NIGHT AND THE CITY

122 East, 122 East Washington, Phoenix, 229-1222. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to close; Sundays during special events.

In contrast to Copper Creek, dinnertime at the recently opened 122 East crackles with all the energy of Forest Lawn. "Do you have a reservation?" the host sardonically smiled during one visit, as we surveyed a completely empty room. And yet we discovered that the lack of patrons was not a true gauge of quality. Diners looking for pretheatre or pregame fare can find some decent eats at this place. 122 East goes for the faux-ruins look: walls painted as if the plaster is peeling off, broken pillars and beveled glass with a jagged edge separating dining room and bar. It's a jarring decorating concept, since the restaurant sits in a neighborhood with plenty of the real thing.

The menu is also jarring, but for all the right reasons. Yes, you can get an appetizer of chicken wings. But there's also vodka-cured smoked salmon with capers and onions, and five saut‚ed oysters dusted with blue corn.

Sharing a pizza is another good way to slide into dinner. The version topped with fontina cheese, tomato, garlic and basil sported a pleasing blend of tastes. And between 4 and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, several appetizers take on half-price charm. Fueled by a combination of masochism and optimism, I again sprung for a "caesar salad." I just never learn. The kitchen sent out a perfectly acceptable mound of romaine, albeit at a pricey $5.75. But calling something a caesar salad is not the same as delivering the genuine article. If naming made it so, I'd call myself Shaquille O'Neal, march down to America West Arena and crack the Suns' starting lineup. It also took three tries to get some bread to the table. After it arrived, I understood the waiter's reluctance--no one would pant for these supermarket-quality rolls. Standard meat, chicken, fish and pasta preparations make up the main-dish options, with one exception. That's the red roasted chicken, by far the best thing I sampled here. It's a whole boneless breast marinated in tequila and achiote (an earthy Yucat n spice), pan blackened, then roasted. This bird is juicy and flavorful, and perked up with an offbeat watermelon salsa. Wonderful side orders of crunchy sweet-potato chips and lightly buttered steamed vegetables added some gilding. So did the $8.75 tag. The hunk of filet mignon should provide a reasonable jump-start to a downtown evening. It's choice, not prime, but tender enough for any set of choppers, with a beefy punch. I wish the French fries, though, were as good as the sweet-potato chips.

If the chicken tortellini is any guide, the pasta plates are on target. The tortellini comes swathed in a garlicky cream sauce, festooned with slivers of prosciutto. Everything rests on a small puddle of light tomato sauce. It's a tasty dish. Not so the Dover sole. I really have no one to blame, though, because I violated Seftel's First Law of the Sea: Never order fresh fish in a nonseafood restaurant on a Sunday. That's because there's a good chance the fish was delivered 48 hours earlier, for the weekend crowd, and has been sitting on ice ever since. Dover sole is a particularly delicate creature, exquisite when fresh and skillfully prepared. But you'd never suspect it from the three mealy fillets I got, which perched atop an insipid rice pilaf. The piscatory experience at both Copper Creek and 122 East reconfirmed my suspicions about most Valley seafood: There are darn few places that serve briny-fresh fare, and even fewer that can prepare it consistently well. Desserts provide only one serious temptation. That's the thick wedge of apple pie with a caramelized topping and Jack Daniel's-tinged whipped cream. If you don't have downtown plans, the prospect of dinner at 122 East is not yet reason to make them. But if you do, it's worth a try.

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