Jean-Claude's Petit Cafe, 7340 East Shoeman, Scottsdale, 947-5288. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 6 to 11 p.m. I wonder if Ferdinand Marcos remembered the first time he took Imelda shoe shopping.
Does Jim Bakker recollect the day he let the Avon Lady into the house to see Tammy Faye?
Perhaps Prince Andrew recalls asking Fergie to let the new financial adviser examine her checkbook.
Small, innocuous actions can sometimes spin out of control. Someday, I'm afraid, I may regret introducing my daughter to French food at Jean-Claude's Petit Cafe.
This charming, 10-year-old establishment won't wow the restaurant-design crowd. It's simple and comfortable: white walls and ceilings, white tablecloths, some green plants for color, and pictures of food lining the walls. And, happily, the light fixtures use enough wattage so you won't think you're in an Ingmar Bergman film shot in the middle of a Scandinavian winter.
The emphasis is on food, not decor. And not once-trendy nouvelle cuisine, or cuisine minceur, that Weight Watcher diet food la franaise. Nor will you find cutting-edge Southwestern-French or Franco-Japanese combinations, either. The menu offers traditional French dishes that wouldn't have excited anyone in the 1790s, let alone the 1990s.
But though the concept is well-worn, the execution is fresh.
My 12-year-old--like most kids, no culinary adventuress--faced the meal with the same resigned spirit she displays visiting the orthodontist. With touching trust, she let my wife and me make her selections.
We started her off with the potage du jour, cream of mussel soup. It's a rich, velvety broth seasoned with shallots, fennel seed and bay leaf, with several tender mussels still in the shell. Needless to say, not only is this starter never the soup of the day on our home dinner menu, it's not even the soup of the decade.
I wasn't entirely prepared for her reaction to the first unfamiliar spoonful. She closed her eyes, arched her eyebrows and tilted her head toward the heavens. "Mmmmmmmmmm," she murmured. Another taste. "Ooooh," she sighed. This is how cave men must have reacted the first time they dropped meat on the fire.
This lovely soup summoned up similar happy noises in me, although I was sophisticated enough to make them inaudible to nearby diners. But my pleasure was checked when it occurred to me that my daughter might not put up with a quick can of Campbell's chicken noodle anymore. The thick, oven-browned, cheese-encrusted onion soup also got a critical thumbs up, and was quickly skimmed of its solids. But the pulpy broth lacked a zingy onion bite. Despite a high degree of confidence in her parents' taste, no encouraging words could convince my daughter to sample the escargots Bourguignonne. The buttery, bubbling-hot snails featured enough garlic to keep the Southwest werewolf-free for the foreseeable future. And the bread, while not quite good enough for munching on its own, at least made a decent-enough vehicle for mopping up the liquids.
Even better than the snails, the feuillet de fruits de mer is an exceptional appetizer. A generous portion of seafood--shrimp and salmon, among other things--comes lightly surrounded by a delicate shell of paper-thin pastry, moistened with a mild lobster sauce. Not too many people have the time or expertise to make this at home, and, at $6.95, it's a bargain as well as a treat.
Our description of the main dishes stopped when my daughter, a notorious carnivore, heard the words "New York sirloin." So focused was she on the prospect of steak that she didn't realize it wasn't merely a slab of meat, but steak au poivre she'd ordered.
It's a dish so venerable its recipe could have been written on the cave walls of Lascaux, alongside the animal paintings. Peppercorns are crushed into the top of the meat, which rests in a creamed cognac sauce. Creamed cognac sauce appears in our kitchen as often as Ed McMahon with a $10 million Publishers Clearing House check. But despite the novelty, after one bite, the child was wearing the same ecstatic look as an Amway distributor at a Pat Boone concert. "Here," she said, offering me a taste, "take some now, because I won't have the willpower to save you any."
I saw her point. The tender beef and heavy, aromatic sauce made a potent combination. I just hoped she wouldn't begin turning up her nose at my macaroni-and-ground-beef casseroles.
I went for the grilled loin of thinly sliced lamb, hearty, fragrant medallions ringed with a handful of thickly scented rosemary. The most expensive entree at $17.95, the platter could have been a bit more generous with the lamb.
My wife, deep into calorie shock from butter, cheese and the prospect of dessert, opted for fresh trout. It comes poached, and stuffed with an undistinguished seafood mousse.
All our main dishes arrived with scalloped potatoes, excellent pures of carrots and beets, and a colorful mix of snow peas and cherry tomatoes.
