Oomph ah Pwah

A French restaurant in Gilbert? It's not just rare ó itís medium rare.

A pudgy crab cake lacks nothing -- there's admirably little filler in this fleshy, crisp-edged bundle of meat and diced red and green pepper displayed on a long, white sushi tray. In a pleasing yin and yang of temperature and texture, the cake rests on a chilled slab of Haas avocado, nested with firm corn kernels and the barest drizzle of spicy Thai red curry vinaigrette alongside a tiny tear of mâche (lamb's lettuce).

Some of Cafe ah Pwah's menu descriptions can make the average diner feel a bit dumb, but what's delivered is universally appealing. An appetizer of sake-seared shrimp sounds grandiose, decorated with sushi rice salad, toasted wasabi peas and red bell pepper chiffonade. Yet it's a brightly colored but simple plate of firm shrimp (artistic, with a few creatures served head-on) over moist rice dotted with red pepper and crunchy, mildly fiery legumes.

Remaining appetizers include two salads, one an ensemble of baby greens, roasted pearl onions, caramelized Granny Smith apples and herb goat cheese in a light port wine syrup, the other romaine hearts with anchovy, roasted aioli and asiago herbed crouton (classic Caesar). Keep in mind that entrees come with a house salad, and it's a fine, tidy mound of mesclun and toasted tomatoes in a suave, eat-it-by-the-spoonful Parmesan peppercorn dressing.

From left, assistant chef Jordan Murray, head chef Mark Rubin and assistant chef Jacob Bailey of Cafe ah Pwah.
Erik Guzowski
From left, assistant chef Jordan Murray, head chef Mark Rubin and assistant chef Jacob Bailey of Cafe ah Pwah.

Details


Appetizers:
Potato blini: $7
Sake-seared shrimp: $9

Entrees:
Oven-roasted game hen: $19
Grilled vegetable Neapolitan: $18
Hanger steak: $23
Salmon salad: $8.25

Dessert:
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.

207 North Gilbert Road, Gilbert

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It's a difficult decision between the gratis greens and a steaming cup of soup made fresh each day. One night brings an elegant, full-bodied shrimp chowder; another night a wonderful French onion. The classic broth is swimming with brown-bread croutons, shards of tangy cheese, skinny onion strands that thankfully aren't sugar sweet, and a surprise: the addition of herbes de Provence (an aromatic blend of thyme, rosemary, bay, basil and savory).

At these prices, an intermezzo is all-out luxury. Rubin's sorbet is tantalizing, clearing our palates with a dainty scoop of tart lemon ice sided with an equally mini-me mint leaf. It's an effective segue.

If Cafe ah Pwah sets the stage with expertly crafted appetizers, it brings a standing ovation with even more skillfully executed entrees. We've seen many restaurants struggle and fail to deliver such complicated dishes with such outstanding results.

Oven-roasted game hen is what every ambitious, destined-for-dinner bird dreams of becoming. The half hen has been robustly seasoned with herbes de Provence, fired until its skin crackles with salty crispness, its body releasing rich poultry juices. The chicken liquor seeps into buttery whipped potatoes, sides of glossy cooked baby spinach leaves and broiled Roma tomato, until it meets a tiny pond of Pommeroy mustard veal sauce glistening with white truffle oil.

This is a contemporary French bistro, so I figured it with would feature one of the culinary scene's current darlings: hanger steak. What a marketing coup -- this cut of beef is also known as butcher's steak, since it's often a leftover piece the meat cutter takes home. No wonder, it's a chewy, muscular piece of meat which functions to push secretions out of a cow's pancreas gland. Even prepared à point, it tends to be tough, but if cooked successfully, it can become succulent, with a chewy texture reminiscent of flank steak.

The humble hanger is treated with reverence by Rubin, who marinates it in a restrained balsamic-soy reduction, then serves it sliced alongside a fan of fingerling potatoes, brightly bitter braised greens, tomato tartare (chopped fruit) and a hint of truffle sauce.

The seafood in an entree of skillet-seared sea scallops is pushed way past its too-often squishy blandness by expert cooking and a compelling blend of jus lie and saffron oil (jus lie is French for what's essentially gravy). Its presentation, stacked to resemble a mushroom with a plump goat cheese ravioli as its cap and mashed potato as its foundation, is clever.

And just when we think we can predict her French classics, Firestone shoots out a Moroccan barbecue glazed pork tenderloin partnered with brilliant yellow sweet potato spaetzle (tiny German noodles) alongside pickled red cabbage.

In such company, a vegetable Neapolitan might be overlooked as boring, but Rubin rises to the challenge. This grilled layering of the earth's bounty is quilted with tender potato, oyster and baby portabella mushrooms, melted leeks, roasted plum tomatoes, eggplant caviar and wilted spinach leaves in a design that suggests sunbeams.

Lunch leaves me breathless. This quality of food, this ambiance, for $8.25 and less? Gasoline is now down to $1.06 a gallon; I'm driving in from Scottsdale every day for a supernatural salmon salad, the exquisitely sautéed swimmer crisp-skinned outside, buttery peach-toned inside, served with silky-dressed Yukon Gold potato salad, a pile of baby mesclun and drizzles of the Parmesan peppercorn dressing.

And it's a brave restaurateur who puts pork on the menu when it's just a few doors down from Gilbert's cherished Joe's Real Barbecue. Rubin pulls it off, presenting roasted hoisin-glazed tenderloin, the moist meat subtly sweet and topped with soft carrot curls and romaine on salted herb focaccia. Wasabi-dusted sweet potato fries are genius, the crunchy orange shoestrings touched with just a hint of the sinus-searing horseradish.

Firestone wants guests to taste her vanilla bean crème brûlée -- it's an enthusiastic suggestion on every visit. For good reason. This creamy confection rivals the King of Crème, Vincent Guerithault, for the Valley's most perfect caramelized crust and velvet-thick interior. Firestone wins, though, for her lovely siding of homemade hazelnut brittle and fresh, lush strawberry slices. A round of flourless chocolate cake is marvelous as well.

By it's very name, Cafe ah Pwah suggests an unexpected, inventive dining experience. With such talent in the kitchen and in front of the house, it's nothing short of ingenious.

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