The Love Bloat

The Latilla, Boulders Resort, 34631 North Tom Darlington Drive, Carefree, 488-9009. Hours: Dinner, 6 to 9:30 p.m., seven nights a week.

Gentlemen, get out your wallets.
Guys have it easy on most of their gals' special days. It's your anniversary? Pick up a $3 bouquet of flowers from someone standing on a traffic island on your way home from work, and your honey will think you're Prince Charming. It's her birthday? Work up your most sincere expression, tell her she's getting too thin, and hand her a box of chocolates. Try to look modest as you accept her grateful thanks. A Christmas gift? On Christmas Eve, grab the first bottle of whatever's left on the department-store perfume counter, then whisper to her the next morning that you searched for weeks to find just the right scent to match her sweet soul. She's genetically wired to believe you.

For some unknown reason, however, women come to their senses on Valentine's Day. They see right through the cheap gifts and the phony compliments we devious males get away with the other 364 days a year. On this day, your main squeeze demands a tangible expression of your affection, and insists on a heartfelt sign of your romantic interest. That means you're going to have to spend some serious time with her, with the television off. And for several hours, you'll be expected to nod your head and smile pleasantly without squirming while she discusses uncomfortable subjects like "a healthy relationship," "full-time commitment" and "putting away the laundry."

She'll probably be sharing these thoughts, and others, in a fancy restaurant, the kind of place where males are genetically wired to make reservations every February 14. And as long as you'll be laying out the big bucks anyway, you might as well make reservations where at least the food, if not the conversation, is to your liking.

If you're ready to splurge big-time, The Latilla restaurant, the Boulders Resort's swanky fine-dining room, should go near the top of your Valentine's Day list. If you're lucky, your sweetheart may find the exquisite setting and fare so overpowering that she'll forget she planned to discuss your shortcomings over dinner.

There are two identical dining rooms, each with a large tree trunk in the center holding up an octagonal wooden ceiling. (The "latillas" are the thin branches, supported by thicker beams, the "vigas.") Look through the big picture windows and gaze on craggy, lighted boulders and a roaring outside fireplace. Inside, the room is spare and elegant, with deftly romantic lighting that permits you to see your food and hide your blemishes at the same time.

Don't spend your day fasting in anticipation of dinner. The operating philosophy behind portion size seems to be "less is more." But there's an upside to the dainty servings: At the meal's conclusion, you won't have to worry about being too full for romance.

Start off munching the addictive asiago cheesesticks, burnished with cracked peppercorns. They may help you keep your mind off the $10-and-up tag for the appetizers.

These expensive nibbles are too small to share effectively. There are only a couple of bites to the shrimp and scallops packaged in phyllo dough. But they're high-quality bites. Two Dungeness crab cakes are teamed with white beans and a zesty cucumber-horseradish sauce. Best, however, is the scrumptious grilled Muscovy duck sausage, three tiny disks moistened in a rich gravy, adorned with caramelized onions, corn and crispy potato.

The main-dish list is compact, featuring about 10 choices ranging among veal, pork, lamb, beef, chicken and seafood. Nothing is particularly exotic, or exotically prepared. But the quality is stunning--the animal protein here pushed every carnivorous button in my body.

Grilled loin of veal is sublime, a picture-perfect piece of tenderloin, which the chef wisely barely tinges with tarragon and mustard. After all, when the meat's this good, it makes no sense for the kitchen to show off unnecessarily.

You'll have to check with your accountant to see if the $32 tab for the rack of lamb makes financial sense. (Actually, the menu description "rack of lamb" is a bit of a stretch--you get just two little chops.) But these beauties do make eating sense, especially once they're dipped in the apple-mint compote and teamed with a luscious disk of scalloped sweet potatoes.

Pork tenderloin is an especially hard-hitting entree, lustily smoked over hickory and partnered with cranberry-apricot preserves. The kitchen displays a bit of inventiveness in the side-dish accompaniment, grits creamed with white Vermont Cheddar cheese. And prawn fans will appreciate the five hefty, seared crustaceans, served with roasted veggies and flavorful sweet corn fritters.

Desserts are too good to share, but at a breathtaking $8 each, they may be too pricey not to. I certainly wanted to keep the ice cream cake crusted with hazelnuts and chocolate, doused in a warm caramel sauce, all to myself. And my sweetie seemed no more eager to share her milk chocolate poppy-seed torte, flavored with a rich espresso mascarpone, with me.