Two desserts stand out on the menu. Too bad the kitchen was out of one of them, profiteroles au chocolat. (They're custard cream puffs with chocolate sauce.) But the chocolate souffl, a light, steaming chocolate cloud, assuaged our disappointment. The white-chocolate mousse, on the other hand, seemed pedestrian in comparison.
Save room for terrific cappuccino. Jean-Claude's creamy, luscious version makes a pretty good substitute for dessert on its own.
Jean-Claude's Petit Cafe will not appeal to the trendy, kiss-on-each-cheek, hip foodoisie. But it makes up for lack of flash with deft preparation and comfortable surroundings. Vive la diffrence. Mes Amis, 6166 North Scottsdale Road (Borgata), Scottsdale, 998-9585. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
In contrast to the quiet rhythms of Jean-Claude's, Mes Amis bustles like a Parisian bistro. It has the right look, too: a mural of Montmartre, complete with sidewalk artists and the church of Sacre Coeur; long, arched windows; and a buzzing grown-up bar scene, featuring guys with big belt buckles and handsome teeth, along with gals d'un certain ge.
Just outside, a band had patrons and Borgata browsers swaying to pulsing Greek and Brazilian beats. Meanwhile, patio diners could enjoy the cool tinge of a Valley autumn while surveying the upscale autos pulling into the valet parking lot.
The whole setting has a convivial, ain't-life-grand feel.
At first glance, the appetizers did nothing to shake this impression. The chef here lures escargots out of their shells and gets them to rest around the edges of flaky pastry dough drizzled with cream sauce. It's a nice change of pace from the usual butter-and-garlic-drenched version. And terrific bread--dense and chewy, with a bit of crust--makes for ideal dipping.
Like the escargots, the coquilles St. Jacques also arrived in unexpected fashion, poured into a serving dish, not the traditional seashell. But what shook our confidence was not the vehicle, but its tough, stringy scallop passengers. Even the dreamy garlic cream sauce couldn't soften up these leathery mollusks.
Onion soup almost got us back on track. I particularly admired the rich broth with its deep onion flavor. So how come it lacked enough cheese to bait a mousetrap? For the $5.95 price, I expected a lot more cheese than the miserly, millimeter-thin portion topping this bowl.
The main dishes tilt toward sturdy bistro fare. Breast of duck in raspberry sauce inspired the most "Oooohs" and "Mmmms." The intensely sweet, fruity sauce could probably double as an ice cream topping. But it wasn't out of place surrounding the strong-flavored duck, an ample moist and tender portion.
Just about as good was thin-sliced veal nestled in calvados, a fragrant apple brandy. Again, the heady combination of flavors furnished a dish greater than the sum of its parts.
Our meat expert, however, refused to lie down with his plate of herbed lamb chops. He gave two of the four small chops away, and a few tastes showed the gesture was far from charitable. The meat was too chewy and seasoned with too light a touch to send veteran lamb lovers into transports of delight. And the only place the bouillabaisse will transport you is to the exit. It's overpriced, and it's awful.
Sure, I can make allowances for the fact that we're in the desert Southwest and not Marseille. I don't expect a bowl stocked with fish found only in the Mediterranean, not even in a Scottsdale French bistro, not even for 20 bucks.
But the menu promised crustaceans, fish and vegetables. I imagine the crustaceans referred to the two measly shrimp. The other aquatic life was four tooth-resistant scallops, a couple of meager hunks of what seemed to be salmon, and a ladleful of rubbery squid and octopus.
Not even Jacques Cousteau could have made a more thorough dive for the nonexistent vegetables than I did. What puny solid matter there was floated in a dreadful tomato broth that suggested the kitchen had run out of olive oil, garlic, onions and saffron. And why no aioli, the garlicky mayonnaise sauce traditionally served on the side? This bouillabaisse was about as authentic as Piltdown Man, and not appreciably more appetizing.
Our waitress seemed startled when we inquired about desserts. Perhaps she was too familiar with them. The custard fruit tart, apple strudel and cräme caramel all looked pretty enough, but had the institutional taste of sweets at a catered hotel wedding. Our festive night out (it was a pal's 40th birthday) also suffered from grumpy service. We ate several baskets of the wonderful bread, but got refills only by persistent hounding. I almost felt like apologizing for eating it.
Dishes were whisked away while we were still working on them, silverware from previous courses didn't get replaced and extra plates for shared appetizers and desserts were grudgingly delivered only after requests.
It's not easy rustling up consistently first-rate fare or waiting tables. I just wish the chef and servers at Mes Amis hadn't demonstrated this point quite so forcefully.
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