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  • Resturants: Ethnic and Specialty
We know we're in for a fancy meal when our server brings cute little stools on which our purses can rest. We've got a hint of fine things to come when we peruse a multi-course chef's tasting menu, ambitiously priced at $110 per person, plus $55 additional if we'd like paired wines (and of course we do). A "starter" sampling of Iranian Karaburun, sevruga, ostera and beluga caviar commands our respect with a price tag of $210.

Even a salad of romaine and aged Parmesan with cured lemon, walnuts and golden raisins sets us back $20.

High prices do not guarantee a wonderful meal, especially in a time when, anymore, even a marginal meal can set us back $30 an entree.

No, we're not quite convinced until our server presents us with an absolutely flawless amuse-bouche of perfect tuna tartare, complemented by gratis champagne. Or until the first jewel of buttery carpaccio of Black Angus beef dissolves on our tongue, and the last nubbin of Hudson Valley foie gras melts in our mouth.

Nothing served here is less than perfect. Even a deceptively peasant-looking cream of lobster soup startles with its superior character, lush as it is with medallions of seafood and seasonal mushrooms. By the time we're finished with an unspeakably elegant Earl Grey and chocolate cream pudding, we're true believers.

Mary Elaine's has long had the dubious distinction as the most expensive restaurant in town. These days, it's got plenty of contenders in the high-priced category. But for a truly gourmet, first-class evening out, there's still no competition.

Christened after the allegorical tale of dragon slayer St. George, a man who later became the patron saint of England, the George & Dragon pub does well upholding the honor of a contemporary English tavern. Its wood-framed walls, high ceiling and massive beams affect a Tudor-style English pub of yore (who'd-a thunk this was once a Shakey's Pizza parlor?) and billiards, soft-point dartboards and interactive, big-screen games fashion a more up-to-the-moment scene. Football colors, military memorabilia and coats of arms decorate walls, and roomy leatherette booths form 'U'-shaped divans. There's a cozy dining room and a menu of reasonably priced yet palatable English fare. Crowning the carte du jour is the pub's authentic fish and chips.

The Dragon's vast array of ales, lagers and ciders will often spur pub-nostalgic Brits and pint-converted Yanks to a merry clamor sufficient to muffle the jukebox's rock-steady throb. After a potent pint or two, the George's brazen Britishness can make it seem as though you are actually on Queen soil.

But a word of warning, mate: In the event that you are unmindfully sloshed upon exit, just remember that it's five thousand miles to the nearest tube stop.

Readers' Choice: George & Dragon Pub & Restaurant

Tagessuppe? Bratkartoffel? Szegediner gulasch?

Nein, these only look like a bunch of bum Scrabble racks. In reality, they're soup of the day; German fried potatoes; and pork and beef with pepper, sauerkraut and spätzle -- all specialties of the haus.

Haus Murphy's, that is.

But instead of worrying about the correct pronunciation of these Deutsch tongue-twisters, simply dig into some of the best German food you'll ever run into without having to produce a passport.

Try the hearty hackbraten, an exquisite beef and pork meatloaf flooded with gravy. Or the kassler kotelett, two huge, smoked pork chops over a bed of sauerkraut. Whatever your choice, at least try to save room for Murphy's baked-on-site desserts -- the apple strudel and Black Forest cake are particular standouts.

Auf Wiedersehen!

It's an inaccurate stereotype that the French are rude to Americans. Look at how they treat Jerry Lewis.

Need further proof? Just drop into the 6th Avenue Bistrot, where chef-owner François Simorte will be on you like a flash, greeting you warmly, shaking your hand, inviting you into his cozy little cafe. Sacrebleu! One can only guess how he treats his regulars.

If you're smart, you'll treat yourself to Simorte's specialties like scallops with lobster beurre blanc -- fresh, firm and succulent. Sautéed escargots in garlic butter are simply scrumptious, as is the coq au vin, which is as fine as you'll find in the French countryside. Cassoulet toulousain is a pure knockout, bringing a creamy stew of white beans, duck confit and sausage. And after dinner, Simorte will undoubtedly try to interest you in his luxurious mousse au chocolat.

Oui, surrender.

Readers' Choice: La Madeleine French Bakery & Cafe

It isn't very pretty what a town without pita can do.

Thanks to the Middle Eastern Bakery & Deli, that's one problem Phoenix hasn't had to face in more than 20 years.

Much more than a place simply to buy authentic Middle Eastern manna, this exotic deli's our choice for Mediterranean treats such as dolmades, spinach pie, gyro meat, baklava, falafel, hummus and baba ghanouj. In addition to an impressive selection of cookbooks from the region, there are shelves of imported spices and condiments the likes of which you won't find anywhere else in town.

