Cafe Reviews

SECOND HELPINGS, 5-25

Homage to Catalonia: What's the best restaurant in town? Who knows? Tell me your tastes, and I could probably rattle off two dozen potential candidates.

What's my favorite restaurant? That's a little easier. Depending on my mood, I could draw up several short lists. And Marquesa would be on all of them.

This gem specializes in Spanish fare, especially the delights of Catalonia. I can't think of another place that furnishes a better mix of food, service and setting.

It's a beguiling room, formal without being intimidating. Portraits of Spanish nobility, big mirrors, an imposing chandelier and banquette seats with brocaded pillows to tuck into the small of your back are part of the charm. So is the view of the manicured grounds and McDowell Mountains out the back door.

A recent visit convinced me that the kitchen is as strong as ever. We started off with tapas, bite-size morsels that edge you slowly into dinner. Tempting as they are, go easy on the irresistible veal empanadas and risotto lobster cakes. There's much more to come.

And some of it is free, like the breadbasket wafting with the scents of focaccia and an exquisite sourdough bread infused with morels. They're served with a warm dipping sauce redolent of tomato, garlic, olives and walnuts.

At this point, an appetizer course may seem like gilding the lily. But if your lily's looking to get gilded, this is the place to do it. Anec D'Napoleon (the menu is written in Catalan, which looks like Spanish after one too many sherries) is one of the best dishes I've ever had, in this or any other town. You get three phyllo-dough pouches, stuffed with a heady blend of duck, foie gras and mushrooms, decorously resting in a puddle of onion marmalade. Wow.

Paella is the Spanish national dish, and Marquesa will show you why. The version here, served for two (it's the most expensive entree at $26.95 per person), features lobster, shrimp, mussels, cockles, chicken, pork, chistora (sharp Spanish sausage) and saffron-scented rice. It's impossible to eat this and not believe that life is good, especially if you wash it down with a Cte de Beaune.

Other main dishes send the same message. The menu varies, but if you spot Anyell "Vall D'Aran," don't hesitate. It's rack of lamb, with four melt-in-your-mouth chops bathed in a fragrant rosemary-mustard sauce, combined with peppers, artichokes and lamb sausage. The chef also does a masterful job with fish, as anyone who has had the pleasure to sample the monkfish and pistachio-encrusted John Dory will cheerfully attest.

Desserts continue the assault. Gird yourself for the Gran Torres cheesecake, draped with chocolate and orange sauce. The cräme frache flan, freshened with lemon in a black walnut pastry crust, is also superb.

Throw in outstanding touches, like pours of bottled mineral water, complimentary chocolate truffles and knowledgeable, professional service, and you've got all the ingredients for a memorable evening.

Marquesa is at the Scottsdale Princess resort, at 7575 East Princess Drive. Call 585-4848.--

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Howard Seftel