Gourmet is much more than complicated, expensive food. It's a symphony of spectacular ingredients, carefully selected and matched for a "wow, what is this gorgeous thing" dish. It's a compound effect, where each course builds on another, like rising drama of theater. That having some knowledge of its workings can be used to impress the hell out of friends and business associates just makes it that much more delicious.

So study up a little before venturing into the gorgeous Gregory's. It helps to know that the best way to order here is in small, three- to five-course tastings, following the order of the menu to build flavors from light to heavy. Practice asking with authority for this appetizer: torchon of foie gras, toasted brioche, Chenin Blanc aspic, sel gris and port wine reduction. Choose with confidence a salad of field greens, duck confit, roasted beets, sour cream dill and buckwheat blini. For a fish course with flair: lion's paw scallop, sweet vermouth, lobster broth, micro arugula and foie butter. And be a meat maestro with grilled Wagyu Kobe beef marinated in Japanese beer with shiitake mushroom potato hash.

Gregory's is complicated. But it's also gorgeous. And that, good friends, is what makes a true gourmet experience.

Christopher's has racked up the awards since opening in 1998 (James Beard, even!). The bistro is a little lower-profile these days, but still a model for magical, traditional, ooh-la-la-inspiring French cuisine. Adding flair is a huge collection of wines, thoughtfully paired with dishes and available for tastings.

Most dishes are prepared in a wood-burning oven, the better to show off their natural flavors. All dishes are sumptuous, like roasted half Sonoma duck, molasses-glazed rack of lamb, classic hanger steak with shallots and red wine, truffle-infused prime sirloin, and the sinful wood-oven-roasted foie gras.

We're usually around for the daily specials, though, toothsome takes on traditional bistro fare like roasted sweetbreads, veal cheeks, sole meunière and rabbit with mustard sauce. For over-the-top luxury, we throw in a side of Oestra caviar.

Un-French as it sounds, Christopher's deserves extra credit for putting a healthful spin on many of his rich dishes. Request the KRONOS menu, and you'll meet the health institute's guidelines for optimal health (meats substituted by vegetables). Vive la France!

The only thing we've got more of than so-so Italian restaurants in this town is mediocre Mexican. Yet until someone can come up with the incredible Italian cuisine that is the baby of Acqua e Sale owner Daniel Malventano, we're just chalking up those other Italian places as average shops hawking everyday pizza, pasta and stuff we've seen a thousand times before.

Malventano, though, travels to Italy virtually every year to check on what's new in one of Europe's oldest cuisines. We're glad he makes the effort, because it means we get to feast on delicacies involving black truffle oil, duck prosciutto, white truffle sauce, top-grade carpaccio and escolar, and such things as a perfect verde e bianca salad -- lacing crystal-crisp Bibb lettuce with thin asparagus stalks, chubby wands of palm heart and bitter grapefruit chunks in extra virgin olive oil.

Yes, Acqua e Sale has familiar favorites like veal lasagna, ravioli del giorno (Maryland crab and truffle oil) and capellini con pomodorino freschi (angel hair pasta in a tomato, basil, garlic and olive oil sauce). But to find better renditions? Why, we'd have to book a flight to Italy.

La Famiglia Pizza & Pasta
Every city needs a little pizza and pasta place to call its own -- a hole in the wall where people can cozy up with a masterful meatball, a magical marinara, a perfect penne, a ravishing ravioli, a stunning Sicilian sausage pie. Friendly, robust conversation with the owners and with fellow customers just adds to the flavors. Or we can snag a feast and take it home to eat with our very own family.

At La Famiglia, we are family, too, greeted by name after just a few visits. These folks, transplants from Long Island, don't mess around when it comes to mouth-watering manicotti, fettuccine Alfredo, veal scaloppine. We order at the counter, rarely pay more than 10 bucks for a full-size feast, and always, always, end up fat and happy. It's our own little pizza heaven.

Touch of Thai
Thai food is all about dynamic flavors -- spice, seasonings, sizzle. And Touch of Thai puts much more than just a touch of that into its dishes. This place is nuts for the fiery chile peppers, but in a very, very good way. The taste always shines through its veil of flame.

We're not looking for apologies, just more food, when our lips, tongue and stomach burn after tucking into such smoky delicacies as tod mahn (spicy fish patties with cucumber sauce), larb (minced meat sautéed in lemon juice, red onion and mint), yahm pla meug (lemongrass squid), gaeng goong (red curry shrimp) or phaht Thai (rice stick noodles with chicken and shrimp).

Sure, we can adjust the heat level, but we'd rather trust the kitchen to send out the very best. At Touch of Thai, there's no doubt that there's perfection behind these peppers.

Gourmet House of Hong Kong
It's faded powder blue paint on the outside and cotton candy pink on the inside, but all over, it's the most authentic Chinese anywhere in town. Keep in mind that authentic means adventurous, with dishes like duck feet with greens.

The menu of more than 400 items can be intimidating. But order the way we do, filling up lazy Susans on the big tables with lots of varieties, then spinning it among friends to sample and share. With such cheap prices, even if we find that beef belly in casserole isn't to everyone's liking, it's fun to at least taste it. Everything is incredibly fresh, even in the run-down-looking operation, with oceans of fresh seafood, crisp vegetables, friendly service and explosive flavors.

