Over the holidays, a friend visiting from New York called and said he wanted to meet for lunch. I suggested The Compound because I knew he’d like the quiet location off Canyon Road, the subtle Southwestern interior (created by the late designer and folk-art collector Alexander Girard), and the menu of seasonal selections — heavy on beef, pork, chicken, and seafood — put together by award-winning chef Mark Kiffin.
He went away well stuffed, but a local friend was skeptical when I took him there recently. He thinks The Compound coasts along on food that’s dependable but not very innovative, and he pointed out with a laugh that one of its signature desserts — liquid chocolate cake — is similar to the molten chocolate cake cited in the movie Chef as a perfect example of a modern restaurant cliché.
Who’s right? After two recent visits, I have to lean toward optimism: When you’re in the mood for a splurge, The Compound is still a good choice. It’s expensive but not shockingly so, especially considering the level of service and the quality of ingredients.
My first trip, for lunch, happened on a snowy day, so I tried one of The Compound’s brown-booze cocktails: the “1966,” a variation on the Sazerac. Invented in New Orleans in the 19th century, the Sazerac features rye or bourbon, bitters, and an anise-flavored liqueur like Pernod or Herbsaint — all stirred together with ice, strained, and garnished with a lemon peel. The Compound’s update uses Bulleit rye, brown sugar, Pernod, fizzy water, lemon peel, and ice. It was OK, but they should dial back the Pernod: This drink came perilously close to tasting like licorice-flavored ginger ale.
My friend ordered the tuna niçoise salad — a winner. It’s pricey ($19), but it’s a meal in itself, combining raw spinach, watercress, tomato, olives, green beans, hard-cooked egg, and a generous amount of rare tuna that’s been expertly seared. (Our salad’s ingredients didn’t match what’s on the menu, but that was good: It contained extras.) Another starter I’d recommend is the stacked salad, a dense combination of romaine lettuce, tomato, ham, eggs, blue cheese, and avocado ranch dressing.
My main event was a longtime Compound staple: chicken schnitzel, a nothing-fancy dish the restaurant does well. A chicken breast is pounded to a uniform thickness, coated (just guessing, but the cooks probably use flour, eggs, and panko breadcrumbs), and then fast-fried. The finishing touch is a rich, lemony sauce with capers and herbs, and the schnitzel is served with buttery steamed spinach.
For a second trip, at dinnertime, the plan was to economize by sitting at the U-shaped bar to the right of the main entrance, a cheerful place livened up by bartenders like Mike O’Keefe, who has a talent for making you feel relaxed and welcome. Unfortunately, our reservation was annulled by people having so much fun drinking they didn’t want to get up and leave. The restaurant can’t control that, and the host handled the situation adroitly: apologizing, putting us at a corner table for two, and making it clear that we could still order off the less-expensive bar menu if we preferred.
We started with two drinks, both excellent: the Rainbird (a margarita made with prickly pear purée) and the Girard Lemonade (citrus vodka, lemon juice, Cointreau, and Chambord). While working on those, we gobbled up a stack of impressively delicate and perfectly battered onion rings, as well as one of the best appetizers I’ve had in a while: the roasted heirloom beet salad. Our thoughtful waiter had the kitchen split our one salad in two, with each plate an artsy creation showcasing, without fuss, the appealing colors and textures of the ingredients: multicolored small beets and beet wedges, whipped ricotta cheese, Marcona almonds, pink grapefruit, sprouts, fresh dill, chives, and tiny fennel blossoms.
I tried something heavier for my entree: seared pork tenderloin. Because tenderloin is relatively lean, it’s tricky to cook it so that it’s crisp on the outside and pink on the inside. The cut I got had good flavor — much of it picked up by a pear-rosemary puree that surrounded it — but it wasn’t as tender as I’d hoped. My friend ordered the shrimp and grits, a Southern staple smartly regionalized at The Compound with a red sauce that has a smoky red-chile undercurrent.
For dessert we picked the apple strudel with maple ice cream. The ice cream was terrific, but the apples were undercooked. Also disappointing were the coffee and cappuccino we had with the strudel: Both were on the bitter and lukewarm side. Maybe we just happened upon a mediocre batch, but a restaurant that serves so many good things should be able to provide a consistently fine and mellow brew.