It's the season for fantasy.
The warm glow is still with us: Family members are still talking to one another, we've got a righteous feeling about all the self-improvement resolutions we've sworn to undertake at some indeterminate future time, and we can enjoy all our gifts before the bills come rolling in.
I have my own fantasy this time of year. I dream of a world where elastic waistbands are a cool fashion statement. I dream that science will discover that glazed doughnuts can boost your IQ. I dream that the government will declare onion rings a green, leafy vegetable. I dream that just thinking about heavy-duty aerobic exercise can be as effective as actually doing it. And I dream that religious leaders of all faiths will agree that calorie-counting is a sin, and a clean plate an unmistakable sign of virtue.
I also fantasize about my ideal restaurant week--seven days, 21 meals--a gastronomic orgy that indulges the full range of my food obsessions. Of course, since it is a fantasy, I don't have to worry about money, calories or stamina.
So loosen your belts, and let the fantasy begin.
Day One: Sunday
Breakfast: I want to start the week off with a bang. That means brunch at the opulent Terrace Dining Room (The Phoenician, 6000 East Camelback). When it comes to quality and quantity, this kitchen doesn't know the meaning of restraint. From start to finish, it's a memorable way to spend a Sunday. Begin with the jumbo prawns and sushi, move on to the fresh pasta and pátes, head to the grilled meats, and finish up with the homemade ice cream and chocolates. After brunch, I like to work off the meal by strolling around the grounds, pretending I can afford to stay here.
Lunch: Some folks might think that Pepe's Taco Villa (2108 West Camelback) isn't as scenic as The Phoenician. But they'll change their minds once they focus on the mole enchiladas. It's a breathtaking dish, highlighted by an astonishingly rich and subtle mole, a blend of chiles, spices and chocolate. Everything else here--including green corn tamales, chile rellenos and tacos Monterrey (made with machacado, air-dried beef, teamed with scrambled eggs, onion, chile and tomato)--also tastes like it just came fresh out of a Mexican village.
Dinner: My cosmopolitan taste buds get a real workout at RoxSand (Biltmore Fashion Park, 24th Street and Camelback), where the chef doesn't follow trends--she sets them. Where else in town can you get around-the-world flavors like the ones here? I'll start off with a lamb-filled curried rice tamale or b'stilla; move on to air-dried duck or Chilean sea bass with a horseradish crust; and finish up with the wicked, liqueur-soaked B-52 chocolate torte. Bombs away!
Day Two: Monday
Breakfast: According to the fable, the hedgehog knows many little things. The fox, however, knows one big thing. In the breakfast world, the Original Pancake House (6840 East Camelback; 402 East Greenway Road) is a fox. It knows one big thing: pancakes. These made-from-scratch flapjacks are so good that syrup is superfluous.
Lunch: Cheap ethnic restaurant gems are more myth than reality. But at Eliana's (1627 North 24th Street), the legend comes to life. The south-of-the-south-of-the-border Salvadoran specialties are brimming with flavor: Pupusas (corn masa patties stuffed with pork and cheese) and pasteles (meat turnovers) are particularly fetching. Dynamite homemade corn tortillas, too.
Dinner: My idea of paradise: a small, chef-run BYOB place with big-time fare to handle the 1982 Bordeaux I've brought along. Newly enlarged Gregory's Grill (7049 East McDowell) is heaven in Scottsdale. The pan-seared foie gras, served in a sweet potato tart with a strawberry-rhubarb compote, is one of this town's premier appetizers. The main dishes, like tandoori-spiced pork tenderloin and grilled halibut in a coconut green curry, are just as exciting.
Day Three: Tuesday
Breakfast: For that continental breakfast feeling, Bistro 24 (Ritz-Carlton Hotel, 2401 East Camelback) is the place to hang your beret. I enjoy sitting back with freebie copies of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, sipping fresh-squeezed orange juice and strong coffee, and eating croissants and pains au chocolat so authentic I have to pinch myself to realize that I'm not on the Champs-lysees.
Lunch: I put on 25 pounds when I lived in Iran. That's because the food was so good I ate two lunches a day. Tasty Kabob (1250 East Apache, Tempe) tempts me to relive the bad old days. It's real Persian fare, dished out by real Persians. Wonderfully moist, scented kebabs and fragrant stews served with basmati rice are the stars here.
Dinner: For a combination of striking looks and striking fare, T. Cook's (Royal Palms Inn, 5200 East Camelback) is just about in a class of its own. The brick, painted tile, wooden beams across the vaulted ceiling and marble accents go beyond restaurant design--this is architecture. The skilled kitchen's "rustic Mediterranean" fare is also worth staring at. Sea bass wrapped in Parma ham and sliced loin of lamb are enchanting. So is the breathtaking "chocolate collage" dessert, after which chocolate fiends will have to be hosed down.
Day Four: Wednesday
Breakfast: When the urge hits to get in touch with my old-neighborhood roots, I visit Chompie's (3202 East Greenway Road). Absolutely no question--the best bagels in town. I also find all the indispensable accompaniments: Nova lox, smoked whitefish, pickled herring in cream sauce, homemade cream cheese. A first-rate bakery--try the rugulach and coffee cake--makes lingering over a cup of coffee even more fun.
