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.

Most of all, I savored the cheese plate. Citrus Caf‚ serves a hearty platter of five cheeses, including expensive morbier and Gorgonzola, accompanied by sliced apple and grapes. It cost twice as much as the other desserts, but was ample for two people. Since it's almost impossible to find a cheese course except at the Valley's priciest restaurants, I have no trouble justifying another trip out here.

Citrus Caf‚ runs the happy but dangerous risk of becoming a victim of its own success. The long wait, despite reservations, tested our patience, service crossed the line between unhurried and slow, and the kitchen ran out of some dishes we wished to try. Let's hope management can keep up with the cooking.

32nd Street Bistro, 3160 East Camelback, Phoenix, 956-4494. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.

Management has had a lot more practice at 32nd Street Bistro. That's because this relatively new place has the same ownership as the Borgata-based bistro Mes Amis.

Despite the inevitable, storefront-parking-lot view, the room has a cozy, sedate feel. Clever murals are painted to suggest crumbling walls, with gaps revealing scenes of Roman ruins in southern France and geometric shapes that hint at Roman mosaics.

This place makes a happy first impression, thanks to a terrific breadbasket filled with small, round loaves of warm, chewy country bread. And the appetizers did little to readjust our attitude. Escargots come heaped in a garlic cream sauce, alongside a small piece of puff pastry bobbing like a buoy. At $4.95, this dish provides more snails per dollar than anyplace I know in the Valley.

Roasted red pepper and feta cheese is another good way to glide into dinner. Pepper and cheese are covered with a zesty pesto sauce, and the assortment of flavors works well. A slightly larger portion and another loaf of bread and I might have been ready to call it a night.

Coquilles Saint-Tropez is the most intriguing appetizer. Three glorious grilled scallops, meaty and moist, are nestled in a pungent tomato caper sauce. Perhaps the mild scallops and powerful sauce might have been better off with different partners, I thought, but I was still undecided by the time I cleaned off my plate.

Stick to the soup when you order your entrees. This evening's white bean came in a tasty, understated, tomato-vegetable broth. The house salad, by contrast, featured undistinguished greens sprinkled with a flavorless, grated cheese that lacked the distinctive bite of real Parmesan.

By far the best entree we sampled was swordfish. Usually prepared as a slab, the fish here came as a thick, fist-size hunk, like filet mignon. Beautifully grilled, it floated on a puddle of sharp ginger sauce surrounded by sweet, caramelized red onions. While good fish, like a beautiful woman, seldom requires adornment, this exercise in lily gilding worked.

Magret de canard, a typical bistro dish, features sliced, boneless breast of duck. 32nd Street Bistro prepares a routine version with a generous portion of fowl.

The kitchen's equally profligate with veal. Escalope de veau au calvados didn't stint on the plateful of thin, tender slices. But no one could detect even a hint of calvados, a high-octane apple brandy from Normandy that's hard to sneak by.

On this night, unimaginative chunks of roasted potato and appealing slices of grilled eggplant and squash accompanied all the main dishes.

No one would ever guess, spooning into 32nd Street Bistro's sweets, that French desserts excite global enthusiasm. The ones we tasted were dull. Cräme caramel was nothing to swoon over--a pedestrian effort. The lackluster napoleon could have come from a cafeteria display. The alluring pear tart was particularly disappointing, all crust with only traces of pear and almond paste.

32nd Street Bistro has a lot going for it: It's a comfortable spot with smooth, French-accented service and some really first-rate dishes. I'm just waiting for it to pull all of its fare up to that level.

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