Cafe Reviews

Eating Inn

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The dessert highlight is a summery mango tarte Tatin, with caramelized mangoes and crisp, flaky crust. The chocolate souffle isn't as airy as it might be, but after you pour in the heavy vanilla-bourbon sauce, it all seems academic, anyway. The warm chocolate cake was a bit of a disappointment. The waiter promised a molten, puddinglike interior, but the cake had been cooked a bit too long. The result was incredibly rich, and incredibly dry.

A word about coffee. At $2.75, it's not just the caffeine that will give you the jitters. But if you must end the meal with a java jolt, you're best off reaching in your wallet for an extra buck and splurging on the French press coffee. It's much better than the house cup.

The service side of Bistro 24 isn't quite as strong as the rest of the operation. At one dinner, we were handed breakfast menus. At another, the servers couldn't figure out who got what. And someone needs to come by and sweep the breadcrumbs off the table.

But these are venial, not mortal, sins. And as long as Bistro 24 continues to send out first-rate fare in such amiable surroundings, I'm willing to forgive it.

Wright's, Arizona Biltmore, 24th Street and Missouri, Phoenix, 955-6600. Hours: Dinner, 6 to 10 p.m., daily; Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m., Monday through Saturday; Sunday brunch, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Wright's has been, or should have been, an embarrassment to the Arizona Biltmore's operators. For years, the beautiful dining room at this world-famous resort has put out some of the snooziest, most overpriced fare in town. On one visit, I felt as if I had been mugged, forking over $27 for a dreadful pasta dish, $29 for a lackluster veal chop and, unbelievably, five bucks for a cup of coffee.

Well, it looks like management has decided to move in another direction. It's about time. It's brought in a new culinary team with a novel set of marching orders: Give customers their money's worth. With its $12 appetizers, $26 pasta, $32 steak and $8 desserts, Wright's is still aimed strictly at high-end tourists and locals with deep pockets. But now, at least, it's no longer insulting them. If you're part of the money-is-no-object crowd, you won't mind parting with some of that money here.

The new chefs seem to be operating under severe artistic constraints: Apparently, management feels the hotel's guests don't want to eat anything trendy, or even particularly creative. The menu looks distressingly staid. But the entrees and desserts are so well-crafted that their familiarity doesn't slip into contempt.

Appetizers are the weak link. Ceviche isn't prepared Mexican-style, and that's a mistake. The kitchen puts together mahimahi, ono, halibut and scallops, with a bit of avocado. But without an ethnic boost from cilantro, lime, onion, tomato and cucumber, all this starter does is attempt to mollify skittish folks who are probably too frightened to order ceviche in the first place. Priced at $11, the three coconut-battered prawns come out to about two bucks a bite. They're not worth it. And the peanut-crusted lobster cakes sound better than they are. They're held back by an innocuous basil-curry sauce that falls way short in the flavor department.

Main dishes are another story. Wright's kitchen deals with quality ingredients, and it has the good sense not to hide their charms. Herb-crusted beef tenderloin is a marvel, a triumph of taste and texture, as good as any in town. It's paired with thick mashed potatoes, zipped up with a load of kalamata olives. Venison loin is outstanding--tender and powerful, effectively complemented with Swiss chard risotto and mushrooms.

I'd come back in a minute for the superb Colorado lamb, two exquisite double chops that you can't help picking up and gnawing to the bone. A fragrant roasted fennel sauce adds to the lamb's charms, and the grits casserole side suggests that the kitchen has abilities that aren't being fully tapped. Salmon is also well-handled, coated with pepper, pan-seared, baked and moistened with a champagne-ginger sauce, accompanied by scented jasmine rice.

Desserts are masterful. The pistachio souffle is the Platonic ideal come to life--ethereally light and richly flavorful. The chocolate sampler produces an almost intoxicating chocolate high. After nibbling on intense chocolate cream, chocolate marzipan, chocolate leaf, chocolate sorbet, chocolate cake and chocolate cookies, you'll sense those feel-good chemicals streaming from your brain. And the luscious trio of caramelized pineapple, Florentine cookie and coconut ice cream demonstrates that when it comes to sweets, three isn't a crowd.

When dinner for two reaches triple-digit cost, you have a right to expect polished service. At Wright's, the staff is bustling, friendly and well-meaning. However, it is not yet polished. We got lunch menus at dinner. The waiter couldn't find a way to set down a shared appetizer on the small, cluttered table. (After a few uneasy moments, I solved his problem by suggesting he remove the flowers and salt and pepper.) "Who gets the deer?" inelegantly queried the server carrying the venison entree. When the souffle arrived, it came with a small pitcher of sauce. "Creme anglaise?" I asked. "Nope," replied the waiter. "It's a vanilla custard sauce," he said, supplying me with the English term.

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Howard Seftel