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Continental Flair and Despair

Cafe Patou, Papago Plaza, 7049 East McDowell, Scottsdale, 423-1700. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.

Next Thursday, Thanksgiving kicks off the holiday season. It's the time of year to count our blessings and remember those who are less fortunate. Over the next few weeks, all but the most stonyhearted people will feel a heightened sense of gratitude and compassion.

I'm already overwhelmed with both of those emotions. That's because I've just visited two new restaurants that aim to bring a bit of European gastronomy to the Valley. Cafe Patou's French/Italian dishes are exceptional enough to make me sink to my knees in grateful thanks. The unfortunate situation at Spanish-themed Andramari, on the other hand, fills me with sympathy.

There are certain days that bring each of us small but intense joys. In my own life, two that come immediately to mind are the first day of the new school year ("Have fun, kids!") and the day Arizona Public Service Company switches from summer to winter rates.

To this list, I'm ready to add another: any day I can eat dinner at Cafe Patou.

The chef comes here from France, by way of Illinois, where he started the first Cafe Patou about four years ago. The Scottsdale branch is about as low-profile as you can get, operating out of a tiny Papago Plaza storefront into which maybe two dozen slim customers could squeeze.

But, though small, the place is charmant. It's not fancy--no white linen tablecloths, just green laminate tabletops. Cafe curtains line the windows, partially blocking the parking-lot view. Scenic posters of France hang on the wall, which is painted with faux stains and cracks to simulate the venerable-cafe look. Latticed wood entwined with plastic grape clusters and strings of light add atmosphere. So does the piped-in music, sung in French.

What makes Cafe Patou sing, however, is the food. The dishes here sport real Gallic flair and wonderfully intense flavors. For dormant taste buds, it's a real wake-up call.

Wisely, the menu is limited in scope, although it tries to give the opposite impression. For example, it ambitiously lists ten appetizers. But they all reappear as main dishes. What's the difference between the mussels, gnocchi, salad niçoise or charcuterie plate starter and the mussels, gnocchi, salad niçoise or charcuterie plate entree? Nothing, except size.

While the menu lacks breadth, the food itself offers a compensating depth. There seem to be only two kinds of dishes here: those I like a lot, and those I like even more.

Among the appetizers, one I like a lot is the salad niçoise. It's an effective pairing of tuna, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, olives, anchovies and greens, coated with a light Dijon dressing.

But it can't compete with several other head-spinning first courses, all of which bear the unmistakable scents of the Mediterranean. The charcuterie platter features an assortment of flavor-packed meats and cheeses--prosciutto from Parma; homemade mozzarella, topped with basil; an excellent coarse duck pate, flecked with pistachios; taleggio, a creamy northern Italian cheese; and salami--as well as olives, Cornichons and fresh greens.

In the same class are the green-lip mussels. I'm wary of this variety of bivalve--it can be tough and rubbery. Not the models here, however. These specimens are loaded with a snootful of parsley and garlic, sprinkled with breadcrumbs, then baked. You can order five, seven or ten of them, at $1.50 each.

Most intriguing of all is the gnocchi, prepared alla Romana, a style I've yet to run across in any other Valley restaurant. Instead of light potato dumplings, these are four thick wedges fashioned from semolina, blended with butter and Parmesan cheese. They're baked to a crispy edge in the oven, then topped with a delicate tomato basil sauce that's spoon-lickin' good. These gnocchi are flat-out delicious.

A wonderful breadbasket adds to the appetizer charms. Cafe Patou bakes its own rolls, fresh and chewy. But what it does with its leftover rolls is even more inspiring: They're brushed with oil and cheese, then turned into thin, Melba-toastlike crisps. Bet you can't eat just one.

The main dishes are deftly prepared. Cafe Patou offers 11 varieties of flatbreads, an ancestor of pizza, lined with gorgeous toppings. Try the one put together with escargots, garlic, mozzarella, Parmesan and real Swiss cheese, or the version topped with tuna, Parmesan, capers, red onions and olives. One flatbread will take care of a main-dish appetite, but it can also work as a shared appetizer.

I almost never order chicken as an entree anymore. Why? Compared with beef, pork, lamb or seafood, it's boring. At least I thought it was, until I dug into Cafe Patou's free-range bird. It's absolutely superb: moist and tender, perfectly roasted with garlic and herbs and bathed in a lip-smacking red wine sauce boosted with bacon. I devoured it, skin and all.  

I also devoured the two side dishes that keep it company. Roasted potatoes and tomatoes Proveneale stuffed with herbs and breadcrumbs make it hard to choose what to stick your fork into first. Can you derive more pleasure for $10.50 in this town?

