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Elite Night Snack

Wrigley Mansion Club, 2501 East Telawa Trail, Phoenix, 955-4079. Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Wednesday through Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

You've got to hand it to America's old-time robber barons. Sure, the Vanderbilts, the Fricks and the Rockefellers brutally exploited their workers, corrupted the political system and sucked every last dime from a helpless public. But they sure knew how to build mansions.

Need proof? Check out our local palace, the Wrigley Mansion, built almost 70 years ago by the chewing-gum magnate. In 1992, it was bought by another scion of industrial wealth, Geordie "Son of Spam" Hormel, heir to the family meat-packing fortune.

For six years now, Hormel has been battling with his rich Biltmore neighbors over the property. He wants to turn the mansion into a public restaurant. The high-powered homeowners association, anxious to keep the unwashed masses out of its exclusive backyard, doesn't like the idea. The group insists the mansion remain a private dining and social club, the use it's zoned for.

For the moment, Hormel has found a clever way to get around the legal objections. The mansion is still ostensibly a private club. But membership is only $10 a year--the "dues" are added to the bill on your first restaurant visit. (Only one person in your group has to join.) And, in a nice touch, the membership fees are donated to a charity aiding battered women.

As you might imagine, the place is breathtaking. You drive in past the iron gates and check in with a guard. Continue up the steep hillside until you get to the top, where hustling valet parkers take over. Before you go in, pause at the top of the steps and look out over the Valley spread beneath you, a carpet of twinkling lights, the striking Arizona Biltmore just below, and Camelback Mountain looming in the distance. The thought may hit you, as it did me: "It's good to have money."

The thought lingers after you enter the elegant dining room. It's set up in the style of milord's manor: elaborately painted wood-beamed ceiling; ornate chandeliers; plush upholstered chairs; rich curtains; luxurious white-linen tablecloths; heavy silverware; and stunning artwork, including a Van Dyck portrait of Charles I (another version hangs in the Louvre). A tuxedoed staff, schooled to respond "Yes, sir," or "Yes, ma'am" to every inane whim, adds to the charm.

One less charming aspect: If you come with a mixed-gender group, the gentlemen will get menus with prices. The ladies, whose pretty little heads presumably can't be bothered with figures, get menus without them. This old-fashioned practice no longer even seems quaint--it's insulting, and should be abandoned.

Still, it does require some manly courage to contemplate a meal's cost. Appetizers range from $8.50 to $12.50; entrees climb to $34; desserts go for a whopping $8.50. And diners won't be loosening their belts or taking home doggie bags, even if they spring for all three courses.

At times, the pricey fare can be as sumptuous as the setting. At other times, however, the kitchen has some quality meltdowns.

But there's no meltdown with the breadbasket, which features a variety of loaves, all of them wonderful, fresh and chewy, with crispy crusts, served with three kinds of butter.

On my first visit, the chef gave us an on-the-house treat, two spoonfuls of a memorable cream of parsnip soup touched up with white truffle oil. I was disappointed when no freebies appeared the next time I stopped in.

Appetizers get you primed for the evening. Two seared sea scallops, moist and luscious, come surrounded by a mix of diced tomatoes and red pepper, freshened with opal basil. But at $6.25 a scallop, this little nibble isn't for the faint of wallet. Two plump salmon cakes are much more substantial, and just as tasty. They're drizzled with a tahini dressing, and embellished with baby greens. Doughy spinach and potato gnocchi get their oomph from a rich Parmesan cream sauce, which you'll want to sop up with bread.

I was less impressed with one of the starter salads. "Smoked Salmon Salad with Potatoes, Green Beans and Goat Cheese Vinaigrette" sounds great. But it didn't live up to its promise. It's just lettuce topped with a thimbleful of smoked salmon, some forlorn hunks of potato, a couple of green beans and no detectable indication of anything like a goat cheese vinaigrette.

At entree time, zero in on the fish dishes. The kitchen knows what it's doing, and the quality is there, too.

The bouillabaisse isn't what you'd find in the south of France. But what the Wrigley Mansion's version lacks in authenticity, it makes up for in taste. It's a big bowl, swimming with halibut, salmon, shrimp, mussels, cockles and scallops, in a vibrant saffron broth. This dish cries out, though, for some thick slices of bread and a dollop of aioli.

Halibut is simply and deftly done, lightly wrapped in potato and broiled to moist translucence. And there's nothing hackneyed about the wonderful sides of julienned leeks and asparagus coated with black truffle butter.

If you come on an evening featuring the monkfish special, don't hesitate to grab it. Though it's called the "poor man's lobster" for its meaty texture, monkfish is no longer cheap. But it is delicious, especially the way it's done here: pan-seared medallions bathed in a heady lobster reduction, paired with blue potatoes. At $21, this platter is definitely a best buy.

(Monkfish--lotte in French--is perhaps the world's ugliest fish, with a head twice as wide as its tail and a huge mouth filled with dozens of razor-sharp pointy teeth. At one time in France, it was illegal for fishermen to bring it into port with the head on--authorities didn't want people to be frightened.)

Gulf shrimp with risotto isn't particularly imaginative, but it's skillfully prepared. Still, it's not as entertaining as the bouillabaisse, halibut or monkfish.

When the kitchen moves from the sea to dry land, however, it's not nearly as effective. It's not a matter of talent--it's a matter of ingredients. Frankly, the meat here simply isn't as good as it should be.

Take the rack of lamb. At $34, I expected it to knock me over. But the meat was fatty, and not especially tender or flavorful. A peppy mint-pear chutney and a nifty sage spätzle side couldn't overcome the animal-protein shortcomings.

The grilled beef tenderloin suffered from the same affliction. It's an ordinary piece of beef, without any of the prized qualities you'd find in high-end steaks. And once again, terrific sides of wild mushrooms and mashed butternut squash weren't enough to pick up the slack. The scallop of veal, snazzily teamed with fresh peas, wild mushrooms and Yukon potatoes, struck me the same way.

Desserts end the meal on a high note. Apple cake topped with a Calvados mousse and served with a tart green apple sorbet tastes like autumn in Normandy. You won't want to share the rich chocolate cake teamed with chocolate espresso mousse, accompanied by a scoop of marvelous cappuccino gelato from Berto's. Pear shortcake filled with candied walnuts also presses the right buttons. The only sweet-tooth misstep: an unenergized Bailey's Irish Cream cheesecake, with almost no cheese or liqueur punch.

Don't leave yet. Linger over an espresso, which somebody here knows how to make.

Most of us can only dream about living the high life. The swanky Wrigley Mansion Club is a fine place to fantasize about it.

Wrigley Mansion Club:
Salmon cakes
$11.50
Bouillabaisse
26.00
Beef tenderloin
28.00
Chocolate cake
8.50


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