Lunch: It's already day four, and I haven't had Chinese food? I'll take care of that pronto at Silver Dragon (8946 North 19th Avenue). Make sure you ask for the Chinese menu (it has brief, English dish descriptions). The Hong Kong-style food here could find fans in Chinatowns on Mott Street or Grant Street. I love the whole chicken, steamed, then flash-fried. For yin and yang, there's vibrant salt-and-pepper squid. Hot pots and noodles also shine.
Dinner: The creative "New American" cuisine at Rancho Pinot Grill (6208 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale) is always worth standing up and saluting. A menu that changes weekly features the freshest ingredients. I hope I show up on a day when the chef whips up her posole starter. Crispy risotto-wheatberry cakes and grilled Muscovy duck in a pomegranate-walnut sauce are marvelous entrees. Homemade desserts and a well-crafted wine list are two more reasons this place attracts knowledgeable foodies.
Day Five: Thursday
Breakfast: I normally welcome dawn's early light by throwing the covers over my head and begging it to go away. But the old-fashioned breakfast fare at Kiss the Cook (4915 West Glendale Avenue, Glendale) is worth getting up for. The buttermilk pancakes deserve high praise. So do the huevos rancheros, biscuits and gravy, three-egg omelets and gooey, nut-studded cinnamon rolls.
Lunch: I could eat the pizza at Pizzeria Bianco (623 East Adams) seven days a week. Proprietor Chris Bianco is a craftsman who works with quality ingredients: top-of-the-line flour, imported and homemade cheese, the freshest produce. I'm partial to the Wiseguy pizza, heaped with homemade sausage and smoked mozzarella. (I splurge and add on some wood-oven-roasted mushrooms, too.) If the pizza weren't so good, I might be induced to lunch on the salads and sandwiches, which are also in a class of their own.
Dinner: Nobody's ever going to mistake the Valley for Fisherman's Wharf or Nantucket. But the gorgeous seafood at Restaurant Oceana (8900 East Pinnacle Peak Road) may trick you into thinking there are sea gulls screeching overhead. It's pricey, but you won't find fish like this anyplace else in the Mountain Time Zone. The menu depends on the catch: Look for Casco Bay cod, wild steelhead trout, jumbo Gulf shrimp and diver-harvested scallops. And everything tastes like it just jumped out of the sea.
Day Six: Friday
Breakfast: T.C. Eggington's Brunchery (1660 South Alma School, Mesa) serves exactly the same basic a.m. fare as every other breakfast place in town. The only difference is, its food is better. The thick-sliced French toast, made from homemade cinnamon bread, is perhaps the East Valley's premier tourist attraction. Hearty omelets, too.
Lunch: For quality noontime fare in a delightful setting, it's hard to top the Coronado Cafe (2201 North Seventh Street). Set in a charming old house, this cafe whips up the kind of homey offerings that Grandma might have prepared if she were a talented cook. Soups are particularly good--the curried pumpkin soup is a marvel. Artful salads and sandwiches will send you back to the office with a smile. And so will desserts like the cornbread cobbler, laden with peaches and pears.
Dinner: Asian-themed cuisine is today's hottest restaurant trend. And nobody's doing it better than the kitchen at Restaurant Hapa (6204 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale). It produces the kind of head-turning dishes that get their pictures in national food magazines. Skillet-roasted black mussels, bathed in a dreamy Thai-scented broth, are to die for. The signature entree, beef tenderloin brushed with hot Chinese mustard and caramelized brown sugar, makes me cheer. Desserts are just as impressive, especially the Asian pear cake armed with toasted macadamia nuts and homemade lemongrass ice cream.
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Day Seven: Saturday
Breakfast: It's time to wok 'n' roll at C-Fu Gourmet (2051 West Warner, Chandler), where the carousel of dim sum carts never stops. I keep a lookout for the wagons bearing chow fun noodles, Chinese broccoli, shrimp dumplings, sticky rice in lotus leaf, stuffed eggplant, taro-root turnovers, turnip cakes and barbecued pork. Maybe one of these days I'll work up a taste for chicken feet.
Lunch: The scents and fragrances of Indian cuisine always put me in a swoon. I'll be doing my swooning at Bombay Palace (5775 West Bell, Glendale) for dynamite dishes like the Shahjahani biriyani, studded with chicken, egg and cashews; karahai shrimp, skillet-sizzled in a snappy ginger sauce; and juicy tandoori chicken. Great bread, like mint-studded paratha, adds to my happiness.
Dinner: I believe in delayed gratification. That's why I end the week with a bang at the Marquesa (Scottsdale Princess resort, 7575 East Princess Drive). The Catalan-inspired fare gets me vibrating with anticipation: crab and fontina cheese stuffed in red peppers; pheasant and porcini mushrooms in puff pastry; serrano-crusted veal loin with sweetbreads; grilled turbot and spotted prawns; and, of course, the signature paella. Whenever I leave here, I'm ready to call Iberia Airlines and book a flight to Barcelona.