Lobster cakes are another luscious option. These plump beauties are thick with lobster, not breadcrumbs. The chef coats them with melted mozzarella, then moistens them in a rich, fragrant lobster sauce. Warning: This dish can be addicting.

The kitchen gets cute with lasagna, creating an offbeat take on a familiar dish. Instead of meat, the noodles are layered with shrimp and salmon. Instead of tomato sauce, the wedge is doused with the same lobster sauce that's poured over the lobster cakes. Seafood fans with more traditional tastes might prefer the salmon salad, a lively mix of greens and marinated vegetables teamed with exquisite strips of cold poached salmon.

Desserts are remarkable. Chocolate ecstasy is just that--warm chocolate cake hiding a molten wedge of dark chocolate inside. It's served with a vanilla sauce, alongside a scoop of butter pecan ice cream. Chocolate mousse is spun from rich Belgian chocolate. There's also a winning sweet dessert crepe, filled with pastry cream, studded with sliced almonds, strawberries and bananas, and drizzled with chocolate.

And check out the coffee. It comes with 100 percent cream, not milk or half-and-half. What a nice touch.

Cafe Patou doesn't have a liquor license, but you can BYOB. If you have any sense, you'll do it soon, before the crowds force the proprietors to move to larger, more expensive quarters.

Andramari, 9393 North 90th Street, Scottsdale, 6616499. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 am to 2 pm; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5 to 10 pm.

Fifteen years ago, I read an article predicting that Spanish food would be the "hot" restaurant fare of the '80s. It didn't happen. And from what Andramari seems to be going through, it's not going to happen in the '90s, either.

Why my pessimism? Two Saturday-night trips, two completely empty dining rooms.

Maybe it's the location that's keeping customers away. Andramari is tucked away in an off-the-beaten-path strip mall storefront, completely invisible to passing traffic. (The previous tenant, a pasta parlor, didn't last very long.)

Maybe it's the competition. Both Marquesa and Such Is Life Altos already serve exceptional Spanish cuisine.

Maybe it's neighborhood tastes. The north Scottsdale area centered on Hayden and Shea has become the chain and franchise-restaurant hub of the universe. And on Saturday night, these corporate culinary centers all seem to be packed.

Maybe it's Julio Iglesias on the music system.
Whatever it is, I believe great food can overcome just about any obstacle. Maybe the problem is that Andramari isn't great, it's just routine.

There's certainly nothing exceptional about the boring dinner rolls. The appetizer of fried artichoke hearts with an aioli dip is an improvement. Not so the spicy Spanish sausage, fried with tons of garlic; it's greasy and no bargain at $6.95.

Actually, the best way to pass the time before the main dishes arrive is to down a pitcher of sangria. Andramari's version, laden with fruit and spiked with cinnamon, is wonderfully refreshing.

The main dishes are distinctive, but fall short of distinction. In other hands, Bermeo Costa could have been riveting. But this mix of barely cooked sea bass, scallops and shrimp doesn't reach the heights. Maybe it's the brandy sauce, which skirts the frontier between understated and bland. Maybe it's the lack of a starchy side dish, which this plate cries out for.

I rectified that problem by ordering some rice, which came paella-style, studded with sausage and onions, in a chafing dish. It's tasty, but it also cost $4.50. Ouch.

Solomillo ala Rioja is a better alternative. It pairs butter-soft beef tenderloin and good-quality shrimp, goosed up with capers and red peppers, and moistened with a high-intensity red wine sauce. Once again, however, we needed to order a side of rice.

Rabbit doesn't appear on too many Valley menus. Andramari has managed to find some big, meaty ones, which it simmers in a saffron sauce. Unfortunately, the sublime saffron flavor is almost completely lost because of the chef's heavy hand with the salt.

Pata de cordero, thin strips of roast lamb seasoned with rosemary, actually came with rice. But while the dish does quell hunger pangs, there's nothing memorable about it.

Desserts end the meal on a higher note. There's a worthy flan and an excellent, fruit-filled bread pudding, ringed with banana pure and a bit of chocolate.  

As a compassionate soul, I'd like to see Andramari make a go of it. As a critic, however, I have to report that, at this point, it's not where I'd send folks for a festive Spanish meal.

Cafe Patou:
Charcuterie plate
(appetizer)

$7.50
Escargots
flatbread
7.95
Gnocchi
(maindish)

11.50
Chocolate
ecstasy
6.50

Fried artichoke
$5.95
Rabbit
in saffron sauce
16.95
Solomillo
ala Rioja
16.95
Bread pudding
4.50


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