Cafe Reviews

Coup des Tartes Keeps the Non-Trendy Bistro Tradition Alive in Central Phoenix

In terms of popularity, the quintessential neighborhood French bistro, a refined but generally unpretentious place with white tablecloths and honest food and wine, has been in steady decline for years. In its place have come gastropubs, ramen bars, and any number of places serving tapas-style small plates paired with local craft beer or boutique wines. In Phoenix, there still remain a few spots preserving the tradition of the Euro-style neighborhood bistro, the kind of place where there’s always some version of steak tartare on the menu and the owner makes the rounds on a Saturday night, greeting guests and pouring wine at the bar for regulars.

Coup des Tartes is this kind of bistro, a thoroughly un-trendy destination that operated for almost 20 years in Phoenix, surviving the changing winds of dining culture, a couple of serious economic downturns, and the trials that come along with a forced relocation. In 2014, owner Ron Pacioni had to scramble to find a new home for the restaurant after learning that its original location, near 16th Street and Highland, was being demolished to make room for a car dealership parking lot.

The Coup des Tartes saga ended a few months later, after a new location near 16th Street and Osborn was secured. Coup des Tartes 2.0, as the new location was playfully dubbed for a while, opened last spring, and it manages to live up to the historic appeal of the original while nearly doubling the restaurant’s square footage. The 1922 red brick duplex features hardwood floors, high-vaulted ceilings, and built-in fixtures outfitted with wine bottles, framed photos, and assorted travel memorabilia. Certain fixtures from the previous location have been preserved, including sections of the old restaurant’s hardwood floor, which has been incorporated into the new restaurant’s bar top. Like its precursor, the space radiates a kind of quiet, unaffected charm.

The dining room is divided among several small rooms, connected via a labyrinth of doorways and hallways. In classic bistro fashion, tables are placed close together so that you can, willingly or not, listen to the couple at the next table bemoan the unseasonably warm weather or debate the merits of this wine bottle over that one. Depending on your disposition, this can lend itself to a slightly awkward dining experience, or one that engenders a sense of communal shared experience. In any case, it’s worth noting that you might glean a dessert recommendation or two from a chatty neighbor.

If you prefer more elbow room, there’s a comfortable outdoor patio with a large brick fireplace and a handful of bistro tables scattered across brick pavers. The patio is lit up at night with a string of lights, and candles flicker from tabletops, carrying over the romance of the old spot. One of the few things that seems to have been lost in the relocation is the restaurant’s stature as one of the oldest BYOB establishments in the Valley. While you can still bring your favorite bottle of wine or champagne to Coup des Tartes, doing so requires that you join the restaurant’s new Wine Club, at a rate of $45 per year.

Coup des Tartes is French in name, but the menu, which evolves throughout the year to incorporate seasonal produce, might be better described as classic American and European continental fare, with extended excursions into the Mediterranean. You’ll find typical French starters like escargot and country pâtés, sure, but there also are plenty of Italian staples like risotto and pasta, along with the restaurant’s signature Moroccan lamb shank dish.

A good place to start is with the three onion tarte, a faintly sweet blend of onions, shallots, and leeks, cooked down to a nearly immaterial state and then bound together with so much Gruyère and cream, you’ll find it’s hardly possible to make it last long on the plate. And there is, of course, steak tartare, the fresh beef minced with precision and aggressively seasoned with a pleasingly salty blast of pickles and capers. The French onion soup, however, is more apt to disappoint. The sweet muddle of wilted onions, which comes topped with a couple of croutons stuck together with melted Gruyère cheese, could stand to be cooked down a little longer. The sweet funk of the cheese gives the dish some life, but the broth itself could use more of the beefy, oniony depth you might expect from the classic dish.

From the entrée menu, an old-guard dish like filet mignon in a red wine reduction may not seem particularly exciting. But the kitchen, led by executive chef Jose Hernandez, manages to extract maximum flavor out of the sometimes dull cut. On a recent visit, the beef was flavorful and cooked to a perfect medium rare, and served alongside Yukon gold mashed potatoes and a tangle of buttery, sautéed spinach. You would be hard-pressed to find anything revelatory about the dish, but it should more than satisfy any cravings for upscale fare plucked straight out of the bistro canon.

Roast chicken may be a similarly unfashionable entrée, but you’ll find a rigorously good version here. The juicy breast has been encrusted in pecans and carefully dressed in a cherry sauce. The tartness of the sauce plays nicely with crumbles of Roquefort blue cheese, and it’s hard to find fault with the carefully cooked bird, which is as succulent and moist as you would expect in a fine-dining setting. You could make a similar case for the excellent black truffle Parmesan risotto, which is about as old school bistro as you can get. Slick with butter, the richness of the dish is balanced out by an underlying earthiness that works its way into every spoonful.

The signature dish at Coup des Tartes is the Moroccan lamb shank, which is not quite a traditional tagine but a kind of milder, gentler version of the traditional North African stew. Here, buttered couscous soaks up the dish’s mildly spiced tomato broth base, which is slightly sweetened with a fig or two. The lamb is tender and moist and slips off the bone with ease. But during a recent dinner visit, the dish lacked a certain jolt of bright flavors, the kind of sweetness and heat it needed to make the rustic dish truly compelling and memorable.

With full-time pastry chef Juan Delgado on duty, Coupe des Tartes is a reliable source for fresh, French-inspired desserts, including a four berry tarte that is perhaps most notable for its wonderfully delicate, buttery crust. There’s also an exceptionally moist butter apple upside-down cake. The limited dessert menu, however, may leave you daydreaming of rustic, fruit-filled galettes or thin, wispy crepes filled with sweet, soft slices of fruit. It would be nice to find a larger selection of French-inspired desserts on the menu.

But no matter the dearth of tartes coming out of the pastry kitchen, you’ll likely return to Coup des Tartes, if not for dinner, then for the restaurant’s weekday lunch menu. It’s there you’ll find a smattering of Parisan cafe standards, most notably a fine croque monsieur ham sandwich, finished with just enough buttery béchamel sauce to make you feel slightly decadent. It’s an old-fashioned pick without much of a twist, but much like Coup des Tartes itself, you probably won’t mind one bit.

Coup des Tartes
1725 East Osborn Road
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. lunch; 5 to 9 p.m. dinner Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. lunch; 5 to 10 p.m. dinner Friday; 5 to 10 p.m. dinner Saturday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. brunch Sunday

French onion soup $9
Three onion tarte $12
Moroccan lamb shank $24
Four berry tarte $9

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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.