Inn & Out

T. Cook's, Royal Palms, 5200 East Camelback, Phoenix, 808-0766. Hours: Dinner, 6 to 10:30 p.m., seven days a week.

According to the Chamber of Commerce, about 12 million visitors come to the Valley every year. It seems like 11 million of them make it to my house. The others need to find someplace else to sleep and eat.

A handful of resorts offers top-of-the-line (and top-dollar) experiences for folks who demand both luxury accommodations and epicurean meals on the same property. There's the Phoenician, with its elegant dining room, Mary Elaine's; Scottsdale Princess, with the sumptuous Marquesa; Hermosa Inn, with charming Lon's; Camelback Inn, with the swanky Chaparral Room; the Wigwam, with the inspired Arizona Kitchen; the Boulders, with the refined Latilla Room; and The Buttes, with the romantic Top of the Rock.

Now you can add T. Cook's, at the opulently restored Royal Palms, to the list of front-rank, fine-dining resort restaurants. But don't waste any brain power trying to rank Griff's, at the Scottsdale Hilton. When it comes to hotel restaurants, this place is more or less a last resort.

T. Cook's is one of the most striking-looking restaurants in town. Take away the tables and chairs and install some pews, and it would resemble an Italianate church: lots of brick, painted tile, wooden beams, marble accents and a vaulted ceiling. There's also a pair of live palm trees in the room--the building was ingeniously put up around them.

The patrons are also striking. T. Cook's doesn't have a dress code--management requests that guests wear "upscale casual." But just about every male in the place comes in a suit and tie, and the women don't seem to take any halfway sartorial measures, either. I admire the whole decor and fashion setup: From the moment you step in, T. Cook's sends out unmistakable, special-occasion vibes.

But without a skilled kitchen, T. Cook's would be just another pretty restaurant face. Fortunately, the food is as sharp and sophisticated as the setting and the clientele. Chef Michael Hoobler calls the fare "rustic Mediterranean," and he knows how to bring that description to life.

He has the good sense to offer the Tuscan ciabatta from BreadCrafter's, possibly the single best loaf of bread in Arizona. And he pairs it with the best pesto dipping sauce this side of Genoa, bursting with the scents of olive oil, pine nuts and cheese. It takes a superhuman effort not to fill up on this nibble, an effort which I cheerfully confess I wasn't up to.

The appetizers are small, pricey and luscious. Imported buffalo mozzarella is exquisite, two thin slices of cheese, sweet and subtle, paired with summer-fresh tomatoes and basil, and drizzled with olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar. It's a good thing I don't know the Italian national anthem, or else I might have stood up and sung it.

Mussels seem to be the appetizer trend of the moment--they're on every menu in town. T. Cook's handles them the way tradition suggests, done up in a heady broth tinged with garlic and thyme. You won't hear me arguing over tradition.

You may want to consult with your accountant about the advisability of ordering the $11 baked clams Monte Carlo or the $18 antipasto platter for two. The former brings three out-of-shell bivalves, baked with jack cheese and pancetta. The latter features an assortment of Mediterranean-themed munchies--prosciutto; buffalo mozzarella; grilled asparagus and portabella mushrooms; roasted peppers; boursin-smeared crostini; and kalamata and Sicilian olives.

Main dishes are both well-conceived and well-executed. Consider the intelligence behind the chicken plate. It's basic, spit-roasted poultry--pleasantly moist and crispy, but nothing too terribly compelling or different. But the bird is inventively paired with Israeli couscous, done up risotto-style with romano cheese, and rapini, a wonderful, broccoli-like vegetable that local chefs inexplicably ignore. Instead of a boring chicken dish, you have a creative platter that smells like a Mediterranean breeze.

That same attention to detail boosts the grilled, sliced lamb loin, teamed with wild mushrooms, Swiss chard and a clever white bean mash. And it shows up yet again in the steak. Every restaurant in the Valley puts steak on the menu. But others don't offer T. Cook's outstanding, herb-rubbed beef tenderloin, gilded with roasted shallots and accompanied by a wedge of Roquefort potato pie that's so riveting it deserves equal billing with the meat.

The chef is also adept with fish. The best choice is the lovely hunk of moist sea bass, wrapped in crispy Parma ham and brightened with artichokes, olives and oven-roasted tomatoes. It's a very appealing blend of Mediterranean flavors. Delicate John Dory, however, gets a bit overwhelmed by the hard-hitting ratatouille it's hooked up with.

You don't have to be part of the turban-and-sandals crowd to appreciate the vegetarian option. Even carnivores like myself can recognize the quality of the grilled portabella mushroom perched on a nest of couscous, enhanced by roasted tomatoes, Swiss chard and fresh (not canned) artichoke hearts, and drizzled with basil and tomato oils.

Unless you've gorged on bread and pesto, it's unlikely you'll be loosening any belt notches at this point. T. Cook's portions are civilized. And restraint is eventually rewarded--now you can indulge in dessert.

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