Ritz Cracker

It's been almost two years since the Bistro 24 that Valley Francophiles knew and loved took a turn for the boring. A new chef had arrived in the spring of 2000, and attempted to bring a simplified, more relaxed dining experience to the classically inspired French restaurant that is the Ritz-Carlton's flagship eatery. That meant dismissing a lengthy menu with very bistro-like stars such as escargot, filet of beef à la Bourguignonne, pâté du jour with Cornichons, croque monsieur, coq au vin and bouillabaisse. Instead, the condensed offering emphasized mostly familiar flavors like ahi tuna, filet mignon, lamb chops and chicken. Sauces were lightened, and complicated dishes deconstructed to accommodate a more timid dining crowd. Dull, dull, dull.

Things are looking brighter these days. A new chef has been introduced, and those oh-so-French favorites have returned in all their glory. Executive chef Robert Graham has expanded the menu back to its grand status, with dishes like napoleon of duck confit, smoked salmon tart, beef Wellington and fillet of sole meunière.

The "aujourd'hui" daily specials fit fancy French blue-plate form. Tuesday is coq au vin, Wednesday is cassoulet and Thursday is Châteaubriand, for example.

But where is the escargot? It's so hard to find stunning snails in this town, even though we've got our own escargot ranch raising the critters in Cave Creek.

Saucy Fellow: Sir Charles Taylor has checked in, and wants fans of his Texas-style barbecue to know that he does hope to surface yet again, after the recent closure of his Sir Charles Barbecue Pit in Phoenix. Investment plans are under way, and in the meantime, 'cue lovers can still pick up his bottled sauce at Valley AJ's.

Restaurateurs are nothing if not resilient. Can we add Taylor to the list of "can't stop 'em" chefs like Nick Ligidakis (now running Authors' Café in Scottsdale) and Norman Fierros (now working at El Encanto in Cave Creek)?

Bunny Business: For all the money that's spent on fancy Easter brunches (herb-crusted lamb, free-flowing champagne), only 16 percent of Americans dine out on the holiday, according to the National Restaurant Association's Holiday Dining 2000 survey.

And for all the get-up that goes on at restaurants (petting zoos, egg hunts, employees mortified to be dressed as giant bunnies), most diners celebrating Easter are the least likely to be impressed. Older individuals -- 65 and older -- make up the largest portion, 27 percent, of the crowd.

Kind of makes me just want to stay home and stuff myself silly with chocolate rabbits and jelly beans.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet