Cafe Reviews

Holiday on Rice

The fantasy doesn't end on December 25. A lot of the holiday spirit spills over into the week between Christmas and New Year's Day.

Despite the inevitable spats, most families have made it through the annual get-together without bloodshed. At this early date, the bills still haven't come to spoil the festive mood. And think how virtuous you now feel, after silently committing to a variety of New Year's resolutions. You have a righteous glow because a) no one knows about your secret plans for self-improvement, so no one will be disappointed if you fall a bit short; b) you don't have to actually do anything until January 2, anyway.

I have my own holiday fantasies, which I use to keep from drifting into madness. I'm certainly not crazy enough to fantasize about peace on Earth, the Cardinals in the playoffs or mandatory IQ testing for Arizona politicians.

Instead, my longings center on food. I have a dream. I have a dream that I may someday live in a world where I won't confuse my cholesterol numbers with my SAT score, a world from which fat grams and aerobic exercise have been banished. I dream of a world where restaurant owners charge according to the customer's ability to pay. And citizens of this brave new world, recognizing that a waist is a terrible thing to mind, share two essential beliefs: Calorie counting is sin, and a clean plate is an unmistakable sign of good character.

I wondered how my ideal Valley restaurant week would unfold in such a dream world. After some judicious thought, here's the result. It's a carefully balanced, seven-day eating schedule that both indulges the full range of my dining prejudices and tests the limits of a professionally trained belly.

So loosen your belts, and share the fantasy.

Day One: Sunday
Breakfast: I haven't found a more pleasant Sunday brunch than the one at Golden Swan, Hyatt Regency Scottsdale at Gainey Ranch (7500 East Doubletree Ranch Road, Scottsdale). Sit outside in umbrella-shaded comfort and gaze over the peaceful lagoon. Then wander inside through the kitchen, where a sumptuous array of brunch goodies like veal tortellini, giant prawns and filet mignon are laid out.

Lunch: After such a heavy morning meal, something lighter is called for. I'd head over to Sportsman's Wines, Spirits and (Other) Flavours (3205 East Camelback), which also sports a wonderful array of breads, pates and cheeses. I'd have a pate sandwich on a fresh Arizona Bread Company baguette, and wash it down with a half-bottle of Sauternes.

Dinner: I have to spend at least one evening inhaling the scents of Italian food. And Franco's Trattoria (8120 North Hayden, Scottsdale) is where I'd choose to do it. From the first bites of freebie homemade breads and imported Parmesan and pecorino cheeses, through Tuscan delights like risotto and bistecca Fiorentina, to the last spoonfuls of warm zabaglione, Franco's is first-rate.

Day Two: Monday
Breakfast: Like a zillion other early morning spots, T.C. Eggington's Brunchery (1660 South Alma School, Mesa) serves the usual breakfast suspects--omelets, pancakes, hash browns, bacon. It just prepares them better than anyplace else. French toast, made from thick slices of homemade cinnamon bread, is a knockout.

Lunch: When I lived in Iran, I managed to put on 25 pounds by devouring two lunches a day. Persian food, highly scented but never spicy hot, can be very seductive. Tasty Kabob (1250 East Apache, Tempe) brings back all my old memories. It's still hard for me to choose between the skewers of butter-soft kebabs or fragrant basmati rice dishes. Might as well revert to the old days, and order one of each.

Dinner: It's impossible to be bored at RoxSand (Biltmore Fashion Park, 24th Street and Camelback), which offers one of the most inventive dinner menus in town. The eclectic cuisine, which draws from all over the globe, plays directly to my tastes. I love putting together a meal. How does this one sound? Moroccan b'stilla appetizer, jerked rabbit and duck combo entree, and liqueur-soaked chocolate torte dessert.

Day Three: Tuesday
Breakfast: There aren't too many places in the Valley that take me back to my streets-of-New York youth. Chompie's (3202 East Greenway Road) is at the top of that short list. Here are all my breakfast favorites, served in bustling deli surroundings: fresh, hot bagels, homemade cream cheeses, lox, pickled herring, blintzes, matzo brei and rugalach. You can go home again.

Lunch: For a combination of food and view, you probably can't do better than the patio at ElChorro Lodge (5550 East Lincoln Drive, Paradise Valley). The restaurant has been around for almost 60 years, and drips with old Arizona charm. You can gaze at the Phoenix Mountains Preserve or your lunch. Both sights are worthy. El Chorro does an excellent job with light, lunchtime fish dishes. Save room for the famous sticky buns.

