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BEYOND A REGIONAL DOUBT

Pion Grill, Regal McCormick Ranch, 7401 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 948-5050. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Maybe it takes an outsider to appreciate just how distinctive, how unlike any other region, the Southwest is. I've lived here several years now, but I haven't lost my amazement.

People carry guns into supermarkets, movies and libraries. (When they say, "Shh," I listen.) Liberals here are folks who believe capital punishment ought to be painless. A summertime reading of 100 degrees excites television talk of "unseasonably mild temperatures." A swimming pool in the backyard is not a sign of a six-figure income or a recent inheritance.

I've been a little slower picking up on the distinctive qualities of Southwestern cuisine. Perhaps I've been looking in all the wrong places.

Not anymore. The fare at Pion Grill is just fabulous.
The place has the look of a Southwestern lodge--log posts, beamed ceiling, huge, clay pots and kitschy painted skulls. Outside is an appealing, misted, trellised patio overlooking the resort's palm-tree-fringed lake. A sign warns diners not to feed the parade of ducks that continually wanders over. The soothing setting gives no hint of the gastronomic whirlwind to come.

As he set down the warm, green chile corn bread, our server warned us against its addictive attraction. "Don't fill up," he advised. He might as well have cautioned the ducks about water safety. We were in our element.

The luxuriously fragrant bread, steamy on the inside with a crispy exterior, was irresistible. What George Bernard Shaw said about the popularity of marriage also applies to the basket of chile corn bread: It provides the maximum of temptation with the maximum of opportunity.

And from this point on, things got better.
The scallop appetizer brought a heaping pile of half a dozen gently sauted mollusks in a crunchy, blue tortilla shell. They were topped with roasted pion nuts and a generous spoonful of sun-dried tomatoes, then kicked into another gear with a perky cilantro-garlic sauce. Although scallops haven't swum in this area since dinosaurs roamed the Earth, this starter seemed as quintessentially Southwestern as land speculation.

So did the quesadilla. Forget about the flabby tortillas dripping with tasteless, gloppy cheese that probably spring to mind. These crisp beauties came elegantly stuffed with peppered Brie, shiitake mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes. It was a wonderful combination of flavors, simple but cunningly conceived.

The main dishes worked not only on the senses of smell and taste, but also on sight, as well. They were cleverly executed, though not in a cutesy, fussy manner. This kitchen seems to understand that the principle "Form follows function" can apply to cuisine as well as architecture.

Take the glorious swordfish, its meaty, white flesh contrasting with the dark, molelike, mulato chile sauce. One taste helped prove another principle: The whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. The moist, mild swordfish intensified the rich, smoky tang of medium-hot mulato chiles.

Two hockey-puck-size discs of sweet, blue corn polenta furnished an offbeat starch. This is how Native Americans of the Southwest might have prepared blue corn if their first European contact had been with chefs, not soldiers. Alongside, wrapped in cornhusk, came a refreshing, raspberry-pineapple salsa.

At $24.95, the veal chop was the only one of a dozen entrees that crosses the 20-dollar frontier. It's a worthwhile border crossing.

The hefty veal chop, marinated in lime and chiles, was fork tender and expertly grilled, fragrant in its own juices. Only dark glares of disapproval from my wife kept me from picking up the bone and gnawing away like a happy animal.

The veal chop came colorfully accompanied by zucchini cutouts shaped like pine trees, grilled pearl onions on red pepper squares, wild mushrooms and thick potato sticks.

Even more picturesque and complexly flavored was the stuffed double breast of chicken. It's crammed with a zingy chorizo that hadn't been denatured for tender-tongued tourists. A striking array of mixed vegetables came with it--red and yellow pepper, zucchini, tomatillo and jicama rested nearby, alongside hollowed-out tomato wedges filled with wild rice.

But what really propelled this platter was a head-turning, yellow-pepper-cilantro sauce. It was good enough to eat with a tablespoon.

A glance at the dessert menu made me wish I had stopped at one serving of green chile corn bread. But "No pain, no gain" has applications outside the health club, too.

Pion Grill has two dessert sections, one devoted solely to chocolate. My wife and I spent more time mulling the choices than we did over buying our house.

