"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp," wrote the poet, "or what's a heaven for?"
The proprietors of Coronado Cafe and French Ambiance have taken Robert Browning's words to heart. They're not afraid to reach and grasp.
Both places opened in 1998 as lunchtime ventures, aimed at nearby office workers. Noontime success fueled their ambitions, and they recently launched four-day-a-week dinner operations. Each place has devised an evening menu targeting the neighborhood. And wallet-friendly BYOB policies are part of the strategy.
Though the concept is the same in both cases, the execution isn't. Coronado Cafe glides smoothly from lunch to dinner. At French Ambiance, however, you hit occasional turbulence.
Coronado Cafe's neighborhood is central Phoenix, just north of downtown. It's a neighborhood on the upswing, and Coronado Cafe seems to be part cause, part effect.
It does business out of a charming old house that granny would have felt at home in. (An antiques store was the previous tenant.) Divided into several cozy nooks, the place features a gleaming hardwood floor, fireplace and old-fashioned pull shades. The piped-in music, heavy on Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, adds another nostalgic dimension. Glancing over at one diner's newspaper, I half expected the headline to read: "Roosevelt Opens New York World's Fair."
The vintage fare matches the vintage setting. Nothing on the menu would raise granny's eyebrows. And I'm sure she'd approve of the homey dishes, the hearty portions and the reasonable prices -- you won't see more than one digit to the left of any decimal point.
The kitchen features a different hot lunch/dinner special every day: Tuesday, enchiladas; Wednesday, meat loaf; Thursday, stew; and Friday, lasagna. Two other entrees, changed weekly, flesh out the dinner selections. (You can order the lunchtime salads and sandwiches at dinner, as well.)
It's pretty clear that Coronado Cafe isn't trying to wow anyone with variety or novelty. But I'm impressed with the quality. And when you factor in the budget prices and comfortable setting, dinner seems even more of a value.
When I lunched here last year, I raved about the terrific soups. I'm happy to report that they haven't lost any of their steam. Chicken corn chowder, stocked with chunks of poultry, corn and potato, is the daily soup staple, and its popularity is no mystery. This broth tastes like granny watched over the pot all day. Ham and potato, an occasional soup of the day, is exceptionally thick, exceptionally hearty and exceptionally tasty. A Friday clam chowder sports real seaside spirit. My new soup favorite, however, is the Italian vegetable, loaded with veggies and flavor.
Coronado Cafe doesn't stint on quantity, either. The cup of soup is plenty ample, substantial enough to take care of dainty appetites. Order the bowl, and even he-men may ask for their entrees in a doggie bag.
The kitchen has got the daily hot entrees down pat. Don't eat the meat loaf the night before an early morning meeting -- you'll probably sleep through it. This is a serious slab of ground beef, big, thick and meaty, teamed with heavy, skin-on mashed potatoes. A rich mushroom gravy doesn't lighten the effect. Knock off this platter, and you'll want to go home, loosen your belt and sprawl across the couch. At any rate, that's how I spent the rest of my evening, and I had no regrets.
Beef stew, rounded out with potato and mushrooms, gets high marks for technical merit. But I have to deduct a few points from the artistic program. That's because the dish would have been even better had it come with more veggies. How about some carrots, onions, green beans, turnips or squash? Instead of charging $7.95, why not enliven the vegetable mix and charge an extra buck? I guarantee customers won't complain.
No one will complain about the lasagna, even though it resembles cannelloni more than traditional lasagna. This version features ricotta and spinach enfolded in a delicate pasta wrap, draped in a luscious cream sauce.
The weekly entree specials tend to display a bit more flair. I got a kick out of the broccoli Cheddar strudel, a big pouch of puff pastry stuffed with broccoli, onions and mushrooms, sprinkled with broccoli florets and smoothed with a Cheddar cheese sauce. The chef knows what to do with catfish, too, battering a hefty fillet with cornmeal and crushed pistachios, and pairing it with a side of spicy rice flecked with cannellini beans. Barbecued pork, a big mound of marinated meat glazed with a sweetish, Tennessee-style barbecue sauce, hit all the right buttons, as did the corn pudding and roasted potato accompaniments.