PARDON THEIR FRENCH

March‚ Gourmet's choucroute didn't really measure up. The sauerkraut was tough, a bit long in the tooth. And instead of the heaping piles of sharp-smelling pork and ham in a delicious multitude of forms--hocks, sausages, chops and bacon--there were only thin-sliced strips of ham, salami-style garlic sausage and an inexplicable frankfurter that looked like it was plucked from a July 4 barbecue.

The kitchen did better with the cassoulet. The dish starts with white beans, cooked slowly with lots of tomato, onion and garlic. March‚ Gourmet topped them with fragrant helpings of pork loin, sausage and a hefty portion of wonderful confit (preserved duck).

Most French-food lovers know that bouillabaisse, a fish stew that depends on distinctive Mediterranean seafood, cannot really be duplicated outside of southern France. In fact, true connoisseurs insist it's foolish to eat it outside of Marseille. When I told a French pal I'd ordered it in Nice--just down the coast from Marseille--he looked at me as if I'd just asked for a Diet Coke with my foie gras.

March‚ Gourmet's Scottsdale bouillabaisse has a few Mediterranean touches, particularly the pungent broth with the distinctive bite of saffron. But the assortment of fish--one mussel, a few scallops and dreadful, tiny shrimp--quickly reminded us that the only sea we border is a cactus one. The steak-and-fries platter was disappointing. Somewhere, there was a failure to communicate. In France, ordering steak "medium" brings meat that a charitable American would consider, at most, medium-rare. (Order beef "rare" in France, and you're liable to get a live cow.) Our "medium" steak, in a humdrum green-peppercorn sauce, barely suffered first-degree burns--the center was raw. That problem, of course, could be easily remedied. But the fries couldn't. I expected sizzling, crunchy "frites"; we got lukewarm spuds that tasted like they came from a bag. The desserts lined up in the display case didn't inspire too much confidence, with their plastic, fake-food appearance. But at least I was prepared. The chewy napoleon tasted old enough to have personally known the emperor. The raspberry cake was the kind of sweet you instinctively pass over at a hotel brunch. The chocolate mousse-and-meringue ball wasn't worth the calories.

French bistro fare may be hot now, but let's hope March‚ Gourmet and 6th Avenue Bistrot can turn up the heat.

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