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It's Only Money: With their $20-something entrees and $7 desserts, Etienne's Different Pointe of View and the Chaparral at Marriott's Camelback Inn can get pretty pricey. But compared to Christopher's, they're practically discount operations. That's because Christopher's seven-course, fixed-price meal goes for $70--add on another $40 if you'd like wine matched with each course. But chef Christopher Gross' exquisite, French-themed cuisine is an absolute knockout. If you've got sophisticated tastes and the cash to indulge them, this is the place to do it. You simply can't get food like this elsewhere in this time zone. My most recent indulgence got under way with lushly textured house-smoked salmon, drizzled with olive oil and ladled with a dollop of creme fraiche. This will get your appetite out of neutral. Good thing, too, because the next course, an extraordinary terrine of foie gras, may be the best dish I've had, anywhere. Christopher prepares foie gras three ways--marinated, sauteed and steamed. Then he layers them together into a small slice. It's served with toasted brioche, a fig compote and a bit of shaved truffle. This plate is simply a thrill. Next up was a remarkably generous hunk of John Dory, an expensive fish the French call St. Pierre. It's fashioned here in lobster butter, with roasted potatoes and tiny morsels of artichoke heart on the stem. On other occasions, the fish course has brought shimmeringly fresh brill with mushrooms, and sea bass seasoned with chives and basil. The kitchen's skill with fish is enough to make you think the ocean is just down the street. Smoked squab showed the chef is no slouch when it comes to fowl, either. The leg is wrapped in puff pastry, accompanied by quinoa, a South American, barleylike grain with an offbeat taste. Sliced sauteed lamb in an intense sauce, with fried basil and curried potatoes, is a suitably hard-hitting main course. At this point, the small portions cumulatively start to mount up. You may need to loosen your belt a notch. Go ahead and do it, because it's impossible to avoid the temptations of the cheese plate. It features three kinds: two European ones--St. Andre and tete de moine--and America's best cheese, Maytag blue. Desserts can bowl you over. The peach Parnassienne, a light mousse in a white-chocolate cylinder, arrives partnered with a full-flavored apricot sorbet. But I'm decadent enough to prefer Christopher's chocolate desserts, like the chocolate hot-and-cold or the chocolate tower.

Part of the meal's charm is wine, with plenty of selections available by the glass. After we decided on the Pic-Saint-Loup, I almost blew my cover with laughter when the waiter urged us not to spread the word about this inexpensive, full-bodied French red.

Later on, Paola Gross, the proprietor's wife and the restaurant's wine director, dropped by to tell us something about it. It seems when she first listed the wine for $18 per bottle, it didn't sell at all. People thought cheap meant no good. "I had to raise the price three times before it started to move," she said, shrugging her shoulders. My offer to pay the original list price to assuage her feelings was smilingly rejected. Christopher's is at 2398 East Camelback. Call 957-3214.

 
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