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This is not a pleasant time of year to live in the Valley of the Perpetual Sun, unless you're a lizard or a water-park operator.
For the next several months, we can all plan to enjoy Phoenix's traditional summer amusements. Valley newcomers might take note of these popular activities: watching the electric meter spin homeowners into air-conditioned bankruptcy; grilling burgers on the barbecue without ever putting a match to the charcoal briquets; bloating up on 44-ounce Big Gulps and Thirstbusters; and trying to remove your hands from the car's steering wheel without leaving any skin behind.
Is there any cure for a Valley summer? My cat knows how to deal with the heat. She finds the exact spot where streams from two air-conditioning vents merge, and sleeps until Columbus Day.
Feline wisdom, however, is lost on us bipeds. We humans only know one way to cope with the desert inferno: Get out of town.
So I pointed the car north and headed to the New Age Sedona high country. Like most Phoenix weekenders, I didn't care what kind of vortex I got sucked into, as long as it was a cool one.
When it comes to finding a place to eat in unfamiliar territory, I seem to possess a powerful vortex of my own. I've been blessed with a sixth restaurant sense that generally enables me to sniff out where the good meals are. That sense isn't completely infallible--once, in Iran, it led me into a place whose specialty was whole boiled sheep's head.
But I thought the chances of running into whole boiled sheep's head in Sedona were pretty slim, so I confidently relied on my instincts. They led me into Dahl & Di Luca.
It's an Italian place, about 18 months old. The proprietors--Andrea Di Luca, a native of Rome, and Lisa Dahl, a native of Indiana--have created an intriguing restaurant setting. A lavish mural depicting a cherub and dragon looks down on diners from the domed ceiling. Faux Roman columns line the room, and colorful paintings hang from the walls. Maybe this is what it might be like to dine in the Sistine Chapel, if the Chapel's guardians were also to hire a duo to perform Billy Joel and James Taylor hits for diners' entertainment.
There's an energetic buzz here that clearly indicates patrons are having a good time. They're certainly enjoying the warm, crusty dinner rolls, particularly the whole-wheat model zipped up with olives and sun-dried tomatoes. You can ratchet up the flavors even further by dunking the bread into a garlic-studded olive oil.
Appetizers exhibit flair and skill. If your Sedona getaway doesn't include romance, the roasted head of garlic with goat cheese makes a good option. Fried calamari are crunchy and tender. And the polenta parmigiana is flat-out luscious, a thick wedge of grilled polenta draped with cheese and a vigorous basil-marinara sauce. Another benefit: It's hefty enough for two people to share.
There's nothing remarkably trendy about the main dishes. But there's no need to be cutting-edge when the entrees are this tasty.
Take one of the evening's specials, Gamberi Mediterraneo. Any judgment must start with a critical assessment of the shrimp. My verdict: These five meaty, jumbo crustaceans meet all quality specifications. They come wrapped in bacon and smoothed in a light lemon sauce. Exotic? Hardly. But I doubt I could have been happier with this platter had it been served in the middle of a vortex force field.
Another special, fettuccine reale, is especially well-fashioned. There are two keys to this dish--pasta and seafood. Dahl & Di Luca doesn't get its noodles out of a plastic bag--it makes its fettuccine fresh. You can feel and taste the difference at first bite. It also tosses on heaps of aquatic fare, including shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels, fish and one enormous whole prawn, complete with head, eyes and antennae. The ingredients are zestily moistened in a white-wine sauce freshened with sun-dried tomatoes, basil and capers. Now, lusty Italian seafood isn't something visitors normally associate with Sedona. But this platter is good enough to appear on the Chamber of Commerce's list of tourist activities. It certainly should move ahead of "Factory Outlet Shopping" and "Finding the Right Crystal Pyramid."
The carnivore in your party is going to be pleased with medaglione di filetto. Two thick, grilled tenderloin medallions come coated with a full-bodied mushroom sauce and accompanied by roasted potatoes and mixed vegetables. At $15.95, the price is right, too.
Pasta fans have about a dozen menu options. But I can't imagine the kitchen can improve on the tortellini, richly draped with Alfredo sauce and studded with prosciutto, pine nuts and peas.
Some of the sweets are enticing. Don't bother with the supplier-provided desserts, like the coffee toffee chocolate mousse cake. It sounds great and looks great, but there's no taste to it. Instead, stick with the house-made treats, like the rich cannoli, flecked with chocolate chips, and creamy, Kahlua-flavored tiramisu, dusted with cocoa.
