Cafe Reviews

Bistros of Burden

Meza Luna, 4240 North Winfield Scott Plaza, Scottsdale, 947-9500. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Dinner, Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

In 1915, French psychologist Emile Coue developed a mantra, which he encouraged people to chant 20 times a day: "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better." His countrymen, rationalists that they are, had no trouble recognizing Coue for what he was--a crackpot who confused wishes with reality, a fool who believed that merely saying something could make it so.

But unlike the skeptical French, we Americans are always open to new ideas, especially bad ones. By the 1920s, Coue was a celebrity self-improvement guru, the first in a long line of charlatans that has stretched into the 1990s. He had millions of demented American followers, devotees who flocked to hear the master's message at "Coue Institutes" all over the land.

If saying something could make it so, I have no doubt that my life would be getting better and better every day, and in every way. I've certainly said, "I wish I had a Swiss bank account," "I wish I had more hair" and "I wish my wife would let me date Claudia Schiffer" enough times to put Coue's theory to the test.

But, in one area at least, I may have been infected with Coue's delusional optimism. For the past few years, I've been saying that every day, in every way, the local dining scene is getting better and better--better variety, better value, better quality. These days, though, I'm having second thoughts.

That's because two new bistros have breezed into town, like a breath of stale air. Both Meza Luna and Indigo would put a check on anybody's culinary enthusiasm.

Meza Luna is the work of restaurateur Georges Venezia, who has opened and folded three decent bistros in the 1990s: Mes Amis, Bistro 32 and Chez Georges. Unfortunately, practice isn't making perfect. Meza Luna is discouraging, the least of his efforts.

It's a pretty place, casual and unpretentious. Blue curtains with cheerful yellow print cover the windows. Crisp white linen is draped over the tables. A brick wall is lined with copper pots and a few vintage posters. Desserts beckon from a display table just inside the entrance. But why on Earth are oldies blaring out of the music system? I like the Beach Boys, the Hollies and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas as much as anyone. But a French bistro is not where I want to hear them, especially at 747-level decibels.

Oldies aren't the proprietor's only uninspired touch. When it comes to bread, most everyone would agree that this town has been getting better and better for quite some time. So there's really no excuse for the lame French loaf that greets Meza Luna's customers.

Things pick up somewhat when the freebie trio of salads arrives. One time we got cubed potatoes, marinated tomatoes and cole slaw. On another occasion we had red cabbage, regular cabbage and diced cucumbers nicely embellished with Japanese ginger.

Meza Luna's fare isn't ineptly prepared or compromised by inferior ingredients. It is, however, stupefyingly dull. Does this kitchen really believe Scottsdale diners are going to be turned on by chicken parmigiana, filet mignon in a peppercorn cream sauce, veal marsala or linguini with shrimp? I'm not a food trendoid, and I respect culinary tradition. But with so many creative, vigorous restaurants in town, why would a couple looking to spend $50 or $60 on a Saturday-night dinner come here? The only person this snoozy menu could excite is Rip Van Winkle, who might come here before settling in for another 20-year nap.

Mussels mariniere was not only the best appetizer, but also the best dish at Chez Georges. Unfortunately, something seems to have gotten lost on the move down from Shea Boulevard to Winfield Scott Plaza. These greenlip bivalves, done up with white wine, garlic, parsley and onion, are certainly tasty enough, but that's all. At another time and place, however, they were ethereal. And the portion size has also been substantially reduced.

Crevettes a la Provencal brings three ho-hum shrimp swimming in a sea of garlicky tomato sauce. But this presentation wasn't well thought through. What, I wondered, short of lapping it up with a soup spoon or sopping it up with two or three baguettes, were we supposed to do with all that sauce? Meanwhile, portabella mushroom, teamed with onions, garlic and pesto, made almost no impression.

The main-dish fare is similarly lackluster. The chewy filet mignon isn't $20-quality beef. And its inoffensive peppercorn cream sauce doesn't generate any electricity. Lemony veal piccata, freshened with artichokes and served over fettuccine, is competently fashioned. So is the chicken Normandy, a slab of breast moistened by an apple brandy sauce. But one minute after you eat them, you can't remember anything about either dish.

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Howard Seftel