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Tarbell for Two

Barmouche, 3131 East Camelback, Phoenix, 602-956-6900. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Dinner, Saturday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.

Mark Tarbell's eponymous restaurant, Tarbell's, has been an "in" spot ever since it opened almost five years ago. Despite the fierce competition, this good-looking place continues to attract this town's movers, shakers, celebrities and big spenders.

But I suspect that Tarbell's bottom-line triumph hasn't brought its owner complete satisfaction. That's because the restaurant has never earned a big-time culinary reputation. Colleagues and rivals like Christopher Gross, RoxSand, Razz Kamnitzer and Robert McGrath are receiving James Beard nominations and awards, cooking on PBS and getting national foodie attention. Tarbell isn't.

A few months ago, over the phone, he asked me why. I told him that although his food is quite good, it's neither particularly interesting nor particularly cheap. I couldn't think of any signature entree, something that Tarbell's does like no one else. I mentioned two dishes specifically, the $33 New York steak and $19 grilled salmon. "Every restaurant in town has steak and salmon," I said. "Why should I come to Tarbell's for them?"

I could almost hear him shaking his head over the phone. "Those are my two biggest sellers," he sighed.

Tarbell, who is in his mid-30s, is an experienced, sophisticated, widely traveled restaurateur. I get the feeling he is conflicted. He longs to offer the kind of food he likes--European-style bistro fare--but he worries that his steak-and-salmon clientele may not be ready for it.

Now, however, he's put those doubts aside and taken the second-restaurant plunge. The result is Barmouche, a handsome bistro whose menu pulls together dishes from the cafes of France, along with a bit of pub grub from England and diner fare from America.

Barmouche is a made-up, French-sounding word (it "means," so to speak, barfly). Tarbell's heart really seems to be in it.

The place looks very smart, although you'd never think so after spotting the ground-floor, office-building location and entering through the back-door, parking-lot entrance.

But once you walk in, it's hard not to be impressed. The long entryway corridor points to a dramatically lit niche in the wall, which contains a vase and a single flower. Inside, the room has a hard-edged urban look. It's cleverly divided into several areas, so you don't feel as if you're dining in a warehouse. The light is dark enough for atmosphere, and just bright enough to see. What you won't see is art hung on the walls, or linen draped over the table. The latter is a mistake--the wood-and-metal tabletops get very dirty. On each of my visits, busers had to come by and wipe up two or three times. Management also hasn't figured out the art of restaurant music. Whatever comes through the sound system is sometimes too loud, sometimes too soft and always annoying.

The menu changes monthly, although I noticed only minor differences between the April and May offerings. But the menu is deep enough that you could come here once every two weeks for six months and not get bored.

And for the most part, the prospect of eating here once every two weeks is a happy one. Start off munching the chewy, crusty artisanal bread. Or better yet, hold off a few minutes and eat it with a stylish group of soups and appetizers, perhaps the strongest part of Barmouche's menu.

No one could ever say that brandade de morue is on every menu in town. And this luscious Provençal specialty gives you every reason in the world to make a trip to Barmouche. Salt cod is combined with milk and a potato gratin and eye-catchingly presented in a sizzling skillet resting on a wooden board. Smaller appetites could probably make a meal of it.

Every time I buy leeks in the supermarket, the checker looks at them quizzically and asks me what they are. Americans rarely eat leeks, because we don't know what to do with them. But the French do, and so does Tarbell. He steams them, chills them, prettily arranges them in a stack and coats them with a Dijon vinaigrette. It's a light, refreshing starter this time of year, as the summer heat sets in.

Unlike the brandade and leeks, steamed mussels aren't exactly unknown in Phoenix. But in Barmouche's case, familiarity doesn't breed contempt. That's because these plump bivalves sit in a potent wine sauce, goosed up with shallots and parsley. You could eat this sauce with a spoon, and we did. And escargots fans will note that the kitchen doesn't mess with tradition. These snails come classically baked in garlic butter, and they're first-rate.

It's not soup season, but the ones here could make you forget about the calendar. That's especially true for the onion soup, fashioned from veal and chicken stock and touched with sherry. And the garlic crouton raft is topped with Comte cheese, one of France's finest. The creamy potato leek soup, meanwhile, actually tastes like potatoes and leeks.  

Barmouche's hearty entrees have an honest, bistro-like simplicity that appeals to me. I adored the Scotch beef, a pile of shredded, Black Angus shoulder braised to fall-apart tenderness, moistened with a vigorous red wine gravy. The rich sour-cream mashed potatoes and a mix of sugar peas and baby carrots alongside show that the kitchen is paying attention to side-dish detail.

