SECOND HELPINGS, 5-11

Triumph of the Grill: Last year, a few months after Rancho Pinot Grill opened, I gave it a rave review. The place hardly needed it. Foodies found out about it quickly enough, and the swamped restaurant soon outgrew its tiny Town & Country Shopping Center storefront. About six months ago, Rancho Pinot moved into a larger, more elegant Scottsdale location, which I recently visited. Two things struck me about the fare there. One: It's more expensive--no surprise, I guess, given the tonier address. Two: The food is better than ever. Without question, this is one of the Valley's premier restaurants. My heart was warmed even before I tasted a morsel. As I walked in at reservation time, I overheard a reservationless blowhard in front of me trying to wheedle a table out of one of the proprietors. (A husband-wife team runs the place--she cooks, he manages.) "You know," the jerk oozed, "I tried to make a reservation today, but you were full. I'd really, really appreciate it if you'd find a table for me." Wink, wink, followed by a portentous look at his wallet. To his credit, the proprietor politely refused. Instead, he skillfully steered Mr. and Mrs. Blowhard to the bar, and fed them there. It was all I could do to keep from hugging him in gratitude. It wasn't long before I felt like hugging his wife. Her food is dynamite. The FDA ought to look into the posole appetizer ($8). It's addicting enough to be a controlled substance: a mouth-watering broth, swimming with salt pork, hominy, cabbage and lime juice, perked up by a bit of a spicy kick. Even the starter of mundane-sounding grilled shrimp ($8.50) showed flair. Embellished with a minty cabbage slaw and mango relish, these were meaty, luscious crustaceans. Main dishes sport inventive touches that grab your attention without crossing over into the bizarre. Check out the glorious sea bass ($18.50), grilled to shimmering, translucent perfection, served atop fragrant basmati rice, alongside a dollop of tahini sauce. The pungent, sesame-based sauce, mild fish and perfumed rice create a knockout combination of flavors. Quail with soba noodles ($18.50) is equally beguiling. A mildly sweet, black-pepper vinegar sauce is chiefly responsible for the tasty effect. You don't get shortchanged at dessert time, either. The apple tart ($6.50) is right on target, and the adjacent scoop of homemade ginger ice cream only adds to its appeal. And the moist chocolate almond cake ($6.50), zestily zipped up with cinnamon, is good enough to compete with the espresso ice cream coated with caramel sauce on the same plate. Throw in wonderful service--silverware replaced, breadcrumbs swept away, coffee promptly refilled--and you can understand why Rancho Pinot Grill has to turn away patrons who don't have the foresight to book a Saturday-night table.

Rancho Pinot Grill is at 6208 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale, a few doors away from Trader Joe's. Call 468-9463.--

 
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