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A lot of the dishes at Cafe Istanbul are really healthful, fat-free and low-calorie. But don't hold that against them. Lay into the lamb appetizer, layered with creamy hummus and pine nuts, or the tender, tangy, stuffed grape leaves. And on a warm day, nothing soothes as much as labni, a velvety yogurt cheese dip garnished with cucumber, tomatoes, olives and pure olive oil to be scooped with pita.

Cafe Istanbul offers endless variety in entrees, and excellent value, too. Meals are served with soup or salad, rice or vegetables and pita bread. The shrimp scampi is stellar, sautéed in special Lebanese seasonings, as is the vegetarian dinner of zucchini, eggplant, spinach, carrots, banana squash and sweet potatoes in a luscious white sauce. Or just taste it all in a huge platter: The Al Amir combo brings a bounty of hummus, tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves, feta cheese, baba ghanouj, mjadara, loubyeh, falafel, lamb, chicken and kafta kebab.

We love meals on wheels. As long as the meals are prepared by C-Fu, and the wheels belong to the dim sum carts careening around the warehouse-size dining room seven days a week. Just sit tight and wait for a cart to bring you more than 60 choices to tempt your taste buds. Chow fun noodles, Chinese broccoli, pork siu mai and baked barbecue pork buns are must-eats. Delectable dumplings stuffed with meat or seafood, fried shrimp balls, sticky rice in lotus leaf, stuffed eggplant and turnip cakes are winners, too. Weekends are particularly delightful, offering sum-thing special with contemporary plates starring seafood.

Asian dining is hot these days. The cuisine is now available even at Valley eateries that feature pizza and hamburgers. So how's a China girl to get a second look anymore? George and Son's knows the answer: superior quality, and ample choice. Primarily Chinese, the menu also borrows from Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma and Singapore, and spruces things up with an ambitious wine list. Consider the Asian mussels appetizer, steamed and served open-shell in a broth braced with ginger root and lemongrass. Or George's seafood pocket, an ultra-crisp, folded-over pancake studded with scallions and stuffed with finely chopped shrimp, crab, scallops, onion and green pepper. And where else can you get Mandalay Nungyi alongside your egg roll? Udon-style noodles are tumbled with white onion curls, cilantro leaves, and shredded chicken in a mild, charmingly gritty Burmese curry seasoning zipped with lemon, a light sauce and little chunks of roasted garlic. And for value with taste, steamed salmon is voluptuous, easily two pounds of fish in a supercharged black bean sauce. For our money, George and Son's is a chop shop worth hopping to right away.

Tucked away in the back of an antique mall, Serendipity Tea Room offers the perfect respite from the hustle and bustle of the real world. The British tradition of midday tea is honored here Monday through Saturday from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., with a prix fixe menu for $16.95 and more varieties of caffeinated beverages than you thought existed. Start out with a pot of your favorite loose tea (the decaffeinated currant tea is delicious with milk and sugar) and a freshly baked scone spread with sweet Devonshire cream and homemade lemon curd. Plentiful varieties of finger sandwiches can satisfy less dainty appetites, but save room for the other courses -- like cheesy quiche and one of several homemade desserts. A visit to Serendipity Tea Room is like a culinary spa treatment -- one that's become so popular, you'll have to make reservations at least a day in advance.

Silver Dragon looks like a typical Chinese chop suey house from the outside, from the inside, and from a glance at its primary menu. But ask for the real thing, the menu written in Chinese with just the briefest of English descriptions, and you'll be led to a private dining room, set with family-style tables. For anyone who's ever had authentic Chinese cuisine, there's nothing more soul-satisfying, and you'll find it here. Chuck the chow mein and skip the sweet-and-sour. Go for sumptuous winter melon soup, fat with crab meat. Follow it up with Three Delight, swimming with succulent scallops, shrimp and squid anchored by crisp vegetables and fried milk puffs, or the salt and pepper shrimp, served shell-on for crunchy satisfaction. Whole duck, crispy Hong Kong chicken dipped in salt, calamari steak and any of almost a dozen hot pot dishes are fabulous, too.
We simply can't get our fill of pho. This little joint may be short on ambiance, but maxing out at just $4.50 for an enormous bowl of the savory broth, it's a place where we can afford to eat every meal. Our favorite pho is the tai gau, swimming with brisket, rare eye of round (the meat cooks in its steaming, highly herbed broth) and skinny noodles. When other dishes seduce, bun cha gio thit nuong often wins, tumbling rice vermicelli over greens and cucumber, topped with crisp sliced spring rolls and seasoned grilled pork. Canh chua ca is tempting, too, with lots of moist catfish, pineapple and vegetables in a spicy lemon broth.

