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 Unpublished novelists stand before the bathroom mirror, practicing their Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speeches.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.

Don't bet on it.
The food's gorgeous. Just make sure your credit card's not maxed out, because the … la carte menu may put you over the top.

Palo Verde is the more casual of the resort's two dining rooms. Rounded white walls give it an adobe look, while large, woven wall hangings feature abstract boulders. The open kitchen peers out from behind ristras, strings of garlic and gleaming copper pots and pans. The service is professionally informal and unobtrusive. And there's no music, either, to interfere with the principal business at hand: eating.

Like Todd's, this restaurant furnishes the best reason to shed your cocoon and dine out: It serves outstanding food, with a Southwestern flair, that most people couldn't begin to make at home.

Take the soup, for example, a smoked-vegetable-and-seafood chowder bursting with flavor and a peppery kick, a perfect starter for chilly winter evenings.

Millimeter-thin strips of marinated ahi tuna, combining Japanese and Southwestern tastes, also work nicely as an appetizer. The butter-tender fish supports a mound of avocado papaya salsa while nestling alongside a puddle of jalape¤o lime cream.

But the appetizer gold medal goes to a terrific salad of greens in a mint vinaigrette, topped with warm, cornmeal-crusted pheasant. A poet once said God gave people the gift of memory so there would be roses in December. At $8.50, this small dish will empty your wallet faster than it will fill your belly, but I figure I've gotten a $20 memory to trot out the next time I warm up leftovers for dinner.

A couple of the main dishes are superb. Rack of lamb showed up as two meaty, juicy hunks, encrusted with pecans and thoughtfully severed from the bone. The sweet peppers and goat cheese sharing the plate may have been gilding the lily, but sometimes I don't mind having my lilies gilded.

The lamb was also accompanied by quinoa, a crunchy, offbeat grain from the Andes. It's been heavily promoted in health and natural-food stores, and may replace potatoes and rice in upscale restaurants in the Nineties.

Nothing ordinary about the roast squab, either. The tender bird came festooned with smoky-flavored slivers of pork, and moistened with a chipotle cider sauce. It's a strongly flavored dish, and the side of wild-rice compote was a well-chosen complement.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the Southwestern bouillabaisse--perhaps a fish stew stocked with aquatic life from Lake Pleasant?

What turned up wasn't quite so far-fetched. Shrimp, scallops, mussels, cockles and a chunk of lobster floated in a chile-infused tomato broth. Black beans, nopal cactus and fresh corn provided the heavy Southwestern accent. But these local touches competed with slices of toasted French bread slathered with aioli, the garlicky spread that is de rigueur with bouillabaisse. Unlike the other main dishes we sampled, however, this one never quite added up beyond the sum of its parts.

Our waitress steered us to a wonderful dessert, well worth the extra three miles I logged trying to burn it off. Fragrant toffee custard came resting on a sweet, chocolate-studded pastry shell, with caramelized whipped cream and an intense chocolate sauce.

I wish she had steered us away from the bizarre dessert called the Southwestern trio. A .333 hitter will probably get into the Hall of Fame, but at $6.50 a pop, I expected this dessert to bat 1.000.

Nothing wrong with the chocolate-cake part, but the flan came in a sauce studded with so much lemon, it made the plate pucker. And the sweet-potato empanada seemed more far-out than inventive.

When snowbird visitors wish to show appreciation for your generous hospitality, suggest they take you to Palo Verde. If they come back next year, you'll know they're either real food lovers or real friends.

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