Tarbell for Two

Barmouche, 3131 East Camelback, Phoenix, 602-956-6900. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Dinner, Saturday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.

Mark Tarbell's eponymous restaurant, Tarbell's, has been an "in" spot ever since it opened almost five years ago. Despite the fierce competition, this good-looking place continues to attract this town's movers, shakers, celebrities and big spenders.

But I suspect that Tarbell's bottom-line triumph hasn't brought its owner complete satisfaction. That's because the restaurant has never earned a big-time culinary reputation. Colleagues and rivals like Christopher Gross, RoxSand, Razz Kamnitzer and Robert McGrath are receiving James Beard nominations and awards, cooking on PBS and getting national foodie attention. Tarbell isn't.

A few months ago, over the phone, he asked me why. I told him that although his food is quite good, it's neither particularly interesting nor particularly cheap. I couldn't think of any signature entree, something that Tarbell's does like no one else. I mentioned two dishes specifically, the $33 New York steak and $19 grilled salmon. "Every restaurant in town has steak and salmon," I said. "Why should I come to Tarbell's for them?"

I could almost hear him shaking his head over the phone. "Those are my two biggest sellers," he sighed.

Tarbell, who is in his mid-30s, is an experienced, sophisticated, widely traveled restaurateur. I get the feeling he is conflicted. He longs to offer the kind of food he likes--European-style bistro fare--but he worries that his steak-and-salmon clientele may not be ready for it.

Now, however, he's put those doubts aside and taken the second-restaurant plunge. The result is Barmouche, a handsome bistro whose menu pulls together dishes from the cafes of France, along with a bit of pub grub from England and diner fare from America.

Barmouche is a made-up, French-sounding word (it "means," so to speak, barfly). Tarbell's heart really seems to be in it.

The place looks very smart, although you'd never think so after spotting the ground-floor, office-building location and entering through the back-door, parking-lot entrance.

But once you walk in, it's hard not to be impressed. The long entryway corridor points to a dramatically lit niche in the wall, which contains a vase and a single flower. Inside, the room has a hard-edged urban look. It's cleverly divided into several areas, so you don't feel as if you're dining in a warehouse. The light is dark enough for atmosphere, and just bright enough to see. What you won't see is art hung on the walls, or linen draped over the table. The latter is a mistake--the wood-and-metal tabletops get very dirty. On each of my visits, busers had to come by and wipe up two or three times. Management also hasn't figured out the art of restaurant music. Whatever comes through the sound system is sometimes too loud, sometimes too soft and always annoying.

The menu changes monthly, although I noticed only minor differences between the April and May offerings. But the menu is deep enough that you could come here once every two weeks for six months and not get bored.

And for the most part, the prospect of eating here once every two weeks is a happy one. Start off munching the chewy, crusty artisanal bread. Or better yet, hold off a few minutes and eat it with a stylish group of soups and appetizers, perhaps the strongest part of Barmouche's menu.

No one could ever say that brandade de morue is on every menu in town. And this luscious Provençal specialty gives you every reason in the world to make a trip to Barmouche. Salt cod is combined with milk and a potato gratin and eye-catchingly presented in a sizzling skillet resting on a wooden board. Smaller appetites could probably make a meal of it.

Every time I buy leeks in the supermarket, the checker looks at them quizzically and asks me what they are. Americans rarely eat leeks, because we don't know what to do with them. But the French do, and so does Tarbell. He steams them, chills them, prettily arranges them in a stack and coats them with a Dijon vinaigrette. It's a light, refreshing starter this time of year, as the summer heat sets in.

Unlike the brandade and leeks, steamed mussels aren't exactly unknown in Phoenix. But in Barmouche's case, familiarity doesn't breed contempt. That's because these plump bivalves sit in a potent wine sauce, goosed up with shallots and parsley. You could eat this sauce with a spoon, and we did. And escargots fans will note that the kitchen doesn't mess with tradition. These snails come classically baked in garlic butter, and they're first-rate.

It's not soup season, but the ones here could make you forget about the calendar. That's especially true for the onion soup, fashioned from veal and chicken stock and touched with sherry. And the garlic crouton raft is topped with Comte cheese, one of France's finest. The creamy potato leek soup, meanwhile, actually tastes like potatoes and leeks.

Barmouche's hearty entrees have an honest, bistro-like simplicity that appeals to me. I adored the Scotch beef, a pile of shredded, Black Angus shoulder braised to fall-apart tenderness, moistened with a vigorous red wine gravy. The rich sour-cream mashed potatoes and a mix of sugar peas and baby carrots alongside show that the kitchen is paying attention to side-dish detail.

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