Laguna Cafe, 7373 Scottsdale Mall, Scottsdale, 994-5859. Hours: Dinner, 5 to 11 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.

One of the Valley's best "good to be alive" urban settings is the mall by Scottsdale Center for the Arts. Here you'll find soothing fountains, eye-catching sculpture, grass for lounging and walking paths filled with unhurried strollers. And what you won't find only adds to the allure: no cars, no Indian jewelry stores, no one holding a "Will work for food" sign. It's a prime area for cafe restaurants, a place to linger and people-watch. Laguna Cafe, recently installed in the old Coyote Cafe spot, aims to fit right in.

For the most part, it's got a modish, Scottsdale look. Inside, blond, maple wood chairs, metal light fixtures that resemble upside-down umbrellas and whitewashed walls hung with arty photos of whales create a cool setting. (There's a patio, too.) And rest-room identification is so cool it does away with traditional written hints like "Men" and "Women." Instead, customers are invited to decipher pictographs, to the great discomfort of symbolically challenged people like me.

But a jarring, life-size dummy at the entrance and banal "Happy Hour" signs above the bar cheapen the upscale cafe effect. There's nothing jarring or banal about the food, though. Laguna Cafe's kitchen is not simply going through the motions. You can tell immediately, just from glancing at the appetizer choices--no wings, no stuffed mushrooms, no batter-dipped zucchini. If you must have something bubbled in oil, look for the half-dozen crispy, fried won tons stuffed with cream cheese and enlivened with a perky, red chile salsa. Even better are the crab cakes. Two thin, breaded disks, each about the size of an IHOP pancake, come flavorfully seasoned with fennel and chiles. Swish them through the cilantro-lime mayonnaise. The roasted corn chowder is also right on the mark, a warming winter idea. Corn, potatoes, scallions and crunchy corn-bread croutons pack a creamy broth that has a homemade pedigree. Starters arrive quickly, and it's a good thing. Because if you sit down famished, you may expire before the swift waiters can deliver the Newcastle ale on tap. That's because for some reason, management doesn't believe in offering a breadbasket, or even plastic-wrapped crackers. This decision makes little financial, and no gastronomic, sense. Maybe, I suggested to my hungry mates, the chef, like my mother, doesn't want us to fill up before the main dishes are served. That explanation didn't soothe their growling stomachs. But after sampling hearty portions of the zesty, high-quality entrees, the notion no longer seemed quite so far-fetched.

Don't look for simple slabs of meat, plain hunks of chicken or understated seafood preparations. Laguna Cafe cooks with flair. For evidence, check out the crawfish-and-scallop Monterey. A chunk of puff pastry comes slathered with a mound of saut‚ed seafood, sharpened with a significant dose of garlic. It's all thickened with a smooth, jack cheese b‚chamel, a deft addition that enhances all the components. Crispy, fried spinach provides an appropriate touch of greenery, if not nutrition. The Jefe Special is a good option for diners who are into carbohydrate-loading and heavy sauces. It sports pasta shells and diced prosciutto, fashioned in a bucket of cream sauce zipped up with fragrant, smoked Gouda cheese. For an extra three bucks, the kitchen will gild the lily by throwing on five grilled shrimp. But the truly eye-opening platter is the Arizona orange chicken. Grilled strips of cayenne-marinated breast rest atop a pile of linguini, all bathed in a luscious, piquant orange cream sauce good enough to scoop up with a tablespoon. Shiitake mushrooms and colorful rings of red, yellow and green peppers add to the appeal. And don't be scared off by the menu's overheated advisory, "Ask for a glass of water!" The dish does have a bit of fire, but nothing that a gulp of air couldn't extinguish. In true cafe fashion, the dinner menu also offers sandwiches and pizzas for folks interested in lighter fare. The pizzas are pricey for their size--to our hungry eyes, they looked no larger than oversize hors d'oeuvres. But the scallop-and-serrano-chile version is more than satisfactory on the taste scale. Like many restaurants, Laguna Cafe has dropped the dessert menu in favor of show and tell by the waiter. You can stop the monologue right after the spiel for the Laguna roll. It's wickedly rich, a log of puff pastry stuffed with dark-and-white-chocolate mousse, nestled up against a pool of custard sauce. If you're turned on only by chocolate mousse, you can opt for the big cupful adorned with fresh strawberries and shaved chocolate. Strong, first-rate espresso also rounds out the meal on a high note. Relaxed surroundings, reasonable Scottsdale prices and a kitchen that uses its imagination make Laguna Cafe a pleasant dinner or late supper spot. Just bring your own bread.

