Rise and Dine

Terrace Dining Room, Phoenician resort, 6000 East Camelback, Phoenix, 941-8200. Hours: Breakfast, Monday through Saturday, 6 to 11a.m.; Sunday, 6 to 10 a.m.

"And what room shall I charge the meal to?" asked the smiling waitress at the luxurious Valley resort restaurant, as I took my last sip of get-the-blood-stirring morning coffee.

"Actually, we're not staying at the hotel," I replied. "We live in Phoenix."
"Oh, what a great idea," she said. "I would never have thought of coming here just for breakfast."

Well, that's why they pay me the big bucks, to come up with ideas like this.
Let's face it, most working stiffs don't have much chance to dine at any of the Valley's swanky resort restaurants. That's because dinner for two at these high-priced dining rooms can easily run into triple digits.

But breakfast is another story. Try not to think of the $12 to $15 per person you'll spend for weekday wake-up fare at the Phoenician, Arizona Biltmore or Marriott's Camelback Inn as unconscionable price gouging. Instead, think of it as the cost of a reasonably priced meal out. The only difference is that, unlike most eating-out excursions, this one takes place at the start, rather than at the end, of your day.

What do your dollars buy? At the Phoenician's Terrace Dining Room, some of them surely get funneled toward plants and equipment. This place is gorgeous: marble floor, glistening chandeliers, colorful murals, piped-in Bach and views of a sun-drenched terrace. The tables are draped with white linen, set with expensive silverware and decorated with flowers. The setting makes the prospect of toiling eight hours at the office easier to swallow.

So does the food. The Phoenician may have been conceived in sin--the first proprietor, Charlie Keating, is spending lots of time in a federal Big House for looting the accounts of widows and orphans to fund his grandiose development plans--but the current owner, the Sheraton corporation, is doing appropriate penance: Except in rare instances, it doesn't cut culinary corners or take shortcuts. Just about everything here is first-rate.

Check out the buttermilk pancakes. You'll be pleased by three enormous disks, served with real maple syrup. Your employer will be equally pleased. You'll be more productive because you won't need to stop for a 10:30 snack.

Belgian waffles are also appealing. They have a beguiling, slightly sweet taste, and they're served with strawberries and the most divine Devonshire cream in the entire Southwest. One spoonful, and you'll never be able to put up with Reddi-Wip again.

You may think eggs are eggs, and omelets are omelets. I more or less thought so, too, until I ran into the Southwestern Egg and Potato Skillet. It's absolutely riveting, a luscious blend of chorizo, onions, tomatoes, peppers, several cheeses and potatoes. I expected something a little more compelling from the accompanying toast, which tasted like it came from a plastic bag on a supermarket shelf. Little jars of English jam and marmalade, however, helped mitigate my disappointment.

The bread also kept the sun-dried cherry French toast with pine nuts from achieving a perfect score. Artistically, the cherries, pine nuts and maple syrup deserve a "10." But I had to subtract some points for technical merit: The commercial-looking bread can't match the thick-sliced, homemade cinnamon bread used for French toast at T.C.Eggington's Brunchery in Mesa.

Saving on wine is another reason to consider making breakfast, not dinner, your meal out. At the Terrace Dining Room breakfast, you get to splurge on side dishes, not alcohol. You can, for instance, order four slices of fragrant, thick-cut hickory-smoked bacon for about the same price as a good glass of Chardonnay. I find that's the best way to look at the $5.75 cost. No sense thinking to yourself, as I momentarily did, that you could feed three people a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's for about the same price.

If you can reach full consciousness without a morning jolt of caffeine from coffee, consider washing down breakfast with hot chocolate. The rich model here is wonderfully intense--it tastes like molten Swiss chocolate. The coffee, elegantly served in a silver carafe, is also superb. At $2.50, it should be.

A warning note: Don't confuse the skimpy weekday brunch with the opulent Sunday spread. The buffet table is heavy on fruit and pastries, and no bargain at $14.75.

After breakfast, stroll around the lush grounds. Not only will this aid digestion, it will also give you the time to develop a plausible excuse for being late for work.

Wright's, Arizona Biltmore, 24th Street and Missouri, Phoenix, 955-6600. Hours: Breakfast, Monday through Friday, 7 to 11:30 a.m.

About nine months ago, I had a wretched dining experience at Wright's, the refurbished Arizona Biltmore's fancy new restaurant. After my review appeared, the hotel's director of public relations sent me a polite letter. She said the hotel was committed to improving Wright's.

I can't yet vouch for the revamped dinner fare, but there's certainly nothing wrong with breakfast. It's darned near terrific.

So is the setting. From a window seat, you can gaze out on the hotel's lush plantings. Inside, the tables are lined with peach-colored linen and a pretty centerpiece of greenery. Guests recline on cushioned wicker chairs, and our server brought over pillows to prop behind our backs, further improving my normally sour a.m. disposition.

