Fabled d'hote

Wrigley Mansion, 2501 East Telawa Trail, Phoenix, 955-4079. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 6 to 8:30 p.m.

Eating at a landmark spot gives most folks a real tingle. When you dine at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the World Trade Center in New York or El Tovar Lodge at the Grand Canyon, the location itself arouses a heady sense of enchantment. Not even the most skillful chef, working in less magical surroundings, can cook up that kind of spell.

Phoenix certainly isn't teeming with landmark dining locations. But we do have at least two huddled almost side by side: the elegant Wrigley Mansion and the grand Arizona Biltmore. Both of them sparkle: the architecture, the grounds, the furnishings, the view.

And, I'm happy to report, their kitchens flash with the same sort of sparkle.

These days, Wrigley Mansion is owned by the Son of Spam, Geordie Hormel, heir to his family's meat-packing fortune. He's turned the mansion into a private club, but the dining rooms are open to the public for Sunday brunch, lunch and dinner.

The place is breathtakingly gorgeous. If you're lucky enough to get seated on the veranda (an unlikely scenario--it's usually booked for private functions, especially on weekends), you'll get a sweeping, 270-degree panorama of Camelback Mountain to the east, downtown skyscrapers to the south and Sierra Estrella to the west.

Otherwise, you'll dine in the imposing formal dining room. It's got all the magnate touches you'd expect: wood-beam ceiling, heavy window curtains, gilt-framed mirrors and paintings, a fireplace, lots of candles, flowers and tables double-lined with lace and linen tablecloths. Leave your jeans at home; this room is worth dressing up for.

Even though history teaches us that behind every great fortune lies a crime, I was too comfortable to get worked up over the Wrigley Mansion's connection to long-dead robber barons. However, I did get worked up over the menu--not by what's on it, but by what's not on it. If you're female and come here with a male, you'll be handed a menu without prices. Presumably, management believes the womanly mind cannot simultaneously encompass the prospect of ordering dinner and the prospect of paying for it. It's a foolish, dated touch, better suited to the 1890s than the 1990s.

Fortunately, the food restored my good mood; it's as opulent as the setting. I'd call it modernized continental.

What does that mean? A generation ago, the snail appetizer would have arrived as escargots Bourguignonne. Now, however, the escargots are stuffed into spanakopita--phyllo pastry dough filled with spinach and feta cheese--and moistened with a Pernod-tinged beurre blanc. Foie gras is equally effective, pan-seared and served over little blini, in a vigorous pool of blueberry coulis. The combination of flavors is sublime.

For sheer visual and gastronomic poetry, you can't beat the lobster bouchee Nantua Creole. What a sight: puff pastry shaped into a lobster, with peppercorns for eyes and chives for antennae. It's draped with lobster, crayfish and andouille sausage, dabbed with caviar, then smoothed with a creamy sauce. The salads show the same signs of creative intelligence. Daintier appetites will appreciate the fresh, mixed greens adorned with artichoke fritters and sweet-potato chips, perked up with a roasted-tomato dressing.

Main dishes exhibit the same stylish touch as the starters. Juicy New Zealand rack of lamb is superb, lined with an herb-mustard crust and served with crusty mashed potatoes and seasoned baby vegetables. Despite the Wrigley Mansion's refined setting, I grabbed each of these chops with my paw and gnawed. Nothing comes between me and good lamb, not even etiquette. Veal is another winning animal-protein option, thin medallions layered with trumpet mushrooms in a rich sauce. Despite a thorough search, however, I couldn't detect any of the andouille sausage that the menu promised would also be on the platter.

Seafood lovers should enjoy sea bass gilded with Dungeness crab and roasted peppers, teamed with a saffron-tinged grain the kitchen called "couscous" but wasn't. (Nobody on the waitstaff seemed to know what it was, either.) A luscious champagne-caviar sauce made the question seem less pressing.

Astonishingly, perhaps the best entree here is one of the cheapest. While most main dishes run about $20 to $25, the riveting vegetable cannelloni goes for $12.50. Don't miss it: You get a big, homemade pouch of pasta filled with fragrant Italian cheeses and assorted veggies--carrots, broccoli, asparagus--topped with pesto and a light tomato sauce. My compliments to the chef.

I also want to toss a bouquet of compliments to the pastry chef, who whips up some of the best sweets in town. She's put together an imaginative dessert menu--no cheesecake, no creme brulee, no flourless chocolate cake.

