Cafe Reviews

Moveable Feasts

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.

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Howard Seftel