THE FIXE IS IN

Todd's, 8380 East Via de Ventura, Scottsdale, 443-9100. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Everyone starts the new year with high hopes.
Horse trainers who can outrun their 3-year-old nags think about the Kentucky Derby. Unpublished novelists stand before the bathroom mirror, practicing their Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speeches. Bald guys dream that this year, the world's scientists will work exclusively on hair-growth research.

And every year, diners believe they won't be overcharged, undernourished or ignored at some Valley restaurant.

Things are looking up for this last group. Sure, they'll have some unpleasant meals. Only now they can recuperate at Todd's.

Formerly chef at swanky 8700 at Pinnacle Peak, Todd Hall recently staked out his own place, less stuffy and more energetic. He's bravely decided to showcase his inventive New American cooking in Old World packaging. As in many European restaurants, nothing on the menu is … la carte.

Instead, you get prix fixe meals of three, four or five courses. The three-course version features soup or salad, main dish and dessert. The four-course meal adds an appetizer, and the deluxe dinner furnishes both soup and salad.

Diners have several choices within each fixed-price meal, too: There are at least two soups, two salads, three appetizers and six main dishes in every category.

Not including desserts, I calculate there are 24 different three-course-meal combinations; 36 four-course combinations; and 84 possible repasts from the five-course menu.

The main dining area is a pleasant place to do your menu reading, showing off lots of snazzy curves, arches and brass. A curved bow of oak separates the upper and lower tiers of tables. The night we were there, a pianist and saxophonist in the lounge played tunes ranging from Glenn Miller to Otis Redding.

As for the fare, Todd's reminds you of the main motivation for eating out: the chance to sample imaginative, reasonably priced food, beautifully presented.

Take, for example, the heavenly appetizer of saut‚ed sweetbreads, intensely flavored with pancetta, pine nuts and leeks in a rich, brown sauce. I wished I could have eaten it at home, because then I wouldn't have felt constrained about licking the plate.

Another equally luscious appetizer features two juicy, nut-encrusted scallops, draped by pasta tinged with mango salsa.

However, baked oysters on spinach, glazed with red chile pesto, might have been a bit too imaginative. The dish detonated such an arsenal of flavor warheads that I found myself longing for simple, fresh-shucked oysters instead.

Like the appetizers, the soups pack strong flavors that come from using first-rate ingredients prepared without shortcuts. Roasted-duck broth with apple dumplings and barley had such a heady scent that I suspected I could be participating in an illegal activity. A thick cream of mushroom soup employed a wonderfully tasty variety of the fungus that Campbell's never uses.

Both soups, though, arrived lukewarm. Maybe it's because my mother's soups used to arrive hot enough to sterilize a scalpel, but I like to inhale the steaming aroma before I dig in.

Usually a dreadful interlude at most restaurants, the salad course at Todd's will drive the term "rabbit food" from your vocabulary.

Assorted baby lettuce arrived standing upright, cunningly gathered into a cylindrical sesame wafer. And the memory of warm, wilted spinach flecked with roasted garlic, pancetta and pine nuts should see me through at least six months of iceberg-lettuce salads drenched in Thousand Island dressing.

The main dishes were outstanding. A surprisingly large slab of expensive John Dory came gorgeously pan-fried, with a watercress-and-brown-butter topping that didn't smother its delicate flavor. Quail, often a tough, stringy bird, here is meaty and tender, its strong taste complemented by morsels of bacon and sweet pear dumplings.

And the single rack of lamb, dusted with pistachios and Dijon mustard, was scrumptious, juicy and pungent. Todd must have hijacked a lamb truck to include this dish as part of a five-course meal for $29.95.

Main courses all came with a wedge of scalloped potatoes and a colorful array of mixed vegetables--yellow squash, carrots and Brussels sprouts--simply but aptly seasoned with butter and coarse ground pepper.

Desserts included a rich cräme br–l‚e, topped with an addictive, burnt-sugar glaze and sprinkled with high-priced, out-of-season berries.

An unusual twist is the root-beer float, with both the ice cream and soda homemade. Not too sweet, it made me feel 12 again. Only the strawberry crunch--a confection of puff pastry, strawberries and pastry cream--seemed a bit routine.

At $19.95, $24.50 and $29.95, Todd's leisurely paced, multicourse meals offer one of the Valley's best dining-out values. If there's better food elsewhere, it's not cheaper; if the food's cheaper, it's not better.

Palo Verde, 34631 North Tom Darlington Drive (the Boulders), Carefree, 488-9009. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, 6 to 9:30 p.m., seven days a week.

Someone once pointed out that the race doesn't always go to the swift and the strong, but that's the way to bet.

The same holds true in the eating-out business. Sure, it's possible that Palo Verde restaurant, part of the stunning, five-diamond Boulders resort complex, could serve predictable, second-rate fare to rich, misguided tourists.

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