SMART MOUTH

Phoenix Puts Some Zest on the Menu

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

In the not-so-distant past, Phoenix restaurants were about as stylish as a pair of Bermuda shorts. Vacationers flocked there for world-class golf courses, shopping and spas, but certainly not for the food.

But there's no need to settle for stodgy, overpriced continental cuisine any longer. The Phoenix dining scene is now vibrant and varied, an engaging mix of stylish new bistros and old favorites. This desert resort has matured into a destination that even a foodie can love.

With its open kitchen and warm, welcoming owners, Zest (4117 N. 16th St., just northeast of downtown, 602-274-7442) has a funky-chic style that exemplifies the new breed of Phoenix restaurants. The setting is colorful and hip, but there's not a trace of attitude: The staff seems genuinely concerned that you have a great meal and a great time.

The gallery-like space often displays the work of local artists; that's only fitting, for there's a creative spirit at work in the kitchen as well. The "innovative American" menu is full of intriguing combinations, such as seared halibut with artichoke rice and a melon gazpacho. The center-cut pork chop was a knockout: Moist and savory, coated in light Japanese-style bread crumbs, it's served on a bed of smashed potatoes, with a bold cranberry-orange chutney. Dinner for two runs $70 to $80 with drinks.

For romance under the stars, head to Lon's at the Hermosa (5532 N. Palo Cristi Rd., 602-955-7878) in the exclusive residential neighborhood of Paradise Valley. This adobe hacienda -- with wooden beams, stucco walls and Western memorabilia -- brims with rustic elegance. But the outdoor patio, lighted by glowing fireplaces, is pure magic. Arrive at sunset to enjoy views of Camelback Mountain looming over the spectacular desert scenery.

Chef Michael Rusconi took over the kitchen in 2005, and his results are impressive: a sophisticated contemporary American menu punctuated by spicy Southwestern accents. Start with the hacienda prima, a trio of appetizers including a duck taco, a red chili beef empanada and a mini tamale stuffed with wood-grilled vegetables. That's just a teaser for the main event, perhaps a tender pepper-crusted pork tenderloin or the ancho-spiced grilled salmon. Expect to spend $150 for a special dinner for two with wine.

Duck and Decanter (1651 E. Camelback Rd., 602-274-5429) is a terrible name for a wonderful gourmet deli. Located in the Camelback Corridor, a short drive from the Arizona Biltmore Resort, "the Duck" makes lunchtime soups, salads and sandwiches that it cheekily calls "nooners."

These are no ordinary grab-it-and-go sandwiches. Choose from 11 kinds of fresh-baked bread (the ciabatta is irresistible) and invent your own combination from a voluminous list of fresh ingredients such as maple-glazed ham, albacore tuna, avocados, pine nuts and longhorn cheese. Or try one of the signature sandwiches, such as the Briesciutto (prosciutto and Brie, of course, with zingy sun-dried tomatoes).

While your sandwich is assembled, browse the aisles for prickly pear honey mustard, Ghirardelli chocolates or imported olive oils. Better yet, grab a glass of wine and linger on the outdoor patio, where musicians perform on weekends. Lunch for two is about $20.

Authentic New York-style pizza in the Arizona desert? It's not a mirage. Right in the middle of Old Town Scottsdale stands Patsy Grimaldi's (4000 N. Scottsdale Rd., 480-994-1100), a legendary name that makes pizza purists salivate.

The long-reigning king of New York pizzamakers, Patsy routinely snags top honors from Zagat's. In 2003, he entrusted his trade secrets to his nephew, who expanded the family business 2,000 miles west of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Patsy's trademark crust is the key: It's thin, crispy and ever-so-slightly charred by the blazing heat of the coal ovens. That glorious crust is the foundation for such toppings as fragrant basil, roasted sweet red peppers and Italian sausage. The sauce is a revelation -- the sunny taste of fresh tomatoes comes through in every bite. Dinner for two with wine will set you back about $50.

To literally put the cherry on top of your Patsy's experience, head across the street to the Sugar Bowl (4005 N. Scottsdale Rd., 480-946-0051). This classic ice cream parlor, with its eye-popping hot-pink decor, hasn't changed a whit since it opened in 1958.

There's a full menu of salads and sandwiches, but that's beside the point. The crowds line up for gargantuan hot-fudge sundaes and banana splits, piled high with whipped cream and chopped nuts; $5 to $7 will buy you a giant helping of old-fashioned decadence.

There's nothing new or inventive about the Sugar Bowl, but why improve on perfection?

-- Lisa Renaud

For general information on Phoenix, contact the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau, 877-225-5749,http://www.phoenixcvb.com/.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company


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