FARE TO REMEMBER

Terrace Dining Room, Phoenician resort, 6000 East Camelback, Phoenix, 941-8200. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m.

Guys, let me tell you what your sweetie doesn't want for Valentine's Day. She doesn't want you picking out additions to her wardrobe ("I know green and pink aren't your colors, but they didn't have much of a selection in size 14 hefty"); she doesn't want a heart-shaped box of candy ("You've been dieting since New Year's? Oh."); and she doesn't want a case of gasoline additives from Checker Auto Parts ("Wait 'til you see the mileage you get out of this baby now!"). She wants romance. And not cheap romance, either, the kind you try to get away with 364 days a year. She's looking forward to being wined and dined in a swanky setting, where servers will hold her chair, refold her napkin and say things like, "Ah, the roasted langoustines with basil vinaigrette, excellent choice, Madame." She imagines swirling about a marble dance floor to live music between courses. She wants to bask in flatteringly dim lights and gaze on opulent furnishings.

Get out your wallet, fellas. She's probably got her heart set on the Terrace Dining Room at the Phoenician. But you can take some solace from knowing that your significant other has got a highly developed sense of taste, and not only because she's chosen you for her escort. This restaurant is one of the Valley's premier eating spots, where Italian-accented food, gracious service and rich atmosphere combine to create a wonderful, special-occasion meal.

Location Info

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The Terrace Dining Room

6000 E. Camelback Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85251-1949

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Central Scottsdale

Waiting at the table for you is an irresistible stack of homemade breadsticks, flecked with cheese and red pepper. Just as effective is the basket of Italian bread, a simple loaf with fresh-baked flavor. But the Terrace Dining Room has much higher gastronomic ambitions. You're in the hands of a kitchen that doesn't believe in shortcuts, one that still takes the idea of fine dining seriously. But don't skip lunch in anticipation. That's because you're also in for an evening of small servings. If you have enough courses and a little patience, though, your stomach will eventually stop growling. And, looking on the bright side, this way you won't be too full for postprandial romance.

We took the four-course route, a two-hour and 20-minute journey through appetizer, pasta, main dish and dessert. It's a very pleasant trip. Especially if you start with roasted langoustines, miniature lobsters whose sublimely tasty meat will take your mind off the dainty portion and $12 tag. Polenta and Gorgonzola fritters are a more offbeat way to edge into dinner, but they're equally compelling. The already lively fritters get perked up even more by an outstanding assortment of mixed greens topped with a sweet pear and raisin salsa. Folks who think pasta always comes dished out in steaming, heaping bowlfuls, the way Mama Corleone served her three sons, may be in for a shock. Terrace Dining Room's pasta courses won't force any diners to loosen their belts. But they're exquisite, particularly the deftly prepared artichoke and spinach ravioli, inventively moistened in a puddle of consomm‚ seasoned with sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts.

Orecchiette--small, ear-shaped pieces of pasta--come topped with littleneck clams (a couple of which were gritty, however) and a fragrant garlic-and-wine sauce. And the cheese the server offers to sprinkle on is genuine Parmigiano Reggiano. An 80-pound wheel, the waiter confided, runs $700 wholesale, an expensive touch.

Don't worry if you've still got some empty belly room at main-dish time. These entrees are definitely worth being hungry for. The braised lamb shank, in particular, is extraordinary. Yes, it's a tender piece of fall-off-the-bone meat, as you'd expect. But the sauce it's bathed in is stunning, impossibly rich and complex, bursting with flavor. This is high-class cooking--I suspect someone had been watching over this sauce the better part of a day. Some tomato, artichoke and Tuscan beans come floating in it, but not enough of them. It seems to me a bit of starch--rice, potatoes, pasta--would enable diners to reap the sauce's full benefits. Don't look for any carbohydrates with the parmigiano-crusted veal scaloppine, either. On the other hand, the meat is so luscious that they're never really missed. A teaspoon of capers helps gild this veal lily, while grilled zucchini strips provide diversion between bites. Fennel is a popular Italian flavoring, and you can catch its scent in the seared scallop plate. Five lightly browned mollusks sit on a mound of first-rate risotto tinged with saffron. You'll be hard-pressed to choose between staring at the plate or your lover's eyes. With one exception, the dessert menu isn't very flashy--tiramisu, cheesecake and cräme br–l‚e aren't exactly cutting-edge sweets. There's only one chocolate offering among the ten choices, a pedestrian chocolate cake that's a bit dry. A custard fruit tart is enjoyable, but doesn't bring the meal to a big finish. The zabaglione semifreddo, though, certainly does. It's a molded, frozen mousse confection, zipped up with rum and Marsala and dented with a couple of pizelle cookies.

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