Rancho Pinot Grill, Town & Country Shopping Center, 4709 North 20th Street, Phoenix, 468-9463. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Everyone knows that death and taxes are inescapable, though they'd be somewhat easier to bear if they came in that order. But there's a third inevitability that no modern American male can shake: romancing your sweetie on Valentine's Day. Fail to honor the object of your affection with an appropriate token of commitment, and death and taxes are going to look like pleasant alternatives. Guys always have a hard time choosing the right gift. A simple, heartfelt "I love you," so effective 364 days a year, won't cut it on February 14. Flowers fade; candy is dangerous (You're watching your weight? I didn't notice."). Most men find the prospect of celibacy less frightening than a trip to Victoria's Secret. Or, you think, maybe she'll swoon over a $25 gift certificate to Auto Zone. She won't. In fact, auto-based Valentine gifts are grounds for instant divorce in 11 states.
The single best, tried-and-true, Valentine's Day option is still an evening of romantic wining and dining. So, sweetie in hand, I scouted out two potential Valley locations, one steeped in tradition, the other brand-new. Rancho Pinot Grill, which opened the day after Thanksgiving, doesn't fit the classic, romantic-restaurant mold. No bowing-and-scraping servers, roaring fireplaces or flaming desserts. No breathtaking views, either, unless the sight of a T.J. Maxx somehow sets your heart racing. But Rancho Pinot Grill is absolutely charming. The young, enthusiastic husband-and-wife proprietors split the chores: She controls the kitchen, he runs the front and helps serve. It's been a long time since I've enjoyed myself more. It's a casual place, with maybe a dozen tables. For ornamentation, it relies on gallery-supplied photos and paintings with a cowboy theme.
The architect Mies van der Rohe, discussing his art, once noted that "God is in the details." The same holds true in the restaurant business. And Rancho Pinot Grill clearly seems to have taken that insight to heart. It sports all the right touches. First, the staff. The sole waiter is adept and friendly, a man who genuinely likes his job. Next, the hefty cutlery, which is replaced after each course from a linen-lined tray. Breadcrumbs are carefully scraped away. Unrefined lump sugar is offered with coffee. And when's the last time you got a free refill of espresso? In addition, Rancho Pinot Grill is wallet-friendly BYOB. You bring the wine; for $2.50 per person, the restaurant furnishes the elegant stemware. With AJ's and Sportsman's only a mile away, Christopher's wine outlet just down the street and Trader Joe's next door, oenophiles can tap some well-stocked cellars without paying a big-time restaurant markup for the privilege. But food is what really drives the restaurant engine, and the fare here is high-octane. The chef calls her cooking "urban rustic." I haven't the faintest idea what that oxymoron means. But I do know the daily changing menu, built around a core of staples, features fresh ingredients and simple preparations, the two best paths to culinary success. Actually, I was won over even before the appetizers arrived. The fresh-baked Italian country bread here is fabulous--chewy, crusty flavorful. Unfortunately, it comes in a miserly portion, a couple of thin slices on a plate drizzled with olive oil. I'm surprised our server, worn out with constant demands for more, just didn't plop a whole loaf in front of us and say the hell with it. Of course, management probably doesn't want customers filling up on free bread. And it's got a point: The food here is worth being hungry for. Take the luscious starter of goat cheese and caramelized onion baked inside phyllo dough, surrounded by sliced pear and an exciting mix of locally grown organic greens. This dish can hold your interest on several levels--taste, texture, looks. Same with the grilled Portobello mushroom, a thick, flavorful specimen that's nearly as meaty as a New York steak. And the crispy lentil cakes have an appealing, Middle Eastern flavor, accented by a nifty yogurt-cucumber sauce. The main dishes show what a chef can do when she lets the ingredients speak for themselves. My favorite is the mixed grill of rosemary-infused grilled chicken complemented with mild Italian sausage. This Mediterranean-scented plate is enhanced by a wedge of polenta garnished with shaved asiago cheese. Grilled Yucat n pork chop is another winner, rubbed, I suspect, with achiote, a popular Yucat n spice that imparts color and an earthy flavor to meat. Excellent, garlicky mashed potatoes and a clever arrangement of saut‚ed apples and onions complete the platter. The kitchen also knows its way around fish. The salmon fillet is done just right, zipped up with a lemon-fennel broth and a teaspoon of leeks. Homemade pasta is also a daily main-dish option. The tagliatelle, studded with white beans, roasted fennel and tomatoes that weren't plucked six months early off the vine, is a hearty winter treat. I'm a sucker for cheese courses, and Rancho Pinot Grill caters to this weakness. At $6, the cheese platter is plenty for two, and provides a great excuse for downing more bread and knocking off the bottle of red you haven't quite finished. The cheese plate's major drawback is the chance that it might inhibit you from ordering dessert. Big mistake. The chef's mom, I was told, handles desserts, and I'd give her a raise before someone hires her away. One evening we split a luscious pear tart, topped with homemade ginger ice cream that had a real ginger snap. On another occasion, we demolished a honey-pecan square gilded with cinnamon ice cream drenched in rich chocolate sauce. Don't look for huge portions of anything here. Meals are crafted to encourage leisurely, multicourse dining. Do look out for crowds--this place can't miss. Let's hope the proprietors can survive success. El Chorro Lodge, 5550 East Lincoln, Scottsdale, 948-5170. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, 6 to 11 p.m., seven days a week.
