Fire Wall

Not just one, but two restaurant servers last week refused to send my dessert up in flames. I ordered dishes traditionally prepared au flambé, but management wouldn't allow the servers to handle tableside infernos; they said it was something about fire codes. I smelled a rat.

The Terrace Dining Room at the Phoenician has baked Alaska; Nick & Tony's at Scottsdale Fashion Square has bananas Foster. The whole excitement of these pretty basic, old-fashioned confections is that the waiter is supposed to present the Alaska (pound cake, ice cream and meringue), splash it with brandy and set it searing before our eyes. And without the finishing flaming brandy and banana liqueur, we're just eating warm bananas with butter and sugar. Not so long ago, such desserts could even be walked across the dining room while in full flame -- restaurants used to dim the lights for ultra-dramatic presentation.

Bob Khan, assistant chief for the Phoenix Fire Department, was initially skeptical about the explanation, too, agreeing that many fancy restaurants openly play with flames at the guests' elbows. The Palm Court in Scottsdale invites diners to "experience the glow and aroma of each entree as it is prepared tableside au flambé." Khan even admits he once averted his eyes as a neighboring table was presented a cake stuck with a sparkler.

But Khan double-checked the rules and found that, indeed, based on a 1997 Uniform Fire Code, there are now lengthy restrictions on "Flaming Food and Beverage Preparation." Of note: Flammable liquids may not be poured over foods from a height greater than eight inches above; foods shall not be transported while burning; and the flame preparer must be equipped with a wet cloth "for use in smothering the flames in case of an emergency."

So the Terrace and Nick & Tony's both could have given me my flambé, if they were brave enough to follow the rules. What wusses.

Khan finally admitted to a conspiracy on the part of the Fire Department.

"In true firehouse' cuisine, there's no such thing as flambé," he insists, adding that he used to cook for his engine house. "For the record, while we're not fundamentally opposed to fine dining, we feel the public needs to respect real dishes like chili, hot dogs, enchiladas and lasagna. We decided that the only way to squash stylish, exotic cuisine is to outlaw it."

Lasagna is Khan's specialty. So what about lasagna flambé?

"You would never do that to lasagna," Khan moans. "It would ruin it. It would break my heart. It's just morally wrong."