The chocolate crepe, filled with apples, kiwis, raspberries and fresh cream, stood out. It floated in a two-fisted Kahla chocolate sauce, impressively etched with the words "Pion Grill," including the tilde.

The margarita cheesecake also invoked Mexican spirits. Both sweet and tart, this dense treat was moistened with an attention-grabbing, tequila- pineapple-caramel sauce.

For a restaurant housed in an upscale Valley resort, Pion Grill is reasonably priced, especially if you steer away from tab-launching drinks. Factor in quality fare, gracious service and stress-busting atmosphere, and you've got 100 cents of value for every dollar. Put it on your "Don't miss" list.

Cafe Terra Cotta, the Borgata, 6166 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 948-8100. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Put Cafe Terra Cotta, the highly acclaimed Tucson establishment that branched out to the Valley last fall, on your "Just missed" list.

It has nothing to do with the fare. Once you get past the tired breadbasket, the kitchen shoots only bull's eyes with its sophisticated and inventive Southwestern inspirations. But other elements of the restaurant are harder to swallow than the food.

It's a pretty place, colorful but not garish. Dark-brown tablecloths, teal pillars and chairs and beige walls combine the shades of the pueblo and the hacienda. Lots of potted cactus give the appropriate desert look. Bright paintings with Southwestern motifs hang from the walls.

They're all for sale, price tags thoughtfully provided. But Cafe Terra Cotta is more than a bistro and a gallery.

It's a souvenir stand, too. Look inside the menu. Right there among the appetizers, entrees and desserts is a section offering Cafe Terra Cotta memorabilia. Tacky. And on the table is a promo card informing diners, "The folks who brought you Cafe Terra Cotta now proudly present 'Individual Man: Casual Clothes With a Point of View.'" The shop's a few doors away.

Why stop here? I'm surprised management hasn't put sandwich boards on its servers. It could employ vendors to move around the tables shouting, "Get your artwork, sweat shirts and dress slacks" as diners bite into scrumptious quesadillas stuffed with grilled scallions, roasted poblanos, mesquite-smoked bacon and havarti with avocado salsa and salsa fresca.

The apparently irrepressible urge of American entrepreneurs to separate consumers from their money sometimes pushes the entrepreneurs over the edge of good taste. It's a pity, especially because here everything tastes so darn good.

I'm more than ready to throw my money after a crispy chile relleno stuffed with shrimp and cheese in a hearty, smoky, tomato sauce, freshened with fruit-laden papaya-honeydew salsa.

And wild horses couldn't keep me from shelling out 11 bucks for the ethereal, wood-fired pizzas, with soft, meltingly chewy crusts supporting slabs of bacon, wild mushrooms, roasted poblanos and fontina cheese.

Along with the entrees, they stimulate the only kind of consumption I'm interested in when I eat out: gustatory.

Six prawns, deceptively advertised as large, came stuffed with herbed goat cheese in a peppy tomato coulis. It was a rich dish, full of whatever those chemical compounds are that signal the brain that it's having a good time. The side of orzo was a well-chosen complement.

Grilled beef tenderloin, the priciest entree at $20.95, featured a fist-size hunk of filet perched in a brash, roasted-tomatillo, chipotle salsa. It was surrounded by grilled scallions, tortilla strips and tempting corn salsa.

Pork adobado created a bouquet of lovely flavors. Chile-marinated slices of tender pork arrived fanned across the plate, accompanied by whole black beans drizzled with sour cream and a mouth-watering apricot conserve. Each bite of this platter brought involuntary nods of pleasure.

And the desserts offer no letup in quality.
The "spring tulipe" is a thin, caramelized cookie stuffed with caramel-coated peach ice cream, in a puddle of fresh cream and berries. It's every bit as good as it sounds.

Cräme brle is also superb, an exceptionally rich confection studded with berries. And if filling, fattening desserts are too much to contemplate, the duo of prickly pear and lime-tequila sorbets sports a light, invigorating touch.

Why would a place that turns out such artful fare want to assault diners' wallets from so many different angles? Is there a shortage of galleries, souvenir shops and upscale men's clothiers in Scottsdale?

If it would just forget about being a temple of commerce, Cafe Terra Cotta could develop into a shrine of Southwestern cuisine.


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