SHORE THING

Chart House, 7255 McCormick Parkway, Scottsdale, 951-1733. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Remember this old Twilight Zone episode? The Earth has slipped out of its customary orbit, and is circling ever closer to the sun. We follow a family trying to cope with the mounting heat and for most of the half-hour, viewers are treated to scenes of intense sweating and water-gulping. Near the end of the story, the sweltering protagonists decide to drive to the Arctic Circle, hoping to delay the inevitable final meltdown.

Then comes the famous Twilight Zone twist. At the last moment, we discover--it's a dream! Actually, the Earth is moving away from the sun. In frozen delirium, the lead character has succumbed to hallucinations. Everyone's really heading toward the equator, trying to postpone a cryogenic fate.

Hokey? You bet. Unrealistic? Not at all. Just check out the way some Valley restaurants aim to delude supposedly wide-awake locals into believing we don't live in the furnacelike heat of the parched Sonoran desert.

Places like the Chart House and the Waterfront Restaurant try to pretend the Valley is a tropical paradise. The key element in this make-believe dining drama? Water. Acres and acres of water.

Both places are strategically perched on the edge of a large manmade lake, ringed with swaying palm trees. That craggy peak just to the west of the Chart House? That's not Camelback; it must be Diamondhead. Those seaside villas with their own docks across from the Waterfront? Don't blame lunatic development; we're on the Isle of Capri.

Started way back in the 1960s in Aspen, Colorado, the Chart House has developed into a successful chain, with scores of restaurants operating in tourist destinations throughout the country. The Scottsdale link has the typical island look: cane chairs and carpeting with assorted tropical prints, table-tops covered with laminated nautical maps of Honolulu harbor, servers decked out in brightly colored tropical outfits. One nod to Arizona--Soleri bells hanging in the center of the room.

The dining concept is as well-worn as the decor. The Chart House relies on steak, seafood and salad bar to make customers happy. And, apparently, they are. This place is likely to be filled, even during the summer doldrums. Bargain prices, though, certainly can't be the attraction. Except for a couple of chicken dishes, almost every entree goes for at least $20.

Diners tend to cluster at two spots: window seats and the salad bar. It's easy to understand why we cactus-dwellers like to sit by the windows and stare at the lake. It's somewhat more difficult to account for the continuing lure of the salad bar.

No doubt national nutritional hysteria has something to do with it. People want to be reassured that greenery is available. They also like the idea of putting together their own salad course. And don't discount the mistaken belief that because the salad bar's cost is included with all dinners, folks are getting something for nothing.

The salad bar here has a pretty good reputation, and a few trips through it showed me why. Just remember to ignore the tubs filled with the usual suspects and concentrate on the winners: fresh tomatoes with hearts of palm; well-dressed zucchini and peppers; marinated broccoli, peppers and snow peas. There's also a deft, freshly tossed caesar salad, and a separate serving plate of anchovies nearby for those who insist on authenticity.

The salad bar pretty much means you don't need to fill up on appetizers. Good thing. The "steamed" artichoke seemed to have been boiled. Forever. Ours arrived a water-logged, soggy mess. If you love artichokes, take your $4.95 and buy five at the supermarket to treat yourself at home. The coconut-battered calamari also managed to keep its charms well-hidden.

Entrees are another story. You'll pay for your thrills, but you won't be disappointed. Especially if you enjoy a slab of animal protein. The Chart House uses choice, not prime meats, but I was hard-pressed to notice the difference.

The restaurant touts its prime rib as a "specialty," and the kitchen backs up the claim. The regular cut isn't particularly massive--maybe ten ounces--but the quality is there in every bite. I didn't encounter any fat or gristle, and the meat was butter-soft, without a hint of stringiness.

At $25, the New York pepper steak is the most expensive regular-menu option. If they can overcome the sticker shock, carnivores will find lots of beefy satisfaction. The steak is perfectly grilled, and doused in an invigorating peppercorn-and-brandy sauce, accompanied by a mound of grilled onions.

A successful swordfish entree depends on two elements: fresh fish and competent preparation. The Chart House delivers both. The swordfish is removed from the flames at just the right moment, and served with an innocuous pineapple salsa.

Surprisingly, the least compelling entree was the one I had the highest hopes for. I imagined the Nova Scotia sea scallops would resemble the giant, moist mollusks I've had at the Valley's best restaurants. (The $23 price also stirred my gourmet reveries.) But these creatures were nothing special, and neither was the unimaginative garlic, butter and breadcrumb recipe.

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