No people on Earth care more about food than the French.
They plan meals with the same attention to detail that the Joint Chiefs brought to the invasion of Iraq. And mealtimes in France don't bring on neurotic episodes, as they do for weight-conscious, guilt-wracked Americans. Eating generates groans of pleasure, not waves of self-recrimination. Food is not a wicked temptation to be avoided or a narcotic to abuse. It's a gift to be enjoyed.
The French are sensible. They don't eat beyond satiety. Few are grotesquely obese. They don't blame their genes if they gain a few pounds. They don't flock to Jenny Craig, Nutri/System or Weight Watchers. (By contrast, dieting is a $32 billion business in the United States.) To maintain their weight, they do what common sense dictates: They occasionally yank their snouts out of the trough.
So it hardly matters that classic French cuisine is maligned for being "out of step" with today's "healthy" lifestyle. Sure, it depends on rich meats, creamy sauces and buttery desserts. But who eats it every day? And who wants to live, anyway, like those grouchy, Stairmaster-stomping American puritans, who harbor the unhappy suspicion that somebody, somewhere, is having a good time?
Of course, when I dine on heavy French fare, I'm neurotic enough to insist that the massive dose of calories I consume be an exceptionally tasty dose. After all, just as no soldier wants to take bullets for a cause he doesn't believe in, I don't want to take a caloric hit for an unworthy meal.
Bistro La Chaumiäre (a chaumiäre is a thatched-roof cottage) serves up venerable French dishes, most of which Caesar must have encountered when he was dividing Gaul into three parts.
It's a cozy place with a kind of bucolic chic. The main building, divided into small rooms, features rustic, wood wainscoting and windows fringed with lace curtains. It could also double as a Museum of Old Tools and Gadgets: Scythes, bellows, yokes and assorted kitchen copperware hang from the walls. It's hard to say whether the basket of bread set down before us was objectively bad or simply the victim of our high, French-restaurant expectations. At least no one was coaxed into filling up before the appetizers arrived.
Good thing, too. The single, crisp, crab cake, moistened with lemon-tinged beurre blanc, quickly launched us into the proper, festive spirit. At $6.95, it worked out to about $1.75 per bite, but nobody was crabbing. It's tasty enough to pay for.
Traditionalists might prefer the slab of peppercorn-studded duck pt, smoothed with cognac and cream. Accompanied by cornichons (tiny pickles) and toasted baguette slices, it's a good way to take the edge off an appetite.
But what got our tongues wagging was an astonishingly scrumptious duck pizza that Escoffier could never have imagined. Lots of meaty duck, mushrooms and cheese coated an unusual, moist, chapati-like crust. And in a surge of unexpected generosity, the pizza was large enough for three or four adults to share as a starter.
French food is celebrated for its full-flavored, two-fisted sauces, and Bistro La Chaumiäre's versions make all the difference in the main dishes. Fans of "nouvelle cuisine" and "cuisine minceur," which emphasize lighter, butter- and flour-free sauces, are not going to be flocking here.
Veal sweetbreads, a particularly rich dish, came smothered in an overwhelming sauce of cream and cognac. I practically had to lay down my cutlery after each bite, so intense was the flavor. Fried potatoes, sweet, grilled apple slices, lightly sauted carrot and squash and a cheese-topped, broiled tomato completed the hefty platter. I highly recommend this dish, especially if you're going to be plowing the lower 40 the next morning.
Another hearty affair is the chicken breast soaked in a heavy Madeira sauce. This dish is about as delicate as a two-by-four, and as difficult to ignore. There's no stinting on the wine--if your taste buds need a wake-up call, this will do it.
So will the canard l'orange, a half-duck floating in a strongly concentrated orange sauce. If the orange in the sauce doesn't send you into citrus shock, the bits of orange peel scattered about will. This entree could have desperately used a carbohydrate, perhaps rice, to soften the orange sting.
If heavy-duty sauces don't entrance you, shrimp Provenale offers a pleasant alternative. I don't know if the kitchen is always so wantonly profligate, but the entree came with 11 good-size shrimp, firmly cooked and garlic-infused. They rested on a bed of angel hair, surrounded by a fistful of fresh basil and tomatoes. As with the other main dishes, with this one you won't have to go hunting for flavor.
