inventive and enticing combinations. The Prima Donna burger features mushrooms, red onions, apple wood smoked bacon and blue cheese while the $100 Airport Burger tantalizes the palette with a combination of roasted chili peppers, Jack and cheddar cheese, tomatoes and a Santa Fe mayonnaise based sauce. The buns and fries were a let down though. The bread tasted like something out of a Subway sandwich shop while French fries arrived limp, greasy and soggy.
Hospitality is defined by the “generous and friendly treatment of visitors and guests.”(1) Mesa Grill’s owner Marc Battistini' seems to have forgotten that the restaurant business is the hospitality business. Mr. Battistini has instilled a sense of disinterest in his employees. Unfortunately, from host to server to cook and from breakfast to lunch to dinner, the staff exudes an attitude of superiority and condescension.
On more than one occasion, front-of-the-house staff didn't seem to care about their customers and the kitchen was operating in a different time zone. The wait for food and drink bordered on comical. The food lacked consistency and basic culinary technique was forgotten. Ingredients can taste of the freezer or the can. Lastly, the price-to-value equation did not compute.
In the restaurant business, the cliché of location, location, location rings true. The problem for the consuming public is when location trumps hospitality and reality turns out to be hype. The Mesa Grill has potential. Not sure patrons will put up with the long list of flaws waiting to see if it this place gets its act together.
(1) "hospitality" Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2014. Web. 1 November 2014
Sedona Airport (KSEZ)
Elevation: 4,830 ft.
Sectional chart: Phoenix
ARTCC: Albuquerque Center
FSS: Prescott Flight Service Station
Runways: 3/21 – 5,132 x 100 ft.
WX AWOS-2: 118.525 (928-282-1993)
Phoenix Approach/Departure: 126.375
The Mesa Grill
1185 Airport Road
Sedona, Arizona 86336
Phone: (928) 282-2400
Hours: Open Daily 7:00am – 9:00pm
Breakfast from 7:00am – 11:00am
Lunch from 11:30am – 3:00pm
Happy Hour from 3:00pm – 6:00pm
Dinner from 4:00pm – 9:00pm
Chef Stuart Stein is a graduate of the University of Illinois Business School and the culinary arts program at Chicago’s Kendall College. He has worked in France and the all over the US as a cook, executive chef, culinary instructor and restaurateur. Chef Stein is the writer of the book, The Sustainable Kitchen: Passionate Cooking Inspired by Farms, Forests, and Oceans (New Society Publishers), and has written in countless culinary and aviation publications. Stuart is also a private pilot flying in southern California.