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Bistros of Burden

Meza Luna, 4240 North Winfield Scott Plaza, Scottsdale, 947-9500. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Dinner, Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

In 1915, French psychologist Emile Coue developed a mantra, which he encouraged people to chant 20 times a day: "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better." His countrymen, rationalists that they are, had no trouble recognizing Coue for what he was--a crackpot who confused wishes with reality, a fool who believed that merely saying something could make it so.

But unlike the skeptical French, we Americans are always open to new ideas, especially bad ones. By the 1920s, Coue was a celebrity self-improvement guru, the first in a long line of charlatans that has stretched into the 1990s. He had millions of demented American followers, devotees who flocked to hear the master's message at "Coue Institutes" all over the land.

If saying something could make it so, I have no doubt that my life would be getting better and better every day, and in every way. I've certainly said, "I wish I had a Swiss bank account," "I wish I had more hair" and "I wish my wife would let me date Claudia Schiffer" enough times to put Coue's theory to the test.

But, in one area at least, I may have been infected with Coue's delusional optimism. For the past few years, I've been saying that every day, in every way, the local dining scene is getting better and better--better variety, better value, better quality. These days, though, I'm having second thoughts.

That's because two new bistros have breezed into town, like a breath of stale air. Both Meza Luna and Indigo would put a check on anybody's culinary enthusiasm.

Meza Luna is the work of restaurateur Georges Venezia, who has opened and folded three decent bistros in the 1990s: Mes Amis, Bistro 32 and Chez Georges. Unfortunately, practice isn't making perfect. Meza Luna is discouraging, the least of his efforts.

It's a pretty place, casual and unpretentious. Blue curtains with cheerful yellow print cover the windows. Crisp white linen is draped over the tables. A brick wall is lined with copper pots and a few vintage posters. Desserts beckon from a display table just inside the entrance. But why on Earth are oldies blaring out of the music system? I like the Beach Boys, the Hollies and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas as much as anyone. But a French bistro is not where I want to hear them, especially at 747-level decibels.

Oldies aren't the proprietor's only uninspired touch. When it comes to bread, most everyone would agree that this town has been getting better and better for quite some time. So there's really no excuse for the lame French loaf that greets Meza Luna's customers.

Things pick up somewhat when the freebie trio of salads arrives. One time we got cubed potatoes, marinated tomatoes and cole slaw. On another occasion we had red cabbage, regular cabbage and diced cucumbers nicely embellished with Japanese ginger.

Meza Luna's fare isn't ineptly prepared or compromised by inferior ingredients. It is, however, stupefyingly dull. Does this kitchen really believe Scottsdale diners are going to be turned on by chicken parmigiana, filet mignon in a peppercorn cream sauce, veal marsala or linguini with shrimp? I'm not a food trendoid, and I respect culinary tradition. But with so many creative, vigorous restaurants in town, why would a couple looking to spend $50 or $60 on a Saturday-night dinner come here? The only person this snoozy menu could excite is Rip Van Winkle, who might come here before settling in for another 20-year nap.

Mussels mariniere was not only the best appetizer, but also the best dish at Chez Georges. Unfortunately, something seems to have gotten lost on the move down from Shea Boulevard to Winfield Scott Plaza. These greenlip bivalves, done up with white wine, garlic, parsley and onion, are certainly tasty enough, but that's all. At another time and place, however, they were ethereal. And the portion size has also been substantially reduced.

Crevettes a la Provencal brings three ho-hum shrimp swimming in a sea of garlicky tomato sauce. But this presentation wasn't well thought through. What, I wondered, short of lapping it up with a soup spoon or sopping it up with two or three baguettes, were we supposed to do with all that sauce? Meanwhile, portabella mushroom, teamed with onions, garlic and pesto, made almost no impression.

The main-dish fare is similarly lackluster. The chewy filet mignon isn't $20-quality beef. And its inoffensive peppercorn cream sauce doesn't generate any electricity. Lemony veal piccata, freshened with artichokes and served over fettuccine, is competently fashioned. So is the chicken Normandy, a slab of breast moistened by an apple brandy sauce. But one minute after you eat them, you can't remember anything about either dish.  

One evening's special, bouillabaisse, was done in by absolutely inedible scallops, which had the texture of the Sunday newspaper's rubber band. And though cannelloni looked great, I couldn't detect any of the promised portabella mushroom gratinee.

Oddly enough, the only entree that showed some energy was this town's most overworked main-dish item, salmon. The kitchen brushed on a vibrant pesto glaze, and skillfully grilled the fish crispy outside and perfectly translucent inside. A nest of fresh baby greens made an ideal accompaniment.

