Grand Prix-Fixe

Le Gourmand, 12345 West Indian School, Litchfield Park, 935-1515. Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m.

There are many reasons to venture out to thefar west Valley. You can visit grandma and grandpa in Sun City. You can get your kicks driving mile after mile in the left lane at 35 mph, with your right blinker flashing. You can turn out the lights by 8:30 p.m. and be confident that whatever nighttime action might occur has already taken place.

What you can't do, however, is find almost anything in the way of even moderately serious dining. The west Valley is to low-end restaurant chains what South Africa is to diamond mines or the state Legislature is to right-wing crackpots: the mother lode. This is good news if you like dinner on a bun, Grand Slam breakfasts and run-from-the-border combination plates. It's not such good news if you yearn for more sophisticated fare.

(Even midpriced to upscale chains have trouble in this part of town. A few months ago, Sfuzzi, a higher-end Italian concept, had to close its west-side branch after only a brief run. The problem? Lack of business.)

As far as I'm aware, there are only a couple of places in this area that go after the white-linen-tablecloth crowd. Oddly enough, they each rely on the same lure to hook value-conscious locals: the prix-fixe dinner. Both Le Gourmand and LeRh™ne offer vaguely "continental" fare in a three-course meal--appetizer, main dish, dessert--generally for about $20 to $25.

What's the difference between a gourmet and a gourmand? The best definition I ever heard makes this distinction: The gourmet likes exquisitely prepared food; the gourmand likes exquisitely prepared food, and plenty of it.

There's no shortage of victuals at Le Gourmand. Soothing and sedate, the place encourages west Valley residents to imagine they inhabit a little corner of Switzerland. A six-foot Alpine horn and cowbells in the anteroom set the tone. So do European-vacation knickknacks--decorative chafing dish, painted plates, copper skillet--hanging in the two dining areas. Fresh flowers on the table are a welcome touch; the drippy pseudo-jazz piped in at a subliminally low decibel level isn't.

Le Gourmand lets you put a meal together from a list of five appetizers, 14 entrees and half a dozen desserts. On my first visit, the menu sported a pricier à la carte section, as well. Two weeks later, however, that section was gone. I asked the proprietor why. "The customers sent us a message," he explained. What was it?

"They didn't like it."
I couldn't help thinking I was in for a long night when our server plopped down the dinner rolls. These had all the flair of the plastic-wrapped, sixto-a-package models you find at every supermarket. But they were served with three kinds ofbutter: regular, garlic and amaretto. Lousy bread, fancy butter. "What's going on here?" I thought.

I guess the Swiss-trained chef was too busy working on the appetizers to worry about the bread. A couple of these starters turned out to be absolutely scrumptious. Baked-potato soup is exceptional, a creamy blend artfully studded with bacon and cheese. The wild-greens salad is as good a bit of predinner greenery as I've nibbled in quite a while. A mound of fresh greens and radicchio gets perked up with hard-boiled egg and bacon, all doused with a first-rate balsamic vinaigrette.

Butter-drenched escargots aren't quite in the same class. They're tender and properly set down all hot and bubbly, but they lack garlic oomph. In contrast, however, the champignons have almost nothing going for them. They're just ordinary, sliced button mushrooms in an undistinguished sauce. A tough puff-pastry cap that tasted as if it had been sitting around the kitchen for several hours didn't provide any mitigation.

On a Scottsdale menu, the main dishes offered here would be greeted by yawns. In this neck of the woods, however, they're rare treats. Competent preparation and hearty portions increase their attractiveness.

I let the waiter talk me into the $30 rack-of-lamb meal, by far the most expensive menu choice. Four small, meaty chops, juicy and tender, come bathed in a creamy brandy-mustard sauce that hits all the right buttons. They're gnaw-to-the-bone good. Cheesy scalloped potatoes and a scoop of mixed vegetables provide pleasing support.

Osso buco is another entree that rarely ventures west of Interstate 17. The veal shank here is goosed up by a rich, winey Bordelaise sauce good enough to dig into with a spoon. And, in a rare display of inventiveness, the kitchen teamed the meat with a tasty pile of tomato spaetzle.

Le Gourmand also is adept with fish. Chilean sea bass, tinged with dill and moistened with wine, butter and lemon, comes baked in a phyllo-dough wrap. It's nothing short of superb. Less successful, however, is the beef stroganoff, held back by a thin and flaccid sour cream sauce.

Even though desserts are all prepared in-house, they're by far the weakest link in the three courses. Homemade ice cream usually drives me wild, but the two times I sampled it here I couldn't get beyond a few bites. This ice cream had no butterfat texture, as if it were made with skim milk. The taste seemed off, as well. The flan is insufficiently custardy, and the chocolate mousse strictly routine. These sweets need a tune-up.

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