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Romancing the Stove

Michael's at the Citadel, 8700 East Pinnacle Peak Road, Scottsdale, 515-2575. Hours: Dinner, 6 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Surprise her with flowers on the Fourth of July? She'll be thrilled. Bring her chocolates on Columbus Day? She'll be grateful. Give her lingerie on Labor Day? She'll think you're sweet.

But you won't get away with any of those chintzy maneuvers on Valentine's Day. Gifts like these that would earn you lots of relationship points the other 364 days of the year simply don't cut it on February 14.

If you want to make the right impression on Valentine's Day, fellas, you have to show two forms of commitment. First, plan to spend huge chunks of time with your sweetheart, with the television off. This will give her an opportunity to explore the nature of your relationship, the depth of your feelings and where you plan to be as a couple five years down the line. While she's talking, look at her raptly and nod vigorously every couple of minutes. That way, you can still put the time to good use, pondering just how far the Suns can go in the playoffs without a big-time center, and which of your car's fluids needs topping off.

Second, call Visa headquarters to check on how close you are to your credit limit. Then, make dinner reservations at a nice restaurant, preferably one without a drive-through window. For some inexplicable reason, the phrase "would you like fries with that?" rarely drives women into the romantic frenzy that guys hope for.

Dinner at Michael's is much more likely to turn your gal on. Michael is chef Michael DeMaria, the kitchen whiz who turned Lon's at the Hermosa into one of the Valley's top dining destinations. Last fall, opting to work without a corporate net, he moved on. With the help of two partners, he set up operations in what used to be 8700 at the Citadel. The team can take a collective bow: In a town bursting with new restaurants, this is one of the best. If a few kinks are worked out, Michael could join ranks with Vincent, Christopher, RoxSand, Razz and Eddie, award-winning local chefs with whom foodies have already developed a first-name relationship.

The new owners wisely haven't done much tinkering with 8700's spare, elegant decor. There are two new touches: a brick-lined "waterfall" just inside the entrance, and a gated room adjoining the kitchen, housing a "chef's table" around which six to eight guests can dine on a special, prix fixe meal for $75 a person.

It's hard to pin a label on the dishes here--"contemporary American" is suggestive, although somewhat fuzzy. But it's not hard to pin adjectives on most of the fare. "Well-conceived," "sophisticated" and "tasty" are three that come swiftly to mind.

The wonderful crusty, chewy loaf of homemade bread brings the first hint of pleasures to come. Be thankful that Valentine's Day falls in February, while the weather is still nippy. That way you can fully appreciate the marvelous soups. A vigorous onion soup was one evening's featured broth. The rich stock supported a raft of crostini, lustily slathered with Gorgonzola cheese. Somehow, the chef surpassed himself on another visit. The sublime rock-shrimp-and-oyster soup was a triumph, hearty with seafood and touched with just enough jalapeno to set off a delightful tingle.

The appetizer list is small, but effective. Pan-seared squab, served over risotto infused with a heady, port wine syrup, is especially fetching. A crispy salmon croquette, topped with a meaty tiger prawn and paired with garlicky spinach, harmoniously weds flavors and textures. But there was no distinction in one evening's appetizer special, four teensy, too-cutesy, bite-size hors d'oeuvres that were so small you couldn't taste the ahi tuna and duck they were purportedly made from.

Michael's ravishing entrees are dinner's true stars. I went through a half-dozen of them, unable to spot any imperfections.

Pan-seared duck launches a full-scale flavor assault. Fanned out across the plate, the meat is intriguingly paired with foie gras and pearl couscous, then freshened with apricots and figs. The result tastes like a Bach suite sounds: several lines of music, blended in perfect harmony.

One evening's fish of the day, a thick hunk of perfectly cooked, sesame-crusted swordfish, almost knocked us out with joy. The green curry coconut sauce coating it only heightened the experience. Another off-the-menu special, grilled venison moistened with a heady dried-cherry demiglaze, got our taste buds dancing with delight. So did the clever, right-for-the-season sides: mashed potatoes whipped up with chestnuts; and a medley of winter root veggies, including carrot, parsnip and turnip.

The grilled lamb at Lon's used to be a highlight, and the change of setting hasn't diminished the chef's facility with it. This meat is about as good as it gets, and the scrumptious portabella-and-goat-cheese potato tart it comes with also deserves star billing.  

Osso buco (braised veal shank) delivers rib-sticking heartiness. Sure, it's on every menu in town, but Michael's rich, high-powered version isn't like everyone else's. There's a nice take on the accompaniment, too. The kitchen uses barley, not rice, in the traditional saffron "risotto." It's a small touch, but one that shows the chef isn't content to flip through a recipe book.

