In New York, restaurants routinely host top-level diplomats, publishers and corporate big shots. In Los Angeles, powerful studio executives and movie stars create nightly limo traffic jams in front of their Beverly Hills hangouts. But ordinary folks who save up for that one-time special meal don't receive quite the same treatment. We're apt to get seated right next to the swinging kitchen door, served by waiters disappointed by our lack of celebrity and American Express Platinum card. That's what I love about living in Phoenix. In a city teeming with classy restaurants, we are a town full of nobodies. No tony dining room here can begin to meet expenses by catering solely to the rich and famous. I've seen celebrity-starved restaurants brought to a screeching halt by the presence of a low-rated television weatherman driving a Chevy. It's obvious that without us nobodies--local and tourist--to indulge in an occasional night-out splurge, many Valley restaurants currently doing business with tuxedoed staff would turn into places where the help asks, "Medium or large fries?" through a speaker phone.
In Phoenix, unrich and unfamous folks can go to high-and-mighty spots, like Etienne's Different Pointe of View and the Chaparral at Marriott's Camelback Inn, and count on great food and great service. Etienne's has an old-fashioned, almost campy swankiness you don't see much anymore. Still, the fetching, three-tiered dining room (smokers in back), with its vaguely art-deco look, is undeniably handsome. A pianist tinkles out Ellington, Gershwin and Kern standards in the background. But it's hard to pay attention inside when you've got such a great nighttime view of the outside. Picture windows wrap around the place, furnishing a superb look at the twinkling Valley below.
The food is just as compelling a sight. We ordered from the "Classical Cuisine" menu section, and departed with renewed respect for culinary tradition. Oysters Rockefeller, fashioned with spinach, bacon, tomato and Mornay sauce, makes up in taste what it lacks in novelty. So does a lighter, less-complicated mixed seafood grill of scallops, shrimp, clams and mussels. But for sheer luxuriousness, no starter can compete with the mouth-watering lobster ravioli, smoothed over with a tarragon-scented cream sauce. This is the kind of appetizer that almost forces you to moan with delight. So does the wild-mushroom soup. We're not exactly in the middle of the soup season, but this intensely fragrant broth is good enough to make you forget the calendar. With one or two exceptions, there's nothing terribly cutesy about the straightforward main dishes. Look for old standbys like rack of lamb, Australian lobster tails, and medallions of veal. Filet mignon is prepared 90s style--1790s, that is. You can get it with Bordelaise and b‚arnaise sauces, or in "traditional" style, coated with saut‚ed onions and wild mushrooms. The latter was our choice, and we were rewarded with a butter-soft hunk of meat. For carnivores who suffer through nutritionally correct dinners six nights per week, this provides a rewarding, Saturday-night splurge of animal protein. So, surprisingly, does the chicken Nelson. I've learned to steer clear of chicken when I eat out--it's usually the dullest thing on the menu. But Etienne's has the good sense to take a whole chicken breast and top it with a zesty Parmesan truffle souffl‚. What most impressed me, however, was the evening's special of albacore tuna. This is maybe the best fish dish I've had in the Valley: a glorious slab of thick, lightly cooked tuna, with a macadamia-nut/wheat-germ crust, moistened with a salsa of mangoes, pineapple and peppers. It was all I could do to keep from ordering it again for dessert. Bacon-wrapped stuffed shrimp seemed, by comparison, a disappointment. The promise of a caramelized pear-curry sauce persuaded us to order it, but the sauce had little oomph. And even on a night when we were prepared to shell out big bucks, $24 struck us as a stiff price to pay for three shrimp. Desserts end the meal on a high note. The Grand Marnier souffl‚ is light enough to float. The chocolate pƒt‚, layers of intense, white and dark chocolate studded with pistachios and macadamias, packs a sweet-tooth wallop. Best of all, I thought, was the pear in a phyllo pastry cup, sprinkled with Stilton cheese and garnished with white-chocolate ice cream and berries. It's a mesmerizing combination of flavors. Two quick points. Etienne's has a great wine cellar. Most of the wine is pretty pricey, but we finished up with a half-bottle of Laufaurie-Peyraguey Sauternes (1985) that went for a reasonable $28, within hailing distance of retail price. Second, the service is first-rate, professional and unobtrusive. Our waiters paced the meal perfectly, and knew enough about the dishes to make me suspect they cooked as well as served. Somebody here knows how to train a restaurant staff.
