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PEAK PERFORMANCE

8700, 8700 East Pinnacle Peak Road, Scottsdale, 994-8700. Hours: Dinner, Monday through Sunday, 6 to 10 p.m.

Isaac Newton proved mathematically what people know instinctively: Bodies at rest tend to remain at rest. That's why most people prefer to live near work, make friends close to home and marry the guy or girl next door.

That's also why we like to eat out in our own neighborhood.
But despite a natural inertia that makes me as susceptible to movement as a saguaro, curiosity about a rejuvenated 8700 galvanized me into motion up toward Pinnacle Peak. The restaurant is now run by Todd Hall, an inventive chef who took over a few months ago.

Both the room and our prosperous-looking fellow diners had the air of understated elegance. The motif in the nonsmoking area is wrought iron: Wine stands, planters, sconces and table-top candleholders indicate a real devotion to heavy metal. Plush banquettes furnish seating around the edges, while French-style chairs of brocade surround the center tables. The spare white walls are lined with spotlighted reproductions of the masters--including a Czanne landscape, van Gogh country scene and Modigliani portrait.

And my wife reported an opulent women's room, fit for a sultan's harem: marble walls, white satin sofa, an inlaid wood table and a bronze statue of a woman with a lyre standing between the sinks.

Fortunately, the same attention to detail also spills over into the Southwestern-accented food.

I'm convinced that most restaurants can be sized up even before the appetizers appear. Not by their fruits, but by their breadbasket ye shall know them. At 8700, we got a wonderfully aromatic assortment of fresh bread. Particularly outstanding were the rosemary-infused asiago cheese roll and distinctive blue-corn muffin.

The appetizers that followed did nothing to upset my hypothesis. Sauted veal sweetbreads, rich and heavy, came with fragrant wild mushrooms and pancetta, unsmoked Italian bacon. It all nestled next to some dense and filling Indian fry bread, a novel Southwestern touch.

At the lighter end of the appetizer scale were two small quesadillas filled with duck confit, smoked tomatoes and jack cheese. It was tasty, but for $6.50 you get only a few bites.

Best of all, I thought, was the pheasant sausage with a corn cake in a cassis sauce. Here, size and flavor worked together. The three sausages were a bit dry, but the intensely fruity cassis moistened them up and made good dipping for the corn cake.

The main dishes at 8700 are cleverly marketed under a variety of headings, making it seem as if there's something for just about everyone. Which there is. And it's all beautifully presented with an almost Japanese eye toward color, texture and arrangement. In the section marked "American Comfort Foods," we couldn't resist the game hen baked in Indian red-rock clay. (Avoid this dish if it's made with Play-Doh.) It arrived resembling a large loaf of bread, with the "8700" logo branded into the clay. The waiter cracked it open at the table, revealing a juicy whole bird wrapped in parchment, filled with outstanding blue-corn stuffing. At $11.95, this choice is a tasty bargain. But don't bother with the gravy bowl of hazelnut sauce: It's not only unnecessarily sweet, it's just plain unnecessary.

From the "Lighter Side" of the menu, we sampled poached salmon with julienne vegetables. The salmon was silky smooth, and the veggies absolutely scrumptious in a tomato basil sauce. I wish there had been more of each, but "lighter" evidently refers to both calories and portion control.

The seared ahi tuna under "Featured Items" sounded intriguing. It came barely cooked, the center almost sushi-raw, and rolled in crisp sesame seeds. An asparagus spear stuck through it like Ishmael's harpoon. I loved this flaky, tender hunk of fish. But my dining companion had a legitimate gripe. He'd ordered the fish medium. "All our tuna is sashimi quality," the waitress replied rather testily, when he pointed out the pink interior. But that's not what he wanted, so he sent it back for some more cooking.

Also from the "Featured Items" we chose rack of lamb, two thick, juicy chops wrapped in kataifi, shredded Greek pastry dough. The kataifi nest of herbed barley was blended with red chili pesto, a clever alternative to rice or potatoes. If you're not sated yet (which is likely--portions are not of belt-loosening quantity), don't miss the incredible carrot cake. It was sweet, moist and heavy, wrapped in thin phyllo dough, and topped with three inches of decadent cream-cheese frosting.

