THE PARISIAN GULF

To bistro or not to bistro? That is the question for many French restaurants these days.

Understandably, the current urge to create an unpretentious environment for the consumption of bonne cuisine francaise coincides with the downturn of the American economy. The bistro, like its brother the brasserie, connotes a less-expensive and more casual form of French eatery. The kind of place that serves continuously day and night. Where hot and cold foods, as well as wine, beer and other beverages, can be obtained with haste and without a lot of hassle.

It's all relative, of course. Bistro food still isn't as cheap as many other types of food, nor as fast. But to gourmet types feeling the pinch in their pocketbooks, "bistro" is a very inviting concept. In contemporary American English, it translates as "French and affordable."

Here in Phoenix, you can be sure the first-year success of chef Christopher Gross' bistro has been inspiration for local restaurateurs. The style and substance of this attractive Camelback eatery have provided a model--if only in terms of hours, offerings and pricing. Obviously, Gross' considerable culinary talents, wine cellar, staff and setting are much harder to replicate. Which is not to say that everyone who opts to "go bistro" is copying Chris Gross. For some restaurants, it is simply a logical business decision, a matter of practicality.

Take Scottsdale's La Chaumiere, for instance. Late last year this well-established, expensive French restaurant became Bistro La Chaumiere. The reason? According to a letter from owners Daniel and Denise Huon, the change was prompted by a desire "to serve more people than we have been able to in the past." In other words, increase traffic by becoming accessible to a younger, more casual audience; change with the times; go with the flow; modernize.

The trouble is, it's harder to retool than to start from scratch. Changing the menu, hours and prices is the easy part. The hard part is retraining customers and staff. Loyal, longtime customers have expectations. You don't want to lose or alienate them. And your staff is used to doing things a certain way. But both must change to accommodate the subtle transformation of spirit required for a successful transition to bistro from traditional French restaurant.

You see, a bistro is more than simply less expensive and open longer. I'm certainly not the world's expert on the subject, but to me, a bistro is the quintessential "clean, well-lighted place." I think of white table linen, scurrying waiters, attractively dressed patrons, a tile floor, a bar. There's an anything-goes feeling that comes with the freedom of eating when and what you like. There's also a buzz, a perceptible air of "something happening," and the opportunity to observe life, the community, in action. Sadly, this je ne sais quoi is what is missing at Bistro La Chaumiere. Right now, it feels more like a traditional French restaurant grasping at straws.

Though an outdoor deck is planned, the physical structure remains the same. Inside, the restaurant is too dark, stodgy and worn to be romantic. Outside, the glass-enclosed solarium has the abandoned and gritty feel of a country club in the off-season. Service on the days I visit is odd. Late one Saturday afternoon, a dining accomplice and I feel as if we are dining between shifts--though the restaurant is supposed to be open continuously from 11 a.m. to closing. Vacuum cleaners are paraded by. New waiters arrive, suit up and begin replenishing bus stations. Our own waiter gives us the kind of scant attention reserved for one's last table of the day. You know the attitude: I've made enough tips already and I'm just waiting on you 'til somebody comes to relieve me. Inattention rules. Though I make it clear to our waiter that my accomplice and I are sharing our two appetizers, no extra plates are brought. "Who wants what?" he asks when he delivers them. An open bottle of ketchup, brought to accompany some very ordinary French fries, remains on the table when dessert comes. Water glasses go unrefilled until late in the meal. A busboy brings us a basket of bread after our dinner plates have been cleared. Huh?

A lunch in the solarium prompts thoughts of Twin Peaks. There is something just slightly askew about our meal. Our waitress's uniform and excessive blue eye-makeup seem more appropriate for a diner than a French bistro. Our decaf cappuccinos are served with straws in long-stemmed goblets and taste like chocolate milk. Our portions of homemade ice cream and sorbet are huge. Where's the dancing midget?

