Arbor Patrol

Zinfandel, 6522 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 277-7887. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

The poets and sages have always been willing to testify to the charms of wine. "In wine there is truth," asserted Pliny the Elder. "From wine what sudden friendship springs!" noted John Gay. And Lord Byron certainly had his priorities in order when he wrote, "Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter/Sermons and soda-water the day after."

During the past few years, as our town has grown in size and sophistication, Valley restaurants have gradually started to realize that there's more to wine than truth, friendship and good cheer. There's also profit.

Just five short years ago, Phoenix wine lovers were more or less limited to gourmet palaces like Christopher's, Mary Elaine's, Vincent's or Different Pointe of View if they wanted to get their hands on a decent wine list.

These days, however, local spots have come a long way from the "house red" and "house white" that once sufficed. In 1996, we're no longer surprised to see a well-fashioned wine list that offers several varieties of reds and whites, spanning several vintages. Moreover, the wines are as likely to come from Chile, South Africa and Australia as they are from France, Italy and California. And to encourage reluctant diners to drink up, proprietors have done a good job stocking their cellars with a number of budget-priced bottles that won't threaten anyone's credit-card limits.

Two restaurants have taken the wine concept one step further. Both Zinfandel and Anna's Cafe have retail wine outlets attached to their establishments. Diners can wander through the storerooms and check out the inventory. And once they've chosen a bottle to accompany their meal, they won't find it priced at the usual 100 percent restaurant markup. Instead, they'll pay just a few bucks more than retail for the luxury of having it uncorked and poured by a server.

It didn't take long to figure out that Zinfandel and Anna's Cafe could please the wine lover in me. But that's not enough. I want some good food, too. After all, even the Bible tells us that "a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry." Fortunately, both places generally deliver some of the merriment I crave.

Tucked away in the far corner of a north central Phoenix minimall, Zinfandel is a casually upscale neighborhood spot that should flourish in this neighborhood. Dark wood paneling gives the place a somewhat clubby look. You can also look in on the helter-skelter activity taking place in the open kitchen. But there's nothing very memorable about the setting.

The vaguely Southwestern-themed food, however, is another story. In particular, the superb entrees make Zinfandel worth driving to even if you don't live in the neighborhood.

But the high quality of the main dishes also makes the restaurant's shortcomings that much more glaring. Take the breadbasket, on one visit a pile of embarrassingly mushy white bread. With all the wonderful bakeries in town, surely Zinfandel can do better than this.

The appetizer list is small and dull. I suppose some folks may come here panting for nachos, but not me. Four snoozy, bacon-wrapped shrimp for nine bucks are no bargain. Too bad the excellent roasted red pepper sauce and jalapeno hollandaise they came with haven't been teamed with something a little more imaginative. The same two sauces also perk up the it's-on-every-menu-in-town Southwestern skewers--grilled beef, shrimp, sausage, mushrooms and pepper strung out on a stick. And the baked Brie paired with melon and berries is a heavy way to launch into a meal, especially if fewer than four people are sharing it.

The entrees, however, bring Zinfandel to life. Pork tenderloin is nothing short of scrumptious, tender medallions gilded with a lip-smacking red wine sauce. Rack of lamb, the most expensive main dish at $19.95, is another carnivore's delight. You get six gorgeously moist, glazed, mesquite-grilled chops, boosted by a ravishing zinfandel sauce. I appreciated the excellent sides, too--grilled corn sheared off the cob, and crisp, oily roasted potatoes.

Chicken Chimayo is also worth clucking over. It's a well-made copy of Richardson's specialty, rolled chicken breast stuffed with spinach, red pepper, shiitake mushrooms and Asiago cheese. A fragrant shallot risotto furnishes nifty accompaniment.

And if one evening's ahi tuna special is any indication, the kitchen knows how to handle fish. This quality slab arrived perfectly cooked to medium-rare specifications, smoothed with an orange-pineapple salsa that didn't get in the way.

I figured the pasta dishes would be an afterthought. But the delightfully spicy angel-hair pasta, vigorously doused with olive oil, lemon and butter, and topped with artichokes and mushrooms, proved me wrong.

The only less-than-stellar entree performer? It's the eight-ounce beef filet, a topnotch piece of animal protein that doesn't reach full potential if you choose to pair it with the watery blue cheese sauce.