Almost as good was the cräme brle, smooth and creamy, a somewhat lighter way to top off the meal. But don't do more than visually check out the ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese and chocolate. It's stunning to the eye, less so to the palate. The accompanying pastry shell filled with chocolate mousse was nothing to swoon over, either.

The imaginative food and subdued decor give 8700 a classy feel. But the third element of fine dining--service--is still a bit out of whack.

It took us a half hour to get our menus, another half hour for our appetizers to arrive. (To the staff's credit, we got several unsolicited apologies.) These things happen, but I got the feeling this wasn't an aberration. After we placed our orders, including an appetizer each, the waitress practically scolded us for not sampling the soup or salad. She extolled the new chef's virtues at such length that I began to suspect he'd hired a dependent relative. And the correct response to a customer's complaint about undercooked fish is, "Let me take it back for you." 8700 is a sophisticated, big-time place. So cut the chitchat, improve the pacing and let the food do the talking. It's worth listening to. The Vistas at Oaxaca, 8711 East Pinnacle Peak Road, Scottsdale, 998-2222. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.

Comfortable in our Pinnacle Peak orbit, we put in a stop at the Vistas at Oaxaca, across the street from 8700. Formerly called Oaxaca, this decade-old place changed its name to clear up any kind of confusion about the kind of food it offers.

The fare is strictly all-American, deliberately geared to local tastes.
It certainly has an all-American view. Patio diners and those with window seats look out over spectacular desert scenery. Inside, a pitched wood-beam ceiling shelters most of the dining area, while the decor liberally mixes Native American and Mexican prints and artifacts.

Since no one is going to be wowed by culinary imagination here, Vistas must maintain its appeal by serving up better versions of the familiar.

I put aside my prejudices against appetizer selections that must date back to Egypt's Middle Kingdom. Even Senusret III and his ministers probably got tired of wings and potato skins. But I'm sure they'd agree that Vistas does a very creditable job with fried zucchini, mushrooms and cauliflower. The homemade batter was light enough to let us taste the veggies and too good to spoil with a dubious dip that tasted suspiciously like tartar sauce.

Dinners come with soup or salad. Stick to the soup. The salad was the same mix my parents got in the Fifties: iceberg lettuce, one cherry tomato, two slices of cucumber and grated carrot. The Roquefort dressing was too thin and cost an extra buck. The clam chowder, though, was thick without being starchy and generously crammed with clams and potatoes.

The main dishes continued this hit-and-miss quality. I had the prime rib and seafood combo, a 10-ounce slab with shrimp scampi. The pink meat looked great on the plate, but was a bit tough and stringy where it counted. The shrimp were better, but not enough to make me want to drive up there again.

The platter came with some salty seasoned rice and a deliciously simple mix of lightly buttered mixed vegetables: cauliflower, broccoli, carrots and bok choy. Bok choy? How'd the chef slip that in?

On the other hand, the barbecued duck made me proud to be an American. The half-duck was surprisingly greaseless and meaty, with a wonderful, pungent, he-man barbecue sauce. It came with an excellent twice-baked potato--baked potato with the potato scooped out, mashed and seasoned, put back in and baked. The same great veggies also accompanied it. For this dish, I'd return in a minute.

By dessert time, I felt like a contestant on Let's Make a Deal. Would I get the new refrigerator or a year's supply of Kool-Aid? The lady or the tiger? The jackpot lay behind Door No. 1, and I found it. The homemade caramel custard--no foreign words on this menu--was so good my wife almost had to summon the paramedics to revive me, after she got in a few spoonfuls of her own. This is what heaven must taste like.

But her cheesecake was strictly routine and resistible, from its graham-cracker crust to its less-than-cheesy interior.

Vistas' erratic quality makes it a tough place for even an Isaac Newton to figure out. In the meantime, stick with Seftel's First Law of Restaurant Dynamics: Grab a window seat and hope for the best.

DESPERATELY SEEKING SASQUATCH THESE SCIE... v8-26-92


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