FARE TO REMEMBER
Terrace Dining Room, Phoenician resort, 6000 East Camelback, Phoenix, 941-8200. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 6 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m.
Guys, let me tell you what your sweetie doesn't want for Valentine's Day. She doesn't want you picking out additions to her wardrobe ("I know green and pink aren't your colors, but they didn't have much of a selection in size 14 hefty"); she doesn't want a heart-shaped box of candy ("You've been dieting since New Year's? Oh."); and she doesn't want a case of gasoline additives from Checker Auto Parts ("Wait 'til you see the mileage you get out of this baby now!"). She wants romance. And not cheap romance, either, the kind you try to get away with 364 days a year. She's looking forward to being wined and dined in a swanky setting, where servers will hold her chair, refold her napkin and say things like, "Ah, the roasted langoustines with basil vinaigrette, excellent choice, Madame." She imagines swirling about a marble dance floor to live music between courses. She wants to bask in flatteringly dim lights and gaze on opulent furnishings.
Get out your wallet, fellas. She's probably got her heart set on the Terrace Dining Room at the Phoenician. But you can take some solace from knowing that your significant other has got a highly developed sense of taste, and not only because she's chosen you for her escort. This restaurant is one of the Valley's premier eating spots, where Italian-accented food, gracious service and rich atmosphere combine to create a wonderful, special-occasion meal.
Waiting at the table for you is an irresistible stack of homemade breadsticks, flecked with cheese and red pepper. Just as effective is the basket of Italian bread, a simple loaf with fresh-baked flavor. But the Terrace Dining Room has much higher gastronomic ambitions. You're in the hands of a kitchen that doesn't believe in shortcuts, one that still takes the idea of fine dining seriously. But don't skip lunch in anticipation. That's because you're also in for an evening of small servings. If you have enough courses and a little patience, though, your stomach will eventually stop growling. And, looking on the bright side, this way you won't be too full for postprandial romance.
We took the four-course route, a two-hour and 20-minute journey through appetizer, pasta, main dish and dessert. It's a very pleasant trip. Especially if you start with roasted langoustines, miniature lobsters whose sublimely tasty meat will take your mind off the dainty portion and $12 tag. Polenta and Gorgonzola fritters are a more offbeat way to edge into dinner, but they're equally compelling. The already lively fritters get perked up even more by an outstanding assortment of mixed greens topped with a sweet pear and raisin salsa. Folks who think pasta always comes dished out in steaming, heaping bowlfuls, the way Mama Corleone served her three sons, may be in for a shock. Terrace Dining Room's pasta courses won't force any diners to loosen their belts. But they're exquisite, particularly the deftly prepared artichoke and spinach ravioli, inventively moistened in a puddle of consomm‚ seasoned with sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts.
Orecchiette--small, ear-shaped pieces of pasta--come topped with littleneck clams (a couple of which were gritty, however) and a fragrant garlic-and-wine sauce. And the cheese the server offers to sprinkle on is genuine Parmigiano Reggiano. An 80-pound wheel, the waiter confided, runs $700 wholesale, an expensive touch.
Don't worry if you've still got some empty belly room at main-dish time. These entrees are definitely worth being hungry for. The braised lamb shank, in particular, is extraordinary. Yes, it's a tender piece of fall-off-the-bone meat, as you'd expect. But the sauce it's bathed in is stunning, impossibly rich and complex, bursting with flavor. This is high-class cooking--I suspect someone had been watching over this sauce the better part of a day. Some tomato, artichoke and Tuscan beans come floating in it, but not enough of them. It seems to me a bit of starch--rice, potatoes, pasta--would enable diners to reap the sauce's full benefits. Don't look for any carbohydrates with the parmigiano-crusted veal scaloppine, either. On the other hand, the meat is so luscious that they're never really missed. A teaspoon of capers helps gild this veal lily, while grilled zucchini strips provide diversion between bites. Fennel is a popular Italian flavoring, and you can catch its scent in the seared scallop plate. Five lightly browned mollusks sit on a mound of first-rate risotto tinged with saffron. You'll be hard-pressed to choose between staring at the plate or your lover's eyes. With one exception, the dessert menu isn't very flashy--tiramisu, cheesecake and cräme br–l‚e aren't exactly cutting-edge sweets. There's only one chocolate offering among the ten choices, a pedestrian chocolate cake that's a bit dry. A custard fruit tart is enjoyable, but doesn't bring the meal to a big finish. The zabaglione semifreddo, though, certainly does. It's a molded, frozen mousse confection, zipped up with rum and Marsala and dented with a couple of pizelle cookies.
