NORTHERN EXPOSURE

Not far behind is what our waiter called the "Frank Lloyd Wright." It's a chocolate mosaic that looks like it was built from one of the architect's modernistic blueprints. Various kinds of chocolate are shaped into geometric forms--spherical truffles, triangular cakes, cylindrical wafers--to form a house of chocolate. If chocolate is your weakness, this dessert will lead you straight into the Valley of Temptation.

Even the cräme br–l‚e, a dessert clich‚, is well-crafted. It's creamily voluptuous.

Expensive, dressy and formal, 8700 is a big-time place that delivers the food to compete in this kind of league. If your ship has come in, it's a good place to dock.

Tonto Bar and Grill, 5734 East Rancho Ma¤ana Boulevard, Cave Creek, 488-0698. Hours: Lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., seven days a week.

Open only since December, the stylish Tonto Bar and Grill already looks like a popular success. Some restaurants don't get as much business in the whole month of July as we saw on a Friday-night visit in the middle of the summer doldrums.

Tonto Bar and Grill also looks like it's on the way to becoming a culinary success. Some of the food still needs some tweaking, but that won't keep trendy Phoenix foodies from adding this place to their lists.

Our waitress explained that the restaurant aims to be casually upscale. "We want people to be comfortable in tuxedos or shorts," she said. Well, if you do have the courage to wear shorts, you'd better have on the latest model. You won't find many fashion shlumps in this well-dressed crowd.

The place has a rustic, country-club look that signals ease and money. The airy, inside dining room is a comfortable spot, with distressed tile floor and a wood beam ceiling.

But if you come around dusk, you'll be much happier to walk through the French doors onto the beautiful patio. This spacious spot overlooks a golf course framed by saguaros and mountains, and the view is pretty enough to be snapped by an Arizona Highways photographer.

The seasonally adjusted menu is pure 1990s, more trendy than innovative. Veteran diners could probably write most of it themselves: Look for steamed artichoke, seared ahi tuna, Thai chicken breast, rack of lamb and grilled swordfish. The fare, though, is very good, and reasonably priced. (Seven of the ten entrees range from $14 to $17.50.)

But Tonto Bar and Grill makes an awful first-food impression. How can a sophisticated place like this, serving sophisticated customers, send out such embarrassingly bad thrift-bakery French bread? It's a disturbing lapse.

Starters get the meal back on track. They're nothing fancy and nothing you haven't seen before--mostly fried finger food. But cheese-filled jalape¤os, Thai chicken strips with a peanut dipping sauce and calamari strips paired with a lemon caper mayo freshened with dill seem just right for summer patio dining. There's also a beguiling tomato soup, flecked with pumpkin seeds and zipped up with a dollop of cilantro sour cream.

Most of the culinary attention goes into the entrees. One of the more straightforward dishes is also the best: rabbit. It's wonderful, a big portion of juicy marinated meat cleverly paired with Tuscan white beans that needed a few extra minutes in the pot to soften properly. Asparagus furnished additional gilding.

Rack of lamb also benefits from simplicity. Except for the last chop, the tender meat is cut away from the bone and fanned across the plate, zestily infused with thyme. A tasty puff pastry filled with potato and goat cheese indicates that the kitchen pays a lot more attention to side dishes than to the bread.

The quality of the three scallops and three shrimp in the tomato pasta plate jumps out at you after one bite. Same for the corn salsa with which they're teamed. But for some reason, the chef is unnecessarily miserly with the pasta. No danger of carbohydrate overloading here.

Two big, grilled, thick-cut pork chops in a pearl onion sauce, though, will suppress any appetite. Once again, the kitchen showed commendable side-dish skill, coming up with an attention-getting accompaniment of griddled maple grits that I could have made a meal out of. And I almost had to, because the pork chops were almost too tough to enjoy.

Tonto Bar and Grill brings in two desserts from the Boulders bakery and makes two on the premises. Neither of the in-house duo requires the expertise of a pastry chef or aspires to a level beyond uncomplicated satisfaction. There's a summery peach cobbler, coated with cinnamon ice cream, as well as an offbeat cräme br–l‚e with an appealing flanlike texture.

Tonto Bar and Grill already has a very strong foundation. Once it straightens out the bread, puts out more pasta, fixes up the pork chops and gooses up desserts, construction should be complete.

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