When people meet me and discover what I do for a living, they invariably ask two questions:
1) What's your favorite restaurant?
2) With all the eating you do, how do you keep yourself in such magnificent physical condition, so lean, muscular and fit?
Actually, nobody ever asks me the second question, even though I've been hitting the gym five times a week since I started this calorie-filled job almost seven years ago. What has my dedicated exercise regimen accomplished? I started as a flabby weakling. Now I'm a flabby weakling with athlete's foot.
I still have problems answering the first question. Asking me to choose my favorite restaurant is like asking me to pick my favorite child. It depends how I feel at the moment.
But if I can't give a straight answer about my favorite restaurant, I can say what is my favorite kind of restaurant.
Sure, I enjoy a deluxe, gourmet meal at a swanky place, surrounded by tuxedoed servers who refold my cloth napkin when I go to the rest room, and who respond "Very good, sir," to my every idiotic whim.
And I love low-rent ethnic cuisine, where, serenaded by old-country tunes, I can get authentic home-country eats surrounded by homesick natives and colorful posters of tourist landmarks.
But I'm especially partial to the kind of place that didn't even exist in Phoenix until the 1990s: small, casual, topnotch, chef-owned-and-operated restaurants.
They're often run by a male-female team--husband and wife, engaged couples or good friends. One handles the cooking, the other operates the front of the house. At the best of these restaurants, the chef has either trained at a culinary school, worked at a top restaurant before opening his or her own place, or both. The particular style of cooking doesn't really matter. Though the atmosphere may be relaxed, the standards aren't. Whatever comes out of the kitchen is always sophisticated and intriguing. There's an emphasis on fresh, high-quality ingredients. Service is warm and knowledgeable. And the wine list is imaginative and affordable.
One of the few drawbacks of this job is that I'm required always to be moving on to something new. So here's a run-down, in alphabetical order, on where I'd be a regular, if I could.
Coup Des Tartes, 4626 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 212-1082:
The name is a word play on the phrase "coup d'etat," and suggests both the Mediterranean-themed fare and signature desserts. I fell in love with this place the moment the server plopped down a plate of exquisite green and black olives from Provence and great French bread.
The menu changes weekly. Try to time your visits to correspond with the appearance of braised lamb shank over couscous. Wild mushroom lasagna, sea bass with fennel and chicken in a grape/grappa sauce also shine. The chef/proprietor spent time at a pastry academy, and her wonderful dessert tarts indicate that she graduated at the top of her class. A BYOB policy only adds to Coup Des Tartes' charms.
Cowboy Ciao, 7133 East Stetson, Scottsdale, 946-3111:
Talk about a spaghetti Western! This one-of-a-kind place serves Southwestern fare with an Italian touch. Somehow, it works. Meals start off with a garlicky white bean hummus, paired with tortillas. For starters, check out cowboy sushi or the lovely Southwestern carpaccio. Soups are also first-rate.
Filet mignon marinated in Chianti, duck breast in mole and four kinds of mushrooms in an ancho cream sauce heaped over grilled polenta will perk up the most jaded main-dish taste buds. Gorgonzola custard and rum-soaked fruit in panna cotta are two of the more off-the-beaten-path desserts. There's a fine wine program, too: Choose from several trios of three-ounce pours, which let you do some sampling without jeopardizing your drive-home judgment.
Gregory's Grill, 7049 East McDowell, Scottsdale, 946-8700:
This Papago Plaza charmer can't get much better, so the chef/owner is doing the next best thing: He's making it bigger.
The extra space will make about 20 people a night happy. They'll sit down to homemade bread laced with blue cheese. Then come ravishing appetizers like foie gras in a sweet potato tart with a strawberry rhubarb compote, or savory salmon ceviche on a bed of pureed white beans. Pepper-crusted salmon, halibut in a coconut green curry sauce and the signature entree, Kobe-style filet mignon marinated in beer are three formidable entrees.
Gregory's Grill encourages you to bring your own bottle. With fare like this, I'd get out that 1982 first-growth Bordeaux you've been saving for the right occasion.
Pizzeria Bianco, 623 East Adams, Phoenix, 258-8300:
This place is no secret--if you'd like to eat dinner at 8 o'clock, you'd better get here by 6:30.
Proprietor Chris Bianco could make tons more money moving to a larger place, where he could serve hundreds, instead of dozens, of customers every evening. But then he wouldn't be able personally to oversee everything that comes out of his kitchen. It's that obsessive commitment to quality--no shortcuts here--that makes this place special.
Whether it's the fresh salads, perfect pizzas, homemade desserts or well-chosen draft beers and wines by the glass, Pizzeria Bianco never seems to miss.
Rancho Pinot Grill, 6208 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 468-9463:
Does the food taste fresher anywhere else in town? I don't think so.
The greens taste like they were just pulled out of the ground; the fish like it was just pulled out of the water; and the desserts like they were just pulled out of the oven.
The chef changes her menu weekly, and scours local markets for the best ingredients. Then she puts her imagination to work. Look for appetizers like a mesmerizing posole, grilled quail or a salad of endive, apple, walnut and Gorgonzola. Main dishes feature pork, beef, chicken, lamb, fish and vegetarian options, all of which will make even the most cosmopolitan foodie sit up and take notice.
A well-crafted wine list and well-trained staff make dinner here even more pleasurable. How many places do you eat where, in the middle of the meal, you're already trying to figure out when you can come back?
Restaurant Hapa, 6204 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 998-8220:
Professionally speaking, a place like Restaurant Hapa gives me something to live for.
It's pure dynamite: The Asian-themed dishes bring out dimensions of flavor you didn't know food could have. Black mussels, roasted in a cast-iron skillet and bathed with a Thai-inspired broth--inhale the scents of lemongrass, mint, basil, ginger and coconut--will take your breath away. The signature entree is Chinese beef tenderloin, a small filet brushed with hot mustard and caramelized brown sugar. This pretty-as-a-picture platter also includes a giant battered prawn, shiitake mushrooms, sticky rice and Chinese longbeans. Wow.
The spectacular Asian pear cake, armed with macadamia nuts and homemade lemongrass ice cream, puts an exclamation mark on the meal. Let's hope the husband-and-wife proprietors will resist the temptation to move to larger quarters and to hire someone else to do their cooking for them.
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Suzanne's Bistro, 4669 East Cactus, Phoenix, 996-4414:
Surrounded by a sea of chain restaurants in the Paradise Valley Mall area, and tucked away at the edge of a shopping-center strip, this quiet gem is easy to overlook.
It's not so easy to overlook once you've eaten here. It's hard to categorize the food--I suppose "contemporary" would be an apt description. But why suffer from a hardening of the categories?
Just enjoy appetizers like the grilled asparagus salad with Parmesan cheese and prosciutto, dressed with a garlic chive vinaigrette. The chef knows what to do with seafood: I've admired both Thai-style monkfish and sea bass encrusted with a sun-dried tomato pesto. And I recently had a terrific duck risotto, moistened in a sun-dried cherry sauce embellished with Gorgonzola cheese and walnuts.
Suzanne's Bistro has really grown on me. Give it a chance to grow on you.