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Restaurateur Karen Firestone may be new to the business, but she isn't afraid to make a statement. First, there's the name of her place -- Cafe ah Pwah. She once took exception when I wrote that it sounds kind of Hawaiian. It also sounds kind of silly, here in the no-nonsense Valley of the Sun. Yet it's European, sort of. Ah Pwah is the phonetic pronunciation for à point, French for medium rare.
The virtue of naming a place Cafe Medium Rare eludes me, but Firestone explains that she means it in the sense of cooked to perfection, since most meats and fishes are at their best when prepared to this warm exterior/cool interior finish. Will many people be able to span the bridge from obscure name to even more obscure connotation? I doubt it.
Then there's the location. Cafe ah Pwah is located in the heart of historic Gilbert. The upscale, French-dominant, "globally influenced" restaurant is an odd addition to a small-town main street populated by shops peddling pecan-smoked barbecue, country antiques, farmhouse breakfasts and quilting supplies. Yet Firestone, a longtime Gilbert resident, is confident that the booming area is ready for fine dining. The inspiration came from the success she witnessed at her previous employer, Gilbert's first high-end restaurant, Mahogany Run, situated across the street.
Oven-roasted game hen: $19
Grilled vegetable Neapolitan: $18
Hanger steak: $23
Salmon salad: $8.25
Crème brûlée: $9
Chocolate cake: $8
480-558-2090. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.
That said, the resulting restaurant needs no complicated translation to be understood. Try stunning. Enthralling. Polished, professional and downright near perfect. Cafe ah Pwah would generate raves in the ritziest zip codes of north Scottsdale; set as it is in the sleepy town of Gilbert, it's an incomparable hidden treasure.
Armed with a degree from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, Firestone lured Mahogany Run chef Mark Rubin to make the move with her about two months ago, setting up shop in Gilbert's (ironically new) Heritage Court. In one sense, the old-town location might be appropriate. This is a restaurant that, while taking a futuristic approach to its menu, remains grounded in the past by sticking to the basic tenets of a successful restaurant. The attention to details makes dining elsewhere seem like a whole lot of work.
Service starts with reservations, often accepted by Firestone herself, and she called to make sure that a requested menu had arrived immediately via fax. (This in the same week that I finally secured another restaurant's menu after two visits, three pleading phone calls and, finally, a faxed request. Both queries were under the guise of simply being an interested customer.)
The service spans that delicate balance between friendly and intrusive, helpful and hovering, personal without being patronizing. No glass goes unfilled, no bread plate sits barren, and between all courses, not only is silverware refreshed, but napkins, too. Firestone visits each table and brings out Rubin when I offer congratulations.
Am I gushing? No question. But the charms of Cafe ah Pwah are impossible to downplay. The magic is made all the more surreal when appetizers are priced from just $6 to $10, and entrees command $18 to $26, including an ample portion of salad or bowl of soup. These days, diners can barely get a reservation at a top restaurant for that kind of dough.
The menu is fancy, though Firestone chose not to force it into a formal setting. Instead, she goes for a classy high-tech bistro look, including polished concrete floors, giant windows, exposed brick walls and an exhibition kitchen glistening with stainless steel and the fluttering shadows of chefs preparing each dish from scratch. Ceilings are high but cradled with ductwork painted black, and well-spaced, circular tables of marble and chrome keep drama on a human scale. The music adds electricity, played at low volume but with high-energy mixes of moody vocals, cuts from the Buena Vista Social Club and what could be described as hip-hop for grown-ups.
Creativity abounds in the cuisine, bringing dishes that challenge without being self-conscious. Selections are short and centered: five appetizers and seven entrees at dinner; five entrees at lunch. There isn't a single failing in the bunch, beginning with sublime, homemade focaccia, served in from-the-oven hot rolls, quartered and crusted with salt, to be dipped in an herb-infused olive oil that wafts the musky aromas of rosemary, thyme and basil.
Cafe ah Pwah's menus feature an illustration of what looks like an orchid. In my only quibble, it should be a sprig of rosemary. Firestone and Rubin can't seem to let go of that 1980s icon -- a smoking sprig of rosemary stuck in virtually everything except dessert. Such a strong herb is calmed by heady rack of lamb, but overpowers other more subtle dishes.
A charred branch pokes out of a blini starter, emitting fumes as dominant as truffle oil. A quick pluck and it's banished to the bread plate, leaving in its wake a gorgeous creation that, while in no way resembling the classic Russian buckwheat pancakes, is an exquisite interpretation. This blini is a cupcake-shaped soufflé of Yukon Gold potatoes hunkering over lacy tendrils of buttery sautéed leek. A crown of eggplant caviar (think ragout), circles of oven-dried red and yellow tomatoes and a hint of saffron oil lend earthy bloom.