FEAST AND FAMINE

The Restaurant, the Ritz-Carlton, 2401 East Camelback, Phoenix, 468-0700. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Most of us nine-to-fivers look forward to the lunch break, but not because it's the day's culinary high point. Rather, it's our only chance to get out of the office, an opportunity to catch up on some chores, do some reading or just stare vacantly into space trying to conjure up winning Powerball numbers. The meal itself? It sure won't be anything fancy, just some quick, inexpensive nourishment to get us through the five o'clock whistle.

But there are two kinds of people out there for whom lunch is an altogether more pleasant interlude. One of them is the class of bosses, big shots armed with the company credit card and the time to use it. The other is the well-heeled class of leisured women who, between $100 facials and intense bouts of shopping, like to relax by counting the calories and grams of fat in every morsel they put in their mouths.

If you want to observe these two species in their native lunchtime habitats, check out The Restaurant, at the Ritz-Carlton, and Sprouts, in the spa at Marriott's Camelback Inn.

A glance around The Restaurant should be enough for even the densest member of the working class to realize that a BLT on white toast is not likely to be the noontime special. One clue is the pianist perched at the grand piano, who aids midday digestion by tinkling out the sophisticated melodies of Gershwin and Berlin.

Another is the swanky room itself. It's gorgeous: plush chairs, elegant chandeliers, a huge vase of colorful flowers and paintings that could grace milord's country manor. In addition, the deft, deferential service gives you the feeling you're lunching in a private club. This is the kind of place that makes you want to indulge in a two-martini lunch.

I passed on the alcohol, though, fearful that noontime cocktails might cloud my critical faculties. But I didn't pass up much else on the menu. And after a lengthy meal, expansively conducted over three full courses, I reached an initial judgment: It's time for me to join the ranks of upper management. Today, in retrospect, I'm amazed to recall just how easily a beguiling lunch tempted me to dissolve my lifelong bond with the ham-and-cheese-sandwich-eating masses.

But, in my defense, even the strongest impulses of gastronomic solidarity would have been sorely tested by the duck confit appetizer. The Restaurant's version is extremely well-fashioned, tender shreds of preserved fowl sitting in a pastry cup, surrounded by wilted spinach and moistened with a luscious wild-berry vinaigrette. The substantial portion wasn't designed for delicate appetites, either. The chef knows that our country's hardworking executives can't create wealth without proper fueling.

That applies to the ahi tuna starter, as well. Unless you're paid in yen, the $9.25 tag may raise some eyebrows back in accounting, but there's no denying the fish's quantity or quality. You get three thick, hefty slabs of seared tuna crusted with sesame seeds, gilded with a smooth citrus ginger dressing. Even if you're blessed with a high metabolism, better just share this plate if you're contemplating ordering a main dish, too.

Soup caused two disappointments. First, The Restaurant was out of the chilled watermelon with lump crab meat model. Even though it sounds like a risky concoction, you can't reach the heights by playing it safe, either in the boardroom or the kitchen. Second, I got the vegetable pesto soup in its stead, an undistinguished broth that doesn't fire on all flavor cylinders.

Novices who haven't been trained to withstand the rigors of the two-hour executive lunch shouldn't schedule a heavy afternoon workload. I know I operated at less-than-full capacity after my Ritz meal, although my pencils are now unusually sharp and the small and large paper clips are separated into their correct bins.

Those were about the only tasks I could handle after downing a beefy slab of rib eye steak, a soft piece of meat gilded with a rich b‚arnaise sauce zipped up with olives. Airy potato puffs injected a welcome light touch.

Veal piccata is also substantial enough to send you back to the fields, not the office. The saut‚ed spinach and peppers alongside furnished a '90s nutrition note, designed to make executives feel better about filling up on a half-pound of animal protein before dinner.

Order the excellent mahimahi, and it won't be necessary to do any rationalizing. Several moist fillets come coated with a sun-dried tomato crust, surrounded by a few ribbons of thick black pasta scented with olive oil and saffron. No doubt about it, the steak, veal and fish entrees make it difficult to appreciate the charms of a brown bag.

So does dessert, a part of the lunchtime meal unfamiliar to most wage slaves. But I'm sure they'd catch on as quickly as I did, if they had the opportunity to order rich Bailey's Irish Cream cheesecake, or a pretty nectarine tart, cooled by a summery scoop of orange mascarpone ice cream and freshened by cherry compote.

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