NIGHT AND THE CITY

Copper Creek Steakhouse and Grille, Arizona Center, 455 North Third Street, Phoenix, 253-7100. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 4 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.

Anyone who recalls the downtown Phoenix of a decade ago has to be amazed by the transformation. These days, it is actually possible to stand after dark on the corner of Third Street and Van Buren and contemplate some form of neighborhood entertainment besides stealing hubcaps. In just the past few years, a downtown shopping complex, theatre and sports arena have succeeded in luring folks who once wouldn't have dreamed of venturing south of Thomas or west of 44th Street. But while crowds come here after 5 p.m. to poke their heads into Arizona Center shops, see a show at the Herberger or cheer the Suns at America West Arena, downtown still doesn't have much of a reputation as a dining destination. Most dinnertime patrons aren't making a gastronomic night of it; they're stoking up on the way to someplace else. If the busy midweek dinner rush we encountered is a reliable indicator, one of the stoking spots they seem to favor is the Copper Creek Steakhouse and Grille. Parked on the Arizona Center's second level, the place crackles with the male bonhomie of the after-work suit-and-tie crowd. The dark, clubby look--wood paneling and stone walls--fits right in with the fare and clientele. Not so the celebrity sketches scattered throughout. This kind of decor seems dated and phony enough in New York and Los Angeles. In Phoenix, it's plain ridiculous. Or are we supposed to think that Colin Powell and Julia Roberts have eaten here? Fortunately, the appetizers furnish a much happier gazing experience. My heart practically soared even before I took a single bite. That's because the starter list didn't even offer hot wings, fried mozzarella sticks or any of the usual greasy blobs that come accompanied by ranch dressing. Instead, the glass-enclosed kitchen sends out nifty munchies like Coyote Chilies, a couple of poblano peppers lining the bottom of a sizzling skillet, topped with layers of black beans, smoked chicken and jack cheese. There's also an addictive, cheese-thickened, artery-clogging spinach-and-artichoke dip to take the edge off your hunger. Both appetizers come with fresh, homemade tortilla chips, a nice touch.

The main-dish choices, mostly marinated slabs of meat and a few chicken and fish platters, won't wow anyone with their originality. But that's not really important--quality ingredients and skillful preparation go a lot farther than mere cleverness. Where Copper Creek is most creative is in its spelling. Embarrassingly, the menu offers "tornadoes" of beef, a specialty that conjured up in my mind an unnerving picture of whirling, airborne bovines. Luckily, the chef can cook the entree a lot better than management can spell it. The tournedos--three good-size beef tenderloin medallions--are excellent, tender and juicy, properly done to medium-rare specs. And they come gilded by a topping of artichoke hearts and honest-to-God crab meat, all coated with an appealing bāarnaise sauce. A luscious pile of mashed potatoes, apparently thickened with sour cream or cheese, compounded the pleasure. A pretty lame "caesar salad" also joins the tournedos and spuds. Every time a caesar salad beckons, I feel like Charlie Brown when Lucy holds the football for him to boot: He knows she's going to whisk it away, and I know I won't get a genuine caesar salad. But he can't stop himself from kicking, and I can't stop myself from ordering. Disappointment is the inevitable result. Will restaurants please stop calling every crouton-studded pile of greenery "caesar salad"? A full rack of pork ribs is not a bad dinner option if you don't mind getting a bit messy. The ribs and sauce don't have the distinctive bite you find at some of the city's funkier pork parlors--they're more likely not to offend than to inspire. But these bones are plenty meaty, and you can fill in the starch cracks with fresh, dill-flecked rolls and an intriguing, cinnamon-crusted muffin.

I'm as wary of fish served at steak houses as I am of steak served in seafood restaurants. In both cases, I can't believe that the operators really have their hearts in it. The Copper Creek menu promised fresh halibut. Maybe. But by the time the kitchen finished mugging it, freshness was a moot point. The inedible, Cajun-blackened slab suffered from third-degree overcooking, every last ounce of moisture sucked out by the heat and flames. A scoop of dull rice, and barely steamed veggies that were longer on nutrition than taste, increased the aggravation.

I managed to mollify the unfortunate halibut victim with a substantial portion of my tournedos, which cheered her up considerably. So did dessert. Our waitress lugged over a tray bearing three sweets. The choices: 1. ordinary-looking carrot cake, made elsewhere. 2. ordinary-looking Key lime pie, made elsewhere. 3. a hot, homemade empanada, stuffed with bananas and sweet cream cheese, topped with strawberries and caramel sauce. Guess which dessert got the call. If the Copper Creek is your jumping-off point for an evening of downtown fun, remember to fill up on appetizers, stick to meat and order the empanada. Then check out those high-class hubcaps in the Arizona Center parking lot.

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