I remember desserts at Mes Amis, Bistro 32 and Chez Georges were dismayingly weak. The tradition continues at Meza Luna. The tarte Tatin and napoleon offer absolutely no reason to linger.

There's always room in town for a bustling European-style bistro with a creative kitchen. Meza Luna, I'm sorry to report, isn't that bistro.

Indigo, Sheraton Crescent Hotel, 2620 West Dunlap, Phoenix, 371-2747. Hours: Breakfast and Lunch, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

For the past several years, Charlie's Grill, in the Sheraton Crescent Hotel, has been one of the west side's best dining rooms.

Not anymore. For some reason, management decided to do away with Charlie's Grill and turn the space into what it calls a "cross-cultural bistro, incorporating the rich flavors and textures of France, Italy, Asia and the Mediterranean with a contemporary American background."

Uh-oh, I thought when I read this description. It doesn't take a trained food critic to see that this restaurant sounds desperate to please everybody, scattershot, with no focus or plan. Two visits confirmed my intuition. Indigo isn't a cross-cultural bistro--it's a mishmash.

Charlie's Grill was furnished by original proprietor Charles Keating in grand style. Using other people's money and his own good taste, Keating designed a room glowing with gleaming marble, burgundy carpets and museum-quality tapestries.

Now, however, the place has lost its distinction. The opulence and style are gone, replaced by generic hotel-restaurant decor, like pseudo-bistro artwork and fake irises.

The menu has also lost its distinction. And it, too, has an unmistakable generic quality.

The meal starts badly. The French bread is unimpressive, and it comes with a soup cup filled with olive oil. The presentation is neither rustic nor elegant, just goofy. And when we asked for butter, we got an unsightly pile of foil-wrapped pats, just like you might get at a 24-hour coffee shop.

Appetizers improved my mood. Thai skewers are best, featuring chicken threaded onto wooden sticks and doused in a lively peanut sauce. It's nothing you haven't seen and tasted a thousand times before. But I bet you haven't seen the likes of the luscious hot spinach-ginger salad that's also part of the platter. It's the only creative item here.

The enormous plateful of tender, right-out-of-the-fryer calamari, meanwhile, is big enough to take care of Shamu and a few of his friends. The house shrimp cocktail, a holdover from Charlie's Grill, sports five chilled, grilled, meaty crustaceans, and it's just as good as I remembered.

Several main dishes are sabotaged by not-ready-for-prime-time animal protein. Shallot steak is a bistro staple, a grilled New York strip, served here with a tempting mushroom ragout and garlic mashed potatoes. But this beef, tough and fatty, wasn't nearly as good as it ought to be. Veal saltimbocca, moistened in a robust wine-butter sauce and topped with prosciutto and fresh diced tomatoes, is full of flavor. So what's the problem? It's the veal, chewy and gristly. Lamb chops, with almost as much fat as meat, don't make the grade, either. Neither does the mint-scented demi-glace they're purportedly coated with--I couldn't detect even a trace of mint.

When they're not being undermined by low-quality meat, the entrees are subverted by kitchen ineptitude. Gnocchi are hit with a double whammy. First, these potato dumplings, already heavy enough to sink a battleship, come heaped with a heavy load of chicken and sun-dried tomatoes in a heavy tomato cream sauce. Second, the gnocchi are made with red wine, which turns them an off-putting pink. It makes them as unpleasant to look at as they are to eat.

Sea bass comes with a good supporting cast of mussels and braised leeks. The red wine sauce is also a nice touch. Too bad the fish was so severely overcooked that it might as well have been thrown overboard.

Desserts try to get the meal back on track. Chocolate diablo is wonderful: rich, moist, almost fudgy chocolate cake coated with chocolate sauce and paired with two scoops of creamy chocolate sabayon. Chilled cappuccino mousse, set in a chocolate cup and served with a pleasing sour orange sauce, also ends dinner on a high note. Not so the apple crisp--too many apples and not enough almond streusel for my taste.  

No doubt the executives at the Sheraton Crescent believe Indigo's bistro concept has more appeal in today's market than the fine-dining approach at Charlie's Grill. Still, someone needs to remind them that change is not the same as progress.

Meza Luna:
Crevettes a la Provencal
$6.95
Chicken Normandy
14.00
Veal piccata
16.00
Tarte Tatin
6.50

Thai skewers
$6.00
Sea bass
16.00
Veal saltimbocca
18.00
Chocolate diablo
5.50
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