La Petite France: Bon Appetit in Scottsdale
If you want to experience the French answer to pizza, you should order the flammekueche at La Petite France in Scottsdale, an Alsatian dish that seems to express everything that the region in northeastern France (not to mention this restaurant) is all about. Also called tarte flambée in the rest of France, La Petite's version arrives on a wooden paddle the same shape and size as your placemat, its ultra-thin crust crispy and tinged with brown around the edges. There are five varieties, but I enjoy the classic version the best — its toppings of cheese, bacon, onions, and crème fraîche melted together into a cheesy and smoky bubbly layer of goodness that is perhaps most reminiscent of the homemade dish pulled from wood-fired ovens by farmers in the region centuries ago.
"Ah," owner Denis Michel might say after serving you the dish, "you will not be hungry after this, no?"
No. The flammekueche is a dish best shared. But if that isn't an option, Michel will give you instructions on how to prepare the leftovers (one minute at 350 degrees).
Michel, who owns La Petite France with wife and chef Catherine, moved to the Valley in 2006 from their hometown of Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, located close to German border, where the couple operated several restaurants for more than 20 years. Leaving their laid-back, scenic homeland — with its lazy canals, houses of gray-tiled roofs and cross-beamed façades, and ancient stone churches — the Michels moved to Phoenix to be closer to their daughter. In 2010, they opened their French bistro, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, in the Scottsdale Seville Shopping Center and called it La Petite France, named after a district in Strasbourg.
Their menu of reasonably priced regional specialties includes scrumptious dishes of German-influenced Alsatian cuisine, and the unpresumptuous La Petite seems to have gathered all the charms of their native land into a single neighborhood bistro. You can taste it in each complimentary amuse bouche, see it in the dainty cake molds hung over a doorway, and hear it with every warm greeting upon entering. And the bistro's French unhurried approach (or simply slow, depending on your perspective) means meals are served up nice and leisurely, so make time to enjoy.
For starters or light meals to share with friends over glasses from La Petite's (unfortunately) small selection of wine, there's the famous flammekueche; bountiful cheese and country platters of pâté, salami, prosciutto, nuts, and fruits arranged so beautifully you can't help staring if one is carried by your table; and three kinds of dreamy cheese fondues. The best, Michel will tell you, is the fondue Savoyarde, from France's Savoie region at the heart of the French Alps. La Petite's rich, creamy blend of Gruyère and comte cheeses and white wine (served with baguette croutons and ham) may be far removed from the region's ski-resort clientele, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't consume it with the same après-ski voracity.
Of course, there are crepes. Lots of them. And they are a lovely lot — savory for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and sweet for dessert. The lunch and dinner versions arrive like soft, unfolded wrapping paper, with a gift of flavorful fillings in the center and accompanied by a side salad. The Provençale was my favorite, more filling than I'd expected, with tasty assorted vegetables, goat cheese, crème fraîche, mushrooms, and herbs topped with a fried egg.
When it comes to the more typical night-out dining experience, you might expect the prices of a French restaurant in an upscale Scottsdale shopping center to match the address, but La Petite offers two- and three-course meals at $24.99 (appetizer and entrée) and $29.99 (appetizer, entrée, and dessert), with several options to choose from. And with deals like these, why opt for à la carte?
If there is a standout among the appetizers, it is La Petite's homemade French pâté assortment, in which three stellar selections (enough to feed two people) surround a colorful salad of mixed greens dressed with champagne vinaigrette.
Although well prepared, a dish featuring skewered scallops, shrimp, and pineapples in a lemongrass sauce wasn't nearly as interesting in flavor (save for thick slices of warm, skin-on banana whose sweetness and soft texture I simply couldn't get enough of) as the beef carpaccio appetizer. Appearing like a kaleidoscope, the thinly sliced beef was hidden under a rich and creamy tuna sauce, topped with a pinwheel of French pickles. Bordered by balsamic-spotted cucumber slices, its taste-bud trade-off between beef and tuna with highlights of sweetness was certainly curious, but pleasingly so.
If La Petite has not run out of the entrée choucroute royale — which it sometimes does — it is a must-try. This is the essence of Alsatian cuisine, featuring sauerkraut, sausages, and potatoes (it's what happens when traditional German foods meet up with French flair), and La Petite's version is comfort-food fantastic. Featuring homemade, Riesling-braised sauerkraut surrounded by a meaty medley of sausages, ham, and cuts of pork, topped with a teetering, steamed half-potato, the dish's sauerkraut is less tart than its German counterpart, and the flavor balances beautifully with the fat from the meats.
And for those who think spaetzle got its start in Germany, Michel will tell you it actually is a French creation. No matter what your stance, this pasta with a twist makes its way onto a plate as a delicious enhancement to a luscious braised chicken thigh with mushrooms and shallots in red wine. Other entrees, like a satisfyingly tender duck confit topped with slices of candied orange and an even better boeuf bourguignon, with mushrooms, bacon, and onions in a rich and wonderfully wine-y sauce, may go the way of seen-it-before French fare, but they are delicious nonetheless.
After dinner, there are 10 sweet crepe selections with fillings such as exotic fruits, strawberry marmalade, and Nutella, but I preferred other desserts, like La Petite's dainty yet decadent crème brûlée, to the plate-size, pancake-like creations. They are good in and of themselves, but they get tripped up by substandard accompaniments including store-bought ice cream and clouds of underflavored whipped cream.
With its stenciled walls, bright color palette, and tables topped with woven placemats, La Petite France is welcoming and pleasant, where a relaxing French dining experience can be had either inside or on the patio — that is, unless its new simian neighbor is acting up.
Nimbus American Bistro & Brewery, the Tucson-based craft beer brewery with a chimp logo, moved into Seville in March, and its numerous TVs tuned to sports and pulsating beats from the patio can, at times, feel like the monkey is harshing your French buzz.
Just pretend the Prince track you hear from across the patio is being sung in French, and take another bite of flammekueche.
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