Cafe Reviews

BINGE AND SPLURGE

Spending a week's worth of grocery money on one meal is a great way to fuel what economists call "negative revenue enhancement."

But sometimes I yearn for water glasses filled with Evian, napkins refolded if I step away from the table and used cutlery whisked away by waiters who are trained to say "Very good, sir" to the most inane whim.

Yes, when it comes to gourmet dining, even sober-minded Puritans like my wife and me can get as reckless as Hester Prynne and the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. In our case, though, the scarlet "A" stands for "appetite."

Our most recent fling was at Marquesa, in Scottsdale Princess resort. No question, this meal was worth the splurge.

Marquesa serves up Spanish cuisine, specializing in the dishes of Catalonia, the area around Barcelona. The cozy decor of the dining room-portraits of Spanish nobility, mirrors, a roaring fireplace and flowers-made me feel as if I were a guest at a hacienda. So did the two large, freebie shrimp and bread brushed with olive oil and tomato chunks.

The menu is written in Catalan, which looks like Spanish after one beer too many. Fortunately, there's an English explanation of all the dishes.

We started off with tapas, small appetizers that are often eaten at the bar and which an unchecked appetite can turn into a meal. The paella de arros negre was indeed negre, a substantial mixture of chicken, scallops, clams and chorizo nestling in rice. But many guests pass up the dish, our waiter confessed, when they learn the source of the color: squid ink.

Our second tapas choice, almoiner de confill, was three phyllo-dough pouches shaped like giant Hershey kisses, filled with minced rabbit. At $3.25, they were not only exquisite but a bargain as well.

In for a dime, in for a dollar. We went for the appetizers next.
Anec amb oporto was grilled breast of sliced duck, fanned across the plate and covered with a rich port sauce. Garnished with fresh figs, the dish was sensational.

Perrots del piquillo were three baked sweet red peppers stuffed with crab meat. Resting on a pool of melted fontina cheese, they looked like a trio of tulips.

In fact, all the dishes here pleased the eye before they tickled the palate. And to underscore Marquesa's emphasis on fresh herbs, each dish came garnished with a different sprig. When you're not watching the budget, it's a good bet you're not counting calories, either. I couldn't resist the artery-clogging sound of filet formatge de cabrales, described on the menu as grilled beef tenderloin with Catalan blue cheese. The hefty portion of fork-tender filet mignon sat on a mushroom cap and roasted red pepper, topped with slivered olives and surrounded by melting blue cheese. I made a mental note to step up my jogging schedule.

My wife countered with suquet de pato y ternera, thin medallions of sliced duck and veal, served in a rich reduction of their own juices. Accompanied by a colorful portion of baby turnips, pearl onions and saffron potatoes pushed into a cone-shaped roasted red pepper, this dish feasted every sense except sound.

The wine list at Marquesa is also outstanding, featuring hundreds of choices, with a large offering of Spanish wines between $20 to $50 supplementing the more expensive French varietals.

The sommelier, a Frenchman from Lille dressed like a Spanish dandy, helped us through the thicket. A few Gallic shrugs made it clear that he could never seriously recommend a Spanish red over a Saint-Emilion. But once he saw our determination to keep this a nationalist evening, his recommendation was right on the mark. The 1985 Marques de Murrieta Reserve, he accurately predicted, would change flavors over the course of the evening, but still hold its power to stay with our main dishes.

A whimsical and talented hand showed up in the desserts. I couldn't quite bring myself to eat Picasso's Choice, with scoops of differently colored sorbet spread over a cookie to resemble the artist's palette, and a long chocolate "paintbrush" beside it.

But the other choices looked even more tempting. The tiramisu was denser than usual, surrounded by a thin, crunchy crust on top, a deep, chocolate cream layer underneath, and soaking in a cappuccino sauce.

I couldn't pass up the crema Catalana, fresh raspberries in a thick, sweet cream with a heavenly caramelized glaze. Some espressos and a pair of chocolate-covered figs closed the evening after two and a half hours.

