My latest discovery — The Turquoise Room — is a gem of a find that serves regional Southwestern cuisine at the edge of Arizona’s Painted Desert. This funky, creative fine dining eatery is connected to the ever so artsy La Posada Hotel in Winslow Arizona.
Considered by many to be the finest restaurant in the Four Corners region (I would agree), the Turquoise Room opened in 2000 under the direction of renowned Chef John Sharpe, who is all about using natural ingredients, cooking from scratch and using local regional suppliers wherever possible. In winter months for example which is when we were there, much of their produce comes from Crooked Sky Farms of Glendale, Arizona.
Located between the infamous Route 66 and the railroad tracks, the restaurant is named after the private dining car on the 1936 Super Chief that ran between Los Angeles and Chicago.
The menu features retro dishes from the days when the Fred Harvey Company served rail travelers across America, but don’t let that factoid kid you. This is fine dining at its best. From salads and soups to fish, cured meat and lamb, John and his culinary team will make you jealous that this incredible restaurant isn’t in your backyard.
I try to always start with a salad and the McClendon’s Organic Winter Salad on the menu was so beautifully presented, I didn’t want to dive in at first. He makes it with mixed greens, which are tossed in a blood orange and hazelnut vinaigrette and garnished with Moro blood orange segments, pomegranate seeds, gold beets and radishes. It was so fresh that you could never guess you were in the middle of a desert region in the heart of winter.
The Classic Southwestern Caesar with roasted Pumpkin seeds and parmesan cheese, all garnished with red peppers and parmesan crusted cracker bread.
We didn’t try the Cured Meat and Pate Platter, but it sounded divine. John prepares a mixed plate of goose rillettes (cured slivers of goose in a soft style of pate), silvers of Smoked Mangalitsa Pig (dried cured and then smoked), Sliced Pickled Churro Lamb’s Tongue and pickled gherkins, house-made quince and apple chutney. Wow!
While I rarely order anything fried, when I’m traveling to unique places where part of the local cuisine involves a whole lotta oil and fry power, I’ll give it a try. They were eager to have us sample the Churro Lamb Meatballs with Green Chili Mint, as apparently it’s a favorite among regulars.
The meatballs are studded with currants, pinion and Sonoran wheat berries, Panko crushed on a bed of wilted spinach salad and tossed in a sherry vinaigrette. The dipping sauce was outa this world — a blend of green chili, tomatillo and mint.
Their Churro Lamb is free range certified Organic and reared by Antonio and Molly Manzanares, who raise their lambs in the Tierra Amarilla area of New Mexico and at their family ranch at the foot of the San Juan Mountains. They are hormone and antibiotic free (YAY!!) as well as being a “Heritage Breed” of lamb. It’s no surprise that the meat at Turquoise Room is organic and fresh given John’s approach to food. An active member of Slow Foods, he looks for naturally raised, whether it’s pork, goat, beef, elk, quail, salmon, lamb or beef.
The main entree options were so extraordinary and unusual that it was hard to pick a few to sample, particularly given the large selection of game on the menu — goose, quail, elk, boar….you name it.
We opted for the Native Arizona Cassoulet with Churra Lamb and Goose, paired with a 2011 Old Vine Zinfandel Ballentine Napa. It was perfect! He takes Arizona grown Tepary beans and simmers them with smoked pork, goose, and Churro Lamb and then adds red chile and spices. It is served with a boneless grilled lamb loin chop, confit of goose and grilled Heritage pork Andouille sausage. A drizzle of red chile sauce sits on top accompanied by Romanesco cauliflower.
Then, we dove into the “died and gone to heaven” seared Elk Medallions with Black Currant Sauce. Three Farm raised New Zealand Elk loin medallions with a Cassis and brandy blackcurrant sauce was cooked in a wild mushroom and roasted corn flan, and served with steamed sugar snap peas. Let’s not forget the fresh organic vegetables and the twig of Rosemary on top! They paired this with a Coppola Director’s Cut Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley.
Other mains worth mentioning include the Wild Platter (quail, elk, and wild boar chili), the Blackened Farm Raised Redfish with Mushroom Ragout, a Grilled chicken breast with sweet corn tamale, a Shrimp with spinach papardelle pasta, Pork Carnitas, the Churro Lamb Sampler prepared three ways and the Bacon Wrapped Filet, which they serve with potatoes and vegetables. OMG!
While your mouth is watering and you probably can’t read anymore without craving all of the above, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the chocolate decadence we ended our meal with — a double chocolate grand marnier souffle, which took about a half an hour to prepare. Note to self – order it when you put in your main course order.
The cake is cooked with grand marnier while it bakes and powdered sugar is tossed on top with a little mint. Then, to make matters worse (or better depending on your perspective), they pour dark chocolate syrup on top and if you want it — house-made whipped cream. I think we stayed with our Zin for this, together with decaf cappucinos.
The ambiance is ecelctic, from the art on the walls, to the creatively curated tables and the overly ornamental gold ceiling lights with the copper fixtures that were commissioned in the Pueblo Deco style to add warm tones to the dining room. They are enhanced by trolley lights, contemporary task lighting strung across the dining room, to illuminate each table….and it just works.
Imagine a two story adobe that doesn’t appear to be any bigger from the outside than a mid-sized inn, and yet when you enter its doors, you’re swallowed by massive rooms that are oozing with art, color and creativity. Be sure to read my write-up on La Posada Hotel.
It’s eclectic and old world. Throughout the restaurant, there are countless religious symbols, painted on walls and inside of the stained glass “paintings” in the restaurant and the hotel itself. In the ‘stained glass’ images are saints, likely of Spanish descent.
Indian and Mexican tapestries and rugs hang from the walls and turquoise and green wooden beams jut out from the ceilings, giving the main dining room at The Turquoise Room, major presence. There are domed entryways throughout the restaurant and hotel, a sign of its historical significance and attention to detail. Like the attention paid to the architecture, the food is as exquisite and memorable. John also has a Turquoise Room cookbook which is loaded with photos and recipes – more information can be found at www.theturquoiseroom.net.
Two thumbs up! John’s cooking had me at hello — what a treat at the end of our incredibly day driving through the stunning Painted Desert.
The Turquoise Room (located inside La Posada Hotel)
303 E 2nd Street
Winslow, AZ 86047