QUIRK AND CLEAVER

RoxSand, 2594 East Camelback (Biltmore Fashion Park), Phoenix, 381-0444. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, lunch, noon to 4 p.m.; dinner, 5 to 9:30 p.m.

In Hollywood, it's called "high concept."
If you want to get a movie made, you have to be able to pitch it in one sentence. That's because the people who bankroll the deals believe that anything more complex will strain the comfort and intelligence of the average 15-year-old, the target audience.

So we get movies like Indecent Proposal: "Redford plays an aging billionaire who offers a million bucks to sleep with a young man's beautiful wife."

Or Falling Down: "A nerdy defense worker, driven to the edge by the injustices and absurdities of modern urban life, runs amok."

From a single sentence, you already know exactly how the two-hour drama will unfold. Given the premise, everyone can figure out the formula. It's safe and familiar.

The restaurant business is a lot like Hollywood. Most diners, like most viewers, want predictable fare that's easy to pigeonhole and digest. Producers and restaurant owners don't want the public scratching its head over what's on the screen or what's on the plate.

But sometimes quirkier, more sophisticated movies achieve mainstream success. Howards End can't be reduced to a one-line plot summary. And learning that The Crying Game is the story of an IRA terrorist's encounter with his victim's lover tells you nothing at all. RoxSand is also too quirky and too sophisticated to be neatly pigeonholed or reduced to a single descriptive sentence. But it's deservedly popular, an absolute delight. The superb food, risky and imaginative, has an eclectic, international flair unlike any other in town. This is one place that doesn't suffer from a hardening of the categories. For instance, the appetizers we sampled had touches of Mexico, Thailand, China, the tropics and the Middle East. But these starters were more inventive than ethnic, appealingly conceived and executed. Strangely, though, all came served on little trays meant, I guess, to connote Japanese elegance. Instead, they summoned up unfortunate and misleading images of coach-class airline fare.

The Asian shrimp tower brought three stir-fried, cornmeal-dusted shrimp in a novel, lip-smacking guava sauce. Alongside, a crusty potato cylinder came packed with saut‚ed vegetables and bits of shrimp.

Another idiosyncratic winner was thick tamales made from rice, not corn. These came stuffed with an ample portion of curried lamb, embellished by a daring, Thai-style peanut sauce good enough to eat with a spoon.

RoxSand's b'stilla, a Moroccan specialty, was a crisp, phyllo-dough creature surrounding braised chicken and coated with almonds and powdered sugar. Small helpings of baba ghanouj and hummus--pur‚ed, roasted eggplant and ground chickpeas--added a pleasing, exotic touch.

The homemade dinner rolls, warm and fresh, got quite a workout dipping, scooping and generally cavorting among the appetizers. The leisurely paced, professional service gave us an opportunity to scan the room. Upstairs on the balcony is the place to be. Patrons can get a bird's-eye view of both the action outside on the small patio and of diners below. The room itself is unfussy artsy-modernist, distinguished mainly by high-tech exposed ceilings and abstract paintings that can double as Rorschach tests.

Tables are adorned by candles and the Valley's latest restaurant rage, Ty Nant mineral water from that fabled land of bubbling springs, Wales. The shapely blue bottle is strikingly beautiful, but when we declined to buy it, the waiter whisked it off the table. The whole restaurant-mineral-water business is crass, and a ridiculous affectation.

Especially at RoxSand, where the food speaks for itself. The entrees reminded me, with a twist, of an old show tune--When I'm Not Near the Dish I Love, I Love the Dish I'm Near."

The generous mixed grill is a good route to take if you want to master the possibilities. Unbelievably moist, meaty duck, with irresistible, crispy skin, practically put me in a swoon. If the small lamb chop was any indication, lamb dishes must be topnotch. A single, hockey-puck-size grilled scallop arrived juicy and tender. Polenta-coated shrimp, like those in the Asian tower appetizer, hadn't lost their charm. By comparison, the veal medallions seemed routine.

These all came with luscious mashed potatoes crammed in a crusty potato tower, saut‚ed peas in the pod and an inexplicable whole, roasted onion.

