WHAT KIND OF FOOD AM I?

You get soup or salad with dinner at Buster's. Actually, you have your choice of three types of salad: tossed green, Caesar or spinach. We opt for the latter two. The Caesar looks and tastes better than expected. Dripping with tart eggy-lemon dressing, it features crisp romaine lettuce. Unfortunately, the spinach salad is also eggy, because of a too-hearty helping of chopped hard-boiled egg. Tomato, mushrooms, hickory-smoked bacon bits and croutons also top this salad, which is flavored with a sweet-and-sour dressing. With all this egg and bacon, I feel like I'm eating breakfast. And what's a tomato doing in a spinach salad? It simply doesn't work.

Thankfully, the zucchini and sourdough breads which come with our salads are both excellent. Too bad we had to wait so long for them.

Believe it or not, the couple in the next booth is still nursing that big goldfish-bowl drink. Our entrees arrive. Both are presented in the same unimaginative way: meat or fish, dull-looking steamed vegetables and, on a separate saucer, potato or rice. Awkward, boring and really coffee-shop.

Not to mention underdone. Steak Diane requested medium looks capable of mooing. The dark brown Dijon-brandy sauce tastes mostly of mustard, but it can't disguise the unpleasant mealy texture of this filet. It's a loser.

Fresh Hawaiian Ahi is better. The half-inch tuna steak is tender, tasty and nicely seared in a teriyaki like sauce. However, the fresh pineapple salsa that accompanies it is laughable: it has no kick whatsoever.

When we mention to our waitress that we're interested in dessert, she goes dreamy-eyed and recites our options. A Haagen Dazs ice cream eclair and flourless chocolate pistachio torte sound pretty good. She goes off to fetch them and we're left staring at our dirty plates again. For the second time tonight, we must beg someone to remove them from our table.

It is now more than obvious that Buster's needs to work on its busing. During the course of the evening, we watch three different groups of diners refuse various booths near us because of crumbs on seats, unwiped tables and so forth. Oh, for the pampered life at The Bistro!

I don't hate dessert, but even real whipped cream can't redeem the way I feel about Buster's. With tax and tip, we spend $66 here this night. And no, that doesn't include wine.

It'll take a blizzardy day in Phoenix before Buster's will ever get that kind of money from me again.

Though I despise Buster's, I can understand how other people might like it. Jennifer's is another story--one filed under "Mystery." Determining its raison d'etre would give Agatha Christie a migraine.

But let me start at the beginning.
Jennifer's is a homey little Scottsdale restaurant on Stetson just north of Fifth Avenue. We arrive on the early side, hoping to salvage some of the evening for other things.

When we enter, Jennifer's is positively morguelike. There are only two parties seated in the mauve-and-maroon dining room. Neither the choice of radio station ("Your favorite mellow hits from the Seventies") nor the forced cheer of the decor (little baskets and woven things stuck to the walls) make it feel any livelier. This place is deader than Gerald Ford's political career.

One waiter handles the entire room. Clad in polo shirt, shorts and athletic shoes and socks, he is dressed more appropriately for a sports bar than for this somewhat feminine place. Clearly, he's not up to the task at hand. We experience the same inattention to detail as at Buster's: plates left too long, water glasses not refilled, dessert forks forgotten. It is not a fun evening.

For starters, I hate Jennifer's menu. When I see sandwiches listed on its center panel, I ask the waiter if we have the dinner menu. "It's the lunch-and-dinner menu," he replies. Still confused, I ask, "So it is the dinner menu?" "It's both," says he. Oh.

And what a miserable melange of outdated trends it is. Teriyaki chicken, blackened fish, taco salad. Ugh.

A "fresh catch" advertised on chalkboards around the room grabs my eye. "How is the trout prepared?" I ask our waiter. "Any way you like," he says, rattling off a list. "Baked, broiled, pan-fried, grilled." Pretty darn exciting. "We do use olive oil when we pan-fry," he volunteers. Then there's the food itself. An appetizer sampler is dismal. Buffalo wings are decently spiced and tender, but I suspect the sauce is laced with monosodium glutamate.

Cheese-topped potato skins are clunky-looking and greasy--more potato than skin. They're a far cry from Buster's light and crunchy version.

Tempura mushrooms are an insult to the Japanese chef who invented this much-maligned cooking technique. Fried to a dark brown, these whole beer-battered mushrooms look like UFOs. They're definitely alien to me. Another foursome enters the restaurant. They are attired in shorts and tank tops, but seem to be discussing a work project. Aha! Out-of-town business folks touring Scottsdale. I pity them for wandering in.

A tossed salad proves to be both wilted and chilled. The Parmesan-based house dressing spiked with peppercorns can't hide this fact. Homemade vegetable soup is slightly better. Hearty, hot and healthy, it's chock-full of carrots, summer squash and lots of tomato seeds.

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