Cafe Reviews

Eating Inn

Bistro 24, Ritz-Carlton Hotel, 2401 East Camelback, Phoenix, 468-0700. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Two of the Valley's swankiest hotels have given their dining rooms a long-overdue makeover. Early this year, Ritz-Carlton management finally scrapped the stuffy, pretentious The Restaurant (what an awkward name). It's been replaced by Bistro 24, a casually elegant operation featuring French-themed American bistro fare. Over at the Arizona Biltmore, the entire restaurant team has been swept away. The bosses have hired a new executive chef to oversee all dining operations, and brought in a new chef and pastry chef to breathe life into Wright's, the resort's moribund fine-dining restaurant.

Let's give the suits some credit. First, they recognized that something was broken. Then they had the good sense to hire the people who could fix it.

Bistro 24 is one of the best-looking places in town: smart, stylish, sophisticated. Enter through the hotel (there's also a street entrance) and you'll pass the snazzy bar, adorned with three tilted mirrors. A parquet floor, colorful bistro murals, vintage black-and-white photos, a magazine rack stacked with old issues of Life, pretty wicker bistro chairs, sheaves of wheat on the wall and perfect lighting all create good vibes before you've even looked at the menu. From any table in the room, you can hear the bartender shaking cocktails, a sound that subliminally suggests fun and good times. But the schlocky, piped-in Julio Iglesias has got to go. I don't know why Bistro 24 feels compelled to inflict music on us, anyway. But as long as it's going to, someone needs to go through the catalogue for audio decor that can hold its own with the rest of the setting.

Fortunately, the food doesn't need much tuning up. If you're searching for wild game, exotic grains, cutesy baby vegetables or trendy presentations, you'll have to look elsewhere. But if you're looking for ample portions of high-quality bistro fare with a mild Gallic accent, Bistro 24 can hold its own against any competitor.

Soft, pretzellike breadsticks and a routine French loaf get the meal modestly under way. But there's nothing modest about the exceptional chicken liver pate. Fashioned in-house, this pate is everything it's supposed to be--thick, creamy, intense. Grab some bread, slather on Dijon mustard and sip a Ravenswood merlot. (Bistro 24 has an extensive wine-by-the-glass list, some three dozen choices, most in the five-to-six-dollar range.)

Mussels mariniere is another outstanding way to edge into dinner. Perhaps the cook was distracted, but somehow I ended up with a bowl crammed with two dozen bivalves, steamed in a fragrant, champagne-tinged broth heavy with garlic and parsley. At $6.75, I'm not sure how Bistro 24 can make money on this, but I certainly don't want to arouse the company accountants.

Smoked salmon is also effectively done, paired with a bit of crisped potato and embellished with capers. And if it's soup you pine for, forget about the late-summer heat and dig into the formidable French onion soup, one of this town's best models. A thick raft of four cheeses floats on a broth that's notably rich and hearty.

The straightforward entrees don't break any new culinary ground. But Bistro 24 isn't trying to reinvent the bistro; it's trying to perfect it. And sometimes it comes pretty darned close.

The main dishes tilt heavily toward seafood, and the chef knows what to do with it. The Friday-night bouillabaisse special is right on target. This Americanized version of the French fish stew comes stocked with ahi tuna, salmon, whitefish and shrimp, as well as the largest whole prawn (about half a pound, with head and antennae still attached) and scallop (the size of a hockey puck) I've seen in Arizona. Potatoes, tomatoes and the traditional rouille-lined slabs of bread punch up the aromatic broth.

Grilled salmon is terrific, at least potentially. Ours came wonderfully moist on the inside and crusty on the outside. But the kitchen's coordination was off--the salmon arrived lukewarm. I suspect it was ready before our group's other entrees, and sat around cooling off for several minutes.

Timing wasn't a problem with the crispy-skin whitefish, a deftly prepared filleted slab accompanied by garlicky mashed potatoes and French green beans. And if you prefer your seafood teamed with greenery, the shrimp and scallop salad, served with spinach, avocado and mango, makes for light, tasty eating.

There's one beef dish on the menu, and your group's carnivore won't have any complaints. It's an outstanding steak au poivre, 10 ounces of butter-soft sirloin crusted with peppers and served with a mound of thin, crispy French-style frites. Lamb lovers aren't neglected, either. Lamb tenderloin is trimmed off the bone, brushed with olive oil and rosemary, then grilled to juicy perfection. Thin-sliced grilled zucchini and artichoke hearts (fresh, not canned) complete this hard-hitting platter.