AZ 88, 7353 Scottsdale Mall, Scottsdale, 994-5576. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Dinner, Saturday and Sunday, 5 p.m. to midnight.

Some people might say that AZ 88 pulsates with energy. Beer bottles endlessly clatter. The music system pipes in loud, pounding rhythms with a nonstop thumpa-thumpa-thumpa beat. A neo-Bohemian/yuppie crowd, youthfully attired in the best casual chic, sends up streams of cigarette smoke and animated chatter far into the night. Maybe this is what bustling cafe life was like in fin de siäcle Vienna.

Other observers might say the place is noisy, oxygen-depleted and filled with carefully tressed Generation X and thirtysomething trendoids. Maybe this is what cafe life was like at the end of the Weimar Republic. Whatever your take on the AZ 88 scene (and you'll either love it or hate it), the place definitely has style. Closely crammed tables make for great people-watching and eavesdropping. Glass walls along two sides allow patrons to scan the plaza area and scope out arriving customers. If conversation wanes, a magazine shelf in the rear holds thumbed-through copies of W, Spy and GQ. And a huge, tilted mirror over the bar lets everyone indulge in occasional surreptitious narcissism.

AZ 88's rest rooms must have been planned by the same fiend who worked on Laguna Cafe's. The only sure way to find them is to crawl along the back wall on your hands and knees. First of all, each door has been wickedly designed to blend seamlessly into the back wall. And to compound the difficulty, the "Men" and "Women" signs are displayed at ground level, about eight inches off the floor. Happy hunting.

What about the food?
AZ 88's stylish air does not extend to the menu. It's about as trendy as a Davy Crockett coonskin cap. Look for chicken. Look for burgers. Look for sandwiches. Look for salads. If management played music to match the fare, we'd be listening to the Four Lads' greatest hits. But the offerings here, like some Four Lads' tunes, do occasionally hit the charts. The nachos appetizer brings a healthy mound of chips, gobs of cheese and hot jalape¤os that will shoot up your beer tab. Combined with a window seat and an attractive, amusing companion, the nachos and suds taste even better. But not even sitting across from Cindy Crawford would have improved the Hell's Fire Fries. They're homemade potato chips, cooked just this side of arson, smothered with blue cheese. I think, though, that Cindy would have enjoyed the combo wing plate, eight wings variously dressed Buffalo-style, barbecue-style and Oriental-style.

Main-dish fare avoids both the heights and depths. Elsa's chicken puts a half-pound slab of boneless chicken breast on a decent toasted roll, and tarts it up with pecans, green peppers and an appealing, teriyakilike sauce. It still tastes pretty good even after the novelty has worn off. Burgers are the best item here, worthy of acclaim. Again, there's no stinting on portions: Prepare for eight ounces of juicy, flavorful beef. I prefer burgers unadorned, but the APV Burger II, featuring peppercorns, blue cheese and bacon, has a certain decadent appeal.

Both the chicken and burgers, though, come with some of the worst French fries I've stumbled across. These crosshatched failures arrived limp, sodden and lukewarm. They were, however, plentiful.

If chicken or beef isn't your speed, the S.S.S. sandwich should prove rewarding. It's thinly sliced smoked salmon, served open-faced on dark rye. It's accompanied by a slab of cream cheese, onion, those tasty little French pickles called Cornichons and a ladleful of profit-busting capers. The salad crowd will find pretty slim pickings. The chicken salad rose to mediocrity, grilled breast punctuating an uninteresting blend of greens, cheese and celery. And the promised croissant never showed up.

Desserts aren't from the subtle school. Turtle cheesecake brings a creamy specimen larded with butterscotch sauce, pecans and hot fudge. Diners who like this kind of sweet--you know who you are--will be transported with rapture. Somewhat less heavy-handed is the Golden Gate cake, a moist, butter-rum sponge cake drizzled with excellent butterscotch and a scoop of H„agen-Dazs vanilla. AZ 88 is a happening place with fare palatable enough to induce patrons to combine their eating and drinking. Check it out, and someday you'll be able to tell your grandchildren about fin de siäcle Scottsdale.

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Az 88

7353 E. Scottsdale Mall
Scottsdale, AZ 85251


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