One thing you will have to hunt for is a reasonably priced wine. The wine list sports odd choices like Chteau Mouton-Rothschild and Chteau Ptrus at prices more in line with a down payment on a car. Wines shouldn't go for $50 and up when the entrees average $15.
The homemade desserts, however, won't shortchange you. The cräme brle, clotted with banana and berries and lined with a caramel glaze, is a lip-smacking delight. The black-velvet cake drew approving nods from a pastry-chef companion, who enjoyed the blend of chocolate crust, chocolate mousse filling and dark-chocolate topping. The raspberry mousse cake seemed wimpy by comparison. Bistro La Chaumiäre's French fare may not cure Americans' food neuroses. But at least they'll be played out at a higher culinary level.
Barbara's, 10321 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 948-5181. Hours: 5:30 p.m. to close, Tuesday through Saturday.
The floral simplicity of Barbara's stands in contrast to Bistro La Chaumiäre's country style. Muted flowers on the wallpaper, pink blossoms on the china and garden-themed watercolors give the room an elegant, salon touch. So do the narrow curio cabinet filled with silver and crystal and the chandelier with flickering, fake "candles." Barbara, the eponymous proprietor, is a Frenchwoman by way of Poland. Perhaps that's why Chopin seemed to get the most play of the piped-in classical music.
There's a limited menu, a good sign that the kitchen doesn't want to get overextended. On the evening of our visit, we had a choice of two soups, four appetizers and a dozen entrees.
Almost everything here is first-rate. A few dishes are out of this world.
In the latter category, put the saumon au raifort, a salad starter featuring generous hunks of warm salmon and walnuts over greens, sprinkled with a magnificent horseradish dressing. The lucky companion who ordered it couldn't stop saying, "I chose right!" Bean counters may quibble over the $9.50 price tag, but gastronomes won't.
Another winner is the duck terrine--three well-proportioned slices thick with pistachios, flanked by sliced roma tomatoes and hard-boiled egg.
I've had enough watery, oversalted onion soup to last a lifetime, but Barbara's crock delivers an authentic, cheesy taste. It's hard to think about soup in June, but this onion broth could rearrange the seasons.
Small loaves of thick and crusty sourdough bread also kept us smiling. Dipped in salad dressing, dunked in the soup, coated with pt or munched on their own, the fresh loaves suggested that Barbara was attending to the details.
The main dishes didn't alter our opinion. Escalope Normande is not terribly creative, but it's solidly tasty. Barbara's version consisted of four thin slices of lightly breaded veal draped in a rich, mushroom-cream sauce splashed with white wine. The potatoes au gratin side dish, though, was a letdown, a boring snooze of no interest.
Several rungs up from the veal stands the fillet of porc roti, fork-tender pork tenderloins marinated with cognac and onions, swimming in an unusual, sharp, sweet paprika sauce. Five pieces of pork alternated on the appealingly designed plate with five pieces of squash, with a colorful tomato in the center. If plain slabs of meat bore you, this brash entree should hold your attention.
But bourride Marseillaise, a creamy, Mediterranean fish stew, outdistances everything else by a wide margin. It's superb, and belongs in the Main Dish Hall of Fame. Salmon, scallops, shrimp and slivers of sole come in a suffocatingly intense, molten cream sauce. Just as the eyes can't gaze too long at the sun, the taste buds can't linger too long over this dish. I felt like I needed to call "time-out" after every spoonful.
But when the main dishes are cleared away, Barbara's goes seriously downhill. French desserts should be the pride of a restaurant. These, to be charitable, are second-rate.
Chocolate mousse cake and chocolate walnut cake have no distinction. Chocolate-chip mint cake seems about as French as a hot-fudge sundae. Our server, a delightfully chatty woman who didn't know a word of the French on the menu, told us that when she started the job, she mispronounced the word "flan." It came out sounding like "phlegm." Not surprisingly, no one ordered it. Now that's she got the pronunciation down, customers are ordering the dish. But I bet this off-putting concoction isn't ordered twice. Skip the desserts at Barbara's, though, and you'll understand one French phrase: "Bon apptit.