THE COSMO GRILL

Dinner at Christopher's Bistro may not subvert everyone's value system. But it's almost guaranteed to get Saturday night off to a rousing start.

Vagara Bistro, 6137 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 948-9928. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.

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Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge

2502 E. Camelback Road
Phoenix, AZ 85016

Category: Restaurant > French

Region: East Phoenix

Vagara Bistro emphasizes casual fine dining. No Euro-accented maitre d', like at Christopher's, just a friendly manager in Dockers and an expensive polo shirt.

In theory, this concept sounds wonderful, conjuring up visions of a restaurant full of women in pretty summer dresses and men in slacks and sport shirts, convivially clinking glasses and animatedly talking over tournedos of beef.

On a recent Saturday night, though, the concept meant looking out at a roomful of too many hairy guys in shorts. When you pay $35 for a night-on-the-town meal, you shouldn't need protection from the human scenery. The fixed scenery is much more appealing. Lovely, framed prints of French and Dutch masterpieces and globe-shaped lights march across the walls. The banquettes sport a colorful fabric festooned with pomegranates and grapes. Edith Piaf and Vivaldi spill from the music system.

Our good-time eating vibes got an immediate jump-start with the basket of fresh dinner rolls and raspberry bread. And our motors were kept revving over the next few hours.

It's not hard to see why the veal-and-mushroom-strudel appetizer copped an award at the Scottsdale Culinary Festival. It's a deep, rich dish so luscious that I was tempted to order it as a main dish and dessert, too.

The calamari starter is somewhat deceptively listed under salads. Don't look for too many greens, though. It's a huge platter, big enough to share, of tender, lightly fried calamari, adorned with oyster mushrooms and peppers. This dish easily fulfills the government-recommended annual squid allowance. Like Christopher's, this place also offers pasta as a first course. The angel hair with shrimp in a vodka cream sauce is smooth, heavy and slumber-inducing, perhaps not the wisest choice on hot summer nights. Scallops on a crispy, won-ton wafer, buoyed by a mild pineapple, soy and ginger sauce, may be a better option.

Some of the entrees are exceptional, especially if you enjoy rousing hunks of meat. Tournedos featured a mouth-watering slab of tenderloin encrusted with pink peppercorns in a hard-hitting wine sauce. The lucky companion who chose it contributed little to the table talk, preferring instead to emit little groans of pleasure at each forkful.

Just as powerful was a man-size cut of prime pork tenderloin wrapped in thyme and crisp bacon, in a thick puddle of two-fisted port wine sauce. The memory of this dish should suppress any stray vegetarian impulses for about six months.

Our server touted the house specialty, veal Vagara. It's good, particularly the high-quality veal, but not quite in the same league as the beef or pork. The marsala wine sauce was a bit heavy-handed, while the button mushrooms adorning the veal summoned up little interest. It's hard to believe the chef can't give this veal just a little more pizzazz. A somewhat lighter entree was grilled fillet of escalar, a mild, white-fleshed fish that's popping up on more and more menus. It came inventively topped with a crayfish bisque, next to a refreshing, briny risotto. A crunchy and colorful array of vegetables--sugar snap peas, carrots and parsnips--accompanied all the main dishes.

Desserts are no comedown, although they do suffer measured next to Christopher's. A crepe filled with fruit and vanilla custard was best, and the profiteroles weren't far behind. The flourless, black-and-white-chocolate cake, though, was too dry, wasting the delightful champagne sabayon scooped alongside. A better bet: a glass of 1982 Chƒteau Lafaurie-Peyraguey Sauternes, a bargain at $6.95.

Vagara Bistro is clearly big-time eating. It just needs central casting to send over diners who look the part.

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