Dinner's only disappointment? Surprisingly limp coffee. A meal like this should end with a French roast jolt, not weak brew that could have come from the office coffee machine.
On the other hand, when we offhandedly mentioned it to our server, he took it off the bill, a gracious gesture. In fact, service at the Terrace Dining Room is a delight, much better, in fact, than it is at the resort's two other fancy restaurants. (At stuffy Mary Elaine's, a server once asked me--I couldn't make this up--"Would the gentleman care to experience our coffee?" In contrast, an overfriendly waiter at Windows on the Green did everything but pull up a chair and join us.) Whoever trains this professional, knowledgeable staff should take a bow. And so should the chef. This food is good enough to make me wish that Valentine's Day came twice a year.
Voltaire, 8340 East McDonald, Scottsdale, 948-1005. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.
"Tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you who you are," wrote the man this French restaurant is named after. Well, I ate onion soup, ris de veau and coupe aux marrons, and I'm happy. Almost two decades old, this Scottsdale institution has recently changed hands. But the new chef (from Chile, I was told) seems to have mastered all the old French favorites. Voltaire has about it an air of old-fashioned romance. The room is cozy and intimate, particularly the dining nooks in the rear with the curtains drawn back. A large flower arrangement between bar and dining area brings a splash of color and elegance. So does the mostly 40-plus clientele: prosperous-looking men wearing jackets; women decked out in their special-occasion outfits. Piped-in classical music furnishes the aural color. But one old-fashioned touch may throw some diners off their feed. Voltaire lacks a no-smoking section. If just a couple of patrons light up in this small place--and they will--you'll be inhaling a few minutes later.
Certainly nobody wanted to inhale the institutional dinner rolls set down before us. Voltaire can do better than this. I know, because almost everything that followed sported genuine Gallic flair. Voltaire's onion soup is an outstanding model, perfect for warming bones chilled by the winter night air. Thick with onions and cheese, it benefits from a particularly fragrant broth. Escargots Bourguignonne are also done right, loaded with garlic. The unexceptional house pƒt‚, though, doesn't quite keep up with the other starters--it's a little too bland for my taste. It can't be mere coincidence that the two things the French are best known for are l'amour and la cuisine. They usually go together. But the main dishes here are good enough to keep you smiling even if the rest of your evening delivers nothing more exciting than a good night's sleep. Voltaire's ris de veau (veal sweetbreads) are as good as any in town, comparable even to Vincent's. A generous portion of them come saut‚ed in lemon butter and smothered with capers. They're irresistible. So is the house fish specialty. It's sandab, a delicate, mild, white-fleshed fish, lightly breaded and saut‚ed in lemon butter, topped with white grapes. The platter gives off a heady combination of flavors, and the fish itself is expertly prepared, moist and flaky.
Rack of lamb will appeal to diners who enjoy boldly seasoned animal protein. Five meaty, gnaw-to-the-bone chops are cooked with a snootful of tarragon, and bathed in a rich sauce.
And, as a bonus, all the entrees arrived with unusually tasty accompaniments: dauphine potatoes, spuds blended with cheese and shaped into a fritter; saut‚ed cauliflower; broiled tomato; herbed carrot. There's no letdown at dessert time, either. Coupe aux marrons--vanilla ice cream topped with candied chestnuts--is typically French and utterly addicting. So is the oversize portion of profiteroles au chocolat, pastry puffs filled with ice cream and drowned in a bucket of heavy-duty chocolate sauce. Even the cheesecake, about which I'm incredibly fussy, hit the mark--not too sweet, and not too light. Staid, traditional and charming, Voltaire is the kind of French restaurant every city needs. Come here with your special sweetie, and you'll find both your soul and your palate satisfied.
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