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.

Workers of the world, unite at The Restaurant, and charge it to the company. The revolution's got to start somewhere.

Sprouts, the spa at Marriott's Camelback Inn, 5402 East Lincoln, Paradise Valley, 948-1700. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., seven days a week.

Come to Sprouts for lunch and you'll find yourself in the company of well-toned women wrapped in terry-cloth robes. They have just come from using the resort's elegant spa services. Their faces gleam after Rehydrating Four-Layer Facials; their bodies glow after Bindi Herbal Body Treatments; their aching muscles relax after Jin Shin Jyutsu massages.

You don't need a degree in restaurant management to guess what these gals are going to want for lunch. Hint: It's not going to be duck confit, rib eye steak and Bailey's Irish Cream cheesecake.

They want spa fare--low-calorie, low-fat, low-cholesterol food that won't undo the high-priced work they've just had done in the spa's body shop. Thoughtfully, management provides a full range of nutritional analyses for every menu item. I'm surprised the chairs themselves don't also double as scales. That way, patrons could calculate their weight after every bite.

The spa setting is magnificent. It starts with the drive through the breathtaking resort, to the spa building halfway up Mummy Mountain. Sprouts is in the lower level, overlooking the pool. The lunch room itself is bright and airy, with a Southwestern motif, principally hanging blankets and lots of cactus.

The food? Considering that calorie counting, not taste, is the driving force, it's not bad. But it is dull.

Sprouts offers two starters. There's a placid Southwestern vegetable chili (193 calories, 35 grams carbohydrates, 13 milligrams cholesterol, 1 gram fat, 11 grams protein), stocked with beans, vegetables and a sprinkling of low-fat cheese. It serves its purpose, but a dash of chile pepper might have provided some zest without adding any more calories. Soup of the day is the other option. On this day, it was a "cream" of broccoli. If there was any cream in there, it must have been put in with an eyedropper.

Main dishes furnish the same sort of satisfaction folks might get from deciding to watch MacNeil/Lehrer instead of Roseanne reruns. They'll feel good about themselves. But no one is going to confuse what they feel with passion or ecstasy.

The garden pizza (434 calories, 68 grams carbohydrates, 15 milligrams cholesterol, 2.5 grams fat, 33 grams protein) is a small disk, sporting an indifferent crust and a substantial amount of vegetable topping. Broccoli, carrots and squash take up most of the space, along with a smidgen of low-fat mozzarella and a teaspoon of tomato sauce. It may have looked like a pizza, but I couldn't convince myself it actually was a pizza.

Grilled chicken salad (216 calories, 13 grams carbohydrates, 101 milligrams cholesterol, 3.5 grams fat, 32 grams protein) didn't have to be as boring as it was. It's just chicken over greens, with a bit of jicama and pepper, tossed with balsamic vinegar. Some tomatoes, artichokes or mushrooms would have made this salad a lot more interesting without throwing the nutritional figures out of whack.

Shrimp and snow peas (218 calories, 32 grams carbohydrates, 31 milligrams cholesterol, 1 gram fat, 20 grams protein) turned out to be shrimp and French green beans, since the kitchen ran out of snow peas. You get five chilled shrimp, served over mostaccioli. The only drawback: an incredibly snoozy yogurt sauce. Someone needs to tell the chef about herbs and spices. Tarragon, pepper, basil, oregano--something--is needed to perk this up.

Just when I despaired of finding anything with flavor, I dug into the seafood paprika (370 calories, 38 grams carbohydrates, 152 milligrams cholesterol, 4 grams fat, 45 grams protein), by far the best main dish. First, it's stocked with steamed mussels, clams, scallops, crab and shrimp--not vast amounts, but enough to enjoy. Second, it's served over fettuccine moistened with a lusty paprika tomato sauce that has real bite. This makes a fine lunch platter even if you haven't just gone through the Adobe Clay Purification Treatment.

Along with "fried" and "butter," "dessert" is another word you wouldn't expect to see on this menu. Nevertheless, it's there. Only, who cares? There's something called gingered fruit salad (95 calories, 20 grams carbohydrates, 2 milligrams cholesterol, 0 grams fat, 3 grams protein), berries and fruit mixed with plain, tasteless yogurt, bereft of any ginger snap. Other alternatives include frozen peach yogurt (88 calories, 18 grams carbohydrates, 0 grams cholesterol, 0 grams fat, 4 grams protein) and a power bar (225 calories, 42 grams carbohydrates, 0 grams cholesterol, 2 grams fat, 10 grams protein).

They say you can't be too rich or too thin. Well, Sprouts has put those priorities in order for me. Rich is a lot more fun.

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