In Sedona's main dining room, on a wall as intensely blue as the desert sky at noon, hang three pictures that loosely resemble American Indian cave paintings. For some, the artwork will conjure visions of a pre-Columbian Southwestern culture. Others will think of New Age spiritualists and their mascot, the ancient flute-playing god Kokopelli.
Either interpretation sets a suitable mood for a meal at Sedona, which opened its doors in December in Pleasant Valley Promenade. True to the spirit of the restaurant's namesake town in Arizona, Sedona offers a dining experience that melds ancient and modern cultures, and defies simple categorization. On the menu, this translates to a contemporary fusion of American Indian, Latino, Tex-Mex and Southwestern flavors -- or, as Sedona bills it, "New Western cuisine."
Chef Michael Juers, in charge of putting this multicultural kaleidoscope on the plate, worked for seven years at Baja, a restaurant with a similar concept in New York. Juers' experience shows in a menu whose inventive combinations of flavors and textures are generally well-conceived, if not always fully realized.
Cornmeal-crusted calamari, for instance, are in theory a refreshing twist on an all-too-familiar theme. Unfortunately, reality -- in the form of chewy squid with a crust that's rather heavy and less than ideally crisp -- doesn't live up to theory. Pork carnitas tamales (called "Firecrackers" on the menu) come much closer to the mark; a little more generous hand in ladling on the accompanying colorado and verde sauces, and they'd hit the bull's eye. But black iron roasted mussels, a recent nightly special appetizer offering, would score points only with those whose palates are made of asbestos. Everyone else will find the mussels overwhelmed by the accompanying habanero-spiked tomato salsa, whose spice level is even hotter than the sizzling skillet on which the dish is presented.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
On the other hand, an appetizer special of yuca frita scores on all counts. Not only are the golden batons of fried yuca as delicately, addictively crisp as the best French fries, but their presentation -- protruding like so many cactus needles from a mound of chunky guacamole -- is charming as well.
Shrimp and scallops borracho is a winning entree option, featuring plump shellfish tossed with tomatoes, olives, chayote and peppers in a tequila-lime cream sauce over saffron-dyed fettuccine. So are Navajo Blankets, enchiladas filled with roasted chicken and Jack cheese and, aptly, blanketed with the sauces -- pale green cilantro cream and brick red colorado -- that earn the dish its colorful name. A mild tricolor chile sauce garnish is a well-matched counterpoint to coriander-rubbed, skillet-seared beef medallions, but the accompanying fried ribbons of sweet potato fail to deliver on their "crispy" promise. Ancho- and coconut-encrusted tuna is a well-conceived concept, accenting the meaty flesh of the fish with suitably spicy and sweet, but not too assertive, flavors. Unfortunately, the dish was marred by a scorched crust when I ordered it.
Desserts -- at least those I sampled -- are big enough to share. Sopapillas, served with vanilla bean ice cream, Kahlua, brandy, Cointreau, bananas and thinly sliced Granny Smith apples for a tart, crunchy contrast, are well worth the calorie investment. So are platanos Miguel, sautéed sweet plantains with rum butter sauce, ice cream and pecan nougat crumble, if the dish is offered as a dessert special.
Sedona offers a respectable selection of wine and beers, but the bar's claims to fame are its specialty margaritas made with freshly squeezed juices and one of the best tequila selections around. If you've ever wanted to try a flight of tequilas, to taste the difference that aging makes, this is the place to do it. You'll have some two dozen tequilas to choose from, sorted by age into the categories of blanco, reposado and añejo. And somehow, the juxtaposition of ancient and modern just seems appropriate in a place named Sedona.