Second Helpings

Rim Shot: My friends know I'm no lover of the great outdoors. My idea of a wilderness experience is staying at a hotel that has no room service between midnight and 6a.m.

But just before the feds closed the park, my friends talked me into a hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. After I lumbered my way back up to rimside civilization, the first thing I did was call the Betty Ford Thigh and Calf Clinic to see if I could send my legs over for a consultation.

Then I limped over to El Tovar, the historical hotel perched on the South Rim. If you go to the Grand Canyon looking to spend $40 per person for dinner, this is the place to do it.

It's a beautiful room, framed by log walls and bookended by huge stone fireplaces. A double row of chandeliers hangs from the wooden ceiling, while striking murals depicting scenes from Hopi, Apache, Mohave and Navajo life adorn the walls. The tables are draped with white linen, and brightened by fresh flowers.

The food is surprisingly bright, too, especially when you consider that everything has to be brought in from a considerable distance. When the well-trained servers asked, "Is everything prepared to your satisfaction, sir?" it wasn't merely politeness that had me nodding in assent.

To my delight, there wasn't a fried mozzarella stick, chicken wing or potato skin on the appetizer list. There were, however, fennel-crusted soft-shell crab ($10.50), chicken pate with prickly-pear sauce and pistachio pesto ($7) and inventive salmon-and-black-bean pot stickers moistened with a lemongrass broth ($8.50).

Soups are especially good this time of year, when the outside thermometer reading at the Canyon matches the surface temperature of Pluto. The French onion soup ($3.95) is a bit salty, but the kitchen uses real Gruyere cheese. Even better is the luscious black-bean-and-smoked-pepper soup ($4.25), a sublime mix of flavors.

The entrees have a continental cast, tinged with the tastes of the Southwest. That means dishes like roast duckling with prickly-pear jalapeno honey ($19.75), chicken breast with apple jalapeno chutney ($14.75) and salmon with lemon-lime salsa ($17.20). The fish is flown in fresh twice a week, Tuesday and Friday.

Veal in any form is topnotch here. There are medallions paired with apricots and red peppercorns in a not-too-sweet orange muscat sauce ($17.75). I enjoyed the veal chop ($25.25), a somewhat dainty piece of meat stuffed with roast peppers, pine nuts and a teaspoon of crab meat.

There's a daily vegetarian option, too. We ran into spinach-filled crepes ($14.50), which undoubtedly made up in vital nutrients what they lacked in taste.

Desserts are skippable. The lemon cake, cheesecake and peanut-butter chocolate mousse won't exactly get you into hiking trim, anyway.

Breakfast is a cheaper way to enjoy El Tovar's dining room. Believe it or not, the blintzes (blintzes!) are excellent. So are the pancakes, particularly the blue-corn model. They're served with real maple syrup, too.--Howard Seftel

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