West Stops

Bistro Panino, 4139 West Bell, Phoenix, 978-8500. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 4:30 to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Not too many years ago, there were only two plausible explanations for venturing west of Central Avenue in search of dinner: You enjoyed chain-restaurant fare, or you wanted to eat dinner at 4:30 p.m. That way, you could still fit in tomorrow's breakfast before bed, so you could be ready for lunch the following morning.

You can still find every chain restaurant in the Milky Way lining the west-side boulevards. And most restaurants still regard the few diners who come in after 7 p.m. as hopeless night owls.

The situation, however, may be changing. No, Christopher, Vincent and RoxSand aren't rushing to open west-side branches just yet. But at least one brave soul believes west-siders are ready for the kind of fare that the rest of the Valley now takes for granted.

He's Roland Ulrich, the Swiss chef/proprietor of Bistro Panino. I sure hope his entrepreneurial instincts are right. (On both my midweek visits, the room was distressingly empty.) I don't have any doubts, though, about his kitchen instincts. Bistro Panino offers both outstanding Italian/continental fare and excellent value. If this place were east of 24th Street, bargain-hunting foodies would be lined up outside, cheerfully waiting for a table.

Ulrich came here from Le Rhone, a Sun City establishment that dishes out vaguely European fare to an older crowd. It's not exactly the kind of outlet that offers scope for an ambitious man's creative energies. So it's no surprise that Ulrich decided to strike out on his own. The surprise is, he's chosen to showcase his talent on West Bell Road, in a drab shopping-strip setting.

The restaurant makes a good initial impression. That's because the first thing patrons see when they enter is a tempting display of fresh, house-baked breads. (You can buy them retail--a good idea in this bakery-challenged part of town.) The loaves are even better to eat than to look at. The olive bread, rosemary bread and country wheat bread served with dinner give immediate notice that Bistro Panino won't just be going through the culinary motions.

The storefront is brightened by several colorful murals, fake greenery, wood lattice with artificial flowing vines and an intriguing pasta collage. But someone needs to rethink the migraine-inducing, piped-in pan-flute music. I think Amnesty International should crack down on this kind of aural torture. After a couple of minutes, I wanted to take out a contract on Zamfir and his annoying disciples.

Fortunately, Bistro Panino's charming edibles eventually soothed my savage breast. But it took a while, because starters are not the chef's strong suit. The minestrone soup is routinely serviceable. There's also a seafood salad put together with tiny, tasteless shrimp and a Thousand Island-type sauce. Your best appetizer bet is the escargots, whose puddle of garlic-herb butter furnishes a wonderful opportunity for bread-dipping.

Dinners come with a pleasant salad, which gives you yet another excuse to eat more bread. But at this point, you might consider saving some precious belly room. Bistro Panino's entrees and desserts are definitely worth being hungry for.

The main-dish price/quality ratio is hard to beat. Consider the veal saltimbocca. The name means "jump in the mouth," and that's exactly what these thin, tender, sauteed veal medallions do. They're teamed with sage and prosciutto, then moistened with a rich brown sauce. It's the most expensive platter here, at $14.95, but you get your money's worth.

One evening's seafood special showed flair. Homemade puff pastry, fresh, buttery and flaky, arrived filled with salmon, crab and scallops, all smoothed in a white-wine sauce. Mushroom risotto and mixed veggies provided genuine side-dish thrills. Again, too, the price was certainly right--a few miles farther east, and the tag for this $11.95 dish would have been 50 percent higher.

Pork loin Panino is called a "house specialty," and I can understand the chef's reasoning. Four slices of pork roast are simmered with apples and plums in a heady red-wine sauce. It's an extremely tasty combination of flavors that holds your interest from first bite to last.

Most main dishes are accompanied by a choice of rice, penne pasta or skillet-fried gnocchi. The latter are the clear winner, irresistible dumplings, doughy on the inside, crunchy on the outside.

Bistro Panino also whips up several superb pasta platters. I'd match the lovely homemade spinach ravioli, gilded with portabella mushrooms and Gorgonzola cheese, against almost any pasta dish in Scottsdale. Manicotti features two thin crepes stuffed with ricotta and smoothed with a light tomato sauce. Lasagna benefits from lots of cheese, lots of meat and an appealing white sauce.

Breads aren't the only thing the chef can bake. He has a way with desserts, too. On one visit, we ordered a single piece of French almond cake to split between us. The waiter brought two slices instead. "This is so good, one won't be enough," he said, "so I brought you a second on the house." He was right; this cake is out-and-out terrific. The Linzer torte and rich Swiss chocolate cake merit the same kind of praise.

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