Veal scaloppine, on the other hand, had no noticeable defects. And although the chicken Kiev didn't spurt butter when I stuck in a fork, as tradition demands, it merits a high grade.
What really left me open-mouthed were the fabulous sides, which showed care, flair and attention to detail. One day it was an assortment of winter veggies: buttered parsnips, candied carrots, potato croquettes and yummy braised cabbage gilded with chestnuts. Another visit brought cauliflower sprinkled with butter and breadcrumbs, Brussels sprouts and baked acorn squash. A third trip yielded spaghetti squash, spinach-stuffed tomato (the tomato was carefully peeled) and magnificent fresh salsify. This root vegetable is much-loved in Europe, but almost never served here. I'd say these students are talented enough to open a vegetarian restaurant right now.
The only side they didn't get right were the chips with the fish. If the kitchen is going to go to the trouble to peel and fry spuds, someone needs to make sure they jump to the table directly from the fryer.
Whoever makes desserts should go to the head of the class. The handsome brownie, teamed with mocha ice cream and raspberry sauce, is rich and fudgy, and not too sweet. Pumpkin pie comes just the way I like it--a light crust supporting a dense, heavily seasoned filling. And the pear tart, draped with a spoon-lickin' caramel sauce, looks as good as it tastes.
I don't know if the School of Culinary Arts recruits only talented beginners, or simply trains them right. Let's just hope local restaurants have the smarts to hire them. Class dismissed.
Metro Tech is the vocational training site for the Phoenix Union High School District. One of its more ambitious trade programs is Culinary Arts, which aims to prepare teens for work in the restaurant industry.
To give students real hands-on experience, the school has set up two restaurant operations: a fine-dining room, which every six weeks or so is the setting for a fancy, three-course, prix-fixe luncheon (the next one is scheduled February 3, 4 and 5); and Express Cafe, a less ambitious culinary enterprise that features lunchtime soups, salads, sandwiches and a few hot entrees.
Express Cafe doesn't look like any high school lunchroom I've ever seen. It resembles an old-fashioned diner, with goose-necked lamps hung over vinyl booths, a dessert display at the entrance and seating at the counter for customers in a hurry.
Soups are one of the kitchen's strengths. Creamy potato leek, zipped up with bacon, has lots of flavor. Thick split pea takes the edge off both your appetite and winter's noontime chill. And whoever made the wonderfully delicate puree of gingered acorn squash is ready to graduate right now.
The hot entrees are a mixed bag. The beef stew has potential: It's an enormous portion, stocked with lots of beef and inviting hunks of carrot, potato, celery and onion. But once you start chewing, you can't help noticing that it needs some help. There's no getting around the fact that the beef is really tough. And the dish could use a flavor boost--the instructors might consider teaching students about bay leaves, herbes de Provence and cooking with wine.
Chicken stir fry has no glaring shortcomings. Bits of poultry are tossed with scallions, cabbage, bell pepper and carrot, then served over rice and moistened with a sweetish but not unpleasant teriyaki sauce.
Two specials got the concept right, but couldn't sustain the execution. The cod in puff pastry wasn't a very impressive piece of fish. The puff pastry, meanwhile, at one time clearly had sported the right texture and taste. But it had either sat around too long, or got a bit rubbery in the microwave. I had nothing but high regard, though, for the creamy red pepper sauce drizzled over it. The hefty chicken burrito, invigorated with a peppy salsa and teamed with rice and beans, also had possibilities. Unfortunately, I'll never know for certain, since this platter arrived just short of ice cold.
Sandwiches and salads have little distinction. The bland chicken salad tastes like every other chicken salad in town. Why not introduce the students to the charms of tarragon or curry? The hamburger and tuna aren't any more memorable.
Desserts, however, are. In fact, they're great. The student who made the kiwi tart, with its first-rate crust and lovely custard cream, should have no trouble getting work. Rich chocolate cheesecake, topnotch pecan pie and a gooey Surprise Bar heavy with chocolate chips and coconut also grade out with an A.