Au Courant Fare

Zinzibar, 3815 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 990-9256. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

Back in the early 1990s, when this town was in deep recession (remember the "Bank Foreclosure" signs nailed in front of residential and commercial property all over the city?), it would have taken the full powers of Dionne Warwick's psychic stable to foresee the 1997 gold rush we're currently enjoying.

Wagon trains of new arrivals are pouring into the Valley daily. Some of these wagons are transporting deep-pocketed entrepreneurs, looking to pan for restaurant gold among the growing population.

The restaurant explosion reminds me a bit of the cable-television boom. Once we had just a few stations to turn to. Now we've got dozens, even hundreds, of viewing options. But all too often, there's still nothing worth watching.

That's how it is with most of the new restaurants. These days we have more eating-out choices than ever before. The problem is, all too often, there's still nothing worth eating.

How does a new restaurant distinguish itself and rise out of the pack of mediocrity? You don't need a degree from Cornell University's hospitality program to work out the answer. The public has a knack for finding places that serve good food in pleasant surroundings at a fair price.

And the public seems to be finding Zinzibar and Lantana Grille, two new restaurants whose kitchens demonstrate, in varying degrees, promise and skill.

At this point, Zinzibar has moved beyond promise--this place is already delivering the goods.

It's doing business in the location that used to house Trapper's, a surf-and-turf parlor that had a long run until the formula ran out of steam. So what's the trend of the moment? Mediterranean-themed fare, realized Zinzibar's proprietors. So look for dishes with regional seasonings like sun-dried tomato, pesto, olives, lemon, garlic and tarragon, and side dishes like polenta, celery root, lentils, fennel and white beans.

Zinzibar has opted for the Roman Grotto look. If you think you've seen it before, you have. I've encountered variations of this trendy interior at least half a dozen times in the past few months. The most striking features are the curved stone wall separating the bar and dining areas, and the murals resembling peeling Roman frescoes painted on the walls. Fresh flowers on the table are a nice touch. Low-decibel, Spanish-sounding music provides audio background without inhibiting conversation.

Although Zinzibar's concept is cutting-edge, one part of the menu surely isn't. It's the fondue. The last time I recall seeing fondue in a restaurant, I had a leisure suit in my closet, a Farrah Fawcett poster on my wall and hair all over my head.

Zinzibar offers fondue in all its forms. Cheese fondue is an appetizer, melted Gruyere tinged with kirsch (a liqueur distilled from cherries), slowly bubbling over a low Sterno flame. For dunking, diners use cubes of focaccia and rosemary bread, as well as squash, carrots and celery. Every table seems to order it--the aroma smacks you the moment you walk in. I can understand the appeal, especially during the chilly winter season. This is real comfort food.

The main-dish fondue doesn't follow tradition. (Zinzibar calls it "a lighter, healthier approach.") The standard procedure requires dipping small pieces of raw beef into hot oil. Here, however, you choose among beef, chicken or shrimp. And instead of oil, you cook them in either a garlic beef reduction or a saffron broth flecked with celery, onions and tomato. We opted for the latter, with no regrets.

For some reason, though, the fondue is also teamed with several dipping sauces--eggplant, aioli, mustard vinaigrette, tapenade (an olive paste), red pepper. They're superfluous, especially if you want to experience the full force of the saffron aroma.

For dessert: chocolate fondue. A big pot of melting dark chocolate, accompanied by pound cake and fruit for dipping, is a tempting splurge. Although the menu says it's for two, this portion should satisfy three or four chocolate lovers.

If you'd prefer not to go fondueing, Zinzibar's other fare is also worth dipping into. The kitchen sends out a lovely grilled mixed-vegetable appetizer platter, gilded with goat cheese. Vodka shrimp is another winning starter, a mound of chilled, marinated crustaceans teamed with couscous over field greens. And if you like pasta, but don't want to make it the centerpiece of dinner, consider sharing an order of gnocchi. These potato-flour dumplings come punched up with lots of wild mushrooms.

The entrees, all priced between $15 and $19, offer something for everyone: lamb, veal, beef, chicken, fish. Roast leg of lamb is wonderfully tender and fragrant with the scents of rosemary and garlic. I love veal chop, but I've been burned several times recently by inferior specimens. The model here restored my faith. It's covered with tapenade and touched up with lemon and basil oil. Steak lovers will find complete satisfaction in the zesty steak au poivre, grilled, sliced beef with a pepper crust, served with a polenta cake and spinach.

