A Meal of Living Dangerously
I don't know why, but I find near-disasters thrilling.
I'll never forget one dinner at Beef Eaters in Phoenix -- not because of the mediocre prime rib, but because of a candle that exploded on my table. It had burned down into the foil-wrapped holder and I discovered the stuff showers furious sparks when set afire.
Another meal at Roaring Fork in Scottsdale still makes me smile when I think of the waiter who collided with a platter of mashed potatoes. Spackled in spuds, he served me anyway.
Then, at a restaurant in Rocky Point, Mexico, a waiter carrying an enormous, plate-laden tray didn't realize a customer had closed the sliding glass door. Not funny for him when he slammed into the glass, but God help me, it was hard not to fall off my chair laughing.
These are the kind of wacky high jinks I'm expecting -- okay, hoping for -- when I stop in at L'Academie Café, the restaurant at the new, expanded Scottsdale Culinary Institute's Sky Bridge Campus in the Galleria. L'Academie is run by students enrolled in the cooking school, and the dining public is served up as guinea pigs while would-be restaurateurs learn the ropes from hosting to serving to cooking. It's a sitcom waiting to happen.
Or not. Sorry to give away the plot, but there's little chaos coming from this kitchen. Sure, there are some bumps along the way, but overall, they're running a smooth show at L'Academie. It's believable that staff are students, but given the enthusiasm, it's impossible to find fault with anything that goes wrong.
And considering that they're practically giving the food away, it would be highly ungrateful to grouse too much. Incredible. Real cuisine, in an upscale Scottsdale setting, with appetizers ranging from $2.25 to $2.95, and entrees topping out at $9.75. You can't beat those prices with a breadstick.
Then again, the Scottsdale Culinary Institute doesn't do things halfway. Consider its motto: "If you are willing to commit yourself to learn the skills of culinary art, to share your passion and knowledge by serving others, and if you are willing to change and grow . . . then SCI is the school of choice for you."
Founded in 1986, SCI was quickly embraced by food professionals because of its rigorous training standards. Three years ago, Le Cordon Bleu selected SCI for a highly esteemed partnership. Founded in Paris in 1895, Le Cordon Bleu is considered the world's authority on classic French cooking. The marriage strives to unite classic French ideals with contemporary American technology.
Today, the school boasts an impressive roster of associations, including the American Institute of Wine and Food, the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and the National Restaurant Association.
L'Academie is SCI's second location.
Its original campus, at 81st Street and Camelback, is home to L'Ecole, a Mobil three-star restaurant run by the students (the rating is the highest award granted for student-operated restaurants). Reservations are often filled more than a month in advance by diners wanting to cash in on elaborate prix-fixe menus costing less than $30 for six courses. (Sample feast: Amuse-bouche; braised escargot with veal sausage and Brie crostini; pâté with frisee and lingonberry relish; intermezzo; butter-poached Maine lobster with roasted cauliflower and artichokes, citrus-scented mushrooms and vanilla crepe; and a jaw-dropping specialty dessert.)
L'Academie is a more casual operation, focusing on bistro-style à la carte tastes of "cuisine de sol." This means an affable menu of soups, salads, panini, pizza and a few full-plate entrees, all influenced by the robust flavors of the Italian and French Riviera.
L'Academie doesn't come across as casual, however. Banish all thoughts of its still-barren host, the horribly failed Galleria mall. It could be spooky, tramping up an immobile escalator, its sides flanked with plywood, its steps yawning over a dark chasm that once was home to glittery movie theaters. Yet at the top of the stairs, the warm lights of the Institute beckon through floor-to-ceiling plate glass. Activity hums. Off to the right is a classroom, striped with long tables facing a theatrical exhibition kitchen. Sometimes it churns with students, other times it hosts demonstrations for mere mortals, those everyday people dreaming of working magic in the kitchen.
Chefs-in-training are everywhere, comparing notes on that day's classes, discussing what joys the vendors delivered and preparing their next meals out loud. They mill about the long corridor leading from the lobby back to the student kitchens, and occupy many of L'Academie's seats. At a neighboring table, a chef shows the ravages of kitchen work. His pants are smeared with chocolate; he's dipped like a Dairy Queen ice cream cone.
The mood is infectious. Who wouldn't want to be a chef, immersed in this sea of culinarians so special that they have their own elite uniform of pristine white? The energy flows into the lobby, sparkling and cool with black-and-white marble floors, spotted here and there with leather chairs in delicious colors: eggplant, sweet potato, pomegranate and pesto. Above them float ceiling accents in mustard and gravy tones, plus rafters painted with quotes: "Food is our common ground, a universal experience." -- James Beard. And "There is no sincerer love than the love for food." -- George Bernard Shaw.
