In 2012, the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North used two million dollars to create an ode to travel and food along American highways. The money was well spent. Named Proof Canteen, the two food terms arouse nostalgic periods of American dining and drinking experience. The interior of the restaurant is an ode to American dining with a series of eating vignettes.
Upon arrival, guests are greeted complete with a foosball table. In another area, a customer handily throws darts. Part of the actual bar resembles a Western saloon but with interior design magic transforms into a 1950s ice cream parlor somewhere about halfway down. The kitchen pass is a faithful stainless steel imitation, complete with the flagging dining tickets. The 21st Century hipster hangout gets a little representation with tufted couches. Spaced throughout, six televisions alternately play American past-times such as North American basketball, football, and baseball. Lastly, right down the middle, are “train tracks” laid to move the bar tables around. It’s a carefully planned, expensive, and inventive tribute to American restaurant dining.
Over the last 15 years, the luxury Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts have been changing their dining atmospheres to appeal to a wider variety of people. Now, the hotels’ travelers are becoming more frequent diners as is the community in which they serve. For instance, Le Cinq at the Four Seasons Hotel George V Paris is a bastion of haute cuisine, complete with two Michelin-stars and a Parisian’s epicurean monument. Culina, the dining experience at the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills was named one of Esquire Magazine’s top ten new restaurants in 2010, and Proof Canteen is a neighborhood restaurant where 50 percent of the diners live in the area. All the aforementioned restaurants in the hotels feel more independently-owned then part of a Fortune 500. It’s been a very good move for the hotelier.
We were seated outside — past the faux-historical interior — where the remaining sunlight ricocheted off the granite of Pinnacle Peak, creating an almost surreal rose gold hue. Four Seasons Scottsdale is nestled at the foothills of Pinnacle Peak mountain range and it’s a showcase of the Southwestern United States topography — with massive canyons and inherent nature you won’t find elsewhere in the world. This dining view was better than any television screen.
It’s an interesting concept to create a restaurant around road food and its history. As a car adventurer, I know the cooking intimately from the neon-lit motels, distant diners and truck stops. During the late sixties and early seventies, my mother and I would drive from Los Angeles to Pelzer, South Carolina for the Christmas holidays. There would be deep stretches of road with nothing except an occasional sign saying, “Next gas station 250 miles.” It was one long black ribbon serving as our compass to my grandma’s Southern sausage biscuits and gravy. Along the way, an occasional Stuckey’s or a Howard Johnson’s would be a place to rest along the never-ending highways.
The meals were fortifying, cheap, and delicious. Eggs cooked with real butter; eggs with hash browns and bacon; pancakes made with buttermilk and topped with real maple syrup. It wasn’t fussy food, but it was economical and filling. Jukeboxes were at the each Formica tables, and my mother would give me a dime for three plays.
But this is a Four Seasons, not a roadside restaurant in the 1970s. The food is representative of the road but at a much higher level in taste and delivery. It’s almost incomparable and of course, it succeeds.
There is one thing about the luxury brand and its restaurants that are unsurpassed by any of the other major high-end hotels, its service. Without being obsequious, Four Seasons has the distinction of providing the best and most consistent customer care of the any of the international properties from my point of view and experience. The service at Proof is impeccable. Food and drinks arrive at the table quickly. Empty plates are whisked away with efficiency. There is no dilly-dallying amongst the young waitstaff (I don’t think anyone was over the age of 25). They scurried around with patience and attended our needs even though there were many demanding patrons, including a party of 10 near us.
Proof Canteen’s drink list is a combination of small-batch and craft-distilled American spirits, with an emphasis on bourbon and whiskey. Beer lovers will find more than 50 microbrews, including six draught beers and several brews from Arizona including Lost Highway IPA, San Tan Hefweizen and a pale ale from Mother Road America, naming only a few. Instead of glasses, the drinks are served in chemistry beakers depending on the amount requested. Cute.
For wine aficionados, the wine list consists more than 50 bottles including four wines on tap. In comparison, Arizona wine selections are a little sparse. However, the choices represented are small Grand Canyon State producers such as a chardonnay from AZ Stronghold (Chochise Valley, Arizona) and a rosé from Dos Cabezas “Pink” (Sonoita, Arizona).
