The single best, tried-and-true, Valentine's Day option is still an evening of romantic wining and dining. So, sweetie in hand, I scouted out two potential Valley locations, one steeped in tradition, the other brand-new. Rancho Pinot Grill, which opened the day after Thanksgiving, doesn't fit the classic, romantic-restaurant mold. No bowing-and-scraping servers, roaring fireplaces or flaming desserts. No breathtaking views, either, unless the sight of a T.J. Maxx somehow sets your heart racing. But Rancho Pinot Grill is absolutely charming. The young, enthusiastic husband-and-wife proprietors split the chores: She controls the kitchen, he runs the front and helps serve. It's been a long time since I've enjoyed myself more. It's a casual place, with maybe a dozen tables. For ornamentation, it relies on gallery-supplied photos and paintings with a cowboy theme.
The architect Mies van der Rohe, discussing his art, once noted that "God is in the details." The same holds true in the restaurant business. And Rancho Pinot Grill clearly seems to have taken that insight to heart. It sports all the right touches. First, the staff. The sole waiter is adept and friendly, a man who genuinely likes his job. Next, the hefty cutlery, which is replaced after each course from a linen-lined tray. Breadcrumbs are carefully scraped away. Unrefined lump sugar is offered with coffee. And when's the last time you got a free refill of espresso? In addition, Rancho Pinot Grill is wallet-friendly BYOB. You bring the wine; for $2.50 per person, the restaurant furnishes the elegant stemware. With AJ's and Sportsman's only a mile away, Christopher's wine outlet just down the street and Trader Joe's next door, oenophiles can tap some well-stocked cellars without paying a big-time restaurant markup for the privilege. But food is what really drives the restaurant engine, and the fare here is high-octane. The chef calls her cooking "urban rustic." I haven't the faintest idea what that oxymoron means. But I do know the daily changing menu, built around a core of staples, features fresh ingredients and simple preparations, the two best paths to culinary success. Actually, I was won over even before the appetizers arrived. The fresh-baked Italian country bread here is fabulous--chewy, crusty flavorful. Unfortunately, it comes in a miserly portion, a couple of thin slices on a plate drizzled with olive oil. I'm surprised our server, worn out with constant demands for more, just didn't plop a whole loaf in front of us and say the hell with it. Of course, management probably doesn't want customers filling up on free bread. And it's got a point: The food here is worth being hungry for. Take the luscious starter of goat cheese and caramelized onion baked inside phyllo dough, surrounded by sliced pear and an exciting mix of locally grown organic greens. This dish can hold your interest on several levels--taste, texture, looks. Same with the grilled Portobello mushroom, a thick, flavorful specimen that's nearly as meaty as a New York steak. And the crispy lentil cakes have an appealing, Middle Eastern flavor, accented by a nifty yogurt-cucumber sauce. The main dishes show what a chef can do when she lets the ingredients speak for themselves. My favorite is the mixed grill of rosemary-infused grilled chicken complemented with mild Italian sausage. This Mediterranean-scented plate is enhanced by a wedge of polenta garnished with shaved asiago cheese. Grilled Yucat n pork chop is another winner, rubbed, I suspect, with achiote, a popular Yucat n spice that imparts color and an earthy flavor to meat. Excellent, garlicky mashed potatoes and a clever arrangement of saut‚ed apples and onions complete the platter. The kitchen also knows its way around fish. The salmon fillet is done just right, zipped up with a lemon-fennel broth and a teaspoon of leeks. Homemade pasta is also a daily main-dish option. The tagliatelle, studded with white beans, roasted fennel and tomatoes that weren't plucked six months early off the vine, is a hearty winter treat. I'm a sucker for cheese courses, and Rancho Pinot Grill caters to this weakness. At $6, the cheese platter is plenty for two, and provides a great excuse for downing more bread and knocking off the bottle of red you haven't quite finished. The cheese plate's major drawback is the chance that it might inhibit you from ordering dessert. Big mistake. The chef's mom, I was told, handles desserts, and I'd give her a raise before someone hires her away. One evening we split a luscious pear tart, topped with homemade ginger ice cream that had a real ginger snap. On another occasion, we demolished a honey-pecan square gilded with cinnamon ice cream drenched in rich chocolate sauce. Don't look for huge portions of anything here. Meals are crafted to encourage leisurely, multicourse dining. Do look out for crowds--this place can't miss. Let's hope the proprietors can survive success. El Chorro Lodge, 5550 East Lincoln, Scottsdale, 948-5170. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, 6 to 11 p.m., seven days a week.