Seafood-stuffed rigatoni offers a bit lighter eating, but with no flavor sacrifice. The pasta is tossed with shrimp and crab, and bathed in a lip-smacking wine-and-thyme broth.

Desserts don't have the firepower of the main-dish barrage. Best is the chocolate wave, a taste of chocolate mousse, mint-accented chocolate cake, a chocolate-dipped cookie and chocolate wafer. But the chocolate experience wasn't as intense as I'd hoped. The best part of the pumpkin creme brulee tart was the homemade cranberry-vanilla ice cream it came with. And the apple strudel creme brulee--yup, it's apple strudel topped with creme brulee--is more weird than creative.

Michael's has a few other cracks to patch before it reaches the heights. The lack of a wine-by-the-glass list is a serious mistake. Why are there no butter knives? How can you serve osso buco and not carry the tiny forks used to get out the marrow? And while offering half-size portions for soups, salads and pastas is a customer-friendly touch, charging 75 percent of the full-price tag isn't.

On the other hand, your sweetie will appreciate the attentive service. Breadcrumbs are swept away; silverware is promptly replaced; water refills and more bread show up a moment before you realize you want them; and the meal is perfectly paced.

Valentine's Day dinner at Michael's lets you kill two birds with one stone: It shows you're serious about gastronomy and your relationship.

Trois Amis, 37645 Cave Creek Road, Carefree, 595-7354. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.

They can't make war like the Germans. They can't build cars like the Japanese. And they think Jerry Lewis is a genius.

The French don't have much military, economic or cultural clout these days. But they still possess an unrivaled reputation in two other areas: l'amour and la cuisine. And isn't that what Valentine's Day is all about?

You can test out this theory at Trois Amis, one of the Valley's newest, and oldest, restaurants. Jean and Odette, the friendly French husband-and-wife proprietors--he cooks, she's out front--had a quarter-century run with this place, until they retired in 1990. A few months ago, the two sprightly 70-somethings decided to emerge from retirement and restart their operation. French-food lovers have reason to be grateful.

Trois Amis is a charming, unpretentious, old-fashioned delight. With its wood beams across the ceiling, flowered fabric on the walls and red tablecloths on the tables, the room is cozy and homey. So is the food.

If you're seeking cutting-edge, 21st-century French cuisine, Trois Amis is a dead end. There's nothing on this menu that would have disturbed a diner's sensibility at the turn of the 19th century. The dishes are all familiar. They're all comfy. And they're all wonderful.

The appetizers set the tone. The combo platter, served on a lazy Susan (when's the last time you saw one in a restaurant?) lets you share a bit of everything: marinated tomatoes and cucumbers, celery root, salami and ham, and hard-boiled egg with homemade mayonnaise. Homemade pate de compagne is another outstanding starter option. So are the soups: The rustic leek soup tasted like someone spent the better part of the day standing over the pot.

The main dishes won't wow you with novelty, but there's no mistaking the quality. Filet mignon is a dream, butter-soft beef smothered with a rich bearnaise sauce heavy on the tarragon. Rack of lamb is also first-rate, seven juicy chops gilded with a subtle mint sauce.

The more distinctly "French" entrees are deftly done. Cuisses de grenouilles brings a plateful of frogs' legs, prepared Provençal-style in a puddle of white wine and garlic. Riz de veau--sweetbreads--aren't for everyone. But if you enjoy this delicacy, the Trois Amis version will make you think you're in a Left Bank bistro. Trout with almonds also shines.

The side dishes, served family-style, are also worthy of attention. Look for crisp, fried potatoes and nutmeg-tinged spinach so good that you and your significant other will be dueling over it.

You'll be dueling over dessert, too, unless you order one for each of you. The superb pear tart, gilded with sliced almonds, is good enough to be sold in a Parisian patisserie. Rich chocolate mousse and a perfect creme caramel have no shortcomings, either.  

When guests get up to leave, Odette goes over and gives them a grandmotherly hug and plants some French-style, on-the-cheek kisses. It's utterly charming. You don't have to be in love to go to Trois Amis. But don't worry. By the time your meal is over, you probably will be.

Michael's at the Citadel:
Pan-seared duck with foie gras
$19.95
Grilled lamb
22.95
Chocolate wave
6.95

Trois Amis:
Pate
$7.50
Filet mignon with bearnaise sauce
18.95
Pear tart
4.50

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miles
Michael's Restaurant-Citadel

8700 E. Pinnacle Peak Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85255-3540

480-515-2575

www.michaelsrestaurant.com


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