Fare to Remember

Bistro Provence, 8900 East Pinnacle Peak (La Mirada Plaza), Scottsdale, 473-2884. Hours: Lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to close, seven days a week.

Attention, men: Have you remembered to pencil in Valentine's Day on your calendar? Better do it now, because you can bet your sweetie has circled the date on her's.

It's the one day of the year on which no excuses are permitted. You can't "forget" it. You can't claim it's a commercial conspiracy, a plot hatched by florists and greeting-card companies to turn your profound love for her into a tawdry commodity. And you can't be cheap about it, either. Face it, fellas: Bringing home a $3 bouquet picked up at a freeway off-ramp, presenting a certificate for lifetime oil-and-lube jobs on her car, or agreeing to watch a video of Sleepless in Seattle may thrill her 364 days a year. But none of these gestures will cut it on Valentine's Day. Sure, the depth of your commitment may be incalculable. Nevertheless, on February 14, she's going to be doing some calculating of her own.

That means a week from Sunday, you're in for a long day. You'll have to turn off the television, and turn on the charm. Here are a few ways to boost your romance quotient:

* Prepare to spend time discussing your relationship and where it's headed. Don't bring up the Diamondbacks' need for middle relievers or think aloud about which of your car's fluids needs topping off.

* Don't hand her a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and tell her that's what President Clinton gave Monica Lewinsky.

* Share your heretofore secret erotic fantasy about spending a night with her locked in Nordstrom's shoe department.

* Get out your wallet and take her to a fancy restaurant.
Make that a fancy French restaurant. Why French? The French military may be nothing to brag about--they haven't won a battle since Napoleon took Austerlitz in 1805. French culture is in full retreat--Paris Disneyland, anyone? And they can't make cars like the Germans, electronics like the Japanese or watches like the Swiss. But the French still believe they rule when it comes to l'amour and la cuisine. And isn't that what Valentine's Day is all about?

I tested that point at Bistro Provence, a new, casually upscale French place looking to strike restaurant gold in demographically rich north Scottsdale.

It operates out of one of those new, high-end mega-shopping complexes that are tearing up our corner of the Sonoran desert. It's not the most romantic of settings. Instead of looking out over the Eiffel Tower or a bustling urban scene, diners get to watch luxury cars jockey for spots in the parking lot.

Inside, the proprietor has tried to conjure up a somewhat more continental atmosphere. Faux green shutters surround the windows. Sketches of French country scenes in soft Provençal pastels line the walls. A vase sprouting a red carnation brightens the tables, which are covered with heavy white linen. And the keyboard player providing background music has the good sense to keep the volume low enough so that if you whisper sweet nothings in your honey's ear, she'll be able to hear them.

But don't mistake Bistro Provence for something it isn't. Despite the name, there's nothing particularly Provençal about the fare. And despite the trendy location, there's nothing particularly cutting-edge about the fare, either. For the most part, you'll find the usual suspects: staid, sturdy, French-themed dishes that Valentine's Day celebrants might have ordered in the year 999.

But familiarity doesn't have to breed contempt. The quality is there; portions are surprisingly generous; and the prices, given the location, are within hailing distance of reason.

The rustic, rosemary-tinged bread is wonderful. Unfortunately, the method of serving it isn't. Every five minutes or so, an employee makes the rounds of the room hauling a big basket, dutifully doling out one thin slice on your bread plate. I called her back to our hungry table so many times for refills that it looked like the two of us had developed a relationship. Why not just put a decent-sized loaf out and be done with it?

Appetizers won't bowl you over, but they're serviceable enough. "Provencal" frogs' legs seem to owe more to Buffalo than Provence--they come heavily battered and fried. They are extremely meaty, however, and heaped with enough garlic to keep the werewolves away until Memorial Day. Escargots in garlic butter taste exactly like every escargot appetizer in town. A few ounces of lamb skewered on sprigs of rosemary is small for a $10 nosh. But a lovely onion marmalade accompanying the meat helps take some of the sting out of the cost.

If money is no object--and certainly that's the impression you'd like to be making--splurge on the $19 pan-seared foie gras, teamed with spiced pear and moistened in a port wine reduction tinged with aged balsamic vinegar. It's ample enough to give two people several heady bites.

Soups give you the most bang for your starter bucks. The French onion soup is well-fashioned: thick, not too salty, and topped with a raft of bread, cheese and a sprinkling of fried onions. A chicken-and-wild-rice soupe du jour, meanwhile, also provides hearty nourishment.

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