PERFECTLY SWANK

Etienne's Different Pointe of View, Pointe Hilton at Tapatio Cliffs, 11111 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 863-0912. Summer hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 6 to 10 p.m. Going to a fancy restaurant in New York or Los Angeles can be an uncomfortable experience. Those towns are swarming with wealthy, important people who get fussed over whenever they go out to eat--the best tables, the best service, extra care with the food.

In New York, restaurants routinely host top-level diplomats, publishers and corporate big shots. In Los Angeles, powerful studio executives and movie stars create nightly limo traffic jams in front of their Beverly Hills hangouts. But ordinary folks who save up for that one-time special meal don't receive quite the same treatment. We're apt to get seated right next to the swinging kitchen door, served by waiters disappointed by our lack of celebrity and American Express Platinum card. That's what I love about living in Phoenix. In a city teeming with classy restaurants, we are a town full of nobodies. No tony dining room here can begin to meet expenses by catering solely to the rich and famous. I've seen celebrity-starved restaurants brought to a screeching halt by the presence of a low-rated television weatherman driving a Chevy. It's obvious that without us nobodies--local and tourist--to indulge in an occasional night-out splurge, many Valley restaurants currently doing business with tuxedoed staff would turn into places where the help asks, "Medium or large fries?" through a speaker phone.

In Phoenix, unrich and unfamous folks can go to high-and-mighty spots, like Etienne's Different Pointe of View and the Chaparral at Marriott's Camelback Inn, and count on great food and great service. Etienne's has an old-fashioned, almost campy swankiness you don't see much anymore. Still, the fetching, three-tiered dining room (smokers in back), with its vaguely art-deco look, is undeniably handsome. A pianist tinkles out Ellington, Gershwin and Kern standards in the background. But it's hard to pay attention inside when you've got such a great nighttime view of the outside. Picture windows wrap around the place, furnishing a superb look at the twinkling Valley below.

The food is just as compelling a sight. We ordered from the "Classical Cuisine" menu section, and departed with renewed respect for culinary tradition. Oysters Rockefeller, fashioned with spinach, bacon, tomato and Mornay sauce, makes up in taste what it lacks in novelty. So does a lighter, less-complicated mixed seafood grill of scallops, shrimp, clams and mussels. But for sheer luxuriousness, no starter can compete with the mouth-watering lobster ravioli, smoothed over with a tarragon-scented cream sauce. This is the kind of appetizer that almost forces you to moan with delight. So does the wild-mushroom soup. We're not exactly in the middle of the soup season, but this intensely fragrant broth is good enough to make you forget the calendar. With one or two exceptions, there's nothing terribly cutesy about the straightforward main dishes. Look for old standbys like rack of lamb, Australian lobster tails, and medallions of veal. Filet mignon is prepared 90s style--1790s, that is. You can get it with Bordelaise and b‚arnaise sauces, or in "traditional" style, coated with saut‚ed onions and wild mushrooms. The latter was our choice, and we were rewarded with a butter-soft hunk of meat. For carnivores who suffer through nutritionally correct dinners six nights per week, this provides a rewarding, Saturday-night splurge of animal protein. So, surprisingly, does the chicken Nelson. I've learned to steer clear of chicken when I eat out--it's usually the dullest thing on the menu. But Etienne's has the good sense to take a whole chicken breast and top it with a zesty Parmesan truffle souffl‚. What most impressed me, however, was the evening's special of albacore tuna. This is maybe the best fish dish I've had in the Valley: a glorious slab of thick, lightly cooked tuna, with a macadamia-nut/wheat-germ crust, moistened with a salsa of mangoes, pineapple and peppers. It was all I could do to keep from ordering it again for dessert. Bacon-wrapped stuffed shrimp seemed, by comparison, a disappointment. The promise of a caramelized pear-curry sauce persuaded us to order it, but the sauce had little oomph. And even on a night when we were prepared to shell out big bucks, $24 struck us as a stiff price to pay for three shrimp. Desserts end the meal on a high note. The Grand Marnier souffl‚ is light enough to float. The chocolate pƒt‚, layers of intense, white and dark chocolate studded with pistachios and macadamias, packs a sweet-tooth wallop. Best of all, I thought, was the pear in a phyllo pastry cup, sprinkled with Stilton cheese and garnished with white-chocolate ice cream and berries. It's a mesmerizing combination of flavors. Two quick points. Etienne's has a great wine cellar. Most of the wine is pretty pricey, but we finished up with a half-bottle of Laufaurie-Peyraguey Sauternes (1985) that went for a reasonable $28, within hailing distance of retail price. Second, the service is first-rate, professional and unobtrusive. Our waiters paced the meal perfectly, and knew enough about the dishes to make me suspect they cooked as well as served. Somebody here knows how to train a restaurant staff.

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