NORTHERN EXPOSURE

8700, 8700 East Pinnacle Peak Road, Scottsdale, 994-8700. Hours: Dinner, 6 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

It's not very easy to interest Phoenicians in a July auto trip, unless the car is headed to San Diego. But I just visited a couple of distant north Valley eating spots whose stimulating fare more than offsets the agony of the second-degree steering-wheel burns I got driving there.

The ride through open desert to 8700 in north Scottsdale and to the Tonto Bar and Grill in Cave Creek is still beautiful enough to elicit oohs and aahs. Enjoy the view now: You don't need a degree in urban planning to see that in a very few years this area will be paved over with development.

8700 is one of the few restaurants in the Valley that can make a guy feel underdressed if he's not wearing a jacket and tie. The place is pricey, swanky and almost stuffy. Why else would management have an absurd summertime fire roaring in the corner fireplace? Candles on the table, candelabra on the wall, chairs with elegant brocade fabric and a wall lined with reproductions of the Old Masters contribute more appropriate elegant touches. And, according to my wife, so did the opulent women's restroom, which she reports features marble walls, dried flower arrangements, an inlaid wood desk and a sculpture of a mandolin player.

Ever since it opened, the proprietors of 8700 have viewed chefs the same way that Elizabeth Taylor views husbands: They're necessary, but it doesn't much matter which individual occupies the office, as long as the position is filled.

However, the parade of chefs marching through 8700's kitchen seems to have come to a halt. The latest director, Cary Neff, has managed to make it past a year. And from what we sampled, the man knows what he's doing.

The fare here has always been Southwestern-accented, and Neff is obviously comfortable with the formula. For the most part, his summer menu (it changes somewhat with the seasons) avoids clich‚s without going over the edge.

You can tell from the small appetizer list. Yes, there's the inevitable smoked salmon, and the usual grilled Mexican shrimp. But the crustaceans come blackened in spicy seasonings, and are served with bite-size avocado corn pancakes, all moistened with citrus butter. They're scrumptious. But whether this nibble is worth the $8.50 tag--you get three medium-size shrimp--is a question that only you and your financial adviser can answer.

Indian blue-corn crepes, on the other hand, can be confidently ordered without calling in a consultant. They're crispy pouches, fragrantly stuffed with smoked chicken, leeks and wild mushrooms. A mild chile-black bean sauce and a teaspoon of dried cherry and pecan relish furnish complementary regional flavors.

And if you're able to ignore the calendar, soup offers a pleasant way to glide into dinner. At first, the salty, intense lamb broth seemed better suited to the Yukon in February than the Valley in July. But the two goat-cheese-stuffed pastry pillows floating on the surface have charms that aren't limited by the seasons.

Breads weren't quite as good as I recall from previous visits. The signature blue corn muffin, with the "8700" logo branded on top, was too dry. The whole-wheat roll looked like it wandered in from a coffee shop. Only the sourdough loaves tempted us.

But if you don't order starters, taking the edge off your appetite with any of the breads may be strategically sound. That's because most of the main dishes here aren't ample enough to cause diners to loosen belts, open buttons or call for a doggie bag.

While heft may be problematic, taste is not. That's especially true with 8700's best entree, the roast tenderloin of veal. It's a magnificent hunk of butter-soft meat, vibrantly moistened in its tarragon-spiked juices. The veal is aided by a well-thought-out quesadilla accompaniment, which is layered with roasted peppers, black beans, boursin cheese and vegetables. This dish is a knockout.

Southwestern cioppino also sports some flair. Mussels, shrimp, scallops and sea bass swim in a pungent, chile-spiked, tomato-and-red-wine broth. Strips of nopal cactus, chayote squash and black beans provide crunch and local color.

Pan-seared loin of lamb, the most expensive entree at $31.50, offers meltingly soft meat in a peppercorn crust. But there's not very much of it. And even the muscular lamb is almost overwhelmed by the side of thick-scented braised red cabbage that shares the plate. Instead of cabbage, this dish would benefit from some kind of starch.

8700 also offers a vegetarian option, which showcases the same Indian blue-corn pouches we encountered in the appetizer. Here they're filled with a "Southwestern ratatouille." They're good, but the pouches cry out for sauce--they're very dry. Baby organic veggies and a nifty black bean and potato cake round off a platter basically designed for the one veggie-minded member of your party.

The most impressive part of 8700's dinner, however, is still to come--dessert. I was so pleased I wouldn't have minded if the pastry chef had circled the room holding a tip jar.

The highlight? An astonishing sabayon, a rich, custardy confection of egg yolks, sugar and wine. It's poured into a chocolate shell, which rests on top of an irresistible cookielike pastry. Wow.

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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