Transcendental Mediterranean

Cafe Patou, Scottsdale Promenade, 7000 East Shea, Scottsdale, 951-6868. Hours: Dinner, 5:30 p.m. to close, seven days a week.

The Valley has done a lot of growing up during the past few decades. Once a cow town where Midwesterners came to thaw out, the city now boasts new museums and libraries, an opera company, a theater, a symphony orchestra, an arts scene and professional franchises in every major sport. Coffee houses, bookstores, body-piercing parlors, concealed weapons and paved roads--all signs of flourishing big-city life--are part of our urban landscape.

We've even been electing a higher class of crooked politicians. The embarrassment of impeaching a car salesman from the governor's chair is behind us. These days, our grand juries have better material to work with, like the Ivy-educated, blue-blooded, morally and financially bankrupt, con-artist developer currently occupying that office.

Yes, our capital has risen in the world's regard. But not even the most rabid Chamber of Commerce booster could claim that life here is all it could be. When it comes to European charm and sophistication, for instance, the Valley falls way short.

Two new restaurants are trying to close the charm-and-sophistication gap. Cafe Patou and La Madeleine want patrons to suspend their disbelief and pretend they're dining in continental surroundings on continental fare.

The illusion is much easier to sustain at Cafe Patou. Back in 1995, it opened in a tiny, 20-seat storefront in an out-of-the-way Scottsdale shopping center. A wallet-friendly BYOB policy and smashingly good food brought in the crowds. Naturally, the proprietors were tempted to move and expand. A few months ago, they yielded to temptation and went uptown, both literally and figuratively.

First, they moved their operation north to Scottsdale Promenade, home to such big-name restaurants as Sushi on Shea, Such Is Life, Chez Georges and Maria's When in Naples. But the address wasn't the only thing that changed. The restaurant now accommodates almost 10 times as many diners as before. Don't expect the chef to come around to your table to schmooze, like he used to do. Leave the $5 bottle of Trader Joe's wine at home, too--instead of bringing their own spirits, diners now consult a deep, well-crafted wine list. The menu has been significantly expanded and prices have been boosted, as well.

In short, while the name is the same, the new Cafe Patou is vastly different from the old Cafe Patou. I still like it, although for different reasons.

The place now has a big-city bistro edge: Toulouse-Lautrec-style murals and French posters on the walls; tables covered with white linen and butcher paper; wooden shutters; brass chandeliers; and a faux-aged paint job tinged with a shade of ocher that could have come from the palette of a French impressionist. Many in the well-dressed crowd were chattering away in foreign tongues, and we could hear them all. That's because the acoustics in the clatteringly noisy main dining room are so bright you may want to bring earmuffs.

Fortunately, the fare is just as bright. Several of the new appetizers display the hard-hitting flair I long for. One evening's special--mounds of baked semolina teamed with scallops in a pungent balsamic-vinegar sauce--proved especially riveting. Right-out-of-the-skillet crepes filled with four high-powered cheeses are almost too intense to be a curtain raiser. After you've inhaled the taleggio, tomme de savoie, Roquefort and goat cheese, it's hard to believe the meal can reach any higher peaks. I'd save this dish for later, perhaps sharing it for dessert. (Incidentally, as long as Cafe Patou is going to the trouble to serve fine imported cheeses like taleggio and tomme de savoie, rarely encountered locally, why not spell them correctly on the menu?)

Another starter special, lamb "confit" (actually, a block of ground lamb) drizzled with goat cheese, hits all the sensory buttons. But the Thai-curry sauce it's bathed in seems out of place on this otherwise French/Italian-themed menu. The charcuterie platter certainly gives a taste of the Mediterranean--prosciutto, duck pate, olives, Cornichons, cheese, salami. But I recall it was more substantial at the low-rent location.

Happily, all the entree favorites that made the old Cafe Patou so wonderful have survived the trip to the new digs. The free-range chicken, mussels, gnocchi alla Romana, shrimp and salmon lasagna, lobster cakes and imaginatively topped flatbreads are now a few bucks costlier and still impressive.

The entree list is now a great deal longer. But I can report that the new offerings exhibit the same deft kitchen touch. Pork tenderloin is Cafe Patou at the top of its form: pork medallions topped with prosciutto and butterflied shrimp, bathed in a brilliant lobster and Parmesan sauce. Get set for a real flavor explosion. That same sauce baked to a golden brown drapes shrimp thermidor, meaty crustaceans colorfully teamed with rice, red cabbage and spinach.

Pot-au-feu is one of the marvels of French-peasant cuisine. But there's nothing peasantlike about the ravishing hunk of poached black Angus filet mignon that Cafe Patou tops with pesto and aioli, surrounds with veggies and serves in a hearty beef broth. There's also nothing peasantlike about the $24.50 tag. On the other hand, where else in town can you find this dish?