Who should consider a Valentine's meal at The Latilla restaurant? Remorseful guys looking to do penance for a year of tight-fisted neglect. Charm-challenged guys whose only hope of making an impression is to take a triple-digit hit on the credit card. And smart guys who understand that an elegant dinner in an elegant setting is a sure-fire way to keep romance flourishing.

La Tache, 4175 Goldwater Boulevard, Scottsdale, 946-0377. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight.

Don't be fooled by La Tache's French name. No bowing and scraping waiters are going to call you "Monsieur," kiss "Madame's" hand or whip up a flaming dessert.

No stuffy, three-hour Gallic meals here. This is a casually classy restaurant serving an eclectic, around-the-world mix of flavorful fare. If your honey enjoys the sophisticated liveliness of urban bistro dining, La Tache may be just what Cupid had in mind.

Wine has always been associated with romance. Unfortunately, it's usually an expensive association. La Tache, however, makes it easy to have your wine and drink it, too. It offers more than three dozen wines not only by the glass, but also by the taste, about one third of a glass. Couples who may not be able to toast their eternal love with a $50 bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne might still seal their vows with a $4 taste of the bubbly. Moreover, this wallet-friendly touch permits budget-challenged wine lovers to sample two or three different tastes over the course of dinner for about the same cost as a single glass of wine.

La Tache also knows that a well-trained staff contributes to customer satisfaction. The crew here is efficient, attentive and knowledgeable, whether sweeping away breadcrumbs, replacing cutlery or answering questions about food-and-wine pairings.

The place looks smart, too, with its sleek curved bar just inside the entrance, vintage champagne posters on the wall and fleur-de-lis candleholders on the tables.

Happily, the food keeps pace with the wine, service and decor. And with most entrees comfortably clustered in the $13 to $17 range, your memories of this special occasion shouldn't come in the form of monthly MasterCard reminders.

The short, four-item appetizer list isn't very gastronomically taxing. Fried calamari isn't the stuff of romance, so we looked elsewhere. Peking duck dumplings are a simple munchie, four small doughy pouches served with hoisin sauce. Crab cakes get some needed bite once you dip them in the chipotle aioli. The napoleon of ahi tuna exhibited the most flair, layers of lightly seared tuna and spicy pickled vegetables precariously balanced between wasabe plum wafers.

If none of these starter options appeals to her, maybe the hearty onion soup will, especially if the kitchen remembers to serve it hot. Our lukewarm broth wouldn't have raised a cry from a newborn.

The kitchen seems to put most of its effort into the entrees. The Thai curried prawns prove the point. Actually, the five medium-size shrimp are the least interesting element in this platter. It's the sticky coconut rice and mixed veggies in a lip-smacking curry sauce that furnish the zing, and which make the last bite of this dish just as stimulating as the first.

The cassoulet also sports an invigorating blend of flavors. La Tache's version of this hearty bistro staple combines white beans with sausage, bacon and a bit of duck. Its stick-to-the-bones quality makes it a good choice on chilly February evenings.

The pot roast Provencale is also good winter fare. The tender beef is pepped up with olives and tomatoes, and teamed with a mound of garlic mashed potatoes. Grilled pork loin comes moist and juicy, effectively paired with black beans, rice and plantain chips. And grilled Pacific snapper, crusted with blue cornmeal, should satisfy diners looking for an uncomplicated taste of fish.

The one main-dish misstep? It's the osso buco, an undistinguished veal shank that lacked the fall-off-the-bone tenderness and rich winy sauce of the best models. To my frustration, the kitchen also couldn't come up with one of those small forks designed to poke the marrow out from the bone.

Desserts end the meal on just the right sweet note. An apple-raisin cobbler topped with ice cream provides simple pleasure. The ample bread pudding in bourbon sauce will seal off any remaining appetite cracks. But honors go to the chocolate pecan chocolate torte, a warm, chocolaty confection that will quickly have your brain kicking out those chemical signals that tell you you're having a good time.

But don't leave now, no matter how romantic you're feeling. La Tache offers, at reasonable prices, several topnotch dessert wines by the glass, including Banyuls from Dr. Parce, Beamues-de-Venise from Chapoutier and Moscato d'Asti from Michele Chiarlo. Depending on how the rest of the evening unfolds, they could be the highlight of your day.

The Latilla:
Muscovy duck sausage
Smoked pork tenderloin
Grilled loin of veal
Chocolate poppy-seed torte

La Tache:
Napoleon of ahi tuna
Thai curried prawns
Chocolate torte


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