Cafe Reviews

Repast Life Regression

It is a labor in vain to attempt to recapture [the past]: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling.

--Marcel Proust

One day early in this century, Marcel Proust idly dipped a madeleine, a French cookie, into a cup of tea, and took a bite. He wasn't prepared for his reaction. First he shuddered; then he realized "an extraordinary thing was happening to me." Here's how he remembered the experience:

An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory--this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was me. I had now ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed it was connected to the taste of the tea and the cake, but it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

We're all familiar with what Proust experienced. He took a taste of something, in this case tea and cookie, which he had enjoyed as a boy. It brought back to him a childhood state of happiness and well-being that he had completely forgotten. He was determined to summon up those subterranean memories, so he locked himself in a cork-lined room to write. Eight volumes, nine years and 3,000 pages later, Remembrance of Things Past was completed.

Memory can be unleashed by a snatch of a long-unheard song, by a striking scent, a certain touch or an unexpected sight. But of all the senses, it seems to me taste has the most powerful long-term effect. Even though it's been 25 years, I can, right now, sitting in front of my computer, "taste" my grandmother's vegetable soup as if she'd just ladled it from the pot. When I eat a good Middle Eastern dish, I'm transported, not merely metaphorically, to that region where I lived for several years. And I can't take a bite of pizza without measuring it against the model at Vinnie's, a fabulous pizzeria in my old neighborhood, next to the subway station, where I'd stop and devour two slices every day on my way home from school.

However, when you eat professionally, it's more difficult to gather lasting food memories. That's because, while eating is still fun for me, now it's also work. It goes beyond the agony of writing. These days, for instance, when I see some particularly luscious dessert in front of me, I'm thinking about more than future memories: There's the hour of furious pedaling on the health-club exercise bicycle I'm forced to do to exorcise the calories. And after a food-obsessed lifetime, I've built up such a store of memories that it becomes harder and harder for the newer stuff to break through.

Harder, but not impossible. I've put together a personal list of Best of Phoenix eating pleasures, dishes I've had this year that have stuck in my mind, and are most likely to remain there. The poet once said that God gave us memory so we could have roses in December. I think he could just as well have said that God gave us memory so we can savor good food anytime.

The eyes, they say, are the windows to the soul. Well, I'm convinced bread is the window to a restaurant's soul. It's the first food impression a restaurant makes, and good places make sure their bread sends the right message. Three places stood out for me in the bread department during the past 12 months.

At Franco's Trattoria (8120 North Hayden, Scottsdale), it's not only the basket of warm focaccia and chewy Italian loaf. It's the gratis serving of pecorino Romano and parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses that comes with it, freshly shaved off huge wheels. It's an expensive touch, and Franco complains that some customers abuse it by demanding additional servings. Who can blame them?

You'd think good corn bread would be as easy to find here as a good baguette in France. Dream on. But if you're willing to be spoiled for life, dig into the green chile corn bread at Pinon Grill (The Inn at Regal McCormick Ranch, 7401 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale). Almost unbearably moist and flavorful, this corn bread is sublime. Every time we come here, my wife surreptitiously wraps a piece in her napkin and hides it in her purse, so she can have some for breakfast the next day.

Ask the kitchen not to hurry bringing out the food at Suzanne's Bistro (4669 East Cactus). That will give you more time to spend with the wonderful thick, crusty homemade bread. That's not all; you get to gild the bread lily with an irresistible Gorgonzola spread.

Sometimes appetizers are the most interesting part of a meal. Each of these four starters was so tantalizing, I'd have been happy to order them as main dishes, too.

The ma'anek at Al Amir (8989 East Via Linda, Scottsdale) will carry you to the Middle East faster than a flying carpet. They're heavily scented Lebanese sausages bathed in lemon juice, served with French fries. Split this three or four ways, or you'll never make it to the entree.

Every place in town serves a squid appetizer. Unfortunately, it's almost always breaded and fried, and served with some horrid dipping sauce. At Rancho Pinot Grill (6208 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale), the chef grills lusciously tender squid and offsets them in a salad with crunchy celery and preserved lemon. The combination of taste and textures is memorable.

Christopher's (2398 East Camelback) is one of the Valley's swankiest restaurants. It's no wonder that its soup of morels and foie gras is one of the Valley's swankiest starters. The earthy intensity of the mushrooms and rich tones of the foie gras make a magical impression.

At eight bucks, it's pricey, but the smoked brisket in corn-bread pudding at Windows on the Green (Phoenician, 6000 East Camelback) gives you your memory's worth. It's drizzled with a green-chile vinaigrette; you'll be dazzled by the blend of flavors.

What makes for a memorable main dish? Creative chefs like to come up with something new. But more often, they do even better giving a distinctive twist to the familiar. And sometimes they realize there's virtue in using first-rate ingredients and keeping things simple.

Eddie's Grill (4747 North Seventh Street) can take a bow for dreaming up its seafood cioppino pot pie. Shrimp, scallops, mussels and clams team with bow-tie pasta in an aromatic, fennel-accented vegetable broth. It's all topped by a canopy of puff pastry. I could eat this seven days a week.

Gregory's Grill (7049 East McDowell, Scottsdale) turns beef into something extraordinary with its Kobe-style beef tenderloin. The butter-soft meat is marinated in beer for several days, and served with a shiitake-mushroom hash, stir-fried veggies and a ginger sauce. Carnivores will be transfixed.

Like every upscale restaurant in the Valley, Lon's (Hermosa Inn, 5532 North Palo Cristi, Paradise Valley) offers rack of lamb. This is one rack you won't mind being tied to. The lamb itself is of exceptional quality, and it's grilled over wood and paired with a wild-mushroom ragout and couscous. Is it proper to pick up the bones with your hands and gnaw? You'd be a fool not to.

Is Pizzeria Bianco (623 East Adams) one of the best restaurants in town? I'd have to believe it's on everybody's short list. The Wiseguy pizza demonstrates all the virtues: perfect crust, smoked mozzarella, homemade fennel sausage and onion. For an extra buck, I like to throw on wood-roasted mushrooms. Warning: You may never again have the courage to eat pizza elsewhere.

I love eggplant. I particularly love it the way it's prepared at China Chili (3501 North Central). The chef uses the best--Japanese eggplants. Instead of cooking them to a pulpy mess, he cuts them into chopstick-friendly pieces. Then he adds sauteed garlic, minced pork and a sweat-inducing hot chili paste.

Most people ask one thing of a dessert: It's got to produce those chemical secretions from the brain that tell us we're ecstatically happy. This trio did the job for me.

I'm really, really fussy when it comes to cheesecake. I like it rich, dense and cheesy. At Arrivederci (7101 East Thunderbird, Scottsdale), they produce an Italian cheesecake to die for, fashioned from ricotta cheese and barley. If you're falling off the dessert wagon, this is where you want to land.

The driving force behind Coup Des Tartes (4626 North 16th Street) got her training as a pastry chef. It shows in her wickedly delightful signature dessert, a banana brulee tart, zipped up with coconut. Do not attempt to operate heavy machinery if you knock off a whole one by yourself.

You'll have a hard time deciding what to do with the Arizona Kitchen's (Wigwam Resort, 300 East Indian School, Litchfield Park) incredible guajillo chile ice cream dessert: frame it or eat it. Either way, it's striking. The mild chile-flavored ice cream is topped with a heavenly chocolate cabernet sauce, and served in a blazingly blue "bowl" spun from sugar. Talk about ending a meal on a high note.

Thanks for the memories.

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Howard Seftel