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Best Gourmet Restaurant Phoenix 2000 - Mary Elaine's

We know we're in for a fancy meal when our server brings cute little stools on which our purses can rest. We've got a hint of fine things to come when we peruse a multi-course chef's tasting menu, ambitiously priced at $110 per person, plus $55 additional if we'd like paired wines (and of course we do). A "starter" sampling of Iranian Karaburun, sevruga, ostera and beluga caviar commands our respect with a price tag of $210.

Even a salad of romaine and aged Parmesan with cured lemon, walnuts and golden raisins sets us back $20.

High prices do not guarantee a wonderful meal, especially in a time when, anymore, even a marginal meal can set us back $30 an entree.

No, we're not quite convinced until our server presents us with an absolutely flawless amuse-bouche of perfect tuna tartare, complemented by gratis champagne. Or until the first jewel of buttery carpaccio of Black Angus beef dissolves on our tongue, and the last nubbin of Hudson Valley foie gras melts in our mouth.

Nothing served here is less than perfect. Even a deceptively peasant-looking cream of lobster soup startles with its superior character, lush as it is with medallions of seafood and seasonal mushrooms. By the time we're finished with an unspeakably elegant Earl Grey and chocolate cream pudding, we're true believers.

Mary Elaine's has long had the dubious distinction as the most expensive restaurant in town. These days, it's got plenty of contenders in the high-priced category. But for a truly gourmet, first-class evening out, there's still no competition.

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