Moveable Feasts

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Altos, 5029 North 44th Street, Phoenix, 808-0890. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.

According to experts, the four most stressful experiences people can go through are a death in the family, divorce, losing a job and moving.

I think I'd boost "moving" a couple of notches up the list. I'm still so traumatized by our last change of address six years ago that the simple sight of a Mayflower van on the highway can reduce me to a quivering mass of Jell-O. Believe me, when you're faced with packing and unpacking hundreds of boxes, moving bank accounts, finding new schools for the kids, scheduling phone installation and remembering to tell the Book of the Month Club your new address, even death can seem like an attractive option.

Moving a restaurant is no less stressful than moving a household. Business is interrupted. Employees leave; new ones must be trained. You must think up a new decor scheme. The menu should be retooled. And there are always the twin worries: Will old customers find their way to the new location? Will other diners want to give the new premises a try?

Recently, two of this town's more successful restaurants decided to risk pulling up stakes to strike out for greener pastures. Such Is Life Altos abandoned its connection to, and location over, Such Is Life. Now it's called Altos, and does business from a swanky Camelback neighborhood. C-Fu Gourmet departed its Tempe storefront and put down roots in the wilds of Chandler. In both cases, the moves have affected the quality of the operation: I can report that Altos and C-Fu Gourmet are now better than ever.

The move has launched Altos to the front rank of Valley dining. Eat there now. When the tourists and snowbirds descend in a couple of months, I predict this place will be harder to get into than Fort Knox.

The snazzy interior is part of the lure. The two-story room (there's balcony dining on the second floor) features paintings and photos celebrating the bullfight. Cafe curtains, adorned with eye-catching cafe scenes, are suspended by twine from rebar on the windows. Lovely tile work adorns the edges of the walls. Flowers and plants are everywhere. On weekends, skilled musicians offer live Spanish music. And if you prefer the great outdoors, a comfortable misted patio will put you in closer touch with Nature.

But Altos' high style doesn't start in the dining room. It originates back in the kitchen.

It doesn't take long to get your appetite juices flowing. The breadbasket is accompanied by pan boli, a dip fashioned from olive oil, tomatoes, hazelnuts and lots and lots of garlic. Try to resist filling up--Altos' fare is worth being hungry for.

The key is flavor. Just about everything here bursts with the scents of Iberia. Check out the gambas al ajillo, shrimp sauteed in olive oil, gilded with garlic, pasilla pepper and sherry. If you've shied away from calamari because it always seems to have the texture of the Sunday newspaper's rubber band, the calamar de Pedro will rearrange your attitude. The soft, tender squid is dipped in a saffron batter, sizzled in olive oil and garnished with garlic and parsley.

Basque cooks revel in mushrooms. So do Altos'. There's nothing very exotic about the plain-Jane mushrooms employed in the champignones al oporto. But the chef bathes them in a wonderful garlic-and-port-wine sauce. Top fungus honors, though, go to the sombrilla Andaluza, a portabella mushroom marinated in olive oil, garlic and sherry, then grilled and festooned with red cabbage, parsley and Serrano ham.

Main dishes continue the assault on the senses of smell and taste. One evening's special, sea bass embellished with artichoke hearts, capers, white asparagus and tomatoes, moistened with a winy lemon sauce, has an almost overpowering effect--the flavors are so intense, it's a good thing you're already sitting down.

Filete Pelon has that same sort of sensory vigor. It's a half-pound of butter-soft filet mignon, gilded with a mild pasilla sauce and topped with cabrales, a creamy Spanish blue cheese. This dish furnishes an almost illegal amount of pleasure. So, too, does the lomo en adobo. It's a tender slice of pork loin, smothered in a lusty, mole-like sauce, with hints of chile, sesame seeds, sugar and peanuts providing a 12-tone scale of flavor notes.

The paella Valenciana, a saffron-scented dish that's one of the traditional glories of Spanish gastronomy, is nobly fashioned, well-stocked with shrimp, calamari, clams, chicken, txistorra (Spanish sausage) and veggies. And if you insist on ordering a chicken dish (usually the most boring item on a restaurant's menu), the brandy sauce on Altos' fragrantly marinated grilled breast of chicken should keep you from nodding off.

Desserts keep pace with the appetizers and entrees. One dessert, in fact, is brilliant. The sugar-glazed chocolate espresso creme brulee combines perfect texture with perfect taste. My wife, who usually waves off sweets, took one bite and promptly drew a line down the center of the bowl. Then she told me that if I strayed one millimeter into her territory, she'd pin my hand to the table with her fork. In comparison, other desserts, like the rich, custardy flan and summery strawberry-rhubarb cobbler, are merely first-rate.

