TO STIR WITH LOVE

On both my visits, I got a great kick out of the chef-servers. They're so sweet and earnest, so eager to talk about the food and their futures, that it's impossible to be churlish over some occasional unreplaced cutlery or their slightly ill-at-ease manner. I almost felt like petting them. In short, I don't see how anyone can dine here and not leave happy--about price, setting, service or food. At L'Ecole, diners will discover that youth is not wasted on the young.

Culinary Arts Dining Room, Scottsdale Community College, 9000 East Chaparral, Scottsdale, 423-6284. Hours: Dinner, Wednesday through Friday, 6 to 8 p.m. Scottsdale Community College showcases its own cooking-school program at the Culinary Arts Dining Room. Here, diners put together a five-course, 15-dollar meal, choosing from two appetizers, two soups, two salads, five entrees and five desserts. (Don't be scared off by the thought of too much food. Portions are Lilliputian.) The kitchen ambitiously rotates nine different weekly menus between September and early May, so there's plenty of scope for students to show their stuff.

The dining room suggests that the school lacks a restaurant design program. It's institutionally dreary, enlivened with a few sketches of fruits and vegetables and classical music so low I didn't notice it until I walked out the door. Meals get under way with a variety of fresh breads. I can only hope that years down the line, students will continue to remember that the breadbasket can set the tone for dinner. Egg bread, corn muffins and sourdough rolls are worth filling up on. So are the cinnamon rolls, although they seem more like dessert than a prelude to appetizers. Starters are canap‚-size nibbles of varying quality. Veal and ham pie is actually pƒt‚ en cro–te, and it's effectively done. So is the ballotine of quail, rolled-up boned poultry with an aggressive mushroom sauce.

But the bouch‚e … la reine, a tiny cup of puff pastry filled with creamed chicken and shiitake mushrooms, reminded me more of a cafeteria chicken … la king. And despite the promising ingredients, the raw mushrooms stuffed with minced escargots in vermouth sauce had no discernible flavor. Soups are clearly one of the students' strengths, particularly the creamy models. Tomato and fennel, vichyssoise and chilled carrot and ginger pack a smooth, intense punch. In contrast, the Manhattan clam chowder is strictly one-dimensional, a thin, watery broth. Salads come a little underdressed for my taste. Belgian endive and fennel make a clever pairing; so do watercress and duck. But both needed moistening. The house salad, served on every menu, is a better bet, fashioned from fris‚e greens, slivered hearts of palm and red onion. Most of the entrees are good enough to make you think the kitchen is staffed with pros. The tournedos Rossini here is about one-fourth the size of L'Ecole's model, topped with a minute speck of pƒt‚. But it indicates talent. So does the stir-fry chicken and duck, studded with shiitake mushrooms and coated with sesame seeds. The real entree star is the veal chop, next scheduled to appear December 14-16. Unlike everything else, it's massive--this chop probably costs $10 retail. And it's perfectly cooked, tender and juicy. Baked mashed potatoes make an appropriate partner. The pork chop is in the same league as the veal, burnished with a zippy ginger lime sauce. The sweet-and-sour pheasant, however, just misses, done in by too much pungency and too little fruity sweetness. At about 7:15 p.m., dinner stops for the parade of desserts. Students bring out their creations and stop by at each table to have you ooh and aah over them. Some of them merit the exclamations. The Tuscan cream cake doesn't look like much, but this sherry-soaked sponge cake gets my first-place vote. Intense chocolate whiskey cake should satisfy even fierce chocolate longings. So should the excellent chocolate pot-au-cräme, a puddinglike sweet. One poor student gets to spend the entire evening making the flamed desserts. Mine may have been the 16th order she filled (so she said), but the gal preparing the liqueur-soaked crepe suzettes clearly had the technique down pat. The only dessert failure: a zinfandel pear tart, done in by a bitter lemony custard that clashed with the wine-poached fruit. Just as at L'Ecole, it's impossible to leave here without feeling optimistic about the culinary future. Sure, youth must be served. But it's gratifying to see that youth can also do the serving--and without asking you if you'd like large fries with your burger and Coke.

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