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THE PEPPER CHASE

Cooking-school restaurants probably oughtn't to be reviewed by critics. The servers and chefs are students--who find out quite literally if their performances are passable. They receive scorecards at the end of each meal, grades at the end of the term, certificates of completion at the end of the line.

Even so, the restaurants attached to two of the Valley's best-known epicurean institutes, Scottsdale Community College and Scottsdale Culinary Institute, wish to be perceived as real restaurants--not laboratories on school grounds. And so, in a sense, they invite real criticism, tempered, of course, by the knowledge that both operations are staffed with tender, young restaurant-industry employees in the making.

Constructive criticism, I think they call it.
Our first educational experience takes place at Scottsdale Community College's Culinary Arts Dining Room. Dinner here is a five-course, prix fixe affair. Diners have a choice of two appetizers, soups and salads; four entrees; and an overwhelming selection of desserts. The cost is $15 per person, plus tax and tip. Alcoholic beverages are not served, but nonalcoholic beer and sparkling cider are available. These cost extra, but coffee or tea is included with the meal.

In keeping with its nurturing purpose, the Culinary Arts Dining Room resembles a lovely rose-colored womb. The ceilings are high, the lighting is subtle, the music is classical. China, silver and glassware are professional quality. On looks alone, this culinary classroom deserves an A.

Our server tonight is a young man named Keith. He seems down-to-earth, honest and without pretensions. He explains menu items and preparation with just a hint of memorization and no awe whatsoever. This is schoolwork to him. He has to know these things. Sometimes, like when it comes to the kind of fried cheese in the salad, he forgets. "Oh gosh," says he. "It's French and I think it begins with an A." Mostly, however, he does a very fine job.

At the beginning of the meal, each diner is given a grading form. Every food item consumed receives a grade. So does the service. There are yes-and-no questions to be answered: Was the hot food hot? Was the cold food cold?

For me it feels a bit redundant to fill out this report, but my dining accomplice is pleased to be able to voice an opinion. He is an easy grader, as I would wager most people are. There is a tendency to want to be kind here, to be more generous about things than you would be in a regular restaurant.

This brings me to an observation about the overall atmosphere at the Culinary Arts Dining Room. There's a certain sense of watchfulness, of unease here, which grows more apparent as the evening wears on. As with many student productions, I feel the instructors standing in the wings, peering out of the kitchen: "How is it going? Is everything okay? Is everybody happy?"

The strain shows at times. The student performers appear a little nervous. Not that I blame them. Restaurant work is hard enough without worrying about a grade. But everyone is trying so hard to remember everything, to do everything right, it makes me a little edgy.

There are some highlights, however. For instance, I love the moment early in the meal when the dessert staff comes out of the kitchen to parade its creations. The rose-colored room fills with a flurry of white toques. Visiting each table in succession, each proud student enunciates the particulars of his or her offering. "This is a citrus cheesecake," he or she will say, "covered in crushed pistachios." The desserts look fabulous. We ooh and ahh right on cue.

(Those of you who have seen Percy Adlon's film Rosalie Goes Shopping will be reminded of how Rosalie's college-age son, an aspiring chef, tells the family what he has prepared for dinner each night. It's touching.)

But, I leap ahead of myself. We have four courses to go before dessert.
Student-baked goods are brought to us. The rolls look tiny and hard, but taste good. My favorite is the poppy seed with pine nuts--unusual, hearty and delicious. Our attentive waiter takes note of this. When he brings us a fresh basket, he doubles up on the items already consumed.

In truth, I think our first two courses are tentative. There's too much Alfredo sauce in the angel-hair pasta. All mixed together and placed in the center of a black octagonal plate, it looks like an omelet--an image reinforced by the overly eggy sauce and the presence of ham. The broccoli timbale with walnut sauce still has the flavor of the president's least-favorite vegetable but the texture of tomato aspic. The cold teahouse orange soup does not transcend its pineapple and orange juice beginnings. The finely blended cream of cauliflower soup dotted with bits of red pepper is better.

 

The meal gains confidence when the salads arrive. They look and taste very professional. The house salad features a pile of julienne zucchini, carrot and red pepper at its center. It is dressed with creamy Roquefort and walnuts. The other salad draws from a mixture of butter lettuce, radicchio, romaine and escarole, and is flavored with an herby vinaigrette. Matchstick-size carrots bundled together with a chive tie add artistry and color.

For entrees, we have chosen the curried chicken with sambals and the sauteed duck breast. Neither one is warm enough. It's as if someone in the kitchen couldn't stop fussing over these plates as the food grew cold. Also, I'm surprised at the portions: They seem small.

Both types of poultry are presented in a fan of slices. The duck breast is drenched in a sauce made of raspberries. It is flavorful, but workerlike. The sliced curried chicken is tasty, but not what I expected. It seems an exaggeration to term the chutney and toasted coconut accompanying this dish "sambals." The term, to me, connotes a whole array of tiny dishes from which to pick and choose, including raisins, peanuts, chopped onion and so forth.

Potatoes and vegetables are cool to the tongue. I don't like the pureed broccoli and carrot in pastry shells served with the duck. I can chew my own vegetables, thank you. Potatoes with yogurt are forgettable; potatoes layered with leeks are on the tough side.