Priced at only six bucks more than retail, wine can make the entrees soar even higher. As you might expect, there's an especially good selection of California zinfandels (try the Ravenswood, 1994, $21).

Like the appetizers, desserts are relatively weak. The competent creme brulee is a better option than the heavy, dry pound cake with berries. The dainty blueberry cheesecake, on the other hand, is way too light for my taste.

Zinfandel needs some work on the service side, too. The place is seriously understaffed. (Even the hostess was pitching in, busing tables and serving.) At almost three hours, our meals here were not only leisurely, they were downright glacial.

Still, Zinfandel has been around only a few months. Like a good, young wine with lots of potential, I expect it to benefit from a little aging.

Anna's Cafe, 5618 East Thomas, Phoenix, 945-4503. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 4 p.m. to close.

It's easy to be beguiled by Anna's Cafe. Despite the location in a nondescript strip mall along a forlorn stretch of Thomas Road, you feel good vibes as soon as you enter the room. A cluster of easy chairs and a sofa send out a make-yourself-at-home message. The dozen or so tables are covered with crisp white linen and vases filled with colorful fresh irises. Duke Ellington, Nat "King" Cole and Ella Fitzgerald spill softly from the music system. And the staff makes you feel like a regular on your first visit.

The menu changes nightly. Expect three appetizer options and perhaps six entrees, one from each food group: pasta, fish, chicken, beef, lamb and veal.

The preparations are simple and, for the most part, effective. A starter of Little Neck clams in a light tomato broth makes for a pleasantly light nibble. So does the grilled, chilled and shredded pheasant, moistened in an appealing vinaigrette. Although the meat is a little chewy, the flavor is all there. Less successful is the homemade mozzarella, a tasteless, rubbery slab garnished with a tasteless, rubbery supermarket tomato and a bit of basil.

However, since all dinners are preceded by a salad sprinkled with a lemony dressing, you may consider shifting your appetizer dollars into your wine budget.

That's because Anna's Cafe offers some smoking wine deals. All bottles go for just $2.50 more than retail, and the selection is broad and deep: Domaine Weinbach "Reserve Personelle" GewYrztraminer for $20; a premier cru white Burgundy from Les Ruchottes for $45; from Blain Gagnard in Chassagne, a pleasing red Burgundy for $25; from Bordeaux, a 1989 Chateau Cissac for $20. And if you enjoy dessert wines, don't miss the Beaumes de Venise from Domaine Coyeaux, a half-bottle of golden liquid delight for an eye-rubbing $12.50. I've had it elsewhere in town for almost that much a glass.

You'll be washing down some uncomplicated but well-fashioned main-dish fare. The veal chop features a tender piece of grilled meat that moved me to pick up the bone and gnaw on it. Chicken comes from Young's Farm, so you're assured of receiving a plump, moist bird. Sometimes the kitchen likes to marinate it in red wine, balsamic vinegar and juniper berries. Other times it may be seasoned with mustard and coriander.

The expertly grilled red rockfish fillet showed real skill. It's simply prepared, just brushed with olive oil and garnished with parsley. But the dish offers a subtle mix of flavors and texture. Side dishes are no more exotic than the entrees. Look for pleasantly lumpy homemade mashed potatoes and cauliflower.

Pasta entrees need some work. One evening's tagliatelle were tossed with roasted red peppers, Parmesan cheese and parsley, but the dish had no zest at all. It desperately needed something--olive oil, garlic, basil, pancetta--to liven it up.

The service also needs livening up. When the harried staff shows up, it's sweet and well-meaning. But Anna's Cafe has a hard time dealing with a full house. Make sure you come armed with lots of conversational nuggets, or be prepared to drink a second bottle of wine to cover the long, long stretches between courses.

Desserts here are just as homey as everything else. The rich, heavy flourless chocolate cake is softened by a pleasing apple-and-fig compote. Homemade ice creams also end the meal on a sweet note, particularly if you opt for the honey-maple model. And the proprietor has the good sense to deliver first-rate coffee, served in a French press.

Anna's Cafe is no temple to high gastronomy. But its cozy charm and superior wine list make it a wonderful place for stressed-out folks to unwind at dinnertime.

Baked Brie with fruit
Chicken Chimayo
Pork tenderloin
Beef with blue cheese sauce

Anna's Cafe:
Chilled pheasant
Grilled rockfish
Grilled chicken
Veal chop


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