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It's easy to become bored by same-old, same-old classic American food. Yet we've become overwhelmed by chefs conjuring up crazy concoctions like wasabi-glazed truffles in caramelized cognac with anchovy chutney. That's why we're so taken with the Asian-influenced American cuisine served at Elements. Rather than shtick, Chef Chuck Wiley wisely keeps Asia to an accent, focusing on the beauty of fresh ingredients and carefully honed flavors. Wiley changes the menu monthly, and offers unusual delicacies such as devil-fried oysters, breaded panko-style and served on the half shell atop a massive bowl of rock salt with tangy baby spinach and cucumber slaw. He wakes up sleepy salmon, crisp-edged from the grill, salt-and-peppery skinned, lounging on a nest of tangy braised greens, snow peas, sesame, ginger and somen noodles. Even traditional favorites have energy, such as the hefty filet mignon, paired with garlic mashed potatoes topped with melted bleu cheese and sweet soft onion strips. With its plush Camelback Mountain address and fabulous views of Paradise Valley below, Elements has everything it needs to be a special experience.

The word "chain" conjures up images of cookie-cutter chow and surroundings, unimaginative stuff created to appeal to the masses. That's why Chart House breaks the chain for us. The place is too pretty to be prefab, with lots of dark woods, a clubby, upscale style and unparalleled lakeside views, particularly at sunset.

The cuisine isn't chain-style, either. The fish is always market-fresh, and you can always get Pacific swordfish, Hawaiian mahi-mahi and yellowfin ahi, or California bluenose bass, served grilled, baked or blackened. Other preparations are more creative, like pan-seared sea scallops in ginger-soy broth, ginger-crusted miso halibut, or sesame-crusted salmon with coconut peanut sauce. Meats are a marvel, too, particularly the succulent prime rib, rack of lamb and filet mignon. Nothing beats the salad bar, either, groaning with a huge, gorgeous collection of things like fresh-tossed caesar with real anchovies, hearts of palm, marinated vegetables, and two kinds of rich, salty caviar.

Chain or not, we're charting our course to Chart House.

Think you've had a mixed green salad? Not until you've experienced this one, stocked with sprouts, carrots, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, tomato wedges and cucumber slices. Stir-fry shines, too, like the saguaro sesame tofu, tossing baked bean curd with steamed broccoli, carrots, zucchini, napa cabbage and ponzu vinaigrette over brown rice. We also love the Southwestern green corn tamale, studded with dairy-free black beans and topped with red pepper slices, black olives and parsley, all served over rice. Partaking of pizza? Go for the Arizona native, an herb crust piled high with soy mozzarella, green chile sauce, tomatoes, black olives, roasted red bell peppers, avocado, red onion and cilantro. For health food that makes us happy, nobody pleases us more than Desert Greens Cafe.

This place desperately needs to edit down its name to something you can say without taking a breath in the middle, but that's okay. Its noble intentions make up for it. As the menu says: "With respect for all life, we proudly serve all dishes free of meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and MSG." (We always knew MSG was a living parasite; now it's confirmed.)

What makes this vegetarian house so interesting is that it seeks to replicate the taste of animals instead of killing them for it. Substitutions are carefully crafted of soy and other mysterious ingredients to mimic meats, including veggie beef, veggie eel, veggie pork, veggie goose, veggie chicken, veggie squid, veggie shrimp, veggie fish, veggie duck and veggie meatballs. Some presentations are actually molded into shapes that look like the real thing. And, surprisingly enough, Supreme Master carries off this unusual concept with winning cuisine.

The cuisine at Mueller's can be difficult to pronounce -- gebackner camenbert mit preiselbeeren, for example -- but it's easy to swallow. Gebackner is a small baked round of Camembert served with sweet-sour lingonberries. Along with cream of carrot soup or herring in cream sauce gussied with apples and onions, it makes for an appealing appetizer.

Entrees are just as energetic, including altburger töpfle (pork tenderloin in a rich mushroom gravy over homemade spätzle noodles), Wiener schnitzel (breaded veal sautéed in butter), rinderfilet mit pfifferlinge (beef medallions with chanterelle mushrooms), and tunnes potz (pork tenderloin on a bed of spinach topped with a zesty tomato sauce).

