I really wanted to love Delice, mostly because owner Feras Tarabichi works double-time to make diners feel at home. During each of my recent visits, I watched as he visited tableside with each of his guests, inquiring about their entrées or the delicious pastries they'd ordered. Tarabichi has created a menu more stylish and complicated than one would expect to find in a Mill Avenue bistro that likely caters mostly to ASU students and visitors to the next-door movie multiplex.
But, like a lot of ambitious bistros, Delice (pronounced Da-lees) has yet to arrive at greatness. This European-style bakery and patisserie serves marvelous baked goods and pastries, and its breakfast foods are highly flavored and neatly made. But the sandwiches and salads that make up its lunch and dinner menu typically fall short.
One orders counter-side, and food and bakery goods are delivered to a diner's table. Those baked goods are Delice's strong suit. Double-chocolate cake was moist and bittersweet; giant chocolate chip cookies were moist and chewy, and macaroons were crunchy and sweet. Scones were crumbly and heavy with oats; croissants both plain and chocolate were feather-light and Paris-perfect. The baguettes are sublime: crunchy outside, light and airy inside.
Breakfast here was on-target. Coffee was hot and strong, and cappuccino came topped with the perfect amount of steamed milk and was mellow, strong, and frothy. Bananas Foster French toast was subtly sweet, even thought it came dressed with both brown sugar and a light maple syrup. A generous helping of Gruyère punched up the fluffy-yet-hearty spinach and mushroom omelet.
Lunch and dinner items are more hit-and-miss. Tomato basil soup is just perfect: pureed and thickened with heavy cream, it's studded with fresh basil leaves and nice chunks of what tasted like roasted tomatoes. Order it late at night on a weekend and it'll come in a paper bowl yet still taste as sweet.
Delice's hot sandwiches are not. The chicken pesto sandwich married tender grilled breast meat with creamy pesto sauce and melted Parmesan and Fontina cheeses, but was served cold. Likewise, the prime rib au jus piled lightly browned, slow-roasted beef onto a stunning soft baguette roll spread with horseradish dressing -- all of it, even the au jus, stone cold. Both sandwiches came with a fresh, simple side salad, dressed with a barely enough half-portion of delicious Dijon dressing.
The Pink Delice was a straightforward answer to spaghetti that put linguine together with a light, creamy red sauce. Delicious and filling, it needed salt. The chicken avocado salad was essentially a Cobb salad with grilled white breast meat instead of bacon. Quartered hard-boiled eggs and a handsome blend of fresh greens were, once again, drizzled with only half enough delicious, tart Dijon dressing.
Delice might do well to explain what "we're open till 2:30 a.m. on weekends" means. We turned up late on a recent Friday night to find that the dining room was closed, and that only crepes and panini were being served on the patio. It was a gorgeous, cool night and we, untroubled by the persistent company of a fragrant panhandler, enjoyed some after-hours European sandwiches.
There are no unexpected ingredients on Delice's crepe menu, which proved worth staying up late for. Once again, Tarabichi was in attendance, checking in to make sure we and other diners were happy. Mostly, we were.
On the savory side, a grilled chicken Florentine crepe contained deliciously moist white meat, diced and tossed with tender spinach, aromatic thyme, and woody mushroom bits. The crepe itself was paper-thin and therefore proved the best test of our cook's crepe-making skills. But the Brie was neither melted nor adequately portioned, and with nothing to hold these tasty ingredients together, they scattered with every bite.
A Nutella banana crepe came hot and sticky sweet, globbed with just enough hazelnut spread and thick slices of banana. The butter and sugar crepe was hot and eggy and full of life, but it, like the Nutella version, was too thick to merit perfection.
The fig jam and goat cheese panini combined temperatures and textures in a cold and subtly sweet sandwich. The jam was a delicious element that, paired with a light crunch of walnuts, didn't overpower the nuance of the abundantly spread mild cheese.
During one visit, the nice young woman who attempted our dessert order was as baffled by what I wanted as she'd been while taking our dinner order. We requested a chocolate tart and slice of cheesecake; she rang up a strawberry tart and a chocolate lava cake, and delivered a cream puff and an oatmeal raisin cookie. Once they finally arrived, both desserts proved worth the wait -- the cheesecake dense and smooth and mildly tangy; the chocolate tart creamy, dark and cold, sprinkled with hazelnuts and hugged by a heavy, crunchy crust.
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All was forgiven, in part because Tarabichi arrived before any of this nonsense occurred, with a complimentary croissant and a pair of chocolates from the impressive sweets case at the back of the bistro. Once Tarabichi's menu and service are equal to his warm approach to his customers, he'll have a hit on his hands.
Delice Bistro 690 South Mill Avenue, Tempe 480-656-8847 www.delicebistro.com Hours: 7 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 7 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday
Chicken avocado salad $8.95 Pink Delice $7.95 Grilled chicken Florentine crepe $6.95 Bananas Foster croissant French toast $7.95