Instead of these usual hackneyed suspects, she sends out a magnificent peach and sundried-cranberry torte, with an almond and pistachio caramel-candy topping and a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, all floating in a puddle of red wine sauce. Just as mesmerizing: wine-poached pear surrounding a mound of white chocolate-ginger semifreddo (it resembles a frozen mousse), covered with chocolate lace and adorned with a mango coulis. And don't overlook the Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate, a trio of chocolate treats. You get chocolate cake with a hazelnut meringue; a rich, custardy chocolate sabayon; and a ribbon of pure chocolate, all drizzled with chocolate sauce.

There aren't too many big-time, special-occasion restaurants in the Valley. Add Wrigley Mansion to the list.

Biltmore Grill and Patio, Arizona Biltmore, 24th Street and Missouri, Phoenix, 955-6600. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.

About a year ago, I had dinner at Wright's, the Arizona Biltmore's new, top-of-the-line restaurant. It wasn't a happy experience: Overpriced and dull are just two of the adjectives I'd use to describe my meal there.

I have a suggestion. Have Wright's executives study the operation at the Biltmore Grill and Patio, the resort's more casual and less expensive restaurant alternative. There they'll find a kitchen that knows how to deliver first-rate fare at a reasonable price.

Of course, "casual" and "less expensive" are relative terms. No, you won't find a tuxedoed maitre d' and a $5 cup of coffee at the Biltmore Grill and Patio, as I did at Wright's. But you won't find gum-chewing waitresses or Formica-topped tables in this bright, airy room, either. The tables are lined with linen and cloth napkins; plants and flowers furnish a cheery note; and well-trained, khaki-clad servers sweep breadcrumbs away and replace silverware after each course. Most appetizers come in at $6 or $7, and entrees hover around 15 bucks. (It's an all-day menu, too--the same dishes and prices at lunch and dinner.)

Most important, you get your money's worth, as long as you keep away from the $3.50 mineral waters, $4 beers and $7.50 glasses of wine. The food here isn't trendy or exotic. It is, however, meticulously prepared and immensely tasty. And at this time of year, we locals pretty much have the place all to ourselves.

Start off with luscious baked oysters, three plump critters embellished with crab, cheese and spinach. In comparison, roasted mushroom caps stuffed with herbed goat cheese aren't quite as scintillating. You may want to ignore the calendar entirely and opt for the broth, a deeply aromatic grilled-duck gumbo, thick with sausage, rice and okra. And in this informal atmosphere, it seems perfectly okay to dip in some of the warm, crusty sourdough loaf that accompanies the meal.

The main dishes clearly indicate that someone in this kitchen is paying attention. Carnivores should head straight for the pepper-crusted filet of beef, a half-pound of juicy, butter-soft, red-meat perfection. It's been trimmed of every milligram of fat, too, so there's no waste. Paired with roast red-skin potatoes and sauteed spinach, this is as good a bistro-style steak platter as I've run across in town. The veal meat loaf is another hearty source of animal protein. It's a big slab, coarsely ground, moistened with a rich onion gravy and teamed with excellent mashed potatoes and green beans.

Plump Louisiana crab cakes are equally noteworthy, served right out of the skillet, still shimmering with a crispy golden sheen. A spoon-lickin' crayfish sauce adds to the fun, as does the nifty side of pecan rice. Another bayou-scented dish, shrimp and andouille sausage, also hits all the flavor buttons. Watch out for the zesty kick; the ingredients haven't been toned down for resort guests. But the chef has the good sense to let the lovely grilled swordfish pretty much speak for itself. It's adorned with perky citrus salsa that complements, but doesn't overpower the fish.

Desserts end the meal on the same high note. The cherry cobbler is outstanding, and it benefits from marvelous homemade ice cream. The intense chocolate, the fruity strawberry and powerful vanilla suggest to me that the Biltmore could profitably operate its own ice cream shop, just like the Phoenician. The fudge-brownie walnut pie is irresistible, fashioned with a fudgy top, a molten interior, ice cream and caramel sauce. It's plenty for two. And so is the three-layer chocolate cake--it's very big, very rich and very, very chocolaty. Good coffee makes it easy to wash down these sweets.

And when the meal's over, here's a digestion tip: Stroll around the lush grounds, catch the piano entertainment in the magnificent lobby and pretend you can afford to stay here.

Wrigley Mansion:

Lobster bouchee


Sea bass

Rack of lamb


Peach-cranberry torte


Biltmore Grill and Patio:

Baked oysters


Shrimp and andouille sausage


Pepper-crusted filet


Fudge-brownie walnut pie



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