As for the food, nothing blows me away. The duck and leek pizza I've heard so much about is cheesy, but bland. The green chile housing a chicken chile relleno is tough and chewy; its caramelized onion sauce unsuccessful. A crab cake in lemony beurre blanc is oversalted and small for $7.95. New York steak sauteed with peppercorns, cognac and cream is unexceptional. Lamb top sirloin is bathed in a greasy mint sauce which tastes unpleasantly bitter at first. Finally, if you crave a great nicoise salad, go to Marche Gourmet. Bistro La Chaumiere has problems: The green beans are underdone to the point of chewiness; the chunks of flaky white tuna are miserly; the potatoes, peeled and bathed in dressing, resemble potato salad.

What I like most here are the most basic foodstuffs. The Dover sole, a holdover from the old menu, is light flavored and tender, but tres cher at the market price of $25. The sourish French bread is delightful. House salads featuring a creamy vinaigrette and well-chosen leaves of romaine and leaf lettuce are above average. Fruit-filled creme brulee and a fruit tart are pleasant.

No one is more surprised than I to be underwhelmed by the food at this Scottsdale mainstay. I hold chef Ralph Peterson in high esteem. But something just isn't clicking yet at Bistro La Chaumiere. The feeling I pick up from this restaurant during my two visits is an odd combination of apathy, nervousness and--dare I say it?--decline. I don't know what's going on behind the scenes here, but I hope it gets fixed soon.

If my visit to Bistro La Chaumiere produces the kind of disappointment one associates with being fixed up on a date that's a flop, my trip to another French bistro, Mes Amis, is more like love at first sight.

Hey, I make no apologies. Who can explain these things?
As with love, whether I like a restaurant has much to do with time, place and circumstance. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. These are not false limitations. These are the same conditions a restaurant works under every day as it attempts to cultivate a steady clientele and win new patrons. My experiences mirror those of every reader and diner.

To be fair about it, Mes Amis has one advantage over Bistro La Chaumiere. Mes Amis set out from the start to be a bistro. A bistro in the fancy-schmancy Borgata--but a bistro nonetheless. I didn't expect to love it. It just happened.

The reasons are pretty simple. First of all, Mes Amis looks and sounds like a bistro. It has the white tablecloths, the glass case filled with luscious desserts, the brass-edged bar, the visible bottles of wine. Ze varee Franch wait-are and chef George Venezia are speaking to each other in zeir native tongue when my dining accomplice and I arrive for dinner. Yves Montand vocalizes over the high-quality sound system. A bell signals pickups from the kitchen. I am charmed almost immediately.

Second, the menu is very appealing--though a tad on the pricey side. Mes Amis offers everything from pate to bouillabaisse, from escargots to steak tartare. As befits a bistro, hearty items like grilled meats and seafood are featured.

Third, the service is irreproachable. Our waiter is alone until later in the evening, but handles the room flawlessly. He is attentive, retains his natural good humor and emits none of the stressed-out vibes I've witnessed in similar situations at other restaurants. I like it when he asks us in a confident manner, "You like ever-sing?" Yes, I do. Finally, the food is excellent. After my meal at Mes Amis, I enjoy a high the whole next day. Here's why: an appetizer of tart, olive oil-drenched roasted red pimiento sprinkled with goat cheese and crushed basil; piping hot, Provence-style fish soup with a creamy texture and subtle seafood flavor; hearty-crusted country French bread; peppery, crunchy vegetables; gorgeous grilled lamb chops and perfectly done steak in a gutsy peppercorn sauce; a gigantic, flaky napoleon which succeeds in being not too sweet.

You get the picture. I'm wowed. This clean, well-lighted place has won my heart.

When I request our check from our young, charming waiter, he kids, "You want to leave?" Oui, but only so I can return. Soon.

Bistro La Chaumiere, 6910 East Main, Scottsdale, 946-5115. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

Mes Amis, 6166 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 998-9585. Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

anywhere

Bistro: I think of white table linen, scurrying waiters, attractively dressed patrons, a tile floor, a bar.

chaumiere

Bistro La Chaumiere feels more like a traditional French restaurant grasping at straws.

mes amis

The food is excellent. After my meal at Mes Amis, I enjoy a high the whole next day.

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