Best Vegetables 2002 | Rancho Pinot | Food & Drink | Phoenix
Another upscale, contemporary American restaurant might be puzzled, or even insulted, that we decided the best thing about it was its vegetables. True, the entrees are wonderful at Rancho Pinot. But what really gets us going is the garnish. Nobody has a better eye for selecting, and a better hand at preparing, nature's finest bounty of garden goods than does chef-owner Chrysa Kaufman.

Who needs anything else, when we can get our fill on brilliant veggie creations like roasted beets tossed with spicy greens, toasted almonds and sheep's milk feta, or a savory tart of green garlic, leeks and spring onion with ricotta and manchego? And while other places may make do with steamed broccoli, carrots and potatoes, Kaufman conquers new ground with sides like Tuscan kale, rapini, artichoke-bacon-potato hash, flageolet beans with caramelized garlic, squash blossoms, and garlic spinach that's so good we want to curl up in bed with it.

When we're at Rancho Pinot, you can't make us not eat our veggies.

A potato is no simple spud. There are hundreds of varieties grown around the world, each with a distinct shape, skin, color, texture and taste. There's a different potato that's best for different uses, such as mashed, French fries, chips, salad, boiled.

But we're not concerned with what type of potatoes the kitchen uses at Peruanitos, an outrageously delicious Peruvian restaurant where absolutely everything on the long menu sparkles. Picking potatoes is the chef's job. Still, we are smitten with the spuds that arrive at our table, one glorious creation after another.

We could live on this stuff -- papas a la huancaina (in creamy, spicy queso fresco with palillo herb), papa rellena (spicy beef wrapped in a mashed potato shell with red onion salsa), causa rellena de atun (layers of mashed potato stuffed with tuna and Peruvian spices), sopa de leche (potato soup), papa a la diabla (potatoes with a creamy salsa of onion, queso fresco and boiled egg), and carapulcra (mashed and sun-dried potatoes with pork, peanuts and spices).

Peruanitos changes its potato dish selections periodically, but we've found that a woeful stare at our server works wonders with special requests. Any way you slice it, these tubers are tops.

Timur Guseynov
We've dreamed of being trapped in a sushi restaurant. We try to run, but everywhere we turn, there teems more maguro, hamachi, tako, uni, ebi, sake, tobiko. The problem is not in escaping, it's in catching the slippery fish and shoveling it into our mouths before we wake up.

Now we're living the dream at Sushi 101, where there's an all-we-can-eat special for $19.95, no chasing required. There are some restrictions: Leftovers are charged at full price, including rice. This means that diners who bite off more than they can swallow face penalties on their bills. If we can't finish our shrimp tempura roll, or try to sneak in more value by not eating the rice on our nigiri sushi, we'll be charged the full per-piece sushi price on top of that $19.95.

We have no problem with that. We know, down to the grain of rice, exactly how much sushi our stomach holds (years of practice). And Sushi 101 servers warn us up front that this is not a buffet. We can order as much as we want, in as frequent intervals as we want, but we'd really better mean it.

A big part of popping the question is the style of how it's done. None of that "Well, we might as well get married, I guess" kind of stuff.

The thing about El Encanto is that it's centered on a beautiful lake, bobbing with graceful ducks and geese. While we're getting fed truly delicious Sonoran food (viva la margarita!), the waterfowl are hoping we'll spring a quarter into one of the grain-filled gumball machines. Turn the knob, fill a little paper cup with delicious goose chow, and the birds come flapping over.

Now here's our idea: Put the quarter in the machine. Fill the cup with grain. Then, take that expensive rock and stick it down into the bird seed. Hand the cup to your sweetie. Just be sure she doesn't toss the whole kit and caboodle in the pond. Isn't that romantic?

Royal Palms Resort and Spa
With just 166 rooms but Four Diamonds, it's clear that the Royal Palms understands how class cohabits with intimacy. Rather than catering to the masses and impressing with sheer quantity, Royal Palms puts exquisite effort into the tiniest details of every single element of its operation.

While other brunches use the flash factor of acres of food to draw oohs and aahs, T. Cook's offers a refined finish to the weekend, offering a prix fixe menu of à la carte Mediterranean-inspired classics. While we're not leaving as gluttons, what we do eat is guaranteed to be the very best in its league.

If we're feeling dainty, we can go for the $19 cold buffet, an all-we-can-eat extravaganza of fresh seafood, smoked salmon, gourmet salads, grilled vegetables, fruits, cheeses, breads, pastries and more. If we want to supplement -- or substitute -- our feast, we can select from T. Cook's regular breakfast and lunch. This means classy dishes like spinach and oven-dried tomato quiche; white truffle and fontina cheese omelet with chicken leek sausage; asparagus and wild mushroom soup; lobster and avocado with butter lettuce, shaved fennel and garlic jus; or seared pork tenderloin with sweet potato pancake, Savoy cabbage and apples.

All this in a brilliant, Southwestern hacienda setting lush with gardens, and T. Cook's is truly something for a special Sunday.