With 80 appetizers and entrees to select from, we'll never get bored. Which is good, because suddenly, we have an irresistible urge to visit Pho Bang again.

Most restaurants get cranky if you play with open flame at your table. At Arisoo, they actually encourage it. Okay, so it's a grill set into the table, powered by a gas burner, so you can cook thin strips of meat to your liking, but still, it's leaping flame.

Pyro or no, anyone who loves Korean food will be enraptured here. Deaji bulgogi is a treasured thing -- sliced pork, marinated in a nuclear red pepper sauce, to be grilled, then wrapped with lettuce, garlic, jalapeños, and a bit of salty mung bean paste. We also romance gal bi (short ribs), bul go gi (thin-sliced beef) and sometimes heu mit gui (beef tongue), the meat soaking up the rich aroma of soy-based sauce. Entrees are all the better with appetizers of bin dae duk (pancake) and man du (pot stickers). Or supplement with chap che, stir-fried noodles, or dol sot bibimbap, a sizzling stone pot of rice, beef and veggies.

Arisoo's a grill we'd be proud to introduce to our parents.

This, friends, is serious steak. Only the finest aged, corn-fed, USDA Prime beef bred in the Midwest makes it to the tables in this elegantly appointed place. Ruth's Chris' beef is never frozen, so you always get exceptionally tender and flavorful meat. Steaks are hand-cut at the restaurant and served in huge portions -- 12 to 22 ounces -- because a larger cut retains more of its natural juices during cooking. The beef is richly marbled -- those ribbons of fat mean a beautiful, buttery taste explosion. The steak literally calls to us -- broiled in an 1,800-degree oven and served on a plate heated to 500 degrees, the meat sputters and sizzles merrily, making a sound that's more Pavlovian than any bell. Whether it's the filet, rib eye, New York strip, porterhouse or massive cowboy cut, Ruth's Chris has a permanent stake in our future.

Some chefs treat the fusion concept as license to pair unnatural foods. Sushi schnitzel? Not for us, thanks. Then there are chefs like Natascha Ovando-Karadsheh, who takes classic dishes and marries them with select surprises, for tastes that are inspired but not weird. The handwritten menu changes nightly, depending on available ingredients and the chef's mood.

At Coup Des Tartes, we're impressed with such dishes as pork tenderloin, taken a little Jamaican with jerk rub, a little Southwestern with peach salsa, a little French with chèvre mashed potatoes, and all American with sautéed spinach. Lamb shank takes on a Moroccan flair with Indian spices, harissa-spiced vegetable ragout and dried fruits atop couscous. And we've never had such divine Alaskan halibut, drizzled with fresh basil oil, and stunningly served with Absolut Citron-spiked risotto, teardrop tomatoes and spinach. Freebie plates of French olives and a BYOB policy make dinner here even more special.

For such a big city, we sure don't have much in the way of ultra-luxe restaurants. Maybe we're too laid-back. (Jacket and tie? Surely you jest!) Or maybe no one's been brave enough to take on Mary Elaine's, our grandma of gourmet. This is the swankiest of swank, with rich European decor, white-glove service (even purses get their own little stools to sit on), and gorgeous views of the southern Valley. It's expensive -- appetizers for $29, entrees for $60, and desserts for $20 -- but no other restaurant can compete with its modern French cuisine. We're delighted, from a beginning of two ounces of Caspian beluga caviar through châteaubriand of buffalo with grilled Sonoma foie gras, or caramelized Maine sea scallops with arugula ravioli and white bean purée, right through desserts that leave us gasping. Yes, we do have to dress at Mary Elaine's. But we'd wear pink bunny suits if it got us a table.

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