The food also improved my disposition. Most of it should see you through to the five o'clock whistle, as well. Hash may be a coffee-shop breakfast staple, but Wright's version furnishes a tasty upscale twist. Here you get "Aged Beef Tenderloin Hash," full ofhearty, beefy chunks of tender meat combined with potatoes and topped with a poached egg. This is a particularly good breakfast choice if you're employed as a lumberjack.

The kitchen does some clever things to scrambled eggs. They're teamed with mild Italian sausage, peppers and mozzarella, and served atop fragrant olive bread. A side of rosemary-scented roast potatoes adds to the pleasure.

The best breakfast item is also the most expensive. At $11.25, the poached eggs with crab may seem like a bit of a splurge, but this dish doesn't shortchange you on taste. You get two eggs partnered with spinach, tomatoes and bits of crab, resting on grated shreds of skillet-fried potatoes. Everything's moistened with a perky cayenne-pimento sauce. I mopped this plate clean.

The apple walnut pancakes are also outstanding. I wouldn't have minded three flapjacks instead of the two I got, but I can't complain about quality. The pancakes come with a big pitcher of maple syrup and a mound of fantastic maple raisin butter that the hotel might profitably package for retail sale.

Wright's also puts out a not-too-elaborate weekday brunch--fruit, pastries, miniature bagels, smoked salmon, prosciutto. The $12.75 tag may seem steep, but not once you factor in the cost of orange juice, which is included with the spread. That's because àla carte cost of OJ is $3.75. Ouch. And it doesn't taste fresh-squeezed, either, but more like the pasteurized, not-from-concentrate juice that comes in cartons. A free-refill policy is only marginally helpful.

These days, I'm willing to overlook last year's unpleasant dinner here. This very satisfying breakfast proves to me that two wrongs don't make it Wright's.

Navajo Room, Marriott's Camelback Inn, 5402 East Lincoln Drive, Paradise Valley, 948-1700. Hours: Breakfast, Monday through Saturday, 6:30 to 11:30 a.m.; Sunday, 6:30 to 11 a.m.

Don't look for sun-dried cherries and pine nuts in the French toast, or poached eggs adorned with crab at a Navajo Room breakfast. The fare here leans to the solid, unfussy sort Americans are used to: traditional pancakes, waffles, omelets.

Although the menu won't wow anyone, the Southwestern-themed room might. It's a sight: huge, wooden, wagon-wheel chandeliers, ringed with arrowheads with lightbulbs in their tips; rugs, baskets and drums hanging from the walls; potted cactuses on the linen-lined tables; beautiful chairs fashioned from carved wood with the smoothed bark still on them. The windows overlook the pool area, with Mummy Mountain framed in the distance.

The Sunrise Buffet spread (it's available until 10 a.m.) seems to be a better deal here than the one at the Terrace Dining Room or Wright's. However, that's mostly because àla carte choices don't offer too many dazzling alternatives.

Still, the buffet has a few moments of its own. Breads and pastries are especially tempting: buttery croissants, chewy bagels, nut-studded, sticky cinnamon buns (yum), moist marble cake, flaky strudel.

The fruit section is a lot more resistible. The kitchen puts out a variety of melons and berries, but, at this time of year, they're not exactly bursting with summer ripeness.

There's also a row of chafing dishes filled with the usual buffet-line suspects: sausage, bacon, soggy French toast and roast potatoes. There's also a platter of inferior smoked salmon, tough and stringy. You're best off marching past all this, halting when you get to the guy with the cowboy hat and Brooklyn accent manning the pancake-and-omelet station. He fixes up fluffy buttermilk pancakes and, if you like, yolkless egg dishes.

Because Camelback Inn also houses a spa,several breakfast items are geared to calorie counters. Blue corn waffles provide a simultaneous dose of taste and nutrition (calories, 644; carbohydrates, 34 grams; cholesterol, 10milligrams; fat, 2 grams; protein, 13grams). It's not clear whether the nutritional analysis also includes the luscious prickly pear syrup I poured all over the waffle.

If you're not obsessing over fat, calories and cholesterol, I suggest either the Gold Rush steak--potatoes, onions, peppers and a small filet, adorned with a poached egg and jack cheese--or the Eagle's Nest, which consists of thick slabs of grilled challah (egg bread) with a poached egg in the center, topped with Cheddar and resting on a slice of ham.

Polish these off, and you may find shining a lot easier than rising.

Dining Room:
Belgian waffles
French toast

Apple walnut pancakes
Scrambled eggs
on olive bread
"Aged Beef
Tenderloin Hash"

Navajo Room:
Blue corn waffle
Eagle's Nest
Sunrise Buffet


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