Repast Life Regression

It is a labor in vain to attempt to recapture [the past]: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling.

--Marcel Proust

One day early in this century, Marcel Proust idly dipped a madeleine, a French cookie, into a cup of tea, and took a bite. He wasn't prepared for his reaction. First he shuddered; then he realized "an extraordinary thing was happening to me." Here's how he remembered the experience:

An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory--this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had now ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed it was connected to the taste of the tea and the cake, but it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

We're all familiar with what Proust experienced. He took a taste of something, in this case tea and cookie, which he had enjoyed as a boy. It brought back to him a childhood state of happiness and well-being that he had completely forgotten. He was determined to summon up those subterranean memories, so he locked himself in a cork-lined room to write. Eight volumes, nine years and 3,000 pages later, Remembrance of Things Past was completed.

Memory can be unleashed by a snatch of a long-unheard song, by a striking scent, a certain touch or an unexpected sight. But of all the senses, it seems to me taste has the most powerful long-term effect. Even though it's been 25 years, I can, right now, sitting in front of my computer, "taste" my grandmother's vegetable soup as if she'd just ladled it from the pot. When I eat a good Middle Eastern dish, I'm transported, not merely metaphorically, to that region where I lived for several years. And I can't take a bite of pizza without measuring it against the model at Vinnie's, a fabulous pizzeria in my old neighborhood, next to the subway station, where I'd stop and devour two slices every day on my way home from school.

However, when you eat professionally, it's more difficult to gather lasting food memories. That's because, while eating is still fun for me, now it's also work. It goes beyond the agony of writing. These days, for instance, when I see some particularly luscious dessert in front of me, I'm thinking about more than future memories: There's the hour of furious pedaling on the health-club exercise bicycle I'm forced to do to exorcise the calories. And after a food-obsessed lifetime, I've built up such a store of memories that it becomes harder and harder for the newer stuff to break through.

Harder, but not impossible. I've put together a personal list of Best of Phoenix eating pleasures, dishes I've had this year that have stuck in my mind, and are most likely to remain there. The poet once said that God gave us memory so we could have roses in December. I think he could just as well have said that God gave us memory so we can savor good food anytime.

The eyes, they say, are the windows to the soul. Well, I'm convinced bread is the window to a restaurant's soul. It's the first food impression a restaurant makes, and good places make sure their bread sends the right message. Three places stood out for me in the bread department during the past 12 months.

At Franco's Trattoria (8120 North Hayden, Scottsdale), it's not only the basket of warm focaccia and chewy Italian loaf. It's the gratis serving of pecorino Romano and parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses that comes with it, freshly shaved off huge wheels. It's an expensive touch, and Franco complains that some customers abuse it by demanding additional servings. Who can blame them?

You'd think good corn bread would be as easy to find here as a good baguette in France. Dream on. But if you're willing to be spoiled for life, dig into the green chile corn bread at Pinon Grill (The Inn at Regal McCormick Ranch, 7401 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale). Almost unbearably moist and flavorful, this corn bread is sublime. Every time we come here, my wife surreptitiously wraps a piece in her napkin and hides it in her purse, so she can have some for breakfast the next day.

Ask the kitchen not to hurry bringing out the food at Suzanne's Bistro (4669 East Cactus). That will give you more time to spend with the wonderful thick, crusty homemade bread. That's not all; you get to gild the bread lily with an irresistible Gorgonzola spread.

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