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.

And indulge is exactly what you'll do with the over-the-top "collage de chocolate" sampler for two. It's staggering, both to look at and to eat: chocolate tart topped with chocolate sorbet; a breathtaking "pate" with strips of white chocolate, dark chocolate and milk chocolate hazelnut; chocolate fudge frosted with white chocolate ganache; and chocolate sponge cake. If you're not up for that kind of excitement, the berry-strewn caramelized lemon tarte and rich peach streusel cobbler topped with ice cream make first-rate alternatives.

Whoever trained T. Cook's assured staff should also take a bow. The place is smoothly run. And everyone here--hostesses, busboys, waiters and manager--is keen on treating customers well. Gee, what a novel concept.

The ValIey's big-time resort-restaurant league is no place for weaklings. But T. Cook's can dish it out with anyone.

Griff's, Scottsdale Hilton, 6333 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 948-7750. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, 5 to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

In contrast to T. Cook's, Griff's is hopelessly minor league. The Scottsdale Hilton resort, where it's housed, is owned by Merv Griffin, the former big-band singer and talk-show host turned entertainment mogul. He's the genius behind such television blockbusters as Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune.

In recent years, Griffin has become a hotelier. Several months ago, he tried turning around this resort's dining room (which he renamed after himself).

Forget it. If Griff's were a television show, it would be canceled. This place is strictly for comatose guests too debilitated to leave the property.

The room looks forlorn, with all the bland, plastic energy of a chain family restaurant. The principal decor motif is Merv himself. There's a photo of Merv with Bing and Bob. There's Merv with Ron and Nancy. There he is with Zsa Zsa, Elvis and Charo. Angie Dickinson, Judy Garland and Burt Reynolds are also great pals.

Maybe Merv should have hung around fewer celebrities and more chefs. Griff's would have been the better for it.

The fare here isn't terrible. It's just utterly, totally and completely forgettable. The kitchen goes through the motions preparing it; I went through the motions eating it.

Start with the breadbasket. On one visit we got inedibly spongy focaccia; on another, out-of-the-bag dinner rolls.

Appetizers are astonishingly hackneyed. Potato skins? Jalapeno poppers? Buffalo wings? Onion rings? Is this a resort restaurant or a sports bar? What's worse is that they're not particularly good. And this kitchen couldn't even get them out hot.

One evening's soup special, a cream of sweet potato, was so oddly sweet it tasted like melted sweet potato pie. The only decent pre-entree nibble is the quesadilla, cooked up fresh and stuffed with smoked chicken, wild mushrooms, cheese and chile, paired with a perky green sauce.

The best thing here? It's the dinner salad that comes with all entrees, put together with a mix of fresh greens, radicchio and endive. So why didn't anything else show a hint of flair?

The entrees are barely a step above banquet-level quality. Grilled salmon is a real snoozer, brushed with the world's mildest honey mustard glaze and somnambulently paired with an institutional rice pilaf and steamed veggies. I feel myself nodding off just thinking about it.

Seafood pasta is just as tepid, a yawn-inducing pile of linguini, topped with a few undistinguished shrimp and scallops and coated with an underseasoned marinara sauce. This platter had no zest, no punch, no life.

The ribs/chicken combo is another harmless option. It comes with out-of-the-freezer-bag fries and out-of-the-warehouse-tub coleslaw. And don't look for great things from the eight-ounce filet mignon. It's coated with what's billed as a "mop'in" sauce. But it's just a thin, vinegary liquid that does nothing for the beef.

Desserts are dullsville. The cheesecake was dry, and the texture was off. Apple pie could have come from the employee cafeteria.

Amateur-hour service--drinks neglected, salads forgotten, glacial pacing--doesn't make this place any more appealing. Griff's: It's down the end of lonely street, in heartbreak hotel.

T. Cook's:
Mussels
$9.50
Roasted chicken
17.00
Parma-wrapped sea bass
23.00
Collage de chocolate
12.00

Griff's:
Chicken quesadilla
$8.00
Seafood pasta
14.95
Cheesecake
5.00

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