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The Latilla, Boulders Resort, 34631 North Tom Darlington Drive, Carefree, 488-9009. Hours: Dinner, 6 to 9:30 p.m., seven nights a week.
Gentlemen, get out your wallets.
Guys have it easy on most of their gals' special days. It's your anniversary? Pick up a $3 bouquet of flowers from someone standing on a traffic island on your way home from work, and your honey will think you're Prince Charming. It's her birthday? Work up your most sincere expression, tell her she's getting too thin, and hand her a box of chocolates. Try to look modest as you accept her grateful thanks. A Christmas gift? On Christmas Eve, grab the first bottle of whatever's left on the department-store perfume counter, then whisper to her the next morning that you searched for weeks to find just the right scent to match her sweet soul. She's genetically wired to believe you.
For some unknown reason, however, women come to their senses on Valentine's Day. They see right through the cheap gifts and the phony compliments we devious males get away with the other 364 days a year. On this day, your main squeeze demands a tangible expression of your affection, and insists on a heartfelt sign of your romantic interest. That means you're going to have to spend some serious time with her, with the television off. And for several hours, you'll be expected to nod your head and smile pleasantly without squirming while she discusses uncomfortable subjects like "a healthy relationship," "full-time commitment" and "putting away the laundry."
34631 N. Tom Darlington Drive
Carefree, AZ 85377
She'll probably be sharing these thoughts, and others, in a fancy restaurant, the kind of place where males are genetically wired to make reservations every February 14. And as long as you'll be laying out the big bucks anyway, you might as well make reservations where at least the food, if not the conversation, is to your liking.
If you're ready to splurge big-time, The Latilla restaurant, the Boulders Resort's swanky fine-dining room, should go near the top of your Valentine's Day list. If you're lucky, your sweetheart may find the exquisite setting and fare so overpowering that she'll forget she planned to discuss your shortcomings over dinner.
There are two identical dining rooms, each with a large tree trunk in the center holding up an octagonal wooden ceiling. (The "latillas" are the thin branches, supported by thicker beams, the "vigas.") Look through the big picture windows and gaze on craggy, lighted boulders and a roaring outside fireplace. Inside, the room is spare and elegant, with deftly romantic lighting that permits you to see your food and hide your blemishes at the same time.
Don't spend your day fasting in anticipation of dinner. The operating philosophy behind portion size seems to be "less is more." But there's an upside to the dainty servings: At the meal's conclusion, you won't have to worry about being too full for romance.
Start off munching the addictive asiago cheesesticks, burnished with cracked peppercorns. They may help you keep your mind off the $10-and-up tag for the appetizers.
These expensive nibbles are too small to share effectively. There are only a couple of bites to the shrimp and scallops packaged in phyllo dough. But they're high-quality bites. Two Dungeness crab cakes are teamed with white beans and a zesty cucumber-horseradish sauce. Best, however, is the scrumptious grilled Muscovy duck sausage, three tiny disks moistened in a rich gravy, adorned with caramelized onions, corn and crispy potato.
The main-dish list is compact, featuring about 10 choices ranging among veal, pork, lamb, beef, chicken and seafood. Nothing is particularly exotic, or exotically prepared. But the quality is stunning--the animal protein here pushed every carnivorous button in my body.
Grilled loin of veal is sublime, a picture-perfect piece of tenderloin, which the chef wisely barely tinges with tarragon and mustard. After all, when the meat's this good, it makes no sense for the kitchen to show off unnecessarily.
You'll have to check with your accountant to see if the $32 tab for the rack of lamb makes financial sense. (Actually, the menu description "rack of lamb" is a bit of a stretch--you get just two little chops.) But these beauties do make eating sense, especially once they're dipped in the apple-mint compote and teamed with a luscious disk of scalloped sweet potatoes.
Pork tenderloin is an especially hard-hitting entree, lustily smoked over hickory and partnered with cranberry-apricot preserves. The kitchen displays a bit of inventiveness in the side-dish accompaniment, grits creamed with white Vermont Cheddar cheese. And prawn fans will appreciate the five hefty, seared crustaceans, served with roasted veggies and flavorful sweet corn fritters.
Desserts are too good to share, but at a breathtaking $8 each, they may be too pricey not to. I certainly wanted to keep the ice cream cake crusted with hazelnuts and chocolate, doused in a warm caramel sauce, all to myself. And my sweetie seemed no more eager to share her milk chocolate poppy-seed torte, flavored with a rich espresso mascarpone, with me.
Who should consider a Valentine's meal at The Latilla restaurant? Remorseful guys looking to do penance for a year of tight-fisted neglect. Charm-challenged guys whose only hope of making an impression is to take a triple-digit hit on the credit card. And smart guys who understand that an elegant dinner in an elegant setting is a sure-fire way to keep romance flourishing.