The cafe is just as gorgeous, sprawled behind a soaring, curved wall of glass. Exposed ductwork is painted deep blue, capping a gleaming stainless-steel exposition kitchen and wooden bistro tables topped with multicolor cloth napkins and centerpieces of dried flowers. The lighting is soft, the piped-in jazz music blissfully softer.
Vogue has made its mark on servers, too, elegantly clothed in long-sleeved white shirts, black pants, black bow ties and black aprons. It's easy to forget that these people are amateurs. At least until the fun starts. A flustered waiter takes our drink orders but never delivers them. He forgets to bring bread. He takes appetizer orders but has to be reminded we want entrees, too. We run out of silverware, and there's no pen to sign a credit-card slip.
Another evening, a waitress tests her balancing skills with a tray of drinks. It's like a slow-motion scene as she removes one glass, the tray tilts toward my head and a glass of iced tea makes a beeline for my noggin. She's quick, though, and corrects just in time.
Nit-pickers need not apply for this experience -- for my money, being part of the learning curve makes the meal all the more enjoyable.
And happily, L'Academie's cuisine is more reliable than the service. Students are carefully monitored by instructors, and one teacher wanders the room periodically to gauge satisfaction. Only the most minor of mistakes make it to the table.
Bread -- when it gets served -- is primo stuff, the hot, soft rolls studded with black pepper and slathered with herb butter. It's great sopping material for the terrific soups, usually French onion and minestrone.
Even good canned French onion can't be had for $2.25, so how SCI can send out this glorious broth in such a gargantuan bowl is a mystery. This could be one of the best versions around, thanks to rich beefy stock that hasn't been subdued by too much sweetness.
Minestrone is another marvel, the robust broth gorged with al dente elbow macaroni, carrot, potato, ham, white beans, zucchini and celery.
Spinach salad shows up frequently, and it's a stunner of exquisitely fresh baby leaves artfully arranged in a meticulous crisscrossed pile. Boiled egg yolk dusts the leaves like flower pollen, tossed with ribbons of bacon, a confetti of chopped red onion, pine nuts and an expertly restrained drizzle of slightly sweet garlic dressing.
I can't believe a mozzarella salad of this caliber could command a measly $3, but it does at this bistro. What looks to be at least a half ball of mozzarella has been thickly sliced, fanned with fresh tomato slices, mounded with mesclun and spritzed with a vibrant basil vinaigrette. The same cheese and vegetables make a quality panini and pizza, baked in a brick oven.
Diners are asked to vary their entrees (a limit of two duplicate orders per four-person table) to give the students experience with all parts of the menu. Speak up fast and claim the pan-seared halibut if it's offered. The mild, meaty fish arrives moist and cloaked in chopped pistachios alongside dollops of buttery barley risotto, chopped red pepper, skinny marinated grilled asparagus, and a splash of spicy orange sauce. Roast prime rib of beef is another fine option. Once the fat and gristle are cut away from the edge, the medium-rare meat is a pleasure, doused with a touch of red-wine demi. A side of apple dauphinoise potatoes delivers the thinly sliced vegetables tinged with cinnamon and paired with haricots vert (green beans).
It seems to pay to eat early at L'Academie. A later dinner (7:30, since the place closes at 8:30) finds food somewhat past its prime. Jumbo veal tortellini hint that they would have been wonderful when just prepared. As they are, the won-ton-shaped pasta pockets are dried out on the edges, saved by well-seasoned crumbled meat stuffing and a luscious mozzarella cream sauce that I scoop up by the spoonful.
Roasted leg of lamb doesn't age well either, with the three hefty chunks just this side of overcooked and glossed with a marsala jus that's too sweet for the dry meat. Lyonnaise potatoes aren't the traditional sliced-with-onion variety, but a grouping of roasted red potatoes, red bell pepper and potato-skin curls alongside grilled asparagus.
Dessert is equally hit-and-miss, but for $2.95, L'Academie's students can practice on me as much as they like. Tart lemon strudel is outstanding, crumbly topped and capped with a scoop of nut-studded ice cream. Bread pudding warrants repeat forkfuls, the fat, doughy cube speckled with golden raisins and ladled with chocolate sauce.
But the Viennese chocolate cake is dry and one-dimensional. A lemon pineapple brûlée is too runny and it looks weird, too, the caramelized custard presented in a hollowed out pineapple rind.
Adventures aren't always enjoyable -- thankfully, it was my neighbor who suffered the iced tea spilled down her back at Sam's Cafe. I didn't get much of a thrill the time a Hooters waitress dumped a plate of chicken wings down my back. And it was difficult to appreciate having a margarita dropped in my lap at Macayo's.
L'Academie, though, is worth any risk. Yes, you'll likely experience a few hiccups, but overall, this student-prepared food deserves an A grade.
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