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Bistro La Chaumiäre, 6910 East Main, Scottsdale, 946-5115. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
No people on Earth care more about food than the French.
They plan meals with the same attention to detail that the Joint Chiefs brought to the invasion of Iraq. And mealtimes in France don't bring on neurotic episodes, as they do for weight-conscious, guilt-wracked Americans. Eating generates groans of pleasure, not waves of self-recrimination. Food is not a wicked temptation to be avoided or a narcotic to abuse. It's a gift to be enjoyed.
The French are sensible. They don't eat beyond satiety. Few are grotesquely obese. They don't blame their genes if they gain a few pounds. They don't flock to Jenny Craig, Nutri/System or Weight Watchers. (By contrast, dieting is a $32 billion business in the United States.) To maintain their weight, they do what common sense dictates: They occasionally yank their snouts out of the trough.
So it hardly matters that classic French cuisine is maligned for being "out of step" with today's "healthy" lifestyle. Sure, it depends on rich meats, creamy sauces and buttery desserts. But who eats it every day? And who wants to live, anyway, like those grouchy, Stairmaster-stomping American puritans, who harbor the unhappy suspicion that somebody, somewhere, is having a good time?
Of course, when I dine on heavy French fare, I'm neurotic enough to insist that the massive dose of calories I consume be an exceptionally tasty dose. After all, just as no soldier wants to take bullets for a cause he doesn't believe in, I don't want to take a caloric hit for an unworthy meal.
Bistro La Chaumiäre (a chaumiäre is a thatched-roof cottage) serves up venerable French dishes, most of which Caesar must have encountered when he was dividing Gaul into three parts.
It's a cozy place with a kind of bucolic chic. The main building, divided into small rooms, features rustic, wood wainscoting and windows fringed with lace curtains. It could also double as a Museum of Old Tools and Gadgets: Scythes, bellows, yokes and assorted kitchen copperware hang from the walls. It's hard to say whether the basket of bread set down before us was objectively bad or simply the victim of our high, French-restaurant expectations. At least no one was coaxed into filling up before the appetizers arrived.
Good thing, too. The single, crisp, crab cake, moistened with lemon-tinged beurre blanc, quickly launched us into the proper, festive spirit. At $6.95, it worked out to about $1.75 per bite, but nobody was crabbing. It's tasty enough to pay for.
Traditionalists might prefer the slab of peppercorn-studded duck pƒt‚, smoothed with cognac and cream. Accompanied by cornichons (tiny pickles) and toasted baguette slices, it's a good way to take the edge off an appetite.
But what got our tongues wagging was an astonishingly scrumptious duck pizza that Escoffier could never have imagined. Lots of meaty duck, mushrooms and cheese coated an unusual, moist, chapati-like crust. And in a surge of unexpected generosity, the pizza was large enough for three or four adults to share as a starter.
French food is celebrated for its full-flavored, two-fisted sauces, and Bistro La Chaumiäre's versions make all the difference in the main dishes. Fans of "nouvelle cuisine" and "cuisine minceur," which emphasize lighter, butter- and flour-free sauces, are not going to be flocking here.
Veal sweetbreads, a particularly rich dish, came smothered in an overwhelming sauce of cream and cognac. I practically had to lay down my cutlery after each bite, so intense was the flavor. Fried potatoes, sweet, grilled apple slices, lightly saut‚ed carrot and squash and a cheese-topped, broiled tomato completed the hefty platter. I highly recommend this dish, especially if you're going to be plowing the lower 40 the next morning.
Another hearty affair is the chicken breast soaked in a heavy Madeira sauce. This dish is about as delicate as a two-by-four, and as difficult to ignore. There's no stinting on the wine--if your taste buds need a wake-up call, this will do it.
So will the canard … l'orange, a half-duck floating in a strongly concentrated orange sauce. If the orange in the sauce doesn't send you into citrus shock, the bits of orange peel scattered about will. This entree could have desperately used a carbohydrate, perhaps rice, to soften the orange sting.
If heavy-duty sauces don't entrance you, shrimp Proven‡ale offers a pleasant alternative. I don't know if the kitchen is always so wantonly profligate, but the entree came with 11 good-size shrimp, firmly cooked and garlic-infused. They rested on a bed of angel hair, surrounded by a fistful of fresh basil and tomatoes. As with the other main dishes, with this one you won't have to go hunting for flavor.
One thing you will have to hunt for is a reasonably priced wine. The wine list sports odd choices like Chƒteau Mouton-Rothschild and Chƒteau P‚trus at prices more in line with a down payment on a car. Wines shouldn't go for $50 and up when the entrees average $15.
The homemade desserts, however, won't shortchange you. The cräme br–l‚e, clotted with banana and berries and lined with a caramel glaze, is a lip-smacking delight. The black-velvet cake drew approving nods from a pastry-chef companion, who enjoyed the blend of chocolate crust, chocolate mousse filling and dark-chocolate topping. The raspberry mousse cake seemed wimpy by comparison. Bistro La Chaumiäre's French fare may not cure Americans' food neuroses. But at least they'll be played out at a higher culinary level.