North Forks

Chez Marc Bistro, 503 North Humphreys, Flagstaff, 1-520-774-1343. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, 5:30 to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

No matter how many years you've endured the July and August desert heat, you can't really get used to it. In the Valley of the Perpetual Sun, you can always count on a long, hot summer.

So when the boss gave me the chance to flee this sizzling town for a high-country, restaurant-getaway weekend, I felt like the prisoner on death row who'd just heard that the governor had granted him a 48-hour stay of execution: even a temporary reprieve can be a godsend.

One of the season's great thrills is looking at the Valley in the rearview mirror of the car as you head up I-17. Another is shutting off the car's air conditioner, rolling down the windows and inhaling the cool, pine-scented air as you head into Flagstaff.

An even greater thrill: stepping into Chez Marc and inhaling the vigorous scents of its exhilarating French-bistro cuisine. Just about everything from this outstanding kitchen outshines the mediocre fare dished out at most of our local French restaurants.

Part of the dinnertime spell comes from the setting. Chez Marc occupies a building on the National Register of Historic Places, a vintage 1910 house charmingly divided into cozy rooms. Look for stone fireplaces, a wood-beam ceiling, cafe curtains and tourist sketches of Paris of the type sold by vendors along the Seine.

The food is worthy of the surroundings. Start off munching warm French bread and a variety of cured olives housed in a big mustard jar. Then prepare yourself for two hours of intensive French gastronomy.

Chez Marc's Ballottine de Canard could delude you into thinking that Flagstaff is a suburb of Paris. It's a coarse duck pate, flecked with pistachios and lined with a layer of pork fat. The traditional accompaniments, Pommery mustard and Cornichons (crunchy French pickles), add notes of tasty authenticity.

The sophisticated Symphonie des Raviolis gets the meal off to an equally fast start. Four light, doughy pouches come individually stuffed with lobster, pheasant, spinach and cheese, then are bathed in a creamy sun-dried-tomato sauce. Why haven't I seen a starter like this on Phoenix French-restaurant menus?

The salad course is no afterthought. The kitchen puts together some sprightly fresh greens and Belgian endive, then crams them into a homemade lahvosh cracker fashioned into a cylinder.

The main dishes, reasonably priced in the $17 to $23 range, are simply superb. One evening's special, the glorious beef Wellington, made me woozier than Flagstaff's 7,000-foot altitude. It featured an almost ethereally tender piece of tenderloin, coated with spinach and wild mushrooms and encased by puff-pastry dough. Not too many side dishes could share a plate with this sublime dish. But the saffron-accented mashed potatoes were up to the task.

The Trio du Chef also shows considerable skill. You get three butter-soft baby lamb chops, an intensely flavorful duck confit (duck cooked, then preserved in its own fat) and poussin, a spring chicken accented with fresh thyme and stuffed with ground veal and pork. There's no shortage of flavors in this platter.

Chez Marc also offers a surprisingly extensive wine list. I'm grateful to the waiter, who steered us to an exceptionally mellow Pine Ridge Cabernet (Rutherford, 1993). (You can get it at Sportsman's for 17 bucks.)

Desserts offer more Gallic flair. The black cherry custard tart is not too sweet, not too heavy and not too easy to pass up. A warm crepe, stuffed with strawberries, soaked with Cointreau and teamed with homemade ice cream, also ends the meal on a high note.

Fans of proprietor Marc Balocco will also be pleased to learn he's opened a second place in Flagstaff. It's Marc's Cafe Americain, a more casual and less expensive restaurant than Chez Marc. (It occupies the storefront that used to house Brix, an upscale dining venture that fell on hard times.)

It's hard enough to point your car south and return to the Valley after a summertime stay in Flagstaff. If your visit includes a meal at Chez Marc, it's practically impossible.

House of Joy, 416 Hull Avenue, Jerome, 1-520-634-5339. Hours: Dinner, Saturday and Sunday, 3 to 9 p.m.

"Please do not come in if you do not have a reservation," reads the sign posted underneath the red light outside House of Joy.

In the old days, reservations at House of Joy were hardly necessary. That's because in its previous incarnation, this small establishment serviced the Jerome mining community as a bordello.

These days, though, you'll have to call weeks in advance if you hope to make it through the door. Apparently, people are more inclined to make long-term plans about hunger than about lust.

House of Joy is nothing if not quirky. It's open only two nights a week, Saturday and Sunday. Like their predecessors, the current proprietors run a cash-only business--no credit cards. The two small rooms can feed no more than 25 or 30 diners at one time. It also helps if red is your favorite color--the place is bathed in a low, red glow. And for a faintly Victorian touch, check out the shelves. They're lined with elaborately dressed bears, all for sale, handmade by the proprietors. (I was particularly taken with the figure outfitted as a madam.)

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