Arbor Patrol

Like the appetizers, desserts are relatively weak. The competent creme brulee is a better option than the heavy, dry pound cake with berries. The dainty blueberry cheesecake, on the other hand, is way too light for my taste.

Zinfandel needs some work on the service side, too. The place is seriously understaffed. (Even the hostess was pitching in, busing tables and serving.) At almost three hours, our meals here were not only leisurely, they were downright glacial.

Still, Zinfandel has been around only a few months. Like a good, young wine with lots of potential, I expect it to benefit from a little aging.

Anna's Cafe, 5618 East Thomas, Phoenix, 945-4503. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 4 p.m. to close.

It's easy to be beguiled by Anna's Cafe. Despite the location in a nondescript strip mall along a forlorn stretch of Thomas Road, you feel good vibes as soon as you enter the room. A cluster of easy chairs and a sofa send out a make-yourself-at-home message. The dozen or so tables are covered with crisp white linen and vases filled with colorful fresh irises. Duke Ellington, Nat "King" Cole and Ella Fitzgerald spill softly from the music system. And the staff makes you feel like a regular on your first visit.

The menu changes nightly. Expect three appetizer options and perhaps six entrees, one from each food group: pasta, fish, chicken, beef, lamb and veal.

The preparations are simple and, for the most part, effective. A starter of Little Neck clams in a light tomato broth makes for a pleasantly light nibble. So does the grilled, chilled and shredded pheasant, moistened in an appealing vinaigrette. Although the meat is a little chewy, the flavor is all there. Less successful is the homemade mozzarella, a tasteless, rubbery slab garnished with a tasteless, rubbery supermarket tomato and a bit of basil.

However, since all dinners are preceded by a salad sprinkled with a lemony dressing, you may consider shifting your appetizer dollars into your wine budget.

That's because Anna's Cafe offers some smoking wine deals. All bottles go for just $2.50 more than retail, and the selection is broad and deep: Domaine Weinbach "Reserve Personelle" GewYrztraminer for $20; a premier cru white Burgundy from Les Ruchottes for $45; from Blain Gagnard in Chassagne, a pleasing red Burgundy for $25; from Bordeaux, a 1989 Chateau Cissac for $20. And if you enjoy dessert wines, don't miss the Beaumes de Venise from Domaine Coyeaux, a half-bottle of golden liquid delight for an eye-rubbing $12.50. I've had it elsewhere in town for almost that much a glass.

You'll be washing down some uncomplicated but well-fashioned main-dish fare. The veal chop features a tender piece of grilled meat that moved me to pick up the bone and gnaw on it. Chicken comes from Young's Farm, so you're assured of receiving a plump, moist bird. Sometimes the kitchen likes to marinate it in red wine, balsamic vinegar and juniper berries. Other times it may be seasoned with mustard and coriander.

The expertly grilled red rockfish fillet showed real skill. It's simply prepared, just brushed with olive oil and garnished with parsley. But the dish offers a subtle mix of flavors and texture. Side dishes are no more exotic than the entrees. Look for pleasantly lumpy homemade mashed potatoes and cauliflower.

Pasta entrees need some work. One evening's tagliatelle were tossed with roasted red peppers, Parmesan cheese and parsley, but the dish had no zest at all. It desperately needed something--olive oil, garlic, basil, pancetta--to liven it up.

The service also needs livening up. When the harried staff shows up, it's sweet and well-meaning. But Anna's Cafe has a hard time dealing with a full house. Make sure you come armed with lots of conversational nuggets, or be prepared to drink a second bottle of wine to cover the long, long stretches between courses.

Desserts here are just as homey as everything else. The rich, heavy flourless chocolate cake is softened by a pleasing apple-and-fig compote. Homemade ice creams also end the meal on a sweet note, particularly if you opt for the honey-maple model. And the proprietor has the good sense to deliver first-rate coffee, served in a French press.

Anna's Cafe is no temple to high gastronomy. But its cozy charm and superior wine list make it a wonderful place for stressed-out folks to unwind at dinnertime.

Baked Brie with fruit
Chicken Chimayo
Pork tenderloin
Beef with blue cheese sauce

Anna's Cafe:
Chilled pheasant
Grilled rockfish
Grilled chicken
Veal chop

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