Au Courant Fare

Zinzibar, 3815 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 990-9256. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Back in the early 1990s, when this town was in deep recession (remember the "Bank Foreclosure" signs nailed in front of residential and commercial property all over the city?), it would have taken the full powers of Dionne Warwick's psychic stable to foresee the 1997 gold rush we're currently enjoying.

Wagon trains of new arrivals are pouring into the Valley daily. Some of these wagons are transporting deep-pocketed entrepreneurs, looking to pan for restaurant gold among the growing population.

The restaurant explosion reminds me a bit of the cable-television boom. Once we had just a few stations to turn to. Now we've got dozens, even hundreds, of viewing options. But all too often, there's still nothing worth watching.

That's how it is with most of the new restaurants. These days we have more eating-out choices than ever before. The problem is, all too often, there's still nothing worth eating.

How does a new restaurant distinguish itself and rise out of the pack of mediocrity? You don't need a degree from Cornell University's hospitality program to work out the answer. The public has a knack for finding places that serve good food in pleasant surroundings at a fair price.

And the public seems to be finding Zinzibar and Lantana Grille, two new restaurants whose kitchens demonstrate, in varying degrees, promise and skill.

At this point, Zinzibar has moved beyond promise--this place is already delivering the goods.

It's doing business in the location that used to house Trapper's, a surf-and-turf parlor that had a long run until the formula ran out of steam. So what's the trend of the moment? Mediterranean-themed fare, realized Zinzibar's proprietors. So look for dishes with regional seasonings like sun-dried tomato, pesto, olives, lemon, garlic and tarragon, and side dishes like polenta, celery root, lentils, fennel and white beans.

Zinzibar has opted for the Roman Grotto look. If you think you've seen it before, you have. I've encountered variations of this trendy interior at least half a dozen times in the past few months. The most striking features are the curved stone wall separating the bar and dining areas, and the murals resembling peeling Roman frescoes painted on the walls. Fresh flowers on the table are a nice touch. Low-decibel, Spanish-sounding music provides audio background without inhibiting conversation.

Although Zinzibar's concept is cutting-edge, one part of the menu surely isn't. It's the fondue. The last time I recall seeing fondue in a restaurant, I had a leisure suit in my closet, a Farrah Fawcett poster on my wall and hair all over my head.

Zinzibar offers fondue in all its forms. Cheese fondue is an appetizer, melted Gruyere tinged with kirsch (a liqueur distilled from cherries), slowly bubbling over a low Sterno flame. For dunking, diners use cubes of focaccia and rosemary bread, as well as squash, carrots and celery. Every table seems to order it--the aroma smacks you the moment you walk in. I can understand the appeal, especially during the chilly winter season. This is real comfort food.

The main-dish fondue doesn't follow tradition. (Zinzibar calls it "a lighter, healthier approach.") The standard procedure requires dipping small pieces of raw beef into hot oil. Here, however, you choose among beef, chicken or shrimp. And instead of oil, you cook them in either a garlic beef reduction or a saffron broth flecked with celery, onions and tomato. We opted for the latter, with no regrets.

For some reason, though, the fondue is also teamed with several dipping sauces--eggplant, aioli, mustard vinaigrette, tapenade (an olive paste), red pepper. They're superfluous, especially if you want to experience the full force of the saffron aroma.

For dessert: chocolate fondue. A big pot of melting dark chocolate, accompanied by pound cake and fruit for dipping, is a tempting splurge. Although the menu says it's for two, this portion should satisfy three or four chocolate lovers.

If you'd prefer not to go fondueing, Zinzibar's other fare is also worth dipping into. The kitchen sends out a lovely grilled mixed-vegetable appetizer platter, gilded with goat cheese. Vodka shrimp is another winning starter, a mound of chilled, marinated crustaceans teamed with couscous over field greens. And if you like pasta, but don't want to make it the centerpiece of dinner, consider sharing an order of gnocchi. These potato-flour dumplings come punched up with lots of wild mushrooms.

The entrees, all priced between $15 and $19, offer something for everyone: lamb, veal, beef, chicken, fish. Roast leg of lamb is wonderfully tender and fragrant with the scents of rosemary and garlic. I love veal chop, but I've been burned several times recently by inferior specimens. The model here restored my faith. It's covered with tapenade and touched up with lemon and basil oil. Steak lovers will find complete satisfaction in the zesty steak au poivre, grilled, sliced beef with a pepper crust, served with a polenta cake and spinach.

I only order chicken to fulfill my professional obligations--it's usually the dullest dish on the menu. But Zinzibar's version has given me second thoughts. The menu indicated I'd be getting a chicken breast filled with goat cheese and sun-dried tomato. Instead, I got a lusciously juicy stuffed Cornish game hen. As a bonus, it came with pureed celery root and shaved fennel, a bit of side-dish sophistication you don't often run into in this town.

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