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.

Atlas Bistro
Jackie Mercandetti Photo
The past 12 months have seen the introduction of not just one incredible destination, but several. What happened? Did serious chefs finally wake up and realize how many Valley folks have lots of cash to spend on their evenings out (not us, but we've heard of such people)? For once, it was hard to choose the best new restaurant.

Yet there's something just a bit extra special about Atlas Bistro, a tiny cafe with a big-city mood. It's BYOB, always a nice touch to lower the dinner tab, but it's connected to the terrific AZ Wine Co., meaning it's almost as good as having a personal sommelier (just let the proprietors know what you're thinking of eating for dinner, and they'll help you choose the perfect wine. Plus, if you buy your grapes from AZ Wine, there's no corkage fee).

We love the sleek, elegant ambiance of white cloth capped with white butcher paper. But we love the menu even more, celebrating seasonal selections in simple but sophisticated dishes. The bruschetta are brilliant, six dainty crostini individually capped with things like chopped tomato and olive oil, white beans with hummus, and briny mushrooms over goat cheese and mascarpone. A quesadilla is special, a sun-dried tomato tortilla encasing white cheese and nubs of smoked salmon atop a peanuty-charactered bay scallop and crayfish sauce studded with corn and pearl onions. And it's hard to improve on an enormous Niman Ranch pork chop, exquisitely thick and moist, sided with an earthy wet heap of roasted corn, plump barley and black beans. What a beauty of a bistro.

House of Tricks
Timur Guseynov
What do we love best about House of Tricks? It must be the setting, a small 1920s cottage with just 12 tables and an old river rock fireplace. Or maybe it's the patio, feeling like someone's front porch under a canopy of grapevines. Even as the restaurant has grown -- the property now includes a 1903 brick and adobe house next door -- the place has never lost its charm.

We think it's the wine list we love the most, selected from a temperature-and-humidity-controlled cellar holding more than 2,500 bottles. Surely, though, it's the food, a compelling blend of seasonal American accented with touches of Asia, Europe and the Southwest. Our favorite dish is lavender-and-herb-crusted ahi tuna seared rare with red curry sauce, risotto cake and sautéed greens. No, wait, we really adore the tenderloin au poivre, with sautéed potatoes and shiitakes in an herb butter sauce.

Okay, so it's simple. We love absolutely everything about this place. Nothing too tricky about that.

We're not the only ones enchanted with this amazing experience -- the resort's signature restaurant is rated AAA Five Diamond and Mobil Four Star. The decor alone is mouth-watering, rich in the colors of the Mediterranean region with polished marble, soft leather and 16th- and 17th-century Spanish Colonial antiques and paintings. A garden patio with a fireplace overlooking the McDowell Mountains invites us for luxurious alfresco dining. But we can't eat awards or ambiance.

Fortunately, the menu is as impressive as the setting -- exquisite seafood, meat, poultry and produce radiantly seasoned with provincial herbs, garlic and other flavors indigenous to the European region. We've been wowed by such temptations as cheese-filled pansotti with truffle oil scented sbira; buttered scalded chanterelles and truffles with sweet beet emulsion; and roasted veal loin pistou with crispy sweetbreads, cannellini beans and white almond pistou.

But what's most Mediterranean? Perhaps paella, and here it's pure luxury, stocked with lots of lobster, chicken, pork, frogs' legs, chistora, mussels, escargot, cockles and shrimp.

Vive la Riviera.

Sabuddy is well-versed in the art of Middle Eastern cooking. There's a little bit of everything European on this lengthy menu -- baba ghanouj, chicken liver pâté, Russian potato salad, matbuha (North African tomato salad), shish kebabs, schnitzel and goulash.

No matter what we order, we know it'll arrive fresh, homemade, hearty and impossibly cheap. Soups are particularly mesmerizing, the lentil thickened with potatoes; the white bean and tomato broth robust; the gazpacho brilliant and singing with tomato. We like to sample from each section -- a salad (the Greek eggplant is divine, grilled, chopped and blended with fried onion, garlic, parsley, olive oil and lemon juice to be spread on pita), any of the soups, and an entree (try the ground beef kebab, rich with Middle Eastern seasonings, skewered and grilled to a juicy finish).

