Profiles in Corkage

Coup Des Tartes, 4626 North 16th Street, Phoenix, 212-1082. Hours: Lunch, Thursday through Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Thursday through Tuesday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.

During its 1995 session, having solved all of Arizona's educational, tax, crime, transportation, air pollution, health-care and welfare problems, the state Legislature turned to another pressing issue. Now, two years later, citizens of Arizona are sleeping more soundly than ever, knowing that our Bring Your Own Bottle law has been tightened.

Our elected guardians are evidently more frightened of someone bringing a bottle of wine into a restaurant than they are of someone toting in a loaded .44 magnum. There are good reasons for controlling both liquor sales and handguns, but why would the Legislature regulate one and ignore the other?

Arizona law doesn't ban BYOB completely. The principal exception relates to size--places with fewer than 40 seats are exempt.

Certainly, the restaurant owners who have gone through the liquor-licensing process can't be too thrilled with nonlicensed competition that invites customers to consume booze at retail cost. But most of the mom-and-pop establishments don't even want diners carrying in their own spirits. Why the lack of enthusiasm? Because permitting liquor on the premises can create more problems (drunks, liability) than it's worth.

Still, in the right place, with the right food and the right atmosphere, BYOB can be a terrific concept.

And Coup Des Tartes is the right place, charming, casual and sophisticated, with the right food and the right atmosphere. The restaurant's name doesn't really translate--it's a weak word play on the phrase coup d'etat that also hints at the restaurant's signature desserts and Mediterranean-themed fare. But the name is about the only weak thing here.

I asked the young proprietor what led her into the restaurant business. "It was either this or law school," she explained. She made the right decision--we need tarts, not torts.

Coup Des Tartes occupies what used to be an antique store. It retains the homey look: thick walls, arched doorways, wood floors and a fireplace. Wicker shelves hold herbs, mustard, olive oil, jam and scented soaps. French posters for champagne and sugar adorn the walls. Light jazz is piped in. An eager-to-please international staff--we had Belgian and English servers--furnishes a cosmopolitan touch. A wall-mounted magazine rack with foreign-language reading adds to it. And you may want to prolong your rest-room visit to pore over the copy of Love, Sex & Astrology that's thoughtfully provided for your amusement.

My critical antennae picked up good vibes as soon as I saw the menu. It's handwritten, changing weekly to reflect what's available in the market. And how nice to see a menu where French isn't completely mangled. Except for some minor slip-ups (soup de jour instead of soup du jour), most everything's in order, right down to the accent grave in chevre and the cedilla in Nicoise. After all, if you can't make the effort to spell it right, why should we think you'll make the effort to cook it right?

My confidence in Coup Des Tartes wasn't misplaced. Meals get under way with a plate of green and exquisite black olives from Provence. Superb French bread, supplied by Bigio Breadworks, adds to the nibbling pleasure.

The small appetizer list seems pricey, but when you factor in portion size (as well as the olives and bread), it's not unreasonable.

Both the chevre/tomate and pate de campagne are plenty ample for sharing. The first brings warm goat cheese spread on toasted French bread, served with fresh greens and cherry tomatoes. The pate comes in a pair of slabs, embellished with tomato, red onion, Cornichons and Dijon mustard.

Dinner features salads, sandwiches and a revolving trio of tempting entrees. I was told that the lamb shank has already developed a following--people call up on Thursday to see if it's on the weekend menu. No wonder it's popular. You get a lovely hunk of tender meat braised in a fragrant veal/lamb stock, burnished with a luscious complement of dried fruit. Couscous makes an ideal grain accompaniment.

Chicken can sometimes put me to sleep, but the poulet Mediterranee could keep even a narcoleptic from nodding off. Coup Des Tartes' birds are supplied by Young's Farm, and you can taste the difference. The moist breast comes crusted with a tapenade (a paste made from olives, capers and anchovies), teamed with couscous and a veggie trio of roasted eggplant, tomato and zucchini. This dish tastes like southern France.

The kitchen also knows its way around fish. Roasted sea bass is exceptional, a juicy, delicate fillet enhanced by a basil-wine sauce. Again, couscous and veggies, this time layered in a "Napoleon," round off the platter. Salmon, another potential snoozer, is redeemed by a light coating of lavender-scented butter. It's set atop mixed greens and partnered with cucumbers in a creamy dill sauce, marinated mushrooms and slivered carrots. Like all the entrees, these dishes are as pretty to look at as they are to eat.