But all is forgiven when dessert arrives. If there was anything vaguely institutional about the rest of our meal, it ends here. Talk about large! The plates used for this last course are as big as those used for entrees. And for good reason. At Scottsdale Community College, dessert is a main course. Pastry and dessert instructor chef Sarah Labensky has taught her students well.

Unfortunately, we can only sample two. We go for what look like the teacher's pets: double chocolate crepes and St. Honore gateau. The former is chocolate crepes filled with white-chocolate mousse in a caramel sauce. The latter consists of a chou pastry crust topped with creamy caramelized custard and two tiny cream puffs. Spectacular spun sugar is served on the side. As you can imagine, both are extremely sweet. We cannot finish them.

For the most part, the quality of our dinner at Culinary Arts Dining Room hovers just above what I'd expect in any fancy institutional setting. The salad and dessert courses break free to soar up to fine-dining standards in a real restaurant.

I give everyone involved an A for effort. I give the food a B or B+.

The confidence level seems much higher at Scottsdale Culinary Institute's L'Ecole. Then again, most of the students appear older and that much wiser than SCC's young folk. In every respect, the food and service are restaurant quality, even in looks and feel. It's easy to forget this is a student-run operation--there's nothing tentative about it.

Dinner at L'Ecole is prix fixe. The meal varies in price, depending on the entree selected. Appetizer, dessert, and coffee or tea are included. Wine, beer and a full bar are offered. As at Scottsdale Community College, the menu changes each week.

Hidden on the inner courtyard of the Scottsdale Financial Center, the room is enclosed by glass. Walls are pale and decorated with artwork on loan from a Scottsdale gallery. Unfortunately, the hanging hodgepodge gives the impression of a crafts fair rather than a gallery. Still, the room is bright and pleasant.

This evening our server is a dimpled young woman named Laura. Our table is set at an odd angle, close to a wall of windows. Through no fault of her own, Laura must squeeze into awkward positions to serve us. When I comment on the bad table position, Laura tells us she's been assigned this table because she's "the only one who can fit behind it." Can't the table be moved? Or is this an advanced serving test? Our meal begins with a complimentary appetizer of sole stuffed into a pastry shell. Competently constructed and tasty, it definitely whets my appetite. Following this, Laura brings us a linen-covered plate of rolls and breads. I like the sweet lemon quick bread, but find the soft rolls ordinary, the French bread too doughy.

A sequin-clad party in the smoking section of the dining room is raucous. Everything, for hours, is funny for them. Peals of laughter roll our way. They're having such fun that for the rest of the meal I will wonder if I should convert to a life of smoking and drinking. Nah.

Our appetizers are out next. Both are quite attractive. A bowl of black and white bean soup is swirled with creme fraiche and sprinkled with chives. It is hearty and spicy with cumin and cubes of smoked ham. Our second appetizer is even better. Strips of smoked tuna are presented on leaves of radicchio and Belgian endive which themselves have been topped with slivered carrot and daikon. The tuna itself is a little dry. It benefits from the hoisin-rice, vinegar-sesame oil marinade. Exotic grilled mushrooms add further flavor and texture. I would gladly eat this any day.

 

Laura clears our plates. She brings us some raspberry sorbet to "cleanse our palates." My dining accomplice and I rest a bit and try to discreetly dislodge raspberry seeds from our molars.

Of our two entrees, one is highly successful, the other less so. The winner is the woven fish--a braided, baked mixture of sole and salmon. The colors are gorgeous. The fish is white and, well, salmon. The dill sauce bears the pale green and white hues of a Tohono O'odham basket. The portion is generous, hot and simply divine. I love it.

Our other entree, the lamb L'Ecole, is not as good. The slightly fatty lamb chops are too pink for my taste, but not pink enough to warrant a trip back to the kitchen. They are stuffed with sausage which only adds to the inherent greasiness of the chop. A mint-lime jelly is too subtle to help much.

We finish our meal with two pots of herbal tea and dessert. Crepes suzettes made with fresh oranges are fabulous, as is an unusual sour-cream apple pie served with vanilla ice cream.

When it is time to pay the check and fill out our comment cards, we have nothing but good things to say. L'Ecole gets nothing but high grades in my book. Say an A or A-.

Culinary Arts Dining Room, Scottsdale Community College, 9000 East Chaparral, Scottsdale. Reservations: 423-6284, Menu: 423-6155, Information: 423-6241. Hours: 6 to 8 p.m., Wednesday through Friday. Closed during regular school holidays and summer sessions. Reservations preferred, but not required.

L'Ecole, Scottsdale Culinary Institute, 4141 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 990-7639. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; Dinner, 6:30 to 8:15 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday. Reservations preferred, but not required.

culinary arts dining room

"Oh gosh," says he. "It's French and I think it begins with an A."

I love the moment early in the meal, when the dessert staff comes out of the kitchen to parade its creations. l'ecole

It's easy to forget this is a student-run operation--there's nothing tentative about it.

They're having such fun, for the rest of the meal I wonder if I should convert to a life of smoking and drinking.


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