You think of them, perhaps, as garden pests. For me, they are a favorite meal. I eat snails. With a glass of good rosé and the proper amount of French bread, escargot are on my comestibles short list.
I've eaten them in sauces and in phyllo purses, wrapped in sourdough and cooked into stews, and once, very memorably, in a mediocre cassoulet at a place called Patin Couffin in Fayence, a small Provençal village. I remember more about Virginie, the transsexual septuagenarian who ran the place, than I do the cassoulet, in part because her English was so good and because she noticed that my hair was in dishabille and, licking the palm of her hand, patted it back into place. (Also, she sat down at our table, advised us against the fish course, and never stopped talking. Also, there was the part about how she used to be a man and now she was an old woman in a halter top.)
Escargot is a French tradition. Typically served as an appetizer in either their own shells or a dimpled ceramic dish made especially to coddle butter-and-garlic-drenched mollusks, escargot are land snails grown specifically for eating. Their tastiness varies from species to species; the best snails are those known as Helix pomatia, as they're the fattest and the least musky-tasting. Elonga quimperiana, smaller and more chewy, are popular in Italy and France and not often served here.
Still, a surprising number of local restaurants serve escargot, and most that do -- I know this because I go looking for snails -- are in Scottsdale. (No surprise there.) If you haven't eaten snails, but like mussels or conch, you might consider trying escargot. The texture of snail meat is similar to those of shellfish, although unlike them the cooking method and accompaniment of snails can change their taste considerably.
Snails usually are prepared one of two ways. Escargots à la Bourguignonne are removed from their shells, prepared and cooked in "snail butter" (which doesn't contain snails; it's drawn butter with shallots and herbs and sometimes white wine), then either returned to their shells or placed in that dimpled escargot plate and baked in an oven. Escargot à la Provençal, a rarity on any menu here in the Valley, is usually made with petit-gris snails in a garlicky tomato sauce that's dense with parsley.
The escargot de Bourgogne at La Petite France, tucked away in an unpretentious shopping mall in Scottsdale, is close to perfect. Served traditionally in simple drawn butter, they were offered warm, rather than hot, when I ordered them there most recently. Otherwise, they were exquisite, spiked with white wine and seasoned with shallots, garlic, and parsley and served with plenty of crusty French bread.
Some local French restaurants serve snails en croute, none so well as Christopher's and Crush Lounge at Biltmore Fashion Park. There's nothing freeze-dried about these garden bandits -- fat, juicy ones draped in a buttery, flaky crust and drenched in garlic herb butter and what I swear was Pernod (although the waiter didn't know the last time I ate them there).
I recall the first time I was served escargots à la crème, at a perfectly disreputable diner called Le Stanco (but which the handful of Americans who lived in its host village referred to as "El Stinko," because the service was so terrible and the food pedestrian). Pan-seared in port, then mixed into a gravy of crème fraîche and white wine and served over a fresh croissant, this new-to-me version of my favorite appetizer was enough to make me think longingly of El Stinko ever since.
Outside of Provence, and especially around these parts, escargots à la crème is hard to come by. I've had it at Voila French Bistro and Wine Bar (where the menu rather amusingly lists them as "Snails in a white cream sauce"), one of very few local restaurants I know of that serve snails this way. The crème sauce is rich and velvety, thick with scallion and what appear to be capers.
I recommend the snails at Posh -- perhaps my favorite restaurant in town -- although with a caveat: Chef Josh Hebert doesn't prepare escargot the same way every night. Posh's shtick is "improvisational dining," meaning Hebert and his crew offer gourmet extravagances based on what you like as well as what you won't eat. I'd like to send you to Posh in search of the mind-blowing escargot empanada I enjoyed there not long ago (I recall egg-washed puff pastry, baked golden around plump, juicy slugs), although you may arrive to find that Hebert is instead preparing snails that night in a red wine sauce, or maybe in a tureen with bone marrow.
Speaking of which, the snails at La Petite Maison are served with marrow. Braised in burgundy and seafood broth and dished up with boquerones in butter, garlic, and crème, the slugs are then plated alongside bone marrow. The salty anchovies provide a perfect tart zing that offsets the rich wagyu beef marrow perfectly -- so perfectly that I'm always asking for more bread for sopping, because when I am eating snails, here or anyplace else, I don't want to miss a drop.
La Petite France 7001 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale 480-922-3727 www.lapetitefranceaz.com
Voila French Bistro and Wine Bar 10135 East Via Linda, Scottsdale 480-614-5600 www.voilabistroaz.com
Posh 7167 East Rancho Vista Drive, Scottsdale 480-663-7674 www.poshscottsdale.com
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Petite Maison 7216 East Shoeman Lane, Scottsdale 480-991-6887 www.petitemaisonaz.com
Christopher's and Crush Lounge 2502 East Camelback Road 602-522-2344 www.christophersaz.com