Sedona's magnificent Red Rocks knock you out during the day. Look for Dahl & Di Luca to knock you out after the sun goes down.
Sedona Swiss, 350 Jordan Road, Sedona, 1-520-282-7959. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 9 p.m.
Once upon a time, Robert Ackermann worked in Washington, D.C., as the Swiss ambassador's executive chef, overseeing meals for an endless procession of officials, dignitaries and blue bloods.
But a 1991 visit to Sedona prompted him to give up his Embassy cooking post, pick up stakes, move here and open his own restaurant just off the city's main uptown drag.
Now it's tourists, not movers and shakers, whom Ackermann has to please. And that's exactly what he seems to be doing at the charming Sedona Swiss.
The place looks like every American's cliched conception of a Swiss restaurant. But the chalet setting somehow doesn't seem too outlandish here in Sedona--maybe it's the altitude and the ring of nearby mountains. Huge cowbells hang over the doorway, while clocks and other Alpine knickknacks sit on shelves. A wood-shingle roof covers the serving area, and framed crests of Swiss cities are hanging along the front wall. Predictably, piped-in accordion polka music provides aural diversion, with an occasional set by Vivaldi.
The night we were there, diners were also entertained by a freebie hors d'oeuvre, toasted rye bread covered with a creamy mushroom-cognac sauce. Is this any way to get our attention? You bet.
The menu lists only four appetizer choices, but their quality compensates for the lack of depth. The bundner plate features the Swiss version of carpaccio: air-dried beef scraped into wafer-thin slices, teamed with shaved Parma ham and several garnishes. Even better are the marvelous Burgundy snails, drenched in an overpoweringly fragrant rosemary-garlic butter and served with pesto-topped croutons. The croutons come in handy for sponging up the sauce. That's because the homemade dinner rolls offer surprisingly lackluster accompaniment.
Meals come with soup, and the chef doesn't treat this course as an afterthought. One evening's cream of broccoli sported real vegetable vigor.
Whether you've had a hard day hiking the backcountry, hitting the shops or absorbing the force of an energy center, you can count on the Swiss-continental entrees to satisfy the appetite you've worked up. In particular, the Swiss sausage platter will ensure that you won't wake up hungry in the middle of the night and stumble around your hotel room in a fruitless search for food. It delivers two fat, juicy, grilled sausages and a trio of salads--squash, red cabbage and dill-scented carrots. I doubt whether chef Ackermann ever served such a plebeian dish at the Swiss Embassy. But we plebes have no complaints.
Beef stroganoff, named after a Russian count, has a more patrician pedigree. Sedona Swiss's version is deftly prepared. Sauteed strips of tender fillet are combined with a pungent paprika cream sauce that has a zesty chile bite. Spoon the sauce over the homemade spätzle, doughy noodles that furnish just the right starchy support.
Wiener schnitzel is listed as a "house specialty," and I can understand the boast, especially if three of your favorite words are "fried in butter." It's a veal scallop, pounded thin, that's breaded and gently sauteed in butter to a crisp, golden-brown sheen. It's paired with rssti, a Swiss creation of thin-sliced potatoes compacted into a flat cake and fried to a delicate crunch.
Sometimes people forget that Switzerland shares a frontier with Italy. This kitchen remembers. It whipped up a first-rate pasta special, cheese ravioli swimming in a heady basil-tarragon cream sauce. Everything was right with this opulent dish: the hearty portion, the rich textures and the lively flavors.
A small cafe adjoining the main dining room is also part of the Sedona Swiss complex, supplying European-style pastries for the restaurant. (The cafe also looks like a promising spot for a continental breakfast.) As you might expect, chocolate plays a featured role at dessert. Look for the rich, dark, semisweet chocolate mousse or the fudgy slab of milk chocolate laced with Grand Marnier. And if you're into showy continental desserts, the kitchen will accommodate you with a flaming baked Alaska sporting a miniature Swiss flag planted in the meringue peak.
Some sage once noted that in order to be truly happy, it's not enough to have things go right; at the same time, your closest friends must also feel miserable. Eating at Sedona Swiss, and thinking about buddies back home baking in the Valley's relentless triple-digit heat, I believe I now understand just what true happiness is.
Dahl & Di Luca: