It's the season for fantasy.
But I don't fantasize about the meek inheriting the Earth, smooth sailing on the rush-hour Squaw Peak Parkway or mandatory IQ testing for Arizona legislators.
My job requires me to dine out 200 nights a year. So, not surprisingly, my fantasies tend to be about food.
I dream about a world where dedicated restaurant owners are committed to quality and don't cut corners. I dream about a world where servers don't tell me their names. I dream about a world where there are no height/weight charts. A waist, after all, is a terrible thing to mind.
And every year about this time, I also dream about my perfect eating-out week, a seven-day breakfast, lunch and dinner gastronomic orgy, balanced to satisfy my every dining whim. Of course, since this is a fantasy, I'm counting on the money for this expedition to appear magically, and the calories that result from it to disappear the same way.
So loosen your belts, and share the fantasy.
Day One: Sunday
Breakfast: For sheer, over-the-top, sybaritic feasting, the Terrace Dining Room's Sunday brunch (the Phoenician, 6000 East Camelback) is the most lavish spread this side of the Pearly Gates. Attention is paid to every detail, whether it's the fresh artichokes in the salad, the real crab in the sushi or the homemade pasta. The staffers are real pros, with a sixth sense about knowing the exact moment you want your plate cleared and your champagne glass refilled.
Lunch: Sometimes a man has to get in touch with his primitive self. When that urge strikes, I head over to Honey Bear's BBQ (5012 East Van Buren) to gnaw on the Valley's best bones. The ribs are slathered with a distinctive, Tennessee-style sauce that's so good you won't want to wash your hands. Terrific go-withs, like the "cowbro" beans and sweet potato pie, gild the barbecue lily.
Dinner: If I had to eat dinner at the same restaurant every night for a month, I'd choose RoxSand (Biltmore Fashion Park, 24th Street and Camelback). The inventively crafted "transnational" menu never gets stale. I adore the around-the-world appetizer list, with dishes like curried rice tamale, b'stilla and Korean barbecue. Entrees shine, particularly the seafood and house special, air-dried duck. And the notorious B-52 torte, a wicked blend of chocolate and liqueurs, brings any meal to a triumphant conclusion.
Day Two: Monday
Breakfast: T.C. Eggington's Brunchery (1660 South Alma School, Mesa) serves exactly the same basic American a.m. fare as every other restaurant in town. The only difference is, nobody else's food is as good. The French toast alone, made from homemade cinnamon bread, is enough to get me on the Superstition Freeway during the morning rush hour. Good omelets, too.
Lunch: There's no shortage of wonderful, south-of-the-border restaurants in Phoenix. But when I want wonderful, south-of-south-of-the-border cooking, I eat at Eliana's (1627 North 24th Street). This modest Salvadoran place turns out great pupusas (corn masa patties stuffed with pork and cheese), pasteles (meat turnovers) and maybe the best tortillas in town. Great tropical-fruit drinks, too.
Dinner: My idea of dining heaven: a small, chef-owned place, with interesting food and a wallet-friendly BYOB policy. In this town, heaven on Earth is at Gregory's Grill (Papago Plaza, 7049 East McDowell, Scottsdale). The stylish, eclectic menu features savory delights like a tower of roast vegetables and goat cheese, and grilled shrimp in a fennel broth. The beer-marinated beef tenderloin and apple-crusted salmon are memorable entrees. A whiskey-soaked apple crepe adds the right finishing touch.
Day Three: Tuesday
Breakfast: Eating breakfast at Kiss the Cook (4915 West Glendale Avenue, Glendale) is like eating breakfast at Granny's--if Granny took Mastercard and Visa. The place is knee-deep in Victorian clutter, and the fare is just as homey. The homemade buttermilk pancakes are justly famous. Biscuits and gravy, huevos rancheros and gooey, nut-studded cinnamon rolls also get your day off to a fast start.
Lunch: Want to interrupt the work day with a bit of noontime panache? Good-looking Bistro 24 (Ritz-Carlton Hotel, 2401 East Camelback) has white-linen, European-bistro flair. Unwind with a Pernod, then settle in with onion soup, homemade pate, salade Nicoise, a croque Monsieur or steak frites. It's a little bit of the Champs Elysees on the Camelback Corridor.
Dinner: The husband-and-wife team at Rancho Pinot Grill (6208 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale) has this casually classy operation running on all cylinders. The menu changes daily to feature what's fresh, and whatever's on it is bound to be a crowd-pleaser. During the past few years, I've been seduced by the posole, grilled squid salad, vegetarian rice cakes and greens, quail with peach chutney and pork chops. Lovely desserts, too, especially the warm nectarine tart.
