Cafe Reviews

Continental Divide

Louie Jones has been a force on the Phoenix fine-dining scene for what seems like forever. Previous associations with such posh and prestigious places as The Orangerie, La Champagne, La Reserve, Etienne's, Les Jardins, and Cafe de Perouges have earned Jones a reputation as the most recognizable restaurant host in the Valley. It is not surprising that his name finally graces a matchbook cover of its own.

Mr. Louie's, located in the lobby of the high-tone Missouri Falls building, certainly extends its proprietor's reputation for operating only in the most sophisticated and handsome of restaurant settings. This elegant establishment's major design feature is a color emphasis on lush green that kindles the sense of an urban oasis, an illusion accented by the fountain pools that surround the dining room on the building's plaza.

Throughout the restaurant there are a refinement and a restraint in the selection of furnishings that capture the best of contemporary style, which would do the upscale mercantile environment of any modern community proud. The menu, too, is a remarkably fresh and appealing document. Loosely "continental" in its origins, Mr. Louie's culinary concept manages to incorporate a diverse and imaginative range of exotic cuisines and ingredients without giving short shrift to classicism or succumbing to power-pricing. Here you can select from the likes of Filet Mignon, Cinnamon-Orange Mu Shu Lamb and Tuna Salad Melt, and not one of these seems out of place or contrived.

And yet, for all of its surface appeal, Mr. Louie's provides less than a soul-satisfying experience. Promising so much in its come-on, this restaurant is wildly erratic in both culinary and service performances. One is reminded of Billy Crystal's "Fernando" character, who might contend that it is "better to look good than to feed good."

Surely in a fine restaurant it is best to do both.

My initial visit to Mr. Louie's is for a business luncheon, and it is quickly apparent that our reception, the setting and the sophisticated menu score well with my worldly associate. Playing it close to the vest (he's actually wearing one), he selects a shrimp cocktail and, from the "heart smart" section of the menu, a small filet mignon. Being a bit of a wild and crazy critic myself (and dressed far more casually), I go for Gazpacho Pate' and a Far Eastern-inspired flank-steak preparation called Cio Cio San. My guest fares considerably better than I, mostly because his filet is a good piece of beef cooked exactly as requested. Not as appealing is his expensive shrimp cocktail consisting of five medium-size shrimp placed on a flat white plate surrounding a lake of cocktail sauce. There is an additional trompe l'oeil quality of abundance to this dish involving a Guinness world record usage of lemon wedges and unpeeled tomato slices (a facile technique repeated in any number of Mr. Louie's presentations). My Gazpacho Pate, a slice of tomato- and celery-flavored gelatin loaf, actually tastes pretty good. It's hard to look at though, as it is the color of bruised raw calf's liver. No amount of lemon wedges or sliced tomatoes can distract from this fact, although a game try is made.

The Cio Cio San is an execrable dish, one of those compositions you just know nobody in the kitchen has ever sampled. The problem is not so much with the flank steak, which is amply portioned and just a bit saline, but with the mess of viscous, over-soy-sauced, room-temperature noodles that are served on the side. Thank goodness Mr. Louie's uses a garnish of sauteed mixed fresh vegetables with just about every entree, because their contrasting sweetness and crisp texture is the only thing that makes this Cio Cio San at all interesting or palatable.

For dessert my guest orders cheesecake (not from the "heart smart" listings) which he pronounces "ordinary but good." My rice pudding is unfortunately another failure, an essentially creamless concoction that is reminiscent of leftover Chinese rice flavored with cinnamon and studded with a few precious golden raisins. While we consume these, the parking valet shows up with my guest's car keys which he affectedly presents on a bar tray. (Why? To create the sanitary illusion that the keys have not been touched?)

"This is a good place for client entertaining," generously summarizes my guest, "particularly if you don't want to be involved with the food to a great degree."

It's a helpful summation, but maybe not quite an accurate one. Service distractions can be death during business dealings, and if our waitress drops one more piece of silverware on the floor as she clears tables, she will end up in the Guinness book along with the lemons and the tomatoes. And my guest, lest he's forgotten, is still waiting for his steak sauce.

My second visit to Mr. Louie's, with a romantic raison d'etre, proves to be a somewhat superior experience. Maybe it's the French accent of the evening hostess (Mrs. Louie, I believe) or the perfect repertoire of the piano player, but there is a very charmed sense of arrival upon this occasion. Not very many restaurants have an ambiance that can so effortlessly straddle the contrasting sophistications of labor and love, but Mr. Louie's does so flawlessly.

Service matters also seem to pick up in the soir. While not quite an all-star squad, the evening crew of knowledgeable waiters and diligent busboys is definitely the first team. Perhaps the best index of this is the conspicuous presence of Mr. Louie himself, who works the dining room like Henri Matisse works a canvas. Clearly there is also a more talented hand in the kitchen during dinner hours. While it would be overstatement to call the fare flawless, it is unequivocally professional and occasionally darn good. Egregious errors, like the Cio Cio San, are entirely avoided. This last is true even when a dish fails, as does an appetizer order of Three-Fish Terrine. A pretty layered conceit comprised of salmon, sole and whitefish studded with bay scallops, this mild stack of seafood is inexplicably served over a sharp basil- and pepper-accented tomato sauce that entirely dominates the flavor of the fish. There is also an extreme use of dill in one of the fish layers, but this strange melange is really more interesting than it is irritating.

Likewise, a very pretty and well-cooked Ragout of Escargot is totally dominated by the flavor of fresh tarragon, a take-it-or-leave-it herb if ever there was one. Fortunately this dish is served with exceptional little garlic croutons, so purists do not have to do without this supreme snail seasoning. In addition, the mushrooms and vegetables in this buttery earthy dish are lovely and original touches.

Both dinner entrees upon this occasion are also very good. Cassis Duck with Macadamias and a special Cod in Papillote are commendable for their expertly cooked main ingredients, for being so generously portioned and for looking so nice on the plates. I wish that the duck's cassis sauce was more deeply flavored and more abundant and that the papillote had been opened right in front of my guest (the aroma that escapes when the parchment bag is cut is one of the main reasons for this cooking technique), but these are small criticisms of essentially fine dishes.

Perhaps the biggest and most satisfying surprise of the evening is rice pudding, which I order to confirm my original impression and which this time comes lusciously enrobed in whipping cream. We learn from our waiter that the restaurant takes a somewhat impressionistic stance regarding rice pudding recipe policy, with the afternoon chef grievously opting for a dry presentation. Even our waiter cannot explain, however, why at lunch I am charged $3.50 for the pudding without the cream while the dinner version is priced at $2.95.

Even more troubling than this modest price discrepancy, though, is the sense of inconsistency relating to culinary and customer care. The most revealing moment in our dinner comes when we attempt to order the Pate Maison du Chef and are told that every bit of it has been shipped off to a private party. About an hour into the evening, the pate is followed by Mr. Louie himself. And there's the rub. As inviting as this experience starts out, it is anyone's guess what will happen along the way or where it will wind up. Merely looking "mahvelous" is not the same as serving or cooking "mahvelous," and in both these latter regards, Mr. Louie's has a way to go.

It's only a recommendation, but I must courteously suggest to Mr. Louie that he set and adhere to priorities. Even for a man of conspicuous wandering tendencies, it's ill-advised to leave a restaurant when there are uncertainty in the service and confusion in the kitchen, and it's your name on the door. Talent, like pate, can only be spread so thin. Mr. Louie's, 5330 North Seventh Street, Phoenix, 263-8000. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m., Sunday.

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Steven Weiss

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