Our short list includes delicacies like deep-fried soft shell crab, frogs' legs with pepper salt, steamed whole head on shrimp in garlic and chile pepper, and new Hong Kong-style cooking like long green pea with red snapper. The fish list is remarkable, showcasing red snapper, rock cod, flounder, clams, whole live lobster, crab, mussels, oysters, squid and shrimp. And vegetarians feast, too (soy bean cake with black mushroom is exquisite).

Gourmet House is the place for lunch, packed with people like us who've discovered the amazing three dozen lunch combos alone for as little as $3.27. Familiar dishes abound, but they're a step above the rest, with expertly crafted kung pao, curry beef, sweet and sour snapper, moo goo gai pan and a dynamite house plate of shrimp, scallop, chicken, pork, snow pea, mushroom, celery, carrot and bamboo shoot (just $5.61).

We're nothing if not completely dedicated to preserving the integrity of our Best of Phoenix picks. Day in and day out, we're pounding the streets, scouting, sampling, checking once and checking twice to make sure our selections are, indeed, the very best. Consider Pho Bang. We check on this Vietnamese restaurant, oh, about 50 times a year. And we've never, ever been let down.

Sure, service can be brusque (good luck getting beverage refills). The interior can be, uh, scruffy. And the communication levels vary (one time we ordered hot and sour fish soup, only to have our server wrinkle her nose and exclaim, "Oh, you no like!" She was really wrong). But the food, oh my Buddha.

Everything is superb, like the refreshing chopped spring rolls and grilled pork over rice vermicelli. We love the tabletop grilled dishes, and the chicken curry dunked with French bread. But our real heart belongs to pho, the staple of rice noodle beef broth. A massive bowl arrives hot and steaming, aromatic with herbs and stocked with lots of thin slippery noodles plus our choice of meat (we love the tender brisket and the raw eye of round in paper thin slices that cook in the broth).

Years of constant supervision guarantee this is the best Vietnamese. We always know what we're in pho.

Sushi on Shea
There are only, like, a gazillion Japanese restaurants in the Valley these days. But as many new, exciting places open up, we find ourselves returning each time to Sushi on Shea. We've been darkening its doors since it first opened in 1994, and have yet to find anything but a perfect experience.

Under the direction of chef Fred Yamada, the energetic bar/restaurant rocks with a fun crowd gathering to gorge on fresh fish, beef udon, tempura soba, katsu, salmon teriyaki, or shabu-shabu and sukiyaki prepared tableside. On the nights we can't decide, we go for the bento box, combining chicken teriyaki, shrimp and vegetable tempura, tuna sashimi, pickles, miso soup and rice. Sushi, of course, is always on the table in front of us -- albacore tataki, flying fish roe, uni with quail egg and endless rows of sparkling fresh tuna.

Tabletop Grill & Sushi
We love taking newbies to Korean restaurants. It's so fun to casually mention that Korean cuisine contains pickles. Then to watch our guests' eyes bug out when, like at Tabletop, some 13 little plates arrive, each bearing a different type of vegetable, marinated and spiced to varying heat levels (ranging from mild puckery to call the fire department).

At Tabletop, the pickles, and everything else, stand out because they're so incredibly fresh. Everything sparkles with obvious pride from the kitchen. These are authentic dishes, too, not toned down for wussy American taste buds. That pan-fried shrimp in spicy chili sauce requires great gulps of Asian beer to soothe the burns. Cornish hen is not your typical poultry on a plate, but a hearty soup of whole bird swimming with medicinal herbs, spices and real, potent Korean ginseng. The waiter cuts up the carcass with scissors, and we roll pieces of flesh in salt-pepper mix or coarse rock salt. There's tabletop cooking, too, of course, working with a grill set in the table's center. We like the beef short ribs, wrapping the tender beef in crisp romaine leaves and wrapping it with thick chile paste and jalapeos.

It's impossible to leave hungry, or without change in our pockets. While Tabletop specialties run from $12.95 to $15.95, portions are for two. Now that's pretty tasty.

Indian Maharaja Palace
Jackie Mercandetti
If a food has thrived for some 5,000 years like Indian cuisine has, we've got to believe there's something pretty special about it. For proof, all we have to do is stop in at Maharaja Palace, home to the Valley's most exciting display of what makes Indian so interesting. Here, we find how sublime the food can be, involving an elaborate labyrinth of color, texture and flavor. Tastes are layered and complex, often including ghee (clarified butter) for a creamy finish that's incomparably rich. Spices come in rainbow reflections, applied lavishly in tiers of turmeric, ginger, garlic, fennel, coriander, cumin, chili, mint and more. Playing the riff is garam masala, an intense, aromatic mixture that has no set recipe but often includes cinnamon, cloves, black pepper and black cardamom.

We're stunned by the kitchen's take on classics like mulligatawny, a from-scratch curry-kissed soup floating with chicken, lentils and fresh herbs. Lamb jalfraizee is luscious, a tender, meaty toss of tomatoes, onion and green pepper in a vinegary, ginger-imbued gravy served on a sizzling platter. And while Indian food has a reputation for causing sweaty brows and gasping breath, lamb korma is a jewel of delicate meat blended with tangy yogurt and nuts.

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