SEINE ASYLUM

Jean-Claude's Petit Cafe, 7340 East Shoeman, Scottsdale, 947-5288. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m. I wonder if Ferdinand Marcos remembered the first time he took Imelda shoe shopping.

Does Jim Bakker recollect the day he let the Avon Lady into the house to see Tammy Faye?

Perhaps Prince Andrew recalls asking Fergie to let the new financial adviser examine her checkbook.

Small, innocuous actions can sometimes spin out of control. Someday, I'm afraid, I may regret introducing my daughter to French food at Jean-Claude's Petit Cafe.

This charming, 10-year-old establishment won't wow the restaurant-design crowd. It's simple and comfortable: white walls and ceilings, white tablecloths, some green plants for color, and pictures of food lining the walls. And, happily, the light fixtures use enough wattage so you won't think you're in an Ingmar Bergman film shot in the middle of a Scandinavian winter.

The emphasis is on food, not decor. And not once-trendy nouvelle cuisine, or cuisine minceur, that Weight Watcher diet food … la fran‡aise. Nor will you find cutting-edge Southwestern-French or Franco-Japanese combinations, either. The menu offers traditional French dishes that wouldn't have excited anyone in the 1790s, let alone the 1990s.

But though the concept is well-worn, the execution is fresh.
My 12-year-old--like most kids, no culinary adventuress--faced the meal with the same resigned spirit she displays visiting the orthodontist. With touching trust, she let my wife and me make her selections.

We started her off with the potage du jour, cream of mussel soup. It's a rich, velvety broth seasoned with shallots, fennel seed and bay leaf, with several tender mussels still in the shell. Needless to say, not only is this starter never the soup of the day on our home dinner menu, it's not even the soup of the decade.

I wasn't entirely prepared for her reaction to the first unfamiliar spoonful. She closed her eyes, arched her eyebrows and tilted her head toward the heavens. "Mmmmmmmmmm," she murmured. Another taste. "Ooooh," she sighed. This is how cave men must have reacted the first time they dropped meat on the fire.

This lovely soup summoned up similar happy noises in me, although I was sophisticated enough to make them inaudible to nearby diners. But my pleasure was checked when it occurred to me that my daughter might not put up with a quick can of Campbell's chicken noodle anymore. The thick, oven-browned, cheese-encrusted onion soup also got a critical thumbs up, and was quickly skimmed of its solids. But the pulpy broth lacked a zingy onion bite. Despite a high degree of confidence in her parents' taste, no encouraging words could convince my daughter to sample the escargots Bourguignonne. The buttery, bubbling-hot snails featured enough garlic to keep the Southwest werewolf-free for the foreseeable future. And the bread, while not quite good enough for munching on its own, at least made a decent-enough vehicle for mopping up the liquids.

Even better than the snails, the feuillet‚ de fruits de mer is an exceptional appetizer. A generous portion of seafood--shrimp and salmon, among other things--comes lightly surrounded by a delicate shell of paper-thin pastry, moistened with a mild lobster sauce. Not too many people have the time or expertise to make this at home, and, at $6.95, it's a bargain as well as a treat.

Our description of the main dishes stopped when my daughter, a notorious carnivore, heard the words "New York sirloin." So focused was she on the prospect of steak that she didn't realize it wasn't merely a slab of meat, but steak au poivre she'd ordered.

It's a dish so venerable its recipe could have been written on the cave walls of Lascaux, alongside the animal paintings. Peppercorns are crushed into the top of the meat, which rests in a creamed cognac sauce. Creamed cognac sauce appears in our kitchen as often as Ed McMahon with a $10 million Publishers Clearing House check. But despite the novelty, after one bite, the child was wearing the same ecstatic look as an Amway distributor at a Pat Boone concert. "Here," she said, offering me a taste, "take some now, because I won't have the willpower to save you any."

I saw her point. The tender beef and heavy, aromatic sauce made a potent combination. I just hoped she wouldn't begin turning up her nose at my macaroni-and-ground-beef casseroles.

I went for the grilled loin of thinly sliced lamb, hearty, fragrant medallions ringed with a handful of thickly scented rosemary. The most expensive entree at $17.95, the platter could have been a bit more generous with the lamb.

My wife, deep into calorie shock from butter, cheese and the prospect of dessert, opted for fresh trout. It comes poached, and stuffed with an undistinguished seafood mousse.

All our main dishes arrived with scalloped potatoes, excellent pur‚es of carrots and beets, and a colorful mix of snow peas and cherry tomatoes.

Two desserts stand out on the menu. Too bad the kitchen was out of one of them, profiteroles au chocolat. (They're custard cream puffs with chocolate sauce.) But the chocolate souffl‚, a light, steaming chocolate cloud, assuaged our disappointment. The white-chocolate mousse, on the other hand, seemed pedestrian in comparison.

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