THE PEPPER CHASE

Cooking-school restaurants probably oughtn't to be reviewed by critics. The servers and chefs are students--who find out quite literally if their performances are passable. They receive scorecards at the end of each meal, grades at the end of the term, certificates of completion at the end of the line.

Even so, the restaurants attached to two of the Valley's best-known epicurean institutes, Scottsdale Community College and Scottsdale Culinary Institute, wish to be perceived as real restaurants--not laboratories on school grounds. And so, in a sense, they invite real criticism, tempered, of course, by the knowledge that both operations are staffed with tender, young restaurant-industry employees in the making.

Constructive criticism, I think they call it.
Our first educational experience takes place at Scottsdale Community College's Culinary Arts Dining Room. Dinner here is a five-course, prix fixe affair. Diners have a choice of two appetizers, soups and salads; four entrees; and an overwhelming selection of desserts. The cost is $15 per person, plus tax and tip. Alcoholic beverages are not served, but nonalcoholic beer and sparkling cider are available. These cost extra, but coffee or tea is included with the meal.

In keeping with its nurturing purpose, the Culinary Arts Dining Room resembles a lovely rose-colored womb. The ceilings are high, the lighting is subtle, the music is classical. China, silver and glassware are professional quality. On looks alone, this culinary classroom deserves an A.

Our server tonight is a young man named Keith. He seems down-to-earth, honest and without pretensions. He explains menu items and preparation with just a hint of memorization and no awe whatsoever. This is schoolwork to him. He has to know these things. Sometimes, like when it comes to the kind of fried cheese in the salad, he forgets. "Oh gosh," says he. "It's French and I think it begins with an A." Mostly, however, he does a very fine job.

At the beginning of the meal, each diner is given a grading form. Every food item consumed receives a grade. So does the service. There are yes-and-no questions to be answered: Was the hot food hot? Was the cold food cold?

For me it feels a bit redundant to fill out this report, but my dining accomplice is pleased to be able to voice an opinion. He is an easy grader, as I would wager most people are. There is a tendency to want to be kind here, to be more generous about things than you would be in a regular restaurant.

This brings me to an observation about the overall atmosphere at the Culinary Arts Dining Room. There's a certain sense of watchfulness, of unease here, which grows more apparent as the evening wears on. As with many student productions, I feel the instructors standing in the wings, peering out of the kitchen: "How is it going? Is everything okay? Is everybody happy?"

The strain shows at times. The student performers appear a little nervous. Not that I blame them. Restaurant work is hard enough without worrying about a grade. But everyone is trying so hard to remember everything, to do everything right, it makes me a little edgy.

There are some highlights, however. For instance, I love the moment early in the meal when the dessert staff comes out of the kitchen to parade its creations. The rose-colored room fills with a flurry of white toques. Visiting each table in succession, each proud student enunciates the particulars of his or her offering. "This is a citrus cheesecake," he or she will say, "covered in crushed pistachios." The desserts look fabulous. We ooh and ahh right on cue.

(Those of you who have seen Percy Adlon's film Rosalie Goes Shopping will be reminded of how Rosalie's college-age son, an aspiring chef, tells the family what he has prepared for dinner each night. It's touching.)

But, I leap ahead of myself. We have four courses to go before dessert.
Student-baked goods are brought to us. The rolls look tiny and hard, but taste good. My favorite is the poppy seed with pine nuts--unusual, hearty and delicious. Our attentive waiter takes note of this. When he brings us a fresh basket, he doubles up on the items already consumed.

In truth, I think our first two courses are tentative. There's too much Alfredo sauce in the angel-hair pasta. All mixed together and placed in the center of a black octagonal plate, it looks like an omelet--an image reinforced by the overly eggy sauce and the presence of ham. The broccoli timbale with walnut sauce still has the flavor of the president's least-favorite vegetable but the texture of tomato aspic. The cold teahouse orange soup does not transcend its pineapple and orange juice beginnings. The finely blended cream of cauliflower soup dotted with bits of red pepper is better.

The meal gains confidence when the salads arrive. They look and taste very professional. The house salad features a pile of julienne zucchini, carrot and red pepper at its center. It is dressed with creamy Roquefort and walnuts. The other salad draws from a mixture of butter lettuce, radicchio, romaine and escarole, and is flavored with an herby vinaigrette. Matchstick-size carrots bundled together with a chive tie add artistry and color.

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