Romancing the Stove

Michael's at the Citadel, 8700 East Pinnacle Peak Road, Scottsdale, 515-2575. Hours: Dinner, 6 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Surprise her with flowers on the Fourth of July? She'll be thrilled. Bring her chocolates on Columbus Day? She'll be grateful. Give her lingerie on Labor Day? She'll think you're sweet.

But you won't get away with any of those chintzy maneuvers on Valentine's Day. Gifts like these that would earn you lots of relationship points the other 364 days of the year simply don't cut it on February 14.

If you want to make the right impression on Valentine's Day, fellas, you have to show two forms of commitment. First, plan to spend huge chunks of time with your sweetheart, with the television off. This will give her an opportunity to explore the nature of your relationship, the depth of your feelings and where you plan to be as a couple five years down the line. While she's talking, look at her raptly and nod vigorously every couple of minutes. That way, you can still put the time to good use, pondering just how far the Suns can go in the playoffs without a big-time center, and which of your car's fluids needs topping off.

Second, call Visa headquarters to check on how close you are to your credit limit. Then, make dinner reservations at a nice restaurant, preferably one without a drive-through window. For some inexplicable reason, the phrase "would you like fries with that?" rarely drives women into the romantic frenzy that guys hope for.

Dinner at Michael's is much more likely to turn your gal on. Michael is chef Michael DeMaria, the kitchen whiz who turned Lon's at the Hermosa into one of the Valley's top dining destinations. Last fall, opting to work without a corporate net, he moved on. With the help of two partners, he set up operations in what used to be 8700 at the Citadel. The team can take a collective bow: In a town bursting with new restaurants, this is one of the best. If a few kinks are worked out, Michael could join ranks with Vincent, Christopher, RoxSand, Razz and Eddie, award-winning local chefs with whom foodies have already developed a first-name relationship.

The new owners wisely haven't done much tinkering with 8700's spare, elegant decor. There are two new touches: a brick-lined "waterfall" just inside the entrance, and a gated room adjoining the kitchen, housing a "chef's table" around which six to eight guests can dine on a special, prix fixe meal for $75 a person.

It's hard to pin a label on the dishes here--"contemporary American" is suggestive, although somewhat fuzzy. But it's not hard to pin adjectives on most of the fare. "Well-conceived," "sophisticated" and "tasty" are three that come swiftly to mind.

The wonderful crusty, chewy loaf of homemade bread brings the first hint of pleasures to come. Be thankful that Valentine's Day falls in February, while the weather is still nippy. That way you can fully appreciate the marvelous soups. A vigorous onion soup was one evening's featured broth. The rich stock supported a raft of crostini, lustily slathered with Gorgonzola cheese. Somehow, the chef surpassed himself on another visit. The sublime rock-shrimp-and-oyster soup was a triumph, hearty with seafood and touched with just enough jalapeno to set off a delightful tingle.

The appetizer list is small, but effective. Pan-seared squab, served over risotto infused with a heady, port wine syrup, is especially fetching. A crispy salmon croquette, topped with a meaty tiger prawn and paired with garlicky spinach, harmoniously weds flavors and textures. But there was no distinction in one evening's appetizer special, four teensy, too-cutesy, bite-size hors d'oeuvres that were so small you couldn't taste the ahi tuna and duck they were purportedly made from.

Michael's ravishing entrees are dinner's true stars. I went through a half-dozen of them, unable to spot any imperfections.

Pan-seared duck launches a full-scale flavor assault. Fanned out across the plate, the meat is intriguingly paired with foie gras and pearl couscous, then freshened with apricots and figs. The result tastes like a Bach suite sounds: several lines of music, blended in perfect harmony.

One evening's fish of the day, a thick hunk of perfectly cooked, sesame-crusted swordfish, almost knocked us out with joy. The green curry coconut sauce coating it only heightened the experience. Another off-the-menu special, grilled venison moistened with a heady dried-cherry demiglaze, got our taste buds dancing with delight. So did the clever, right-for-the-season sides: mashed potatoes whipped up with chestnuts; and a medley of winter root veggies, including carrot, parsnip and turnip.

The grilled lamb at Lon's used to be a highlight, and the change of setting hasn't diminished the chef's facility with it. This meat is about as good as it gets, and the scrumptious portabella-and-goat-cheese potato tart it comes with also deserves star billing.

Osso buco (braised veal shank) delivers rib-sticking heartiness. Sure, it's on every menu in town, but Michael's rich, high-powered version isn't like everyone else's. There's a nice take on the accompaniment, too. The kitchen uses barley, not rice, in the traditional saffron "risotto." It's a small touch, but one that shows the chef isn't content to flip through a recipe book.

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