Day Four: Wednesday
Breakfast: They say you can't go home again. But at Chompie's (3202 East Greenway Road), I can at least visit for a while. The memorable deli breakfast fare of my Brooklyn youth has somehow managed to flourish in the desert Southwest: pickled herring, smoked fish, blintzes, matzo brei, a variety of cream cheeses, Nova Scotia lox and the best bagels in town. The bakery is first-rate, too--linger over coffee with rugalach or coffee cake.
Lunch: Since breakfast has made me nostalgic for the pizza haunts of the old neighborhood, a trip to Pizzeria Bianco (623 East Adams) makes perfect noontime sense. This is, hands down, the best pizza in Arizona, and maybe west of Naples. Perfect crust and marvelous toppings (try the wood-smoked mushrooms and homemade fennel sausage) make me want to stand up and cheer. Salads, sandwiches and desserts are just about in the same class.
Dinner: When I want to get blown away by a combination of gorgeous setting and gorgeous fare, I dine at the Marquesa (Scottsdale Princess resort, 7575 East Princess Drive, Scottsdale). The chef pays homage to Catalonia, the region in Spain around Barcelona. The dishes are extraordinary, from appetizers like sherry-splashed quail and sweetbreads teamed with foie gras and pears to entrees like the ravishing paella Valenciana. Quite simply, the Marquesa is one of this town's great dining experiences.
Day Five: Thursday
Breakfast: For Monday-through-Saturday morning-time luxury, you can't beat the white-linen elegance of the Terrace Dining Room (the Phoenician, 6000 East Camelback). Along with marble floors, glistening chandeliers and piped-in Bach, you get beautiful waffles with real maple syrup and Devonshire cream, and lovely omelets. The rich hot chocolate is unbelievable, pure liquid, molten pleasure.
Lunch: Prepare to be confused at Best Hong Kong Dining (1116 South Dobson, Mesa)--you'll think you're on Mott Street in New York or Grant Street in San Francisco. There's a real Chinatown feel here, right down to the hanging lacquered poultry and swine. Luscious noodles are the lure: chow fun, Hong Kong-style chow mein, lo mein and meal-in-a-bowl noodle soups.
Dinner: Now that my ethnic juices are stimulated, I can depend on San Carlos Bay Seafood Restaurant (1901 East McDowell) to keep them flowing. The Mexican seafood here will have you thinking you're on a Sea of Cortez pier. The octopus cocktail gets the meal off to a fast start. Then I like to dive into the hearty seven-seas stew, Veracruz-style snapper or the devilishly hot shrimp "endiablados."
Day Six: Friday
Breakfast: At the Original Pancake House (6840 East Camelback, Scottsdale), the kitchen has a one-track mind. Luckily for me, it's fixated on pancakes. These made-from-scratch flapjacks are just about the Platonic pancake ideal come to life. The oven-baked apple pancakes and Dutch Baby are particular favorites, but everything here is guaranteed to start your day right.
Lunch: Coup Des Tartes (4626 North 16th Street) has just the sort of midday charm I prize. Cozily set in a former antique store, it features a noontime menu of first-rate sandwiches and sprightly salads, like the one fashioned with organic greens, strawberries, dried cranberries, almonds and chicken breast, in a lemon/lavender vinaigrette. Then, finish up with the knockout signature dessert, a homemade banana brulee tart.
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Dinner: When the urge for a big slab of animal protein strikes, I call Don & Charlie's (7501 East Camelback, Scottsdale) for reservations. The prime-graded beef is big-league all the way--the one-pound New York sirloin and prime rib are especially dazzling. And go-withs like au gratin potatoes and thick-cut steak fries more than hold their own. At dessert, the rich creme brulee continues the overpowering cholesterol assault.
Day Seven: Saturday
Breakfast: The best carousel ride in town? That's the parade of dim sum carts circling the tables at Great Wall (5055 North 35th Avenue). The delicacies come in bamboo baskets, under metal lids and wrapped in leaves. Chinese broccoli, scallop dumplings, fried turnip cake and seaweed shrimp rolls are some of the carts I keep a special lookout for. I know it's only wok 'n' roll--but I like it.
Lunch: I've always found the scents and fragrances of Indian food irresistible. At Taste of India (1609 East Bell), the kitchen flashes particular culinary skill. Tandoori chicken, lamb kashmiry and shrimp masala burst with flavor. And you'll find some of the best vegetarian dishes in town, especially the eggplant specialty, bengan bhartha. Terrific assortment of breads, too, right out of the oven.
Dinner: What better way to end the week than with a three-hour, eight-course gourmet feast at swanky Christopher's (2398 East Camelback)? By the time I make my way through house-smoked salmon, foie gras, sweetbreads, a fish course, a poultry course, a meat course, a cheese course and dessert, all except dessert paired with a glass of wine from Christopher's superb cellar, life always seems inexpressibly good.