A specialty here is air-dried duck, served on an eye-catching, cobalt-blue plate. Some of the meat was sliced and fanned across the plate; the rest stayed on the bone. It all floated in a small pond of addictive plum sauce, accompanied by little buckwheat crepes unnecessarily filled with onions. If you yearn for duck, there may be no better place to migrate than RoxSand. Stuffed, rolled chicken featured two half breasts stuffed with feta, garlic and basil and a belt-loosening half-dozen shrimp. Nearby stood a mound of offbeat rice mix, thick and sticky as if prepared for sushi, with an appealing, vinegary tang. RoxSand prepares its own desserts, about two dozen or so the evening we visited. Instead of rolling a cart by the table or describing them, servers send you over to inspect the dessert case. Aided by a cheat sheet, the house dessert maven chanted the sweet details of each.

There's only one word for these desserts: wicked. Perhaps we managed to choose the three richest, densest and butter-and-chocolate-laden varieties, but I doubt it. Each taste seemed to be followed by an involuntary exclamation of, "Wow." The B-52 torte would stop the infantry in its tracks. It probably keeps half of Wisconsin's butter farmers in operation. A chocolaty filling is laced with Kahl£a, Grand Marnier and Bailey's, and then topped with crushed pistachios. Finish this by yourself and it's even money whether your liver or arteries will go first.

White-chocolate ginger cheese cake had a terrific ginger zip accompanying the creamy cheese interior. And the heavenly chocolate-truffle tart--big as a discus and about as heavy--needs to come with a ten-gallon coffee mug to help wash it down.

RoxSand's diverse fare may be hard to pin down with just a few adjectives. But there's only one that really matters--first-rate. The Congo, 2515 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 945-3778. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 a.m.; Sunday, dinner, 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. The menu at the Congo, a new Scottsdale restaurant and coffee bar, looked almost as intriguing as RoxSand's: tequila chicken with jalape¤o rice; eggplant calamari; Thai beef with cellophane noodles; and some bizarre concoction called puele magnetique. Even more compelling were the prices--nothing more than eight bucks.

We made a visit, hoping to find a down-home place for RoxSand tastes and coffee-shop budgets. Instead, we got a dreary new menu featuring the same tired fare we were looking to escape.

If you avert your eyes from the menu, the Congo is quite a funky spot. There's a rusted, corrugated tin ceiling, cunningly cut in the center to reveal a blue-domed area with glow-in-the-dark stars and a full moon. Half the room is coffee bar--sofas, tables and bookcases--the other half tables and booths lined with butcher paper and crayons for doodling. The ubiquitous, flower-filled Ty Nant water bottles add a more traditional aesthetic touch. If you're over 30, you'll substantially increase the average age of this Generation X hangout. You can drown your aging sorrows with some good brew on tap (Watney's and Foster's), served in mason-jar mugs. But this is the first coffee bar I've ever been in that doesn't serve decaf. I guess when I was in my 20s, I didn't have trouble sleeping, either. The starters, unfortunately, didn't do much to keep us awake. Fish tacos proved the best of the lot, filled with cabbage, onions, pepper and hunks of fish. The pallid black-bean soup had no discernible taste whatever, although we found a piece of sausage floating among the solids. The house salad was atrocious, ruined by an out-of-synch sweet lemon dressing that made my fork pucker.

The main dishes made me suspect that today's youth don't make too many culinary demands. Serviceable vegetable lasagna had one youthful prerequisite--it was big enough to feed a gang of lumberjacks. It came studded with broccoli, cauliflower, mushroom and peppers, and slathered with nondescript cheese and sauce.

Linguini with clams and mussels had two major drawbacks--the clams and mussels. The clams required canines that haven't been found on bipeds since Australopithecus came down from the trees. The mussels had an unacceptable level of grit.

The Congo does make a half-dozen kinds of pleasant, reasonably priced whole-wheat pizzas. The vegetarian model sports artichokes, onions and a healthy helping of cheese.

Afterward, the waitress pointed out a homemade dessert, a strawberry cheesecake, and we took the bait. Too bad the fruit sauce seemed to be flavored with the same ingredient that gives Smith Brothers cough drops their distinctive medicinal quality. The Congo's inferior fare is doubly disappointing because this place stays open until the wee hours, and this town desperately needs a good late-night spot. For the time being, though, your best bet is to go home and wait for breakfast.

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