I only order chicken to fulfill my professional obligations--it's usually the dullest dish on the menu. But Zinzibar's version has given me second thoughts. The menu indicated I'd be getting a chicken breast filled with goat cheese and sun-dried tomato. Instead, I got a lusciously juicy stuffed Cornish game hen. As a bonus, it came with pureed celery root and shaved fennel, a bit of side-dish sophistication you don't often run into in this town.

And if you're looking for fish, the Moroccan ahi brings a moist slab of tuna together with the heady aromas of lemon, garlic, cilantro and saffron.

One bit of advice to the kitchen: "al dente" is a concept that applies only to pasta. The white beans that came with the veal chop, the red lentils accompanying the tuna and the potato gratin paired with the lamb all came significantly undercooked.

The kitchen doesn't need much advice with dessert. If the chocolate fondue sounds too rich, the orange granita makes a refreshing alternative. It's shaved ice doused with Chambord and fruit, more suited to July than January, perhaps, but still satisfying. So, too, is the hazelnut cake or the apple pie in a puff-pastry crust.

I'm no psychic. But it seems to me Zinzibar is good enough to make it no matter what part of the boom-bust cycle we're in.

Lantana Grille, Pointe Hilton at Squaw Peak, 7677 North 16th Street, 997-5850. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

The folks behind the Pointe Hilton resorts put their heads together to dream up a theme for their new restaurant at the Squaw Peak location. They came up with a good concept: "Foods of the Sun." That means flavors from the American Sunbelt, Asia, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.

The execution usually, but not always, keeps pace with the concept. The appetizers show particular flair. The "sea" part of the Sea and Sky quesadilla is filled with jerked shrimp and grilled onion; the "sky" side features smoked duck and papaya. You don't get more than a thimbleful of each ingredient, but the effect is still pleasant, especially if you dip into the terrific three-chile salsa or smoked pineapple sauce. Baby-back ribs in a snappy pineapple-ginger-hoisin sauce also furnish gnawing delight.

The Calypso Combo is a first-rate appetizer sampler, but the pricing is way out of whack. This starter is a breathtaking $18.95 for two, and a still-hefty $24.95 for four. (That's $9.50 per person for the first two people; $3 each for diners three and four.) And why aren't the luscious conch and crab cakes, the moo shu chicken crepe and the beef sate, three of the platter's four items (along with baby-back ribs), available individually, instead of only as part of this combo?

Because this is a resort restaurant, it can't alienate the beef-loving guests who stay here. So the menu has to offer slabs of steak and prime rib. But the chef's heart is clearly elsewhere. It's certainly in the outstandingly moist pancetta-wrapped swordfish. It's also in the grouper, a firm-fleshed Caribbean species that's poached in fragrant coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaves and teamed with a smoked pineapple relish.

The pasta with heavenly wood-roasted vegetables is close to magnificent. Eggplant, squash and portabella mushrooms are paired with rotelli, then baked in a light red-pepper sauce and coated with smoked provolone and crumbled feta cheese. The feta, however, is a mistake, throwing off the balance between the earthy veggies and smoked provolone.

There's a misstep, too, in the paella platter. I don't mind that it's a version, not a duplication, of the traditional Spanish recipe. So what if it's not made with Valencia rice, or if mussels, clams, shrimp and chicken share space with swordfish and salmon, or if the promised sausage turns out to be a meatball? What's harder to overlook is the thick coating of melted cheese. Ugh. It's an awful touch, one that overpowers every other flavor.

That same tendency to heap on one too many ingredients holds back the Jamaican-jerked rotisserie chicken. The bird itself is beautifully juicy, and the jerk spices give it some zip. So why the kitchen feels compelled to heap on a mound of basil-cilantro pesto is beyond my understanding.

Like some of the entrees, the desserts occasionally cross the line between innovative and loopy. I'm still not sure what to make of the mango-ginger creme brulee, adorned with a scoop of chocolate mousse and caramelized berries. (Incidentally, doesn't anyone in this fancy resort know how to spell "brulee"?) You're better off with a simple sweet, either the homemade ice cream or fruit-flecked pineapple pound cake.

Lantana Grille still needs some tweaking and fine-tuning before it comfortably settles into a foods-of-the-sun groove. But this kitchen seems to have enough imagination and skill not to turn the groove into a rut.

Cheese fondue for two
Roast lamb
Veal chop
Chocolate fondue for two

Lantana Grille:
Sea and sky quesadilla
Pasta and vegetables
Grouper in banana leaves
Pineapple pound cake


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