The Soup Doctor, you see, has the cure for whatever ails you, in the guise of 72 varieties of soup, all made from scratch with recipes handed down from his mother and grandmother. And he's not afraid to tell you about their restorative powers. Pause too long in studying the menu board at the Bread Company, and the Soup Doctor will pounce. "Chicken noodle!" he'll shout with a smile. "It's fresh! It's good for you! Get some now! Now!"
The Soup Doctor is Gilles Desrochers, a French-Canadian chef who wandered into the restaurant five and a half years ago, lured by the smell of fresh-baked European breads. He sniffed around, studied the store with a critical eye and then announced firmly to owner Carole Benkel, "I make soup. You need me."
Benkel, not surprisingly, wasn't impressed. Who was this wild-haired, sturdy, rather rumpled fellow with the thick accent who just marched in from the street? "Prove it," she replied; he nodded curtly, turned and walked out.
When Desrochers returned the following day, he bore pots of his homemade vegetable soup and chili. Benkel tasted, swooned and agreed -- she needed him, right away. They adopted each other.
Today, Desrochers charms Bread Company guests with equal servings of gorgeous concoctions and gregarious commentary. When not chopping the garden loads of fresh vegetables that grace so many of his broths, he's dancing in and out of his huge, storefront cooler for perfect meats, poultry and seafood -- even busing tables (no leftovers here). One of his rules upon his hiring was that he not be locked in a kitchen but be allowed to prepare his creations in full view -- and hearing -- of the customers.
Originally, Desrochers was known as the Soup Man, and dressed in well-worn jeans. But after Benkel requested he wear a more consumer-friendly white coat and toque, he was renamed the Doctor. The moniker fits -- this is no Soup Nazi. He's always happy to take special requests for folks who can't have salt or meat, or who have allergies. But be sure to give plenty of notice for custom blends -- the Bread Company's soups are slow-cooked for as many as 15 hours.
Are the soups worth it? God, yes. Vegetable beef barley swims with whole mushrooms and tender steak in a tomato broth so rich my hand trembles as I lift spoon to mouth. Chicken noodle is stuffed with shell pasta, cooked to perfectly slimy softness in a broth so clean and rich I'd happily soak in it. And pasta fagioli leaves me collapsed in a grateful heap, smitten with soft bean, orzo and celery in a salty base.
The soups are also available at Benkel's second location at Scottsdale Road and Pinnacle Peak, and the Bread Company recently began a catering service, dishing up its fresh deli sandwiches, entree salads, platters, bread wreaths and specialty loaves. But you'll have to yell at yourself.
Take it from the Soup Doctor: You look thin. You need more soup. During the summer, seven to eight choices are served daily; in the winter, up to a dozen concoctions are offered. All are sold out by the end of the lunch and early-dinner service, so get there early for the Doctor's signature blends (lobster bisque on Thursdays, New England clam chowder on Fridays).
Bistro A-Way: According to its phone message, Bistro America is simply closed for the summer, but whether it will reopen remains to be seen. Management hopes to start serving again after Labor Day, yet the space is currently being used for private parties and to expand chef-owner Michael DeMaria's catering business. If the catering business goes well, the American comfort-food eatery likely will be quashed.
Roar No More: American Wilderness Grill has gone extinct. The cavernous restaurant/store at Arizona Mills in Tempe promoted a bizarre concept including rare live animals, theater, food and shopping. The mall location grew from 3,000 square feet in early 1998, exploding to 22,000 by the fall of 1999, but never attracted the half-million customers anticipated each year. Just another hint that diners have had their fill of tasteless "eatertainment" museums, I guess.
Pig-In: It won't be open for several more weeks, but this "coming soon" restaurant at 14th Street and McDowell has such a cool name, I'll tell you about it now. Watch for Billy Bob's Park-n-Pork, serving traditional Southern-style barbecue. I'll keep you basted, uh, posted.
After Dinner Mint: Pass the bubbly, and congratulate Callaghan Vineyards of Elgin (that's in Arizona somewhere). One of its wines was the official vino at last week's official State Dinner for Tunisia at the White House.
As you all know, the primary resources of this northwest African country are wheat, barley, grapes, olives, citrus and dates -- a perfect complement, don't you think, to Callaghan's Buena Suerte Cuvée '98 red wine, a tasty blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon?