It's the season for fantasy. Peace on Earth. Goodwill toward men. Understanding bosses. Kindly landlords. Unindicted political leaders.
Sometimes my mind wanders off into restaurant fantasy. One of the few drawbacks of this job is the love-'em-and-leave-'em relationship I have with this town's best restaurants. Sure, occasionally I get some memorable meals during my weekly reviewing or my annual Best of Phoenix tour. But since I eat out at about 150 different restaurants a year, I don't have the time (or energy) to make a lasting commitment to any of my favorite places.
But if I did, I'd be eating at the following spots. Below is my dream restaurant week, three meals a day for seven days. Naturally, since it is a fantasy, money is no object. Neither are calories, fat grams and cholesterol counts.
Day One: Sunday
Breakfast: Is there a more opulent Sunday brunch in town than the spread at the Phoenician's Terrace Dining Room (6000 East Camelback)? Sit on the patio and sip Mumm's Cuvee Napa, then try not to gape at the astonishing variety of premium-quality offerings. Among the choices: jumbo prawns, sushi, truffle-scented páte, homemade pasta, grilled lamb chops and beef tenderloin with wild mushrooms. Desserts are just as mesmerizing, especially the ultra-rich chocolate cakes and homemade ice creams.
Lunch: I lived in Iran for a couple of years, just before the Shah departed and the ayatollahs took over. The situation was tense--the bus that picked me up for work carried two machine-gun-toting soldiers for protection. While I worried about terrorists, I never worried about the food. Persian dishes are incredibly flavorful and fragrant. Here in the Valley, nobody prepares them with more skill than Tasty Kabob (1250 East Apache, Tempe). Try the tender marinated meats, or the sublimely seasoned basmati rice platters.
Dinner: The Southwest entered the culinary spotlight about a decade ago. Right now, Cafe Terra Cotta (the Borgata, 6166 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale) is showing off the magic of our regional ingredients. Whether the kitchen is dishing out appetizers like chile-glazed duck quesadillas, entrees like lamb chops moistened with a cherry-ancho mole, or desserts like the orange custard tequila tart, this place offers a taste of the Southwest that's hard to forget.
Day Two: Monday
Breakfast: Eating breakfast at Kiss the Cook (4915 West Glendale Avenue, Glendale) is like eating breakfast at Granny's--if Granny took MasterCard or Visa. Everything has a fresh, homey flair. The made-from-scratch buttermilk pancakes are a West Valley institution. So are the gooey, sticky, nut-studded cinnamon rolls. Heartier appetites will appreciate the huevos rancheros, three-egg omelets or biscuits and gravy.
Lunch: Tiffany made lamps. Chippendale made furniture. Chris Bianco makes pizza. At Pizzeria Bianco (Town & Country Shopping Center, 20th Street and Camelback), this craftsman produces exceptional pizzas that taste like they've just been transported from a wood oven in Naples. The secret: first-class ingredients, like Grana Padano cheese and homemade sausage. The sandwiches, fashioned from homemade bread, sing with the flavors of Italy. So do the salads, maybe the best lunchtime greenery in town.
Dinner: No chips. No tacos. No senoritas in swirling skirts and Mexican peasant blouses. No gringo Mexican restaurant touches at all. Instead, Such Is Life (3602 North 24th Street) offers the kind of south-of-the-border fare you can't usually find except south of Sonora. Check out the nopal polanco, a pad of prickly pear cactus draped with Chihuahua cheese; pescado jarocho, red snapper gilded with olives, capers and tomatoes; or the lusty cochinita, tender shredded pork in a rich achiote sauce.
Day Three: Tuesday
Breakfast: Some days I wake up feeling a bit continental. When that mood strikes, I grab my walking stick and saunter over to Pierre's Pastry Cafe (7119 East Shea, Scottsdale). This expert baker puts out an array of breads and pastries good enough to appear on the Champs Elysees. Crusty baguettes, flaky brioches, perfect croissants and wicked pain au chocolat get your day off to a rich, buttery start.
Lunch: When the urge to nibble on raw fish strikes, the sushi masters at Yamakasa (2051 West Warner, Chandler) know how to satisfy it. The small, eight-seat sushi bar is where you want to be for a first-class ocean voyage. Toro, unagi, ika--they all taste like they just came from the sea. The hand rolls are marvelous, especially the snow crab model. So is tempura maguro, a chef's specialty featuring seaweed-wrapped tuna, lightly fried.
Dinner: What do you get when you combine topnotch raw materials with a chef who knows what to do with them? You get the casually classy Rancho Pinot Grill (6208 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale). The small menu, which changes daily, features one tasty hit after another. Everything bursts with flavor, from the exotic shaved fennel salad, adorned with orange, red onion, parsley and Parmesan cheese, to the simple house-cured pork loin chops, served with garlic mashed potatoes and sauteed apples.
Day Four: Wednesday
Breakfast: T.C. Eggington's Brunchery (1660 South Alma School, Mesa) serves exactly the same breakfast fare as hundreds of other Valley morning spots. The only difference is, it's better here than just about anywhere else. Mesa officials should consider promoting the French toast, fashioned from homemade cinnamon bread, as a tourist attraction. Puffy omelets, moist pancakes and skillet-sizzled potatoes will also motivate you to get out of bed.
Lunch: Cheap ethnic restaurant gems exist more in myth than reality. But Eliana's (1627 North 24th Street) is no dream. The Salvadoran specialties here will keep food lovers wide awake. Pupusas are fabulous corn masa patties stuffed with pork, peppers and cheese. The homemade chicken tamale takes you right to Central America. Wash down your meal with a tropical fruit drink, a refreshing antidote to the desert heat.
Dinner: Sometimes, primitive instincts drive me into a carnivorous frenzy. Since I've lost the hunting prowess of my cave-man ancestors, I satisfy my urge for huge slabs of prime animal protein by dropping big bucks at Morton's (Shops at the Esplanade, 2425 East Camelback), the Valley's premier steak house. The New York sirloin is ravishing enough to give vegetarians second thoughts. The 24-ounce porterhouse and butter-soft filet mignon move me to pound my chest in triumph.
Day Five: Thursday
Breakfast: Why mess with success? At the Original Pancake House (6840 East Camelback, Scottsdale), the proprietors know how to do one thing exceptionally well: make pancakes. It's good enough for me. These made-from-scratch beauties are so marvelous you can dispense with the syrup. The apple pancakes and Dutch Baby are the main glories, but every flapjack creation will start your day right.
Lunch: The soul food at Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe (808 East Jefferson) is not for the faint-hearted. Whether it's the man-size pork chops, the Southern-fried chicken or the chicken-fried steak, you won't have to do any soul searching to wipe your plate clean. Why the "Golden Rule" Cafe? Instead of getting a check at meal's end, patrons tell the trusting cashier what they had. Mrs. White's puts both your conscience and your belly at ease.
Dinner: If I were forced to eat at the same restaurant seven nights in a row, I'd probably choose RoxSand (Biltmore Fashion Park, 24th Street and Camelback). That's because the stylish, inventive "transnational" fare here never gets stale. Appetizers like rice tamales filled with curried lamb or Moroccan-inspired b'stilla and entrees like sea bass with a horseradish crust, or air-dried duck served with buckwheat crepes and a pistachio-onion marmalade, continue to keep me on the edge of my seat.
Day Six: Friday
Breakfast: If you've ever wanted to step into a Norman Rockwell painting, the Farmhouse (11421 South Gilbert Road, Gilbert) should feed your fantasy. This 1928 Craftsman-style house looks like it sprang from the covers of the Saturday Evening Post. The hearty, old-fashioned breakfasts do their own kind of feeding. Fluffy pancakes and rib-sticking omelets will give you the energy to plow the lower 40.
Lunch: For sophisticated noontime fare in a sophisticated setting, it's hard to top Christopher's Bistro (2398 East Camelback). The deferential service makes you feel like a somebody, even if you're not. The wonderful wine-by-the-glass list makes it easy to rationalize drinking before sunset. And the light, midday bistro fare--mostly pasta, fish and salads--will send you back to the office with a huge smile.
Dinner: Every year I readjust my list of personal restaurant favorites. Every year, Marquesa (Scottsdale Princess resort, 7575 East Princess Drive, Scottsdale) stays on it. That's because its Catalan fare continues to astound me with its complexity, variety and flavor. It's all irresistible: crabmeat and fontina cheese baked in sweet red peppers; saffron-coated mussels; paella Valenciana; zarzuela, a seafood stew; and saffron-poached shrimp layered with wild mushrooms and cheese.
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Day Seven: Saturday
Breakfast: Whenever I want a taste of the old Brooklyn neighborhood, I head to Chompie's (3202 East Greenway Road). Most of the people here look like refugees from the outer boroughs, too. They've come for the same reason I have--great Jewish deli breakfast favorites, served in a bustling deli setting. Fill up on Phoenix's best bagels, homemade cream cheese, pickled herring, matzo brei, blintzes and rugalach. You can go home again.
Lunch: You could say that Los Dos Molinos (8646 South Central) is the place that launched a thousand chips. The New Mexican-style food here is hot, Hot, HOT! Adobada ribs, marinated in red chiles, light a flame in your heart. So will the green chile enchilada. Douse the fires with wonderful sopaipillas, which you can hose down with honey, cinnamon or sugar. The homemade tortillas are also outstanding.
Dinner: I want to end the week with exquisite gourmet fare. That means I'm headed to Christopher's (2398 East Camelback) for the staggering, seven-course "Menu Prestige." By the time I polish off the house-smoked salmon, foie gras, sauteed sweetbreads, lobster and scallops, smoked sirloin, the cheese plate and the chef's masterful hot-and-cold chocolate dessert, I can't believe I'm in the state of Arizona. I am, however, in a state of complete contentment.