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L'Ecole, Scottsdale Culinary Institute, 8100 East Camelback, Scottsdale, 990-7639. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Friday, reservations from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Giving students hands-on experience in real-world situations sounds like a useful training technique. Unless, of course, the victim the students happen to have their hands on is me. Naturally, we human guinea pigs get a price break to reward our courage. And supervisors are always around to see that nothing goes drastically wrong. But I don't care how low the cost, or how many expert doctors of dentistry hover around my chair--no first-year, drill-wielding sadist who couldn't get into medical school is going to perform periodontal wizardry in my mouth. And I don't care if the haircut is free--no way would I let a barber-school apprentice work on what's left on my head.
So it was with great trepidation that I decided to entrust my prime source of joy in this world--dinner--to postadolescent chef wanna-bes who probably entered the field in order to learn the Colonel's 11 secret herbs and spices. When I visited the Valley's two student-run, cooking-school restaurants, I went with the same high level of confidence you'd have if you opted for a cut-rate appendectomy and encountered a youthful intern armed with a scalpel who said, "Hi, I'm Bruce, and I'll be your surgeon tonight." But L'Ecole bowled me over. Maybe the Scottsdale Culinary Institute admits only kitchen prodigies. All I know is that I had several exceptional meals, in a comfortable setting, at a very comfortable price. L'Ecole is housed in a round, whitewashed, formal-looking room, sparely furnished with a bit of potted greenery. Windows look out over Camelback Road, and classical music plays in the background. The students rotate through an 11-month program, learning the full range of kitchen tasks, as well as the art of serving. (Every student I asked said serving caused the most anxiety.) One evening, a nervous waiter blurted out a confession: "We make mistakes." Well, maybe they do, but they don't make many.
8100 E. Camelback Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Region: Central Scottsdale
The menu, which changes weekly, offers three-course meals; diners choose from a half-dozen appetizers, entrees and desserts. The price is determined by the entree, and the full dinner runs between 15 and 20 dollars. Factoring in quality, heft and setting, it's one of the Valley's best values, a real bargain. Meals start off with a customer-pleasing touch, a small freebie. Once it was a tart shrimp ceviche, another time toast slathered with black beans, cream cheese and tomato.
By the time I looked in the breadbasket, my anxieties had just about disappeared. French bread and dinner rolls sport a right-out-of-the-oven touch. But the herb-scented focaccia, topped with olives, mushrooms and tomato, is a particular delight, especially once you dip it in the olive oil sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. It's soup season now, and L'Ecole's models are first-rate. Lobster bisque, splashed with a bit of sherry, is intense enough to cause a swoon if you're unprepared for its rich, velvety taste. Although the broth doesn't need additional gilding, the quenelles (fish dumplings) and shrimp hushpuppies floating on the surface push all the right buttons. So does the onion soup, made from veal stock and topped with genuine Gruyäre cheese.
The shellfish sampler also got me hooked. It's comforting to know that the next generation of chefs will be able to prepare venerable delicacies like oysters Rockefeller and clams casino. The platter also includes fried squid and cold shrimp. The gravlax starter, however, suffers from a little too much youthful excess. Gravlax (dill-marinated salmon) doesn't mesh well with an overpowering soy-ginger dressing. And if you don't know that the little green ball alongside is wasabe, highly potent Japanese horseradish, you may bounce off a few walls. A cylindrical, mushroom-stuffed dumpling provided another offbeat Japanese touch, but it, too, would have been more impressive in a different setting. Still, give the kitchen points for imagination. Main dishes stick more closely to the tried and true, and are very well-crafted. The petit filet Rossini is a winner, good quality beef cooked to medium-rare specs, resting on toasted bread and capped with duck liver pƒt‚, drizzled with a rich sauce. It's accompanied by potatoes dauphinoise, layered spuds baked with butter and cheese, and stuffed zucchini, oddly topped with okra. Tender medallions of lamb are another source of tasty animal protein. This dish gets goosed up by a sprightly side of black-eyed peas. Grilled fish is a good test of a cook's skill. The salmon here comes off the flames at just the right moment, served over Swiss chard next to a wild rice pilaf. Even chicken, that dullest of entrees, has a pulse. That's because the kitchen rolls up a chicken breast with prosciutto, shrimp and spinach, and moistens it with beurre blanc. The student desserts are good enough to graduate cum laude. One evening's special, chocolate sweetness, featured a big-time chocolate hazelnut torte. Mocha roca cake, chocolate cake blended with chocolate mousse and toffee bits in a puddle of chocolate espresso sauce, is magna cum laude good. My favorite, though, was a toasted almond peach tart, enlivened with homemade vanilla ice cream and a hard-hitting caramel sauce.