Finding truly fresh seafood in northern Arizona is nearly impossible.
So when the Navajo Nation was searching for ways to draw crowds to the Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort, they enlisted Chef Stewart Weinstein to come up with something truly different.
His creation opened four months ago, a seafood bar called The Reef.
Some of the dishes are similar to what you’d find on the menu at many Flagstaff sushi restaurants. The difference at Twin Arrows, itself an oddity in the desert, is that the fish was on a boat in Hawaii just 12 hours before it reaches the plate.
“I don’t know anyone else getting seafood flown next-day air,” Weinstein said.
In the afternoon, he gets a call from his buyer in Hawaii telling him which boats are out on the water and what fish they’re catching. He tells the buyer what he wants from the fish markets when the boats arrive at shore. The fish is packed in ice immediately from catch and then Cryovaced and flown to Flagstaff, where it’s picked up from Pulliam Airport and driven 25 miles to Twin Arrows.
“They know how important it is to keep the fish cold,” Weinstein said.
Weinstein grew up in Mesa, but acquired a fascination with seafood on regular family trips to New England as a child.
“Some of my fondest memories are of seafood and things like having lobster for the first time,” he said.
He went to school and became a dietician, but quickly became alienated with the way his chosen field was headed. He reverted back to cooking.
Twin Arrows also snatched up Executive Chef and Food and Beverage Director Quinn McCord, who had previously worked in Atlantic City for more than two decades.
“I worked at the Taj Mahal and you can pretty much get everything you want there within 48 hours,” McCord said. “Here it’s a little different.”
The food and beverage director has tried to focus on bringing in local foods from the surrounding area as much as possible. Beer is bought from local microbreweries. Beef at the steakhouse is purchased from certified Navajo ranches, which McCord says shocked him with its taste.
The Reef has also taken an old-fashioned pecan pie recipe and flipped it on its head by substituting pinyons, a delicacy he came up with on his own and one only feasible in northern Arizona.
But for seafood, there is obviously no local alternative in the desert. And instead of just the traditional sushi, Weinstein has also chosen to bring in East Coast seafood styles as well.
His signature dish is a lobster salad, with artisan hearts of romaine, applewood smoked bacon, gorgonzola, and garlic croutons, topped with four ounces of Maine lobster and anchovies from the Mediterranean. The salad sells for $19.
The restaurant also offers a range of soups — from old-fashioned oyster to Thai mussel soup, creamy New England clam chowder and lobster bisque made with a 10-year-old Amontillado Sherry and large chunks of lobster. The soups cost between $8 and $12.
There’s also sashimi available with market fish like yellow marlin or seared tuna. Eight pieces cost $12. Rolls are also $12.
“We’re kind of a nice blend of West Coast sushi and East Coast oyster bar,” he said.
The restaurant has been open for only four months — making it just slightly newer than the casino — but it’s yet to prove if it can draw people out to the casino.
On a recent Saturday night at the casino, there was plenty of room at The Reef during dinner, despite the restaurant only having seating for 34. But the gaming tables and slot machines on the casino floor were also wide open. The Reef is only open Thursday through Sunday nights.
As is the goal with much of the casino management, Weinstein hopes that he can eventually turn the place over to his staff and move out of the picture once Twin Arrows has become successful.
“My job is taking Navajo cooks and turning them into Navajo chefs,” he said.
Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.