Dinner: Run by a husband-and-wife team serious about food, Rancho Pinot Grill (6208 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale) has joined the big time. A daily changing menu takes advantage of what's fresh in the marketplace and the chef's creative energies. You'll see quite a range: posole, quail with soba noodles, sea bass with basmati rice.

Day Four: Wednesday
Breakfast: According to the fable, the hedgehog knows many little things. The fox, however, knows one big thing. The Original Pancake House (6840 East Camelback, Scottsdale) is a fox. It knows one thing: pancakes. These made-from-scratch flapjacks are fantastic, good enough to eat without syrup. My favorite: apple pancakes.

Lunch: For the ultimate civilized, two-hour lunch, Christopher's Bistro (2398 East Camelback) is hard to top. The sophisticated setting, deferential service and quality bistro fare make the time pass quickly. The exquisite chocolate tower dessert has been featured in gourmet magazines. One bite will tell you why.

Dinner: A Chinese restaurant in Tempe authentic enough to compete on New York's Mott Street or Grant Street in San Francisco? One visit to C-Fu Gourmet (6438 South McClintock) should convince the skeptics. C-Fu specializes in fresh seafood--so fresh, most of it is still swimming. Wander over to the tanks and pick out dinner. Steamed shrimp stuffed with garlic butter is a marvel.

Day Five: Thursday
Breakfast: When the continental urge strikes, I saunter down the boulevard to Pierre's Pastry Cafe (7119 East Shea, Scottsdale). There, Pierre tempts me with outrageously buttery croissants, flaky brioches, crusty baguettes and a numbing assortment of tarts, pastries and pies. C'est magnifique.

Lunch: The continental mood carries over to noon, so I carry myself over to Pizzeria Bianco (Town & Country Shopping Center, 20th Street and Camelback), where a real pizza craftsman spins his art. From his wood-fired brick oven emerge glorious specimens topped with imported cheeses, fancy mushrooms and homemade sausages. The antipasto and desserts shine, too.

Dinner: Sometimes, I need to get in touch with my inner self. That self, I've discovered, is a raging carnivore. When I hunt for a slab of beef, I do it at Ruth's Chris Steak House (7001 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale). Massive, juicy cuts of prime beef are sizzled in butter at scorchingly high temperatures. Fabulous go-withs, like cottage fries and spinach au gratin, add to the experience.

Day Six: Friday
Breakfast: Eating breakfast at Kiss the Cook (4915 West Glendale Avenue, Glendale) is like eating at Granny's--the place is knee-deep in knickknacks and Victorian clutter. And, just like at Granny's, the homey fare is irresistible. Homemade buttermilk pancakes, biscuits and gravy, and hearty oatmeal start the day off right. So does the luscious, gooey, sticky, nut-studded cinnamon roll.

Lunch: I can't let a week go by without filling up on south-of-the-border fare. But I like to go way south of the border--all the way to Eliana's (1627 North 24th Street). This Salvadoran restaurant serves some incredibly tasty items, like pupusas (corn masa patties stuffed with pork and cheese) and pasteles (scrumptious meat turnovers). Best corn tortillas in town, too.

Dinner: For sheer, elegant, gourmet pleasure, the fixed-price, eight-course, three-hour dinner at Christopher's (2398 East Camelback) has no rival. My appetite kicks in just thinking about the sublime terrine of layered foie gras. Menu mainstays like John Dory in lobster butter and smoked squab in puff pastry also are matchless treats. Take your time flipping through the eye-popping wine list--Christopher's stocks hundreds of bottles.

Day Seven: Saturday
Breakfast: The Creator may have rested on the seventh day, but I don't really want to. Anyway, nibbling on dim sum at China Doll (3336 North Seventh Avenue) can hardly be called work. The variety of these bite-size munchies, wheeled around on a never-ending carousel of carts, is astonishing. Among the carts I always stop are those hauling shark-fin dumplings, pork chow fun and pan-fried turnip cakes.

Lunch: "You don't need no teeth to eat our meat" is the motto at Honey Bear's BBQ (5012 East Van Buren), the Valley's premier barbecue shack. And it's true--even the bones here are practically soft enough to gum. The distinctive Tennessee barbecue sauce, slightly sweet with a zippy orange tang, turns every visit into a day of swine and roses.

Dinner: I believe in delayed gratification. That's why I've saved my favorite restaurant for the week's last meal. Marquesa (at Scottsdale Princess resort, 7575 East Princess Drive) specializes in regional Spanish cuisine from Catalonia. Everything's just right, from the phyllo-dough pouches stuffed with duck, mushrooms and foie gras, to the paella Valenciana.

Day Eight: Sunday
See Day One.

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Howard Seftel