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Barbara's, 10321 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 948-5181. Hours: 5:30 p.m. to close, Tuesday through Saturday.
The floral simplicity of Barbara's stands in contrast to Bistro La Chaumiäre's country style. Muted flowers on the wallpaper, pink blossoms on the china and garden-themed watercolors give the room an elegant, salon touch. So do the narrow curio cabinet filled with silver and crystal and the chandelier with flickering, fake "candles." Barbara, the eponymous proprietor, is a Frenchwoman by way of Poland. Perhaps that's why Chopin seemed to get the most play of the piped-in classical music.
There's a limited menu, a good sign that the kitchen doesn't want to get overextended. On the evening of our visit, we had a choice of two soups, four appetizers and a dozen entrees.
Almost everything here is first-rate. A few dishes are out of this world.
In the latter category, put the saumon au raifort, a salad starter featuring generous hunks of warm salmon and walnuts over greens, sprinkled with a magnificent horseradish dressing. The lucky companion who ordered it couldn't stop saying, "I chose right!" Bean counters may quibble over the $9.50 price tag, but gastronomes won't.
Another winner is the duck terrine--three well-proportioned slices thick with pistachios, flanked by sliced roma tomatoes and hard-boiled egg.
I've had enough watery, oversalted onion soup to last a lifetime, but Barbara's crock delivers an authentic, cheesy taste. It's hard to think about soup in June, but this onion broth could rearrange the seasons.
Small loaves of thick and crusty sourdough bread also kept us smiling. Dipped in salad dressing, dunked in the soup, coated with pƒt‚ or munched on their own, the fresh loaves suggested that Barbara was attending to the details.
The main dishes didn't alter our opinion. Escalope Normande is not terribly creative, but it's solidly tasty. Barbara's version consisted of four thin slices of lightly breaded veal draped in a rich, mushroom-cream sauce splashed with white wine. The potatoes au gratin side dish, though, was a letdown, a boring snooze of no interest.
Several rungs up from the veal stands the fillet of porc roti, fork-tender pork tenderloins marinated with cognac and onions, swimming in an unusual, sharp, sweet paprika sauce. Five pieces of pork alternated on the appealingly designed plate with five pieces of squash, with a colorful tomato in the center. If plain slabs of meat bore you, this brash entree should hold your attention.
But bourride Marseillaise, a creamy, Mediterranean fish stew, outdistances everything else by a wide margin. It's superb, and belongs in the Main Dish Hall of Fame. Salmon, scallops, shrimp and slivers of sole come in a suffocatingly intense, molten cream sauce. Just as the eyes can't gaze too long at the sun, the taste buds can't linger too long over this dish. I felt like I needed to call "time-out" after every spoonful.
But when the main dishes are cleared away, Barbara's goes seriously downhill. French desserts should be the pride of a restaurant. These, to be charitable, are second-rate.
Chocolate mousse cake and chocolate walnut cake have no distinction. Chocolate-chip mint cake seems about as French as a hot-fudge sundae. Our server, a delightfully chatty woman who didn't know a word of the French on the menu, told us that when she started the job, she mispronounced the word "flan." It came out sounding like "phlegm." Not surprisingly, no one ordered it. Now that's she got the pronunciation down, customers are ordering the dish. But I bet this off-putting concoction isn't ordered twice. Skip the desserts at Barbara's, though, and you'll understand one French phrase: "Bon app‚tit.