And where else could you find venison stroganoff? This special gets away from Cafe Patou's Mediterranean roots, but I'm certainly flexible when the results are this satisfying. Tender chunks of venison come partnered with shiitake mushrooms and tortellini in a rich, creamy sauce. It's a powerfully effective platter.

The desserts haven't changed, and they'll make you linger. The chocolate ecstasy--warm chocolate cake with a molten chocolate center that oozes out when you cut into it, accompanied by ice cream--is as good as I remembered it. The crepe filled with pastry cream, fruit and almonds, all drizzled with fudge sauce, seems even better this time around. I do, however, miss the real cream that used to be served with the coffee.

While the fare is masterful, Cafe Patou still has some substantial bugs to work out on the service side. The first order of business should be to hire a host or hostess to greet arriving diners. Patrons can stand around an uncomfortably long time before someone acknowledges their presence, and then not always with a smile. At one meal, my glass of wine never got delivered. (The waitress blamed the computer.) Silverware was whisked away, but not replaced. Hovering bus people tried to clear dishes before everyone was finished. And our table for four was too small to accommodate us comfortably--there was no room to set down even a bread plate.

These imperfections haven't kept Cafe Patou from leaping into the Valley's big-time dining league. If they're cleared up, Cafe Patou could be battling for the title.

La Madeleine, 3102 East Camelback, Phoenix, 952-0349. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 6:30 a.m to 10 p.m; Friday and Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.

La Madeleine is a thriving, French-themed bakery-cafe chain that has mushroomed to about 50 outlets across the country (including three in the Valley). The secret to its success? It doesn't really resemble a French bakery-cafe; it just resembles Americans' concept of one.

That's not a knock. We expect a French bakery to make fresh, crusty breads, and La Madeleine does just that. We expect a French cafe to have a warm, inviting feel. La Madeleine looks and feels great, with its several small, homey rooms, an open fireplace, pitched ceiling with exposed beams, framed prints on the walls, fresh flowers on the table and an Oriental carpet on the floor. (Want to improve your French? Visit the rest room, where you'll hear a piped-in language lesson.) And we expect the simple neighborhood-cafe fare to be inexpensive. Although La Madeleine is set in a prosperous neighborhood, the food here is rub-your-eyes cheap--nothing on the menu goes for more than $8.95.

How? Costs are kept down by the cafeteria setup. You pick up your food by pushing a tray through a line. If you order something that requires cooking time, the efficient, eager-to-please staff will bring it to your table.

In one crucial respect, however, La Madeleine's conformity to American tastes and expectations works against it. The food, with a few exceptions, is remarkably dull.

One of those exceptions is the tomato-basil soup, which has a creamy texture and real tomato flavor. The salad of field greens is first-rate, mixed up fresh in a wooden bowl and enhanced by a vibrant orange-tarragon dressing. And though you'll have to wait about 15 minutes for the croque monsieur, it's time well-spent. The combination of shaved ham and Swiss cheese on grain bread coated with a bechamel sauce sports Gallic flair.

Not much else does. Onion soup should come in a crock bubbling with a layer of golden brown Gruyere cheese. This tepid version is a disappointment. The quiche Lorraine had little bacon-and-cheese clout, and the crust was mushy as well. Boeuf Bourguignon featured tender-enough pieces of beef, in a decent wine sauce dotted with mushrooms and pearl onions. But it also came with incredibly woody carrots that the human jaw could not cope with. If I'd rubbed a couple of these carrots together, I might have started a fire.

Pasta dishes are a snoozy lot. I expected to see some eggplant in my ratatouille pasta, but none showed up. The bland chicken pesto pasta didn't budge the needle on my taste-o-meter. Pasta Monaco, thumbnail-size shrimp in what the menu calls a "lobster Parmesan sauce," is instantly forgettable. And I'm still trying to figure out how my pizza Provencal, which I saw come out of the oven, arrived with the toppings ice cold.

The desserts are a mixed bag. The cakey creme brulee is quite good; so is the rich cheesecake layered with praline, cheese and chocolate. The chewy cookies are also well-fashioned. But the strawberry Napoleon, palmier and Sacher torte need remedial work.

La Madeleine has its fingers on the pulse of mainstream American taste. If the company ever goes public, I'd rush to buy stock. But I'm in much less of a hurry to eat here again.

Cafe Patou:
Four-cheese crepe
Venison stroganoff
Dessert crepe

La Madeleine:
Croque monsieur
Boeuf Bourguignon
Creme brulee


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