Whether you eat in or take out, Middle Eastern is worth cheering about. Tabbouleh, boolah!

When it comes to Pacific Rim cuisine, Kona isn't coasting.

Get past the spectacular decor (a 1,000-gallon aquarium, rich mahogany accents and more beautiful people than you can shake a tiki torch at) and you'll discover there's some real creativity going on in this kitchen. The Pan-Asian cuisine inspires such delights as Maui tacos, stuffed with blackened catfish; and Pan-Asian noodles, tossed with marinated beef tenderloin and Asian vegetables in a spicy black bean garlic sauce. These are the flavors that distinguish this polyglot cookery, and Kona delivers every time.

Sea's the day!

Maria Ranieri charmed us back in the '80s, when she evolved as the magic behind the award-winning pasta at Tomaso's restaurant. Then she bought another Tomaso enterprise, When in Naples. That was more than a decade ago, and since then, Ranieri has developed her restaurant brilliantly.

Recently renovated to add a gardenlike enclosed terrace, the sumptuous space is decorated with seaside murals, red brick walls and a copper-domed, exposed kitchen. Very Italian.

But it's the food that gets the heart pounding, celebrating Ranieri's now-famous handmade pastas, and a signature antipasto display in the eatery's foyer. Some of our all-time, flat-out lusted-after creations are the ravioli di Zucca (butternut squash filled, in a four cheese sauce) and Vitello alla Maria (veal sautéed in lemon butter with wild mushrooms, capers and artichokes).

Gourmet magazine has named Maria's to its list of America's Top Tables. Save us a seat.

Readers' Choice: Olive Garden

The owners of That's Italiano pride themselves on the fact that everything in the tidy, exposed kitchen is made on the premises. In fact, they claim to do everything on-site "except butcher the chickens."

But who's squawking? The tantalizing menu lists everything you'd expect to find in an Italian mom-and-pop operation -- 13 pastas and eight entrees, plus salads, focaccia, pizza and calzones. It's got all our favorites, from spaghetti topped with thin-sliced homemade sausage and mild tomato sauce goosed with fresh, whole-leaf herbs; to chicken parmesan with breast pounded so perfectly thin we could slide it under a door. Pillowy-crusted pizza's another pleaser, topped with handmade mozzarella so silky it looks like butter above our favorite "special" toppings of sausage, ham, salami and prosciutto.

The eatery's packed with the friendly charm you expect in a neighborhood trattoria, with crisp white and blue tablecloths, a seaside mural and clouds painted on the ceiling. Italian acoustical music fills the air, and there's even live talent on weekends.

The owners aim to please and do their best to honor our special requests. Just hold the flying feathers, please.

Have any doubts about the quality of the cuts at Harris'? You can meet your meat, proudly displayed in the aging coolers off the restaurant's entry. All the Certified Angus Beef is dry-aged on the premises for 21 days.

The soothing, Southwestern motif here might not instantly scream "steak house," but wait until your meal arrives. There's nothing light and fluffy about these mesquite grilled slabs. Our favorite is the Harris' steak, a New York sirloin served bone-in for optimum, juicy flavor.

And while other steak houses may put the squeeze on customers for side dishes, Harris' knows a real steak house serves the potatoes, too. Entrees include fresh vegetables as well, thank you very much.

For just a buck or two more, you can customize your cut of beef, enjoying it blackened, peppercorn crusted, Roquefort glazed, or smothered with caramelized onions and mushrooms.

Cowabunga!

Readers' Choice: Outback Steakhouse

This funky cowpoke cantina has been slinging steaks since the 1950s, dished up chuck-wagon style with all the fixin's -- tossed salad, baked potato, beans and squishy rolls.

In true saddle-tramp style, there's nothing fancy to speak of here, just an honest, mesquite-grilled slab of juicy, marbled-for-flavor beef. The 14-ounce New York steak hits the spot just fine, although ravenous urban cowboys might opt for Reata Pass' signature two-pound T-bone.

For Wild West buffs, Reata Pass' history is almost as delicious as its grub. Originally a stagecoach stop on the way to Fort McDowell and Prescott, it maintains portions of the old 1880s stage road. The landmark's since been featured in a number of movies (including Bob Hope's Cancel My Reservation) and old-timers still talk about the special chair former owners had to construct for "Tom Ton," a 500-pound regular.

No longer located out in the boondocks, the onetime desert hideaway helped introduce several generations of tourists to Arizona hospitality. It's a tradition that Reata Pass continues today -- but out-of-towners will have to take your word for it that the place was once surrounded by virgin desert, not acres of look-alike custom homes.

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