BYOB Hope

The BYOB policy adds to the appeal. And the gentle $2 per glass corkage fee shouldn't threaten anyone's financial health.

Food, price, setting -- Coronado Cafe has gotten its dinner act together. If you're hunting for an early evening meal, it's worth catching a performance.

French Ambiance, 4422 East Camelback (ABCO Center), Phoenix, 602-667-9660. Hours: Breakfast and Lunch, Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Wednesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Closed Monday.

Central Casting: Coronado Cafe in central Phoenix would make granny happy.
Lokey
Central Casting: Coronado Cafe in central Phoenix would make granny happy.

Set on the fringes of Arcadia and the Camelback corridor, French Ambiance would seem to be exactly the right restaurant in exactly the right place.

The husband-and-wife proprietors (she's French, he's from Cameroon) originally set up the place as a noontime creperie. And the crepes are terrific.

Now, they've grown the concept, expanding into dinner. The result is a casual, BYOB ($5 corkage per bottle) bistro, whose menu features the kind of traditional Gallic fare that never seems to go out of style.

The place still looks great, from the sunny Provençal tablecloths and the French magazines in the rack to the tempting pastry display and French street-scene mural. Naturally, Piaf and her contemporaries provide the background music.

The new dinner menu, hélas, can't keep pace with the setting. For the most part, the food's not bad. But, with a few exceptions, it's not especially compelling, either.

The appetizers don't get much beyond serviceable. I couldn't distinguish French Ambiance's Brie en croûte from the versions you find in supermarket cheese sections. Escargots in sizzling garlic-and-herb butter are pleasant, if not memorable. Given the $8 tag, the feuillété de la mer, a bit of seafood in fish-shaped puff pastry, should have employed more seafood. But I found real happiness in the wonderful pâté au cognac, richly textured and full of flavor.

The dinner menu offers a selection of pricey crepes ($12 to $17). But what's new are the fish and meat dishes. I wish they had shown a little more panache.

Take the boeuf Bourguignon. In the right kitchen hands, it's a real lip-smacker, a rich, hearty beef stew, goosed up with mushrooms, pearl onions and a touch of bacon. This low-energy model, however, doesn't get near that level of intensity. Moreover, the side of potato gratin, sliced spuds in a creamy sauce, doesn't seem quite appropriate -- the wine and cream sauces clash.

Coq au vin also doesn't measure up. I'm not asking the kitchen for a coq au vin so authentic it uses the chicken's blood to thicken the sauce. But I do expect a potent chicken dish, steeped in wine and embellished with pearl onions, mushrooms, bacon and herbs. What I got was a big piece of almost-plain chicken nestled next to, of all things, a pile of rice. This coq au vin could cure insomnia. However, just thinking about the hefty $18.95 tag will probably jolt you awake.

My joy at seeing lapin on the menu was tempered once I came face to face with the rabbit. That's because the mustard sauce it's moistened with tasted more like salt than mustard. The basmati rice accompaniment also struck me as a little weird.

The chef does get steak au poivre right, coating an appealing slab of beef with a robust green peppercorn sauce. He also does a decent job with canard aux deux pommes, roasted duck paired with caramelized apples and sautéed potatoes.

The clear entree winner, however, is saumon en papillote, an occasional special that should be a regular menu feature. It's salmon wrapped in parchment paper, freshened with dill and steamed to moist, translucent perfection. Why isn't everything else this tasty?

Desserts can be very strong, as long as they're fresh. On one visit, I ran into a napoleon whose best days were clearly behind it. But I have nothing but admiration for the Royal, a fit-for-the-king, Grand Marnier-soaked sponge cake gilded with chocolate and praline mousse. The Normandy tart, put together with apples, peaches and pears, is almost as good.

I hear that French Ambiance's proprietors are thinking about opening up a brasserie in Scottsdale. I'd put that notion on hold for a while. Right now, they need to get this place firing on all cylinders.

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