TO STIR WITH LOVE
L'Ecole, Scottsdale Culinary Institute, 8100 East Camelback, Scottsdale, 990-7639. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Friday, reservations from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Giving students hands-on experience in real-world situations sounds like a useful training technique. Unless, of course, the victim the students happen to have their hands on is me. Naturally, we human guinea pigs get a price break to reward our courage. And supervisors are always around to see that nothing goes drastically wrong. But I don't care how low the cost, or how many expert doctors of dentistry hover around my chair--no first-year, drill-wielding sadist who couldn't get into medical school is going to perform periodontal wizardry in my mouth. And I don't care if the haircut is free--no way would I let a barber-school apprentice work on what's left on my head.
So it was with great trepidation that I decided to entrust my prime source of joy in this world--dinner--to postadolescent chef wanna-bes who probably entered the field in order to learn the Colonel's 11 secret herbs and spices. When I visited the Valley's two student-run, cooking-school restaurants, I went with the same high level of confidence you'd have if you opted for a cut-rate appendectomy and encountered a youthful intern armed with a scalpel who said, "Hi, I'm Bruce, and I'll be your surgeon tonight." But L'Ecole bowled me over. Maybe the Scottsdale Culinary Institute admits only kitchen prodigies. All I know is that I had several exceptional meals, in a comfortable setting, at a very comfortable price. L'Ecole is housed in a round, whitewashed, formal-looking room, sparely furnished with a bit of potted greenery. Windows look out over Camelback Road, and classical music plays in the background. The students rotate through an 11-month program, learning the full range of kitchen tasks, as well as the art of serving. (Every student I asked said serving caused the most anxiety.) One evening, a nervous waiter blurted out a confession: "We make mistakes." Well, maybe they do, but they don't make many.
The menu, which changes weekly, offers three-course meals; diners choose from a half-dozen appetizers, entrees and desserts. The price is determined by the entree, and the full dinner runs between 15 and 20 dollars. Factoring in quality, heft and setting, it's one of the Valley's best values, a real bargain. Meals start off with a customer-pleasing touch, a small freebie. Once it was a tart shrimp ceviche, another time toast slathered with black beans, cream cheese and tomato.
By the time I looked in the breadbasket, my anxieties had just about disappeared. French bread and dinner rolls sport a right-out-of-the-oven touch. But the herb-scented focaccia, topped with olives, mushrooms and tomato, is a particular delight, especially once you dip it in the olive oil sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. It's soup season now, and L'Ecole's models are first-rate. Lobster bisque, splashed with a bit of sherry, is intense enough to cause a swoon if you're unprepared for its rich, velvety taste. Although the broth doesn't need additional gilding, the quenelles (fish dumplings) and shrimp hushpuppies floating on the surface push all the right buttons. So does the onion soup, made from veal stock and topped with genuine Gruyäre cheese.
The shellfish sampler also got me hooked. It's comforting to know that the next generation of chefs will be able to prepare venerable delicacies like oysters Rockefeller and clams casino. The platter also includes fried squid and cold shrimp. The gravlax starter, however, suffers from a little too much youthful excess. Gravlax (dill-marinated salmon) doesn't mesh well with an overpowering soy-ginger dressing. And if you don't know that the little green ball alongside is wasabe, highly potent Japanese horseradish, you may bounce off a few walls. A cylindrical, mushroom-stuffed dumpling provided another offbeat Japanese touch, but it, too, would have been more impressive in a different setting. Still, give the kitchen points for imagination. Main dishes stick more closely to the tried and true, and are very well-crafted. The petit filet Rossini is a winner, good quality beef cooked to medium-rare specs, resting on toasted bread and capped with duck liver pƒt‚, drizzled with a rich sauce. It's accompanied by potatoes dauphinoise, layered spuds baked with butter and cheese, and stuffed zucchini, oddly topped with okra. Tender medallions of lamb are another source of tasty animal protein. This dish gets goosed up by a sprightly side of black-eyed peas. Grilled fish is a good test of a cook's skill. The salmon here comes off the flames at just the right moment, served over Swiss chard next to a wild rice pilaf. Even chicken, that dullest of entrees, has a pulse. That's because the kitchen rolls up a chicken breast with prosciutto, shrimp and spinach, and moistens it with beurre blanc. The student desserts are good enough to graduate cum laude. One evening's special, chocolate sweetness, featured a big-time chocolate hazelnut torte. Mocha roca cake, chocolate cake blended with chocolate mousse and toffee bits in a puddle of chocolate espresso sauce, is magna cum laude good. My favorite, though, was a toasted almond peach tart, enlivened with homemade vanilla ice cream and a hard-hitting caramel sauce.
