Cafe Reviews

Lunchroom Confidential

Would you like to have your cavities filled by a student dentist? Would you get on an airplane flown by a student pilot? Would you trust your haircut to a student barber?

I get the dry heaves when a skilled dentist approaches me with dental floss, let alone a whirring drill. I know major airline pilots are highly experienced and reassuringly unperturbable. Still, I practically have to be sedated every time I fly. And seeing scissors headed toward my follicly challenged scalp always brings on a panic attack, even when the instrument is wielded by a stylist licensed by the Arizona Board of Cosmetology.

So you can imagine my anxiety level after I somehow talked myself into facing a battery of meals prepared by teenage and postadolescent student cooks. After all, eating is my life. Remember the adage, "Youth is wasted on the young"? I sure didn't look forward to getting gastronomically wasted by youthful beginners at two Valley culinary schools. Trainees in the kitchen--can you imagine a scarier prospect? What would these chef-wanna-bes be working on? I pictured them, huddled around an instructor, trying to unlock the mysteries of the Colonel's 11 secret herbs and spices. Or maybe they'd be learning the right way to angle a slice of processed cheese on a burger.

As it turned out, my fears were groundless. To my great relief, I found that, with proper tutelage, youth isn't always wasted on the young.

The Gallery Cafe is the dining laboratory for the School of Culinary Arts, part of the Art Institute of Phoenix. Its 18-month program aims to give novices a well-rounded culinary education. At the end of the term, prospective graduates face what they say is the most daunting part of the curriculum: waiting on tables. I understand--direct contact with the public could give anyone the willies. But when the food is as good as it is here, there's no reason at all to be nervous about serving it.

The dining room itself doesn't have much design flair. The linenless tables are set with matching red paper placemats and napkins. You can watch the staff at work in the kitchen through a big window. An extensive collection of gallery art hanging on the walls (all of it for sale) saves the room from terminal drabness.

There's nothing drab, however, about what comes out of the kitchen. The lunchtime menu, which changes weekly, features a three-course meal, budget-priced at $7.50: an appetizer choice of soup or salad; three entree options (generally fish, chicken and red meat dishes); and dessert and beverage. (Closed now for winter break, the cafe resumes operations in mid-January.)

The breadbasket is more hit-or-miss than any other part of the meal. Potato flour rolls are scrumptious. Herb rolls could have used more seasoning punch. But the French bread needs the most work. The texture's all wrong, too light and insubstantial. Whoever runs the bread-baking class ought to take the students over to Wildflower Bakery or the Arizona Bread Company to give them an idea of how great bread should taste. And someone ought to pull the plug on the ugly foil-wrapped butter. Is the school training students to run coffee shops along the interstates?

The faculty knows how to teach soups, though. The ones here all taste like they've spent hours simmering in a kettle. The vigorous split pea with ham sports a beguiling smoky flavor. Lobster bisque, perked up by a Parmesan cheese crisp, is creamy and subtle. There's only a thimbleful of seafood in the seafood soup, but there's no mistaking the aquatic origins of the briny broth. And the hearty clam chowder comes thickly stocked with clams and potatoes.

Starter salads are just as well-crafted. The Gallery Cafe's version of Cobb salad leaves out the bacon (a victim, I imagine, of nutritional correctness), but I couldn't get too worked up over the omission. The greens, tomato, olives, turkey and avocado are tossed with wonderful Maytag blue cheese. I'm glad someone's teaching the students about quality ingredients. Caesar salad also works, right down to the garlic croutons and Parmesan cheese.

The main dishes are very impressive. Students are particularly adept with fish. Fillet of sole comes steamed en papillote, delicately moistened with white wine and embellished with julienned veggies. It's simple, and very effective. Red snapper, baked in a snappy Creole sauce with tomato and celery, also passes every taste test. Fish and chips, meanwhile, are worthy of an English pub: big, freshly battered and fried pieces of cod with just the right crunch. And the kitchen knows to serve it with malt vinegar.

Landlubber entrees demonstrate similar ability. I was wary of student beef Wellington, but you couldn't tell this one had been fashioned by apprentices. The tender filet, wrapped inside a light pastry dough crust lined with duxelles, still makes my mouth water in retrospect. The only off note: a too-salty sauce Perigourdine. Still, I've had $30 beef Wellingtons made by big-name chefs with the same problem. (Someone ought to teach a class on the perils of oversalting, a common kitchen misstep.)