Rancho Pinot Grill will have to be doing business in the year 2050 just to match El Chorro's current streak, which started in 1937. Old age, though, hasn't slowed down the kitchen. This place puts out a first-rate meal in a first-rate setting. Nestled by the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, the restaurant's patio area, warmed with heaters, is the perfect place for intrepid lovers to gaze soulfully at the stars and each other. But if dining alfresco on a chilly February evening doesn't strike you as the ideal prelude to romance, indoor dining is a more than adequate alternative. That's because El Chorro is divided into several dining areas, furnishing a coziness and intimacy that huge dining halls can't match. Like the building, the fare dates from the 1930s. A chilled metal dish with olives, pickles and carrots greets diners as soon as they're seated. So does an ugly basket of plastic-wrapped crackers that has no business being here. Especially since meals are accompanied by a basket of El Chorro's justly famous sticky buns. These are good enough to divert the attention of even the most lovesick couples. And so is almost everything else the kitchen serves up. El Chorro offers only two appetizers, shrimp cocktail and oysters on the half shell. You get your money's worth from the five huge, meaty shrimp. But sliding oysters down your throat seems a much more sensual and appropriate Valentine's Day option. Go for the soup alternative with dinner. The two kinds we sampled--chicken and white bean, and minestrone--are exceptionally hearty and thickly stocked, with a long-simmering, homemade taste. In contrast, the salad plate consists of nondescript romaine brightened with a cherry tomato. The main dishes are the real dinner stars. El Chorro uses aged prime beef, and experienced carnivores know that other grades of beef can't match the quality. You can simply taste the difference. Take the superb culotte, the eye of top sirloin. This gorgeous, juicy, medium-rare hunk is tender enough to gum, and loaded with beefy flavor. There's enough animal protein here to make a guy pound his chest and howl, not a bad Valentine's Day combination. You won't be asking "Where's the beef?" if you order the beef stroganoff. There's a ton of gloriously moist meat in this rich, fragrant, dill-scented platter. In fact, my sweetie complained that there was too much meat. She was right--the beef-noodle ratio is out of whack. The answer, though, as any gourmand will note, is not less meat, but more noodles. El Chorro handles other entree fare just as skillfully as meat. Orange roughy and swordfish are obviously cooked by a practiced hand, since each left the flames at precisely the right moment. And the barbecued baby-back pork ribs surprised me, for both their meaty heft and tangy sauce. The side dishes, however, don't get nearly the attention they require. Baked potato and French fries are nothing special, and the mushy glop of unseasoned squash shows a dismaying inattention to detail. But for an additional $2.95, you can feast on addictive, thin-sliced cottage fried potatoes, sizzlingly crisp and crunchy. Sensible folks will be happy to make dessert out of the remaining sticky buns. But diners craving variety can opt for the chocolate-chip pecan pie. Coated with a vanilla bean sauce, it's very sweet, very rich and very good. The cheesecake, though, is too light and insubstantial for my taste. Guys, El Chorro does just about everything to promote romance except furnish a date. But a promise to bring her here is all it should take to sway any clear-thinking woman into joining you. @7col:Rancho Pinot Grill: Lentil cakes $5.50 Mixed grill 13.50 Fillet of salmon 14.00 Pear tart 5.50 El Chorro Lodge: Oysters $7.95 Beef stroganoff 19.50 Culotte 20.75 Pecan pie 3.95