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

Coronado Cafe, 2201 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 602-258-5149. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Lunch, Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.

"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp," wrote the poet, "or what's a heaven for?"

The proprietors of Coronado Cafe and French Ambiance have taken Robert Browning's words to heart. They're not afraid to reach and grasp.

Both places opened in 1998 as lunchtime ventures, aimed at nearby office workers. Noontime success fueled their ambitions, and they recently launched four-day-a-week dinner operations. Each place has devised an evening menu targeting the neighborhood. And wallet-friendly BYOB policies are part of the strategy.

Though the concept is the same in both cases, the execution isn't. Coronado Cafe glides smoothly from lunch to dinner. At French Ambiance, however, you hit occasional turbulence.

Coronado Cafe's neighborhood is central Phoenix, just north of downtown. It's a neighborhood on the upswing, and Coronado Cafe seems to be part cause, part effect.

It does business out of a charming old house that granny would have felt at home in. (An antiques store was the previous tenant.) Divided into several cozy nooks, the place features a gleaming hardwood floor, fireplace and old-fashioned pull shades. The piped-in music, heavy on Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, adds another nostalgic dimension. Glancing over at one diner's newspaper, I half expected the headline to read: "Roosevelt Opens New York World's Fair."

The vintage fare matches the vintage setting. Nothing on the menu would raise granny's eyebrows. And I'm sure she'd approve of the homey dishes, the hearty portions and the reasonable prices -- you won't see more than one digit to the left of any decimal point.

The kitchen features a different hot lunch/dinner special every day: Tuesday, enchiladas; Wednesday, meat loaf; Thursday, stew; and Friday, lasagna. Two other entrees, changed weekly, flesh out the dinner selections. (You can order the lunchtime salads and sandwiches at dinner, as well.)

It's pretty clear that Coronado Cafe isn't trying to wow anyone with variety or novelty. But I'm impressed with the quality. And when you factor in the budget prices and comfortable setting, dinner seems even more of a value.

When I lunched here last year, I raved about the terrific soups. I'm happy to report that they haven't lost any of their steam. Chicken corn chowder, stocked with chunks of poultry, corn and potato, is the daily soup staple, and its popularity is no mystery. This broth tastes like granny watched over the pot all day. Ham and potato, an occasional soup of the day, is exceptionally thick, exceptionally hearty and exceptionally tasty. A Friday clam chowder sports real seaside spirit. My new soup favorite, however, is the Italian vegetable, loaded with veggies and flavor.

Coronado Cafe doesn't stint on quantity, either. The cup of soup is plenty ample, substantial enough to take care of dainty appetites. Order the bowl, and even he-men may ask for their entrees in a doggie bag.

The kitchen has got the daily hot entrees down pat. Don't eat the meat loaf the night before an early morning meeting -- you'll probably sleep through it. This is a serious slab of ground beef, big, thick and meaty, teamed with heavy, skin-on mashed potatoes. A rich mushroom gravy doesn't lighten the effect. Knock off this platter, and you'll want to go home, loosen your belt and sprawl across the couch. At any rate, that's how I spent the rest of my evening, and I had no regrets.

Beef stew, rounded out with potato and mushrooms, gets high marks for technical merit. But I have to deduct a few points from the artistic program. That's because the dish would have been even better had it come with more veggies. How about some carrots, onions, green beans, turnips or squash? Instead of charging $7.95, why not enliven the vegetable mix and charge an extra buck? I guarantee customers won't complain.

No one will complain about the lasagna, even though it resembles cannelloni more than traditional lasagna. This version features ricotta and spinach enfolded in a delicate pasta wrap, draped in a luscious cream sauce.

The weekly entree specials tend to display a bit more flair. I got a kick out of the broccoli Cheddar strudel, a big pouch of puff pastry stuffed with broccoli, onions and mushrooms, sprinkled with broccoli florets and smoothed with a Cheddar cheese sauce. The chef knows what to do with catfish, too, battering a hefty fillet with cornmeal and crushed pistachios, and pairing it with a side of spicy rice flecked with cannellini beans. Barbecued pork, a big mound of marinated meat glazed with a sweetish, Tennessee-style barbecue sauce, hit all the right buttons, as did the corn pudding and roasted potato accompaniments.  

The one blah entree? It's the Asian pork, whose Far Eastern touches completely escaped me.

As a bonus, the entrees come with a first-rate salad, boosted by wonderful homemade dressings. I can't decide if I prefer the herbed balsamic vinegar or orange chipotle vinaigrette.

Desserts are simple and effective. Fat, juicy berries and a fresh pastry crust give life to the berry cobbler. The fudgy brownie, topped with nuts, caramel and ice cream, will make you feel like a kid again. The chocolate chip walnut cookies also bring the meal to a successful conclusion.

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.

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 croûtefrom 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 vinalso 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 lapinon 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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Coronado Café - Closed

2201 N. 7th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85006


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