Desserts? But of course. Try Black Forest cake or apple strudel.

Great German food, served in a great German setting, by owners with great German accents -- it doesn't get any better than this.

Chef Vincent Guerithault's eponymous eatery, tucked into an (who would believe it?) office park between a gas station and a massage parlor, celebrated its 15th anniversary this year. When he first introduced his menu, people scoffed: a combination of classic French cooking with flavors of Mexico and the American Southwest -- in a town that didn't even stock cilantro in its grocery stores? Now that exotic herbs are available even at Safeway, the James Beard-celebrated Vincent's is still at the top of its class. We pray he never deprives us of his duck tamale with Anaheim chile, lobster chimichanga with basil pesto, and salmon quesadilla -- house-smoked fish laid over a thin, phyllo-like crust dabbed with dill and horseradish cream. Trends come and go. With Vincent's, however, superb Southwestern is here to stay.

When chef Jeffrey Beeson took over tiny Convivo this year, a great thing just got better. The setting in this modest place off a strip mall parking lot is casual, but the eats are all glamour -- American classics goosed up with unexpected flavors. Local produce is a star here, and we get our daily vitamins with the Convivo Collection, an ever-changing assortment of grilled vegetables that might include leeks, red pepper, Japanese eggplant, carrots and zucchini, delightfully paired with garlicky hummus, salami, barley salad and pecan-crusted goat cheese. Appetizers are adventurous -- an edgy house-cured salmon nesting with crispy fried ravioli in a pineapple butter sauce with peppery nasturtium leaves, for example. Entrees are outright excitement, such as coconut-crusted ahi tuna topped with fried calamari and slicked in plum-marigold-mint vinaigrette alongside soba noodles. And for dessert, our favorites are the guajillo chile-squash flan in fragrant cinnamon syrup, or a fudgy ancho-chile brownie. With food this stunning, we're more proud than ever to say that we're American.
There's something decidedly unromantic about having your éclair handed to you by a person wearing a cowboy hat or a teenager who repeatedly uses the word "like" as a modifier. Rest assured that this will never happen to you at Au Petit Four French Pastry and Bakery, located between a pair of escalators on the ground level of the Camelback Esplanade. Recently opened by a newly arrived Frenchman, Au Petit Four offers delicious, authentic pastries, salads, sandwiches and quiches with a flourish and a friendly (and correctly pronounced) "Bonjour!" Whether you crave a croissant, a brioche, a "Parisian salade," or just an earful of wonderful French accent, Au Petit Four is pure Gaul.

If Helen had a face that could launch a thousand ships, then Greekfest serves entrees that can launch a thousand tips. Greekfest has been our favorite for too many years to count, and somehow, it keeps getting better. Owners Susan and Tony Makridis have built an empire of the senses, with stunning flavors, a Grecian palace setting, and personality so charming we can't help but shout "Opa!" when our saganaki arrives. How could we restrain, as the mild kefalograviera cheese is soaked with brandy, then dramatically flambéed at our table? If we want exotica, we slurp oktapodi skaras (grilled octopus in cabernet sauce). When we're feeling a little more traditional, we go for the moussakas (slices of baked eggplant and ground lamb with béchamel and cheese), or roasted rack of baby lamb dressed with pine nuts. Greekfest is a festival of flavors we're happy to attend all year long.
There are those days when nothing will satisfy your culinary cravings like oyster omakase. You know the feeling. Hey, when that mood hits, head for Hapa Sushi Lounge. Omakase, of course, means a multicourse chef's choice dinner (in Japanese). And at Hapa, depending on the bounty of the day, it can be an upscale orgy of mollusks exquisitely paired, if you like, with wine, sake, sparkling wine and champagne. Perhaps the selection will include a trio of Washington State oysters, served in-shell on a long sushi-style tray. Different varieties are presented hot, in a sauce of sake, soy, grape seed oil and chives; or cold as palate refreshers, in varying baths of ponzu, spicy daikon and green onion or lime and chile. Playing the perfect partner is wonderfully smooth Kurosawa Daiginjo sake. In this Valley's shell game, Hapa Sushi Lounge is a guaranteed winner.

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