True, a meal like this may mean tuna sandwiches and burritos for the next week. But as we Puritans know, no pain, no gain. Mary Elaine's, the Phoenician's premier restaurant, is named for the wife of the former proprietor, Charles Keating. Many's the time, I like to imagine, they peered out the huge picture windows five stories above the buzzing Valley, glanced at the shimmering moon, and pondered how best to separate investors from their savings. I guess it's the romantic in me.

But there's no reason to visit the sins of the fathers on the sons, or in this case, the Kuwaitis, who now hold a substantial interest in the resort.

The cuisine here is French-continental, soothing, rich, refined and expensive.
We began with risotto and a vegetable torte. An easy dish to ruin, the risotto was perfectly al dente and came with toasted walnuts, wild mushrooms and fontina cheese. The torte of winter vegetables was an inventive winner, a flaky crust holding asparagus, sliced Brussels sprouts, leeks and pearl onions in a light sauce. What, though, was tomato doing in this cold-season mix?

I had been a bit anxious because our waiter made a point of mentioning that appetizer and salad portions were not large. The chef, he said, feared guests would get too filled up to enjoy the main course. But this was a false alarm-all the dishes were adequately sized.

And they were far more than adequately flavored.
We followed up with two very imaginative salad dishes. My warm duck confit with port-poached pears came in an absolutely outstanding sherry-vinegar-and-honey dressing. My wife had roasted squab breast, very tender slices of meat garnished with beets and dressed with a thickened pomegranate sauce and hazelnut vinaigrette.

It's too bad the bread could not match the salads. Mary Elaine's offers three types-buttermilk, sourdough rye and seven-grain-but they all had that commercially sliced look and lacked that warm, right-out-of-the-oven aroma that drives diners wild.

But this kitchen can handle sauces, and my main course showed it off. The filet of venison came in a rich, salty, orange-burgundy sauce, accompanied by apples, grapes and pearl onions. These made a superb accompaniment to the meaty, tender venison, which is imported from New Zealand.

The other main course was not quite as inspired as advertised. Filet of sea bass in brioche herb crust sounded like it came in a pastry puff, but was actually dusted with brioche crumbs. The fish itself, though, was a large, moist slab, perfectly done.

The wine list at Mary Elaine's is as good as I've seen-for those on an unlimited expense account. Most of its 300-plus offerings are French, and they include all the heavy hitters and great vintages. Lusting for a Chateau Figeac, a Chateau Haut-Brion, a Chateau d'Yquem? They're all here, and not particularly overpriced, either.

But there are too few bottles less than $50 for those unwilling to fork out three figures for a 1982 first-growth.

Given our different main courses-fish and venison-and the limitations of our splurge, we ordered wine by the glass. Particularly outstanding was the Gewurztraminer from Hugel, 1988, and the Albert Pic Chablis.

Desserts, as you might expect, are as lovely to look at as they are to eat. The tiramisu here is a lighter version than Marquesa's, laced with espresso sauce and served with decadent shaved chocolate. Even better is the chocolate-raspberry confection wrapped in phyllo dough and topped with powdered sugar.

The service at Mary Elaine's, like almost everything else, is topnotch. Our waiter patiently answered our questions and left enough time between courses for some romantic lingering.

When he brought the dessert cart, I remarked that the lighting was too dim to see it properly. I suggested he consider wearing a miner's lamp. Ever prepared, he smilingly whipped out a small flashlight and spotlighted the choices. The restaurant plans to improve its lighting, he confided.

The next time you have some Los Angeles or New York sophisticates visiting you, praising the scenery but sneering at cowboy steaks and cactus jelly, open their eyes with a trip to these two first-rate dining rooms.

Then tell them they're paying.

THE PLOT THICKENS DOWN IN TOMBSTONE, EV... v2-26-92

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Howard Seftel