Cafe Reviews

Second Helpings

Binge and Splurge: In this casual town, where sometimes even shoes and socks are a form of overdressing, there aren't too many opportunities to put on your best duds. But you'll want to haul them out for dinner at Mary Elaine's.

These days, this austerely elegant room is at the top of its form, offering food and service at the highest level. We had a special-occasion meal here recently that couldn't have gone better if we had scripted it ourselves.

When I made my reservation (naturally not in my own name), I mentioned it was an anniversary dinner. The hostess had evidently gotten the message, because she greeted us with a "Happy Anniversary" and led us to two of the best seats in the house, a windowside table with a sweeping Valley view.

The waiter quickly zipped over with two champagne glasses. "Happy Anniversary. May I pour you some complimentary champagne?" he asked. You bet he could, and we toasted with Mumm's Cuvee Napa.

Then, the meal started in earnest. The kitchen is back under the direction of Alessandro Stratta, who recently gave up his largely administrative post as executive chef to return to the kitchen. Cooking, he says, is his first love, and if our dinner was any indication, it showed.

The Mediterranean-accented food is exquisite. Sauteed foie gras, gilded with rhubarb and leeks, is an opulent way to glide into dinner, especially if you pair it with Chateau Guiraud, a first-growth Sauternes that Mary Elaine's has the good sense to offer by the glass.

Chef Stratta has a way with fish, so I opted for the regal daurade, a species you're unlikely to encounter anywhere else in this time zone. He pairs the fillet with intensely flavorful coconut basmati rice, tinged with a bit of curry. And Stratta is just as adept with duck, which he fashioned with a lentil torte and yummy, honey-roasted baby turnips.

We never got a chance to look at the dessert list. That's because the waiter came bearing an on-the-house, Happy Anniversary, chocolate-raspberry confection. We followed this up with the best espresso that's passed through my lips in quite a while (when my wife marveled at how good it was, the waiter brought her another one, gratis), and a one-for-the-road glass of 15-year-old Malmsey from Madeira.

All this high-end dining doesn't come cheap. Two appetizers and two entrees will run about a hundred bucks. Throw in dessert, coffee, wine and after-dinner drinks, and the sky's pretty much the limit.

On the other hand, you get a hundred cents of value for every dollar you spend here. Mary Elaine's simply doesn't cut corners. If you've got some disposable income, a taste for gourmet fare and something to celebrate, this is the place to do it.

Mary Elaine's is at the Phoenician, 6000 East Camelback. Call 423-2530.
Mary Elaine's, Part Deux: If you're celebrating a winning Powerball ticket, consider "Dinner in the Kitchen at Mary Elaine's." It's a weekly, Thursday-night, custom-designed, five-course, table-for-six meal, served in Mary Elaine's kitchen. Bring five of your closest friends, and six hundred dollars.

--Howard Seftel

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Howard Seftel

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