The espresso needs work, and so does the price. Three bucks a pop seems stiff. But the proprietor's hospitality doesn't need any work at all. On each of our visits, he stopped by with on-the-house glasses of port to round off the meal.

This restaurant is the complete package--setting, service, food. I'd say Altos is flying high.

C-Fu Gourmet, 2051 West Warner, Chandler, 899-3888. Hours: Dim sum, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., seven days a week; Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, 4:30 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

The proprietor of C-Fu Gourmet doesn't think small. His new place has enough square footage--13,000--to double as an airplane hangar. And I expect most of those square feet are going to be filled by ecstatically happy fans of Chinese food.

But they'll have to share space with other creatures. Depending on the season, tilapia, flounder, lobster, rock cod, shrimp, sea bass, eel and crab also call the restaurant home. In fact, you can watch your dinner do laps in large holding tanks. That's because C-Fu specializes in seafood so fresh that most of it is still alive when you order it.

It's not the Shamu show at Sea World, but getting an up-close-and-personal view of the food chain provides a certain entertainment value. It's certainly a lot more entertaining than staring at C-Fu's minimalist, bare-wall decor.

But if you wanted to see scenery, you'd be at the Grand Canyon. Folks come here for serious Chinese fare, the kind you get on Mott Street in New York or Grant Street in San Francisco.

You could start out nibbling the excellent pot stickers, six plump, doughy, skillet-fried dumplings. Or you could whet your appetite with the won ton noodle soup, made with homemade won tons. But these are only teasers. I say plunge right into the sea.

Don't miss the ravishing Dungeness crab. The kitchen hooks and cooks a hefty, two-pound beauty, then breaks it into manageable-size hunks. Next, the crab is smothered with a gorgeous black bean sauce zipped up with some chile heat. Chinese food doesn't get any better than this. Even the waiter thought so. He was so smitten by this dish that I thought he might sit down and join us.

Tilapia, a farm-raised, white-fleshed fish, also got us worked up. After it's brought whole to the table, the server will deftly remove the head and bones if you wish. The fish comes smothered in an effective ginger-and-scallion sauce that contrasts nicely with tilapia's mild taste.

If you've ever wondered why shrimp is considered a delicacy, it will be clear once you bite into C-Fu's crustaceans. Just-out-of-the-water shrimp have a sweet, sublime taste that frozen shrimp just can't duplicate. Order the shrimp special, and C-Fu will present you with about 20 whole, steamed critters--head, antennae, shell still attached--bathed in a potent garlic sauce. It's messy, but also mesmerizing. (Note, though, that other C-Fu shrimp dishes, like shrimp chow mein, don't use fresh shrimp. Ask the waiter to tell you which shrimp dishes originate in the tank.)

Other aquatic dishes can't match the taste intensity of the tank fare. But I doubt anyone will complain about the King of the Sea, a huge load of shrimp, scallops, squid, crab, mussels and clams teamed with Chinese veggies in a light, understated wine sauce. And Crispy Spinach, a chef's special featuring assorted seafood and chicken on a bed of fried spinach, also furnishes hearty satisfaction.

However, I suggest you complement your fresh seafood dishes with some of C-Fu's first-rate beef and chicken. Lemongrass beef, an occasional special, is a thrill. Tender strips of lightly fried beef are coated with a fragrant, head-turning lemongrass sauce. C-Fu Chicken features moist, battered poultry in a zingy, sweet-and-spicy dark sauce.

Orange beef is as pretty to look at as it is to eat. Crunchy, bite-size morsels of deep-fried beef are lined with a citrusy, not-too-sweet orange sauce, then placed atop a bed of vibrantly green steamed broccoli. A colorful ring of cucumber, tomatoes, oranges and jicama brings a touch of Japanese artistry to the platter. And for sheer uncomplicated pleasure, try chow fun, a Chinatown staple made from thick rice noodles. It leaves ordinary chow mein noodle dishes in the dust.

The only loser? A gristly sweet-and-sour-pork dish that the kitchen clearly took no interest in.

Sometimes, moving can leave you completely at sea. But C-Fu obviously has the right navigational charts.

Sombrilla Andaluza
Lomo en adobo
Filete Pelon
Chocolate espresso
creme brulee

C-Fu Gourmet:
Orange beef
C-Fu Chicken
Crab in
black bean sauce
Steamed shrimp

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