When we're craving topnotch Middle Eastern food, we know exactly what to do. We rely on our Sabuddy system.

C-Fu Gourmet
In Manhattan's or San Francisco's Chinatown, our criterion for selecting a seafood restaurant is simple. It must have live fish, and lots of it, on display. While the Valley lacks a Chinatown, we've found the fresh fish alive and swimming at C-Fu. The choices change with the seasons, but we can usually count on shrimp, Dungeness crab, lobster, oyster, tilapia, flounder or sea bass. Portions are huge, almost two dozen shrimp per order, two-pound crabs, whole fish. Selections are huge, too, spanning almost 100 fishy dishes including jellyfish, abalone, scallops, clams, rock cod, catfish, conch, squid and mussels.

Here's our dream feast of the deep: appetizers of sugar cane shrimp and a walnut shrimp salad. A soup of crab meat and winter melon. Entrees of lobster with black bean sauce (spicy, with bell pepper, bamboo, carrot, onion, water chestnuts, mushrooms and baby corn), plus yu shang rock cod (pan fried in spicy vinaigrette with bell pepper, onion, scallion, bamboo and mushroom). And to round it out, we get salted fish and chicken fried rice or soft lo mein with shrimp and scallops. It's simply the best fish to be found anywhere in town, sea?

El Chorro
In this town, "old" is anything predating the '80s. But when we say old, we mean ancient. Such as the heritage of El Chorro, a local landmark since 1937. Very little has changed over the years at this adobe building, formerly Judson School for Girls and later a restaurant frequented by such celebrities as Clark Gable and Milton Berle. Its current owner, Joe Miller, began as a bartender in 1952, then purchased the property in 1973, ensuring tradition would carry on.

We personally have consumed more than our fair share of El Chorro's signature items, giant sticky buns that are served free with every meal. And while we'll admit that when we were in high school, we scoffed over the "old people's" menu -- loaded with classics like chipped beef on English muffin, shrimp Louie salad, chicken liver with bacon, and shad roe on toast -- now we appreciate the nostalgia.

We really appreciate the refinement, too, with tableside presentation of châteaubriand with béarnaise sauce, and rack of lamb with minted jelly. Quality has survived the ages with grace -- USDA prime aged filet mignon, New York steak, lobster tail and lamb chops are prepared in 1600F mesquite broiler to lock in flavor and juices.

Some things just never go out of style. Thank goodness.

The Paisley Violin
Molly Smith
It was just seven years ago that downtown Phoenix welcomed its first McDonald's. Given the frenzy stirred up by the media, we must have thought we'd finally joined the ranks of downtown Manhattan or Los Angeles. How embarrassing. Then, last year, there came Paisley Violin. And finally, we wiped the sleep from our ennuied eyes and thought, Yes! Phoenix truly is on its way to having an honest-to-goodness downtown we can be proud of.

The area is no stranger to eclectic art houses, coffee shops, performance theaters, music venues, funky little restaurants and hangout spots. The difference is, Paisley Violin is the first to package them all together, and to actually be successful doing it. It's refreshing to stop in the little spot and see it rocking as a center for poetry slams, live music, ambient art, open-mike slots, after-hours grooving, DJ spinning and even chess tournaments.

There's a full menu offered with refreshingly well-executed appetizers, salads and sandwiches. Just as pleasing, the beer and wine policy is BYOB. And this is bargain culture: Cravings for art and appetite can be satisfied for $7.50 or less. Choose from light bites like imported olives, a plate of assorted cubed cheeses, fruit and baguette, hummus with grape leaves, panini or lox and capers with jalapeo cream cheese and greens on a sourdough baguette.

Welcome to the modern world, Phoenix. We're so glad to see you.

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