We were having such a good time that we decided to prolong one visit with a cheese course. (For some reason, it's listed as an appetizer.) You get a hefty serving of Brie, goat cheese and Gruyere, along with grapes, apples, starfruit and strawberries.

But make sure you've saved some precious belly room for the tarts. The proprietor trained at a New York pastry academy, and it's obvious she took her lessons seriously. These sweets are wonderful, especially the rich, fudgy chocolate walnut and the wickedly provocative banana brulee, zipped up with coconut. The espresso and coffee also get high marks.

The BYOB policy (there's a two-buck stemware charge) makes Coup Des Tartes an even more attractive dining destination. Although it's been open only a few months, this place clearly has its act together. Get there now, before success tempts the proprietor to move to bigger, costlier quarters in Scottsdale, where she'll have to raise prices and add a wine list, just as Rancho Pinot Grill and Cafe Patou, two BYOB predecessors, did. In this booming town, the good old days don't last very long.

Main Street Bistro, 820 West Warner, Chandler, 814-7656. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Main Street Bistro is an unpretentious mom-and-pop operation with a vegetarian bent, a BYOB oasis in an East Valley chain-restaurant desert.

The Persian proprietors have created a cheery setting. The tables are lined with intricately printed Iranian tablecloths, protected by glass. Lovely Persian miniatures and an eye-catching Persian carpet add ethnic flair. The music system is tuned to KBAQ, so you're likely to eat to the strains of Beethoven or Mozart.

Despite the Iranian touches, Main Street Bistro is not an Iranian restaurant. It calls its fare "Mideasterranean Cuisine," but even that description doesn't fully capture the kitchen's scope. The repertoire includes everything from hummus to shrimp creole, from Chinese stir-fry to lasagna, from gyros to a steamed vegetarian platter. In short, Main Street Bistro has something for just about every taste. And with nothing priced more than 10 bucks, just about every taste can be indulged.

Meals start off with a gratis plate of fresh fruit--melon, grapes and oranges. It's a nice touch. The appetizers, however, are certainly worth paying for.

I adored the mirza farangee, heady roasted eggplant layered with scallions, garlic, chives, feta cheese, tomato and onion, moistened with a yogurt-cucumber coating. Rosemary-sage pita is equally fetching. Thick, handmade pita (not the pita pockets you're familiar with) is turned into a scrumptious Mideastern pizza, lined with pesto and topped with eggplant, tomatoes and feta. The Persian salad is a lighter way to edge into dinner. It combines cucumber, tomato and feta in a snappy lemon dressing accented with dill and mint. Each of these three starters is designed for sharing. But if you prefer to hoard, go for the homemade lentil soup, thick, tasty and filling.

The hearty main dishes pack quite a bit of flavor. Vegetarian stir-fry doesn't sound like the kind of platter that normally gets my pulse racing. But this heaping blend of snow peas, mushrooms, carrot, celery, tomato, broccoli, cauliflower, turnip, cabbage and sprouts, vigorously seasoned with ginger, soy sauce and sesame seeds, is almost enough to turn me on to healthful eating. (You can add tofu or chicken for a dollar, or shrimp for two bucks.) This entree also comes with two kinds of rice--brown rice steamed with lentils, and saffron-tinged basmati rice--so you won't leave hungry.

Shrimp jambalaya is neatly done, a half-dozen crustaceans tossed with onion, bell pepper and celery, zestily seasoned with Cajun spices and teamed with rice. A weekend special, vegetarian lasagna, is first-rate, fashioned from spinach fettuccine layered with eggplant and ricotta. The Mideastern vegetarian sampler also hits the mark. Hefty amounts of hummus, tabbouleh, falafel and stuffed grape leaves, accompanied by rice and pita bread, furnish ethnic satisfaction. Bring in some brewskis or a bottle of wine, and you'll find that life is not only good, but also affordable.

The only less-than-stellar entree? It's the lackluster gyros platter. Maybe the kitchen doesn't have its heart in red meat.

Its heart, however, seems to be in dessert. A rose-water-tinged rice pudding and a wonderful carrot cake flecked with nuts and pineapple bring the meal to a sweet conclusion. Don't forget to wash down everything with fragrant Iranian tea.

Main Street Bistro combines BYOB charm with a range of inexpensive, tasty fare. I'd call it a winning combination.

Coup Des Tartes:

Pate de campagne

Lamb shank

Banana brulee

Main Street Bistro:

Mirza farangee

Veggie stir-fry

Shrimp jambalaya


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