On both my visits, I got a great kick out of the chef-servers. They're so sweet and earnest, so eager to talk about the food and their futures, that it's impossible to be churlish over some occasional unreplaced cutlery or their slightly ill-at-ease manner. I almost felt like petting them. In short, I don't see how anyone can dine here and not leave happy--about price, setting, service or food. At L'Ecole, diners will discover that youth is not wasted on the young.
Culinary Arts Dining Room, Scottsdale Community College, 9000 East Chaparral, Scottsdale, 423-6284. Hours: Dinner, Wednesday through Friday, 6 to 8 p.m. Scottsdale Community College showcases its own cooking-school program at the Culinary Arts Dining Room. Here, diners put together a five-course, 15-dollar meal, choosing from two appetizers, two soups, two salads, five entrees and five desserts. (Don't be scared off by the thought of too much food. Portions are Lilliputian.) The kitchen ambitiously rotates nine different weekly menus between September and early May, so there's plenty of scope for students to show their stuff.
The dining room suggests that the school lacks a restaurant design program. It's institutionally dreary, enlivened with a few sketches of fruits and vegetables and classical music so low I didn't notice it until I walked out the door. Meals get under way with a variety of fresh breads. I can only hope that years down the line, students will continue to remember that the breadbasket can set the tone for dinner. Egg bread, corn muffins and sourdough rolls are worth filling up on. So are the cinnamon rolls, although they seem more like dessert than a prelude to appetizers. Starters are canap‚-size nibbles of varying quality. Veal and ham pie is actually pƒt‚ en cro–te, and it's effectively done. So is the ballotine of quail, rolled-up boned poultry with an aggressive mushroom sauce.
But the bouch‚e … la reine, a tiny cup of puff pastry filled with creamed chicken and shiitake mushrooms, reminded me more of a cafeteria chicken … la king. And despite the promising ingredients, the raw mushrooms stuffed with minced escargots in vermouth sauce had no discernible flavor. Soups are clearly one of the students' strengths, particularly the creamy models. Tomato and fennel, vichyssoise and chilled carrot and ginger pack a smooth, intense punch. In contrast, the Manhattan clam chowder is strictly one-dimensional, a thin, watery broth. Salads come a little underdressed for my taste. Belgian endive and fennel make a clever pairing; so do watercress and duck. But both needed moistening. The house salad, served on every menu, is a better bet, fashioned from fris‚e greens, slivered hearts of palm and red onion. Most of the entrees are good enough to make you think the kitchen is staffed with pros. The tournedos Rossini here is about one-fourth the size of L'Ecole's model, topped with a minute speck of pƒt‚. But it indicates talent. So does the stir-fry chicken and duck, studded with shiitake mushrooms and coated with sesame seeds. The real entree star is the veal chop, next scheduled to appear December 14-16. Unlike everything else, it's massive--this chop probably costs $10 retail. And it's perfectly cooked, tender and juicy. Baked mashed potatoes make an appropriate partner. The pork chop is in the same league as the veal, burnished with a zippy ginger lime sauce. The sweet-and-sour pheasant, however, just misses, done in by too much pungency and too little fruity sweetness. At about 7:15 p.m., dinner stops for the parade of desserts. Students bring out their creations and stop by at each table to have you ooh and aah over them. Some of them merit the exclamations. The Tuscan cream cake doesn't look like much, but this sherry-soaked sponge cake gets my first-place vote. Intense chocolate whiskey cake should satisfy even fierce chocolate longings. So should the excellent chocolate pot-au-cräme, a puddinglike sweet. One poor student gets to spend the entire evening making the flamed desserts. Mine may have been the 16th order she filled (so she said), but the gal preparing the liqueur-soaked crepe suzettes clearly had the technique down pat. The only dessert failure: a zinfandel pear tart, done in by a bitter lemony custard that clashed with the wine-poached fruit. Just as at L'Ecole, it's impossible to leave here without feeling optimistic about the culinary future. Sure, youth must be served. But it's gratifying to see that youth can also do the serving--and without asking you if you'd like large fries with your burger and Coke.
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