Cafe Reviews

Second Helpings

High and Mighty: From its Camelback Mountain perch at the swanky Phoenician resort, Mary Elaine's offers a stunning view of the twinkling Valley below.

But the view isn't the only riveting sight this restaurant delivers. Take a look at your plate: Mary Elaine's is putting out some extraordinary gourmet fare.

Under the direction of chef Alessandro Stratta, this kitchen is soaring. I recently had a meal here that took my breath away.

As soon as you're seated, you have to choose: Will you be sipping Evian or San Pellegrino this evening? The choices don't get any easier once you open the menu.

Dinner gets under way with a couple of freebies. The evening I was there, we had a Parmesan cheese stick wrapped with prosciutto. Then there were a few tablespoons of lovely cream of cauliflower soup. We also nibbled away happily at the outstanding bread, a Tuscan ciabatta and a superb, fig-flecked oatmeal molasses loaf.

For an appetizer, try the seared foie gras with caramelized pineapple, moistened with 100-year-old balsamic vinegar. It's one of the most ravishing dishes I've ever encountered. All the adjectives apply: rich, opulent, powerful. Washed down with a glass of Sauternes, there is simply nothing like it in Maricopa County.

Main dishes burst with flavor. The sweetbreads practically bowled me over. They're sauteed with morels, combined with creamed leeks and coated with an explosive, sherry-tinged veal sauce. It's all set in a puff pastry that literally melts in your mouth.

Fresh daurade, flown in from the Mediterranean, is teamed with coconut basmati rice and peas in the pod, and drizzled with an inspired mango curry sauce zipped up with candied ginger and kumquat.

For dessert, go with the intense chocolate souffle, paired with terrific tiramisu ice cream.

Food isn't the only part of Mary Elaine's that's working on all cylinders. In the past, service has been pretentious to the point of parody. ("Would the gentleman care to experience our coffee?" I once was asked.) These days, it's darned near perfect: The staffers have found a way to straddle the line between deference and amiability. They're also knowledgeable, handling every question I threw at them.

And a word about wine, without which no gourmet experience is complete. Our sommelier handled our by-the-glass requests with patience and grace, even permitting us tastes to help us choose.

At the end of the meal, he set up two glasses on the table. "Did I order more wine?" I wondered aloud. "No," he replied smilingly, "but I thought you'd enjoy this with your chocolate souffle."

"Banyuls?" I asked. It's French, a sweet red dessert wine that's fabulous with chocolate. He nodded. "It's a pleasure serving someone who knows about wine."

Believe me, the pleasure was all mine.
Dinner for two at Mary Elaine's will set you back about $200, including tax, tip and a couple of glasses of wine. Call 941-8200.

--Howard Seftel

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Howard Seftel