Profiles in Corkage

Coup Des Tartes, 4626 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 212-1082. Hours: Lunch, Thursday through Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Thursday through Tuesday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.

During its 1995 session, having solved all of Arizona's educational, tax, crime, transportation, air pollution, health-care and welfare problems, the state Legislature turned to another pressing issue. Now, two years later, citizens of Arizona are sleeping more soundly than ever, knowing that our Bring Your Own Bottle law has been tightened.

Our elected guardians are evidently more frightened of someone bringing a bottle of wine into a restaurant than they are of someone toting in a loaded .44 magnum. There are good reasons for controlling both liquor sales and handguns, but why would the Legislature regulate one and ignore the other?

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Coup Des Tartes

4626 N. 16th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85016

Category: Restaurant > Eclectic

Region: East Phoenix

Arizona law doesn't ban BYOB completely. The principal exception relates to size--places with fewer than 40 seats are exempt.

Certainly, the restaurant owners who have gone through the liquor-licensing process can't be too thrilled with nonlicensed competition that invites customers to consume booze at retail cost. But most of the mom-and-pop establishments don't even want diners carrying in their own spirits. Why the lack of enthusiasm? Because permitting liquor on the premises can create more problems (drunks, liability) than it's worth.

Still, in the right place, with the right food and the right atmosphere, BYOB can be a terrific concept.

And Coup Des Tartes is the right place, charming, casual and sophisticated, with the right food and the right atmosphere. The restaurant's name doesn't really translate--it's a weak word play on the phrase coup d'etat that also hints at the restaurant's signature desserts and Mediterranean-themed fare. But the name is about the only weak thing here.

I asked the young proprietor what led her into the restaurant business. "It was either this or law school," she explained. She made the right decision--we need tarts, not torts.

Coup Des Tartes occupies what used to be an antique store. It retains the homey look: thick walls, arched doorways, wood floors and a fireplace. Wicker shelves hold herbs, mustard, olive oil, jam and scented soaps. French posters for champagne and sugar adorn the walls. Light jazz is piped in. An eager-to-please international staff--we had Belgian and English servers--furnishes a cosmopolitan touch. A wall-mounted magazine rack with foreign-language reading adds to it. And you may want to prolong your rest-room visit to pore over the copy of Love, Sex & Astrology that's thoughtfully provided for your amusement.

My critical antennae picked up good vibes as soon as I saw the menu. It's handwritten, changing weekly to reflect what's available in the market. And how nice to see a menu where French isn't completely mangled. Except for some minor slip-ups (soup de jour instead of soup du jour), most everything's in order, right down to the accent grave in chevre and the cedilla in Nicoise. After all, if you can't make the effort to spell it right, why should we think you'll make the effort to cook it right?

My confidence in Coup Des Tartes wasn't misplaced. Meals get under way with a plate of green and exquisite black olives from Provence. Superb French bread, supplied by Bigio Breadworks, adds to the nibbling pleasure.

The small appetizer list seems pricey, but when you factor in portion size (as well as the olives and bread), it's not unreasonable.

Both the chevre/tomate and pate de campagne are plenty ample for sharing. The first brings warm goat cheese spread on toasted French bread, served with fresh greens and cherry tomatoes. The pate comes in a pair of slabs, embellished with tomato, red onion, Cornichons and Dijon mustard.

Dinner features salads, sandwiches and a revolving trio of tempting entrees. I was told that the lamb shank has already developed a following--people call up on Thursday to see if it's on the weekend menu. No wonder it's popular. You get a lovely hunk of tender meat braised in a fragrant veal/lamb stock, burnished with a luscious complement of dried fruit. Couscous makes an ideal grain accompaniment.

Chicken can sometimes put me to sleep, but the poulet Mediterranee could keep even a narcoleptic from nodding off. Coup Des Tartes' birds are supplied by Young's Farm, and you can taste the difference. The moist breast comes crusted with a tapenade (a paste made from olives, capers and anchovies), teamed with couscous and a veggie trio of roasted eggplant, tomato and zucchini. This dish tastes like southern France.

The kitchen also knows its way around fish. Roasted sea bass is exceptional, a juicy, delicate fillet enhanced by a basil-wine sauce. Again, couscous and veggies, this time layered in a "Napoleon," round off the platter. Salmon, another potential snoozer, is redeemed by a light coating of lavender-scented butter. It's set atop mixed greens and partnered with cucumbers in a creamy dill sauce, marinated mushrooms and slivered carrots. Like all the entrees, these dishes are as pretty to look at as they are to eat.

We were having such a good time that we decided to prolong one visit with a cheese course. (For some reason, it's listed as an appetizer.) You get a hefty serving of Brie, goat cheese and Gruyere, along with grapes, apples, starfruit and strawberries.

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