Kazimierz Wine & Whiskey Bar
When we began investigating Kazimierz's wine list, inspired by next-door cafe's Cowboy Ciao (same owner), we knew we had our work cut out for us. What a masterpiece of obscure, cult, sensual and surprising wines. The list spans page after page, and would be entirely intimidating if not for the fun narrative to help us along. If we had a flashlight, we could sit here in this dark cafe all night just reading the quips:

"NV Gruet blanc de noirs, New Mexico, half bottle. The expatriate Gruet family, tired of the ridiculous French tax laws, moved to the one area of the planet they felt most mirrored the soil and climate of Champagne . . . who would have guessed it was Truth or Consequences, New Mexico? (although rumors of it being tied to an alien experiment at Area 51 are surely false, or at least stretched a bit)."

"NV Mountain Dome brut, Washington. Flavor wise, this is crisp, clean, balanced and refreshing, but the reason we bought it was the little elves on the label."

"'98 Burge Family semillon, Olive Hill, Australia. This starts out smelling of rubber and chloroform (it's not important how I know the smell of chloroform, it's need-to-know basis and you don't need to know), then changes to multiple layers of tropical fruits, finally evolving into the exact aroma of a box of jujubes (and it's not important how I know that, either, I just do)."

And -- on New Zealand Merlots: "New Zealand is about as synonymous with Merlot as I am with kiwi juggling, but this one is a winner (I did once juggle a Lake Geneva Playboy Bunny and a Miss McHenry runner-up, but I was quite youthful and generally anesthetized at the time, consequently more nimble and courageous; nowadays, I'm lucky to find my pants)."

If people knew Hungarian food like we know Hungarian food, they'd be at Peter's Budapest Cafe every night of the week.

Prepare to indulge heartily here, and heavily. Hungarian food mostly is enormous platters of tender, juicy beef piled atop plump noodles; breaded, fried veal cutlets nestled alongside great hunks of buttery fried potatoes; and deep-fried mushrooms, proud of their grease and cloaked in fat suits of tartar sauce. It's classic comfort. Favorite dishes include gently sautéed chicken livers, oven-baked pork loin, meat loaf in chubby slabs, sausage-potato-egg casserole, and obese sausage links resting on a bed of glossy tricolor peppers. There's no holding back the good stuff, either, with pools of rich cream sauce, lava flows of molten cheese, dollops of tangy sour cream and desserts that are more huge, sugar-entombed shrines than simply food. But most gratifying for us, the cuisine is rapturous, thanks to creative use of distinguished spices like paprika (spicy-sweet crushed pepper powder) and poppy seeds, plus sour cream to enrich rather than overwhelm.

If people only knew. If they'd only give it a try. The Valley would be such a happier place.

We're choosy about our cookies. None of the prefab, out-of-a-bag stuff for us, thank you. We want fresh-baked, with only the finest all-natural ingredients. And this is exactly what we've found at Chocolate Star, where the ovens are always on and the larder is always stocked with delights like Ghirardelli chocolate, fresh whole eggs, Arizona pecans, real butter, black strap molasses, old-fashioned oats and plump raisins. We can buy a dozen cookies for us, or baskets with coffee for gift giving. The selection is short but oh so sweet: royal chocolate chip, spicy ginger crisps, oatmeal raisin, pecan sandies, double fudge, peanut butter, snickerdoodles and mocha coco. For choosy cookie chewers like us, the choice is clear -- Chocolate Star shines.

Cookies Amour owner Lynne Wellish doesn't just have to keep her customers happy. She's got to answer to the Greater Phoenix Vaad Hakashruth, the authority that determines whether a Jewish kitchen is kosher. She had a rabbi approve it before opening and pays a fee for ongoing inspections.

The result for her kosher-cookie-craving customers is a wide variety of premium treats, made with imported chocolate, real vanilla and butter (non-dairy types are available, too). They're baked daily; there is no freezer.

There's a favorite for everyone: chocolate chip, milk chocolate chip with pecans, oatmeal spice, apricot shortbread bars, classic peanut butter, raspberry shortbread bars, chocolate decadence and much more.

A friend has been gushing to us -- endlessly -- about this exciting ice cream shop he'd found in Chandler. Huh, we thought, we certainly respect his taste, but could a small store be that much better than the superpremium, handcrafted scoops we find in our local gourmet restaurants?

Oh yeah. We finally got out there to try it, and now, just try keeping us away. Angel Sweet makes its divine gelatos fresh every day, and is this stuff a knockout. Somehow, it manages to be low-fat, but you'd never know to taste the thick, rich Italian ice cream. One glance at the more than two dozen flavors on display, and our heads are spinning.

Angel Sweet's recipes, and many of its ingredients, come straight from Italy. Fruits are in high form, intense and arrogant, partnered with classic concoctions like tiramisu, panna cotta with caramel, and stracciatella (Italian chocolate chip).

Which reminds us: We really should give that friend a call back and thank him. But we can do that later, after we finish our dessert.

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