Continental Flair and Despair

Cafe Patou, Papago Plaza, 7049 East McDowell, Scottsdale, 423-1700. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.

Next Thursday, Thanksgiving kicks off the holiday season. It's the time of year to count our blessings and remember those who are less fortunate. Over the next few weeks, all but the most stonyhearted people will feel a heightened sense of gratitude and compassion.

I'm already overwhelmed with both of those emotions. That's because I've just visited two new restaurants that aim to bring a bit of European gastronomy to the Valley. Cafe Patou's French/Italian dishes are exceptional enough to make me sink to my knees in grateful thanks. The unfortunate situation at Spanish-themed Andramari, on the other hand, fills me with sympathy.

There are certain days that bring each of us small but intense joys. In my own life, two that come immediately to mind are the first day of the new school year ("Have fun, kids!") and the day Arizona Public Service Company switches from summer to winter rates.

To this list, I'm ready to add another: any day I can eat dinner at Cafe Patou.

The chef comes here from France, by way of Illinois, where he started the first Cafe Patou about four years ago. The Scottsdale branch is about as low-profile as you can get, operating out of a tiny Papago Plaza storefront into which maybe two dozen slim customers could squeeze.

But, though small, the place is charmant. It's not fancy--no white linen tablecloths, just green laminate tabletops. Cafe curtains line the windows, partially blocking the parking-lot view. Scenic posters of France hang on the wall, which is painted with faux stains and cracks to simulate the venerable-cafe look. Latticed wood entwined with plastic grape clusters and strings of light add atmosphere. So does the piped-in music, sung in French.

What makes Cafe Patou sing, however, is the food. The dishes here sport real Gallic flair and wonderfully intense flavors. For dormant taste buds, it's a real wake-up call.

Wisely, the menu is limited in scope, although it tries to give the opposite impression. For example, it ambitiously lists ten appetizers. But they all reappear as main dishes. What's the difference between the mussels, gnocchi, salad niçoise or charcuterie plate starter and the mussels, gnocchi, salad niçoise or charcuterie plate entree? Nothing, except size.

While the menu lacks breadth, the food itself offers a compensating depth. There seem to be only two kinds of dishes here: those I like a lot, and those I like even more.

Among the appetizers, one I like a lot is the salad niçoise. It's an effective pairing of tuna, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, olives, anchovies and greens, coated with a light Dijon dressing.

But it can't compete with several other head-spinning first courses, all of which bear the unmistakable scents of the Mediterranean. The charcuterie platter features an assortment of flavor-packed meats and cheeses--prosciutto from Parma; homemade mozzarella, topped with basil; an excellent coarse duck pate, flecked with pistachios; taleggio, a creamy northern Italian cheese; and salami--as well as olives, Cornichons and fresh greens.

In the same class are the green-lip mussels. I'm wary of this variety of bivalve--it can be tough and rubbery. Not the models here, however. These specimens are loaded with a snootful of parsley and garlic, sprinkled with breadcrumbs, then baked. You can order five, seven or ten of them, at $1.50 each.

Most intriguing of all is the gnocchi, prepared alla Romana, a style I've yet to run across in any other Valley restaurant. Instead of light potato dumplings, these are four thick wedges fashioned from semolina, blended with butter and Parmesan cheese. They're baked to a crispy edge in the oven, then topped with a delicate tomato basil sauce that's spoon-lickin' good. These gnocchi are flat-out delicious.

A wonderful breadbasket adds to the appetizer charms. Cafe Patou bakes its own rolls, fresh and chewy. But what it does with its leftover rolls is even more inspiring: They're brushed with oil and cheese, then turned into thin, Melba-toastlike crisps. Bet you can't eat just one.

The main dishes are deftly prepared. Cafe Patou offers 11 varieties of flatbreads, an ancestor of pizza, lined with gorgeous toppings. Try the one put together with escargots, garlic, mozzarella, Parmesan and real Swiss cheese, or the version topped with tuna, Parmesan, capers, red onions and olives. One flatbread will take care of a main-dish appetite, but it can also work as a shared appetizer.

I almost never order chicken as an entree anymore. Why? Compared with beef, pork, lamb or seafood, it's boring. At least I thought it was, until I dug into Cafe Patou's free-range bird. It's absolutely superb: moist and tender, perfectly roasted with garlic and herbs and bathed in a lip-smacking red wine sauce boosted with bacon. I devoured it, skin and all.

I also devoured the two side dishes that keep it company. Roasted potatoes and tomatoes Proveneale stuffed with herbs and breadcrumbs make it hard to choose what to stick your fork into first. Can you derive more pleasure for $10.50 in this town?

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