The Chaparral at Marriott's Camelback Inn, 5402 East Lincoln Drive, Paradise Valley, 948-6644. Summer hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 6 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 to 10 p.m. Strange things occur when I return home from dinner at the Chaparral. I turn on the television set to see Uncle Miltie, I pick up the newspaper to read about Ike and I scan the radio to hear how the Brooklyn Dodgers are doing. This classy dining room can put you in a 1950s time warp in a hurry. Everything about it is old-fashioned: the tuxedoed staff, attentive but not pushy; the decor, elegant but not stuffy; and the menu, which wouldn't have seemed daring in the 1850s. And it's all just about perfect. The restaurant sports a tasteful, understated, Southwestern look, done in soft, pastel tones. Dining is on several levels, providing a view of the manicured grounds out front and the Phoenix Mountains Preserve in the distance. The food is comfortingly familiar, about as trendy as a "Stevenson for President" button. As the menu says, this is a place "where time stands still." Don't look for nouvelle cuisine, Pacific Rim cooking or New American fare. Check out the appetizers. Caviar, escargots and shrimp cocktail won't take anyone by surprise. But the ris de veau, saut‚ed sweetbreads in a veal glaze tucked inside a fresh brioche, gets the meal off to a particularly fast start. One more helping of this rich treat and I might have considered it dinner and called it a night. Aubergine Napoleon is a lighter way to edge into the meal, a layered wedge of grilled eggplant, mascarpone cheese, pesto and roma tomatoes in a roasted tomato vinaigrette. Too often, soup fills you up without pushing any of the primal pleasure buttons. Not the bisque de homard, an overpoweringly creamy lobster bisque capped with puff pastry, cräme fraŒche and caviar. It's almost impossible to down this and not believe that life is good. The Chaparral used to be known for its spa cuisine. Not any more. It's been ejected from the menu, I was told, because nobody was ordering it. I can see why. It would take more than a doctor's warning to keep me away from the venerable main courses. The beef Wellington is a triumph, an ethereally tender tenderloin prepared with pƒt‚ and wrapped in puff pastry, drizzled with a P‚rigourdine and Dijon sauce. Lobster thermidor is another classic shoved off menus in recent years by cost and cholesterol scares. The kitchen takes a Maine lobster and surrounds it with a velvety, wine-tinged cream sauce. Hang on to your seat. Other traditional favorites include filet mignon Diane, flamb‚ed tableside in brandy and Merlot, complemented by a thick, crusty wedge of potato pie. What a pleasure, too, to find first-rate sole meuniäre, brought out whole and deftly filleted before your eyes. The wild mushrooms, baby vegetables and roast potatoes alongside were right on target, too. There's also canard roti, a compelling roast-duck platter fashioned in a head-turning passion-fruit sauce and accompanied by barley-stuffed grape leaves. As you might expect, the Chaparral makes a fuss over desserts. Naturally, it specializes in flaming, liqueur-soaked treats: bananas Foster, crepe suzettes and raspberries jubilee. The raspberries jubilee comes drenched in enough Chambord and Grand Marnier to pass for an after-dinner drink. Then it's all poured on top of H„agen-Dazs vanilla. Give the kitchen a few minutes' notice and it'll turn out a beautiful souffl‚. The chocolate version seemed like a light way to finish up, until we said the hell with it and poured on some artery-clogging cräme anglaise. And the tiramisu here is as intensely creamy and chocolaty as I've encountered in the Valley. The unexpected final touches help make the Chaparral meal memorable. They include a round of little sweets--chocolate truffles, pecan cookies, chocolate-dipped strawberries--and extraordinarily good coffee brewed in exotic, French equipment at your table. At the Chaparral, as at Etienne's, it's no disgrace to be a nobody. Hey, after a few more beef Wellington and raspberries jubilee dinners, I think I could get used to it.