Another carnivore-friendly platter, filet mignon, also gets high marks. At $25, it's the most expensive dish here. But it's unlikely you'll feel overcharged after cutting into the tender, peppercorn-crusted steak, served with a stack of thin-cut, French-style fries and a yummy mound of creamed spinach.

In contrast to the Scotch beef and filet mignon, the grilled pork chop is a rather ho-hum piece of animal protein. You have to give the kitchen credit, however, for teaming it with flageolets, kidney-shaped French beans boosted with garlic, and more of that wonderful creamed spinach.

Mark Tarbell doesn't lack confidence, and that confidence sometimes slides into overconfidence. (When Tarbell's first opened, for example, he called the place "a great American restaurant." It wasn't.) Here at Barmouche, the menu describes the bouillabaisse as "awesome." It isn't. But it's a darned good seafood stew, a combination of rock shrimp, mussels, fish, tomato and veggies in a zesty, saffron-accented broth, served with aioli-slathered toast. The chef is just as adept with delicate sole meuniere, drizzled with lemon parsley butter and lightly paired with julienne carrots, celery and leeks.

A vegetarian main dish just misses greatness. I was astonished by the quality, quantity and variety of the organic veggies: turnips, parsnips, Japanese eggplant, sugar peas, carrots, asparagus, artichoke, corn, fennel, red pepper, French green beans and red onion bulbs (not a zucchini anywhere!), all tasting like they just came out of the earth. They're teamed with couscous and juiced up with harissa, the hot North African chile paste. And the tag is only $9.50.

But . . . I don't know when the trend toward al dente vegetables began. I do know, however, that it's time for it to end. No, I don't want to go back to the days when veggies were routinely reduced to a mushy pulp. But I do want them cooked enough so it doesn't sound like I'm munching on redwood every time I take a bite.

A couple of homey entrees soften Barmouche's urban bistro edges. Bangers and mash, traditional British sausage-and-spuds pub fare, have much more flavor than the bangers and mash you're likely to find in the home country. The chicken potpie benefits from thick-cut chunks of chicken and veggies. But the puff pastry canopy, which seemed old and crusty instead of fresh and airy, needs remedial work.

Two sandwiches make fine, late-night snacks. The croque- monsieur is a chic name for a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich, and this one will have you licking your fingers after you've polished it off. Barmouche offers a juicy, over-the-top hamburger as well, a staggering 17 ounces of ground beef embellished with Canadian bacon and Stilton (an English blue cheese), served on a French roll. Unless you're Superman, however, you're probably better off getting the half-size (and half-price) version, which still delivers more than a half pound of meat.

Two side dishes are worth ordering, perhaps even making a meal out of. Six dollars may seem too much to pay for French green beans, but these haricots, sauteed with olive oil and shallots, are fantastic. So are the divine, $3 baby organic carrots, pureed with sea salt and sweet butter. Cauliflower au gratin, on the other hand, still tastes a little too much like the veggies your mom made you eat. And while I salute the chef's homemade pickles, I have no interest in ever again shelling out three bucks for them.

Desserts have the right continental idea, but only one wowed me with its execution. That's the orange sabayon gratin: custard cream fortified with white wine and pieces of orange, served in a hollowed-out orange. (Hint: Do not eat the orange container. Our server reported that one customer did. Afterward, the diner said, "I don't get your desserts.") The tarte Tatin beats almost any other in town, but that's only because so many of them are wretched. The frozen chocolate páte is nothing special. Neither is the Paris-Brest. It's almond-topped choux pastry filled with praline cream, originally devised in 1891 to celebrate a bicycle race between Paris and Brest. But the pastry here is nothing to celebrate.  

The high-end wine list needs tweaking--it's out of kilter with the entree prices, which generally fall between $15 and $19. There were 82 bottles on the list, and only five came in at under $25. Most were considerably higher. The by-the-glass list was just as consumer-unfriendly. Of the 21 offerings, only four cost less than $7. Sure, it's nice to know you can enjoy a $90 bottle of Burgundy with your croque-monsieur. But why not offer a $5 glass of Australian shiraz as well?

Tarbell's Barmouche seems to be a labor of love. Will diners reciprocate with love of their own? Who knows? But certainly there's enough here to start a relationship.

Brandade de morue
$8.00
Scotch beef
16.00
Bouillabaisse
18.00
Orange sabayon gratin
6.00


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