SECOND HELPINGS

High and Mighty: That's the impression I get from Top of the Rock, the fine-dining restaurant at the Buttes resort, at 2000 Westcourt Way in Tempe. This place continues to deliver one of the best food/setting/view combinations in town.

It has a circular room, perched on top of a butte. No matter where you sit, you get a spectacular 360-degree Valley panorama. Inside, it's just as attractive. Boulders, trees and cacti are artfully pulled together, while the wood-beamed ceiling creates a desert-lodge effect.

And the food keeps pace with the setting and view.
The breadbasket sets the tone. You get three kinds of fresh bread--crusty asiago cheese rolls, red chile corn muffins and cracked wheat rolls flecked with pine nuts--served with prickly pear and macadamia nut butter. It sure looks like Top of the Rock is paying attention to details. The wine list confirms it. As far as I know, Top of the Rock is the only place in town that offers half glasses of wine, served at half the per-glass price plus a quarter. This way, guests can sample some premium wines without paying too great a cost, either financially or physiologically. Try a Mondavi Sauvignon Blanc for $3.60, or a Phelps Cabernet for $4.

The eclectic fare with a Southwestern flair is just as rewarding. I'm glad to see the kitchen hasn't fiddled with the lobster Napoleon ($9.25), one of my favorite appetizers. It's a blend of lobster and boursin cheese, schmeared between won-ton wafers. Almost as effective is the duck roulade ($6.95), an egg roll served with a mound of raspberry-braised onions and a red chile sweet-and-sour sauce. Saut‚ed forest mushrooms ($7.25) come packed in puff pastry and drizzled with cream.

The main dishes are divided into two sections. We passed on the tame-looking "mesquite broiler" options--you can get grilled fish and meat anywhere. We figured most of the chef's energy would be directed into the "chef's creations."

And we didn't regret the choice. Pan-seared sea bass ($20.95) is luscious, a moist, lightly crusted slab coated with cilantro pesto, and served with a wedge of polenta and ratatouille in a chipotle beurre blanc. The vegetarian tamale ($15.95), two corn husks crammed with couscous, mushrooms, tomato and cheese also is well-executed. Old favorites like tea-smoked duck breast ($21.95) in a fruity cherry compote and pesto-crusted rack of lamb ($24.95) bathed in feta cheese and pine nuts are also still going strong.

The dessert menu (all $4.95) has been revamped. It ranges from the simple (Ben and Jerry's ice cream) to the offbeat (poached pineapple and lemon custard layered on macadamia nut phyllo dough) to the heart-stopping (white and dark chocolate cream wrapped in a shell of bittersweet chocolate, moistened with a white chocolate sauce).

Top of the Rock has a real "special occasion" air to it. If you've got something to celebrate, or just find yourself with some disposable income, this is a good spot to dispose of it. Call 225-9000.

 
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