POTS AND PANORAMAS

Top of the Rock, the Buttes, 2000 Westcourt Way (48th Street and Broadway), Tempe, 225-9000. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight. When your mom says she's found a great girl for you with lots of "personality," you can be sure of one thing--she's ugly.

When a producer boasts that his new flick is "action-packed," you can count on a turkey with lots of dopey car chases. And when a fancy restaurant touts its "outstanding view," you can bet the food will be overpriced and mediocre. Numerous excursions to the top of dining landmarks all over the world have taught me an apparently irreversible law of restaurant physics: The higher the dining room, the lower the quality of the fare. Airline food most graphically illustrates this proposition. But reality can occasionally throw even the most skeptical scientific investigator a curve. I walked into Top of the Rock, perched at the top of a Tempe butte, expecting only to feast my eyes on the Valley view. To my surprise, though, sight wasn't the only sense in for a treat.

My antennae picked up positive signals before the first bite. In response to our request for a window table, the hostess promptly gave us the standard shakedown response: "Window seats aren't available."

Of course, the next step in this kabuki drama usually involves flashing a ten-spot and murmuring low about "appreciating" a good table. But I wanted to see where a no-cash policy would lead us. So I repeated the request, offering a toothy grin instead of a sawbuck. My charms must be greater than I suspect, because two minutes later we were seated at the best table in the house, just to the side of the fireplace, with a spectacular westward view of purple dusk falling over mountain-ringed downtown Phoenix.

The circular room, with its huge picture windows, is just as pretty to look at. Boulders, cacti and trees are artfully integrated to create a pleasant desert interior scene. Wood-beamed ceilings highlight the desert lodge effect. And there's no intrusive, piped-in music assaulting diners' ears.

The only decor misstep is the lighting. It's not romantic--it's just dark. Our waiter had to bring over extra table lights so we could read the menu. This is probably the Valley's best spot for a tryst--not only won't other diners be able to see who you're with, neither will you.

The food is Southwestern-themed, inventive and executed with great flair. Be prepared to pay for your culinary and visual thrills, though; Top of the Rock isn't cheap. But the dishes here could hold their own even if the window shades were drawn.

If you want to get an impression of a horse's condition, examine its mouth. If you want an indication of character, look into a person's eyes. If you want a preview of a restaurant meal, check out the breadbasket.

Top of the Rock's basket is outstanding. There are great garlic-and-asiago cheese sticks, fragrant jalape¤o corn bread and pi¤on-studded multigrain rolls. Three kinds of butter, too: regular, prickly pear and macadamia nut. What a nice touch.

Just thinking about the appetizers is almost as good as actually eating them. Three firm ravioli come stuffed with crab and artichoke in an appealing, lemon-and-basil cream sauce. The warm duck tostada is luscious, duck confit and cheese spread out over a fried tortilla, tickled with a scoopful of fried onions.

Best of all is the lobster napoleon, a heavy concoction of lobster and boursin cheese schmeared between a triple-deck of fried won-ton wafers. It's rich, filling and irresistible.

The main courses are not only deftly prepared but also imaginatively conceived. Tea-smoked Sonoma duck features a decent portion of breast meat fanned across the plate, draped with a fruity cherry compote laced with port. Alongside are saut‚ed endive, a wild rice crepe and a delicious, ginger-flavored, fried won ton stuffed with cabbage and carrot. The principal problem with this dish is trying to figure out where to aim the fork.

Pesto-crusted rack of lamb sounded too good to pass up, and we didn't. Four tender little chops arrived bathed in feta cheese, pine nuts and garlic in a perky mustard sauce. All these strong flavors meld beautifully, and the simple potato croquette provides a down-to-earth starchy foil.

Fish dishes also display some clever touches. The grilled swordfish sports just a bit of rosemary chile sauce, not enough to overpower the briny sea flavor. It's accompanied by a terrific vegetable medley of olive, peppers and tomatoes filled out with thin Chinese noodles.

Desserts are equally impressive. Top of the Rock pushes its black bottom pie, and with good reason. This rich chocolate confection packs a chocolate crust, a chocolate praline center, a chocolate mousse topping and a shaved chocolate garnish. Don't look for any heart association endorsements of this treat.

Meringue cafe ybarra is a somewhat lighter alternative: chocolate and espresso mousse sandwiched between crunchy layers of meringue, drizzled with a cinnamon-vanilla sauce. Mesquite honey bavarian is also first-rate: vanilla sponge cake and caramel cream served with a lovely, calvados-spiked apple compote.

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