FRENCH PROVINCIAL

Citrus Caf‚, 2330 North Alma School, Chandler, 899-0502. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.

Ignore the fact that you're in Chandler, where washing your recreational vehicle is considered a cultural statement.

Forget about the strip-mall location, flanked by a Sizzler and a slew of depressing, empty storefronts.

Focus instead on the folks milling around outside Citrus Caf‚ on a recent Saturday night.

It's a sophisticated, sleek-looking, big-city bunch of people in their prime earning years, discussing politics, books and food. At 7:30, no one seems particularly distressed that patrons with 6:30 reservations have yet to be seated. This is a crowd that has killed time outside restaurants in New York, San Francisco and probably Paris.

It's gathered at this family-run culinary oasis to dine on excellent, reasonably priced French country bistro fare.

Once inside, diners run into the familiar, black-and-white urban look--black, plastic, stackable chairs, black-and-white-checked tablecloths, black abstract sculpture suspended on the wall. But the look is softened by lots of homey touches. There's an open kitchen and a display of gleaming copper pans. A half-wall dividing the room, lined with plants and a striking arrangement of paper sunflowers, keeps the place intimate. A breakfront at the back is laden with books and knickknacks. And whoever did the acoustics should be put on retainer at Symphony Hall. Despite the bustle, the place sounds quieter than most Valley movie theatres.

There's no printed menu, an encouraging sign. Instead, servers lug over an easel listing the evening's choices. It's a lot more work to prepare a bill of fare based on what's available on the market than it is to keep a six-week inventory in the freezer. I couldn't help ratcheting up my expectations.

The appetizers justified my hopes. Thick mounds of fragrant, creamy goat cheese arrived on four pieces of toasted baguette, topped with sun-dried tomatoes and resting on lightly dressed greens. Sure, it's a simple starter, but it's an intensely flavorful way to edge into the meal.

Duck galantine, a down-home French dish, is a slice of first-rate homemade pork and duck pƒt‚. It comes dotted with pistachio nuts, and is a chunky, rich-tasting delight.

Gastropod fanciers can scoop up a half-dozen tender escargots Bourguignonne. The puddle of garlic and butter they swim in requires good bread, and Citrus Caf‚ puts out tasty baguettes that I wouldn't be ashamed to tuck under my arm and walk home with.

Entrees, which hover in the $15 range, come with soup or salad. While the greens were nothing special, the evening's split-pea soup was superb. It's a dense, highly seasoned pur‚e that will make you wish it came in a somewhat larger vessel.

The main dishes won't remind anyone of elegant French classical cuisine--no rich sauces, wild mushrooms or exotic fowl. Don't look for cutesy, artfully arranged plates featuring microscopic amounts of baby vegetables, either. Think of Citrus Caf‚'s bistro fare as French diner food, as comforting, in its own way, as meat loaf or beef stew. But as you might expect, a nation that considers Jerry Lewis a genius is apt to differ with us about food, too.

For instance, you're as likely to encounter rabbit in most Valley restaurants as you are to run into Maurice Chevalier. But rabbit is a bistro staple, and Citrus Caf‚'s popular version shows why.

It's not a terribly meaty creature, but it has a pleasing, mild taste. And Citrus Caf‚ perks it up with a sprightly, wine-and-Dijon-mustard sauce that kept us digging down to the bones.

The wonderful scoop of seasoned eggplant, squash and peppers alongside had a genuine French touch. But the scalloped potatoes seemed to have wandered over from the nearby Sizzler's prime-rib platter.

As for the pistachio chicken, its French ancestry is as dubious as that of the Coneheads. But both sport that je ne sais quoi flair I associate with France. A whole, boned chicken breast is rolled in crushed pistachios, then neatly grilled and sliced. It comes with wheat pilaf, a superior alternative to scalloped potatoes.

No French restaurant in America, it seems, can resist offering bouillabaisse, a Mediterranean seafood specialty that no self-respecting Frenchman would touch outside the city limits of Marseille.

Citrus Caf‚'s bouillabaisse is essentially a crustacean-and-bivalve stew stocked with lobster, shrimp, scallops, mussels and snapper. Aioli-slathered toast floating alongside added an authentic touch, as did the heady, saffron-scented broth. So what if we're 6,000 miles from Marseille? It's quite good.

Despite the generous portion of seafood, there was barely enough liquid to keep the solids from scraping bottom. Perhaps so many people had ordered the dish on this busy night that the chef had to ration the broth. Still, for $19.75 (it's the most expensive dish here), I wanted more than plausible excuses.

Desserts are flat-out delicious. White- and dark-chocolate decadence features two layers of chocolate hunks encased in chocolate-cake crust. Anyone who can leave even a forkful untouched wins this year's G. Gordon Liddy will-power award.

A more typically French concoction is the chestnut custard, made with sweetened chestnut paste and a healthy swig of Grand Marnier. It's unusual, but it's also divine.

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