There are also several distillers from the state which stand out like a Copper City Bourbon from Tempe.
We settled in with our drinks and took a look at the menu. It hones in on entertaining with severe comfort food such as housemade pretzel knots, fries cooked in duck fat and smothered with cheese curds resembling a Canadian poutine, and fried green tomatoes battered in cornmeal.
The pretzel knots with a spicy cheese sauce (3 for $5/ 5 for $7) are well-known so we opted to start with them while we perused the menu. The knots are warm, crusty and yeasty dough with melted Velveeta, sriracha cheese on the side for dipping. If you are looking for a quick, zesty fix, these might be the ticket. A fun afternoon would be ordering ten, pairing it up with a bold glass of white wine and watch Peyton Manning knock them to the side on one of the television screens. It’s not what we did but it’s a thought. We ordered the smaller pretzel portion and the Dr. Pepper barbecue ribs ($14). The pork ribs were gooey with a lovely sweetness and heat. Ribs slathered in a good sauce should be messy with a melt-in-your-mouth richness. Cut in half, the ribs are meaty morsels coated in rich barbeque. My dining companion and I didn’t get the distinct aftertaste of Dr. Pepper. We did get a lot of succulent sweetness which is really what we are aiming to eat. They were mouthwatering and finger-licking good.
These were followed by two icons of American food: the beer can chicken ($25 for half chicken/ $47 for whole) and chicken and waffles ($24). Beer can chicken is scrumptious. In the way it’s cooked, an opened can of beer inserted into the fowl’s cavity, results in a juicy bird. The skin was crisped outside and roasted to a golden hue, served on a bed of corn grits, roasted vegetables with an au jus. Nothing could be better unless you are having the chicken and waffles, which we did.
Two crisped, deep fried chicken thighs are served on a pair of waffles with smoked blueberry syrup, peach compote, honey bacon brittle and honey almond butter. It’s a bit of a sensory overload. Before ordering the dish, the server said, “It’s our signature dish but some people don’t understand it.” I understand it very well. It’s an American dish with origins in the Pennsylvania Dutch community circa 1600s, a waffle slathered in chicken and gravy. At Proof, the dish is taken to a luscious extreme. The bird is brined before being cooked, keeping it moist before flouring and frying. Four Seasons Scottsdale’s executive sous chef Joey Cavetta, underneath the direction of the resort’s executive chef, Mel Mecinas, turns this simple American meal into a deep fried southern tribute with all the dressings of sweet and savory.
Chicken and waffles is difficult to pull-off in any kitchen much less a restaurant. It became masterful at Proof. The plating seems to be a miniature version of Pinnacle Peak: chicken on waffle; butter on chicken; bacon brittle on top as the summit. The plate is everything you can want in a meal: sweet, savory, buttery, salty, crunchy, succulent, rich, and fruity. It’s not for everyone as it’s a lot of tastes to envelope but for those that do, it’s a piece of Americana done right.
Another must have is the crab mac and cheese ($9). It is a meal in itself but I preferred this version over a lobster or even one with truffles. Crab’s flavor is distinct, both sweet and moist. Lobster can disappear when married with a cheesy macaroni. Its richness lost among the fat, like butter with butter. Truffles in my opinion can be overpowering. We found this mild blend of cheddar and Monterey Jack a perfect combination with the crustacean.
Dessert is an old-timey parade through a 1930’s malt shop featuring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. The menu consists of house made ice creams and plenty of toppings for sundaes. Chocolate chip cookies are good for the cookie fix ($3 for 5/ or $5 for 7). The other sweets are a peach bourbon pie ($9), turtle cheesecake, ($9) and even old fashioned hard candies can be purchased by the half pound ($5) or pound ($9). I will believe that the best chocolate cake I’ve had at a restaurant may be Proof’s triple layer cake ($9). It was so moist that when a knife cuts through the rich dark velvet, not a crumb; the chocolate buttercream was not overly cloying or sweet. I would come back just for this cake.
From my vantage, I could see nothing wrong with Proof. It’s an amazing casual eatery that provides scrumptious American dining without overthinking the process. Its execution is superb. It’s perhaps pricey, but the level of food and service is impeccable and worth every penny.