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 b‚arnaise 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.

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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