Fare to Remember

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Bistro Provence, 8900 East Pinnacle Peak (La Mirada Plaza), Scottsdale, 473-2884. Hours: Lunch and dinner, 11 a.m. to close, seven days a week.

Attention, men: Have you remembered to pencil in Valentine's Day on your calendar? Better do it now, because you can bet your sweetie has circled the date on her's.

It's the one day of the year on which no excuses are permitted. You can't "forget" it. You can't claim it's a commercial conspiracy, a plot hatched by florists and greeting-card companies to turn your profound love for her into a tawdry commodity. And you can't be cheap about it, either. Face it, fellas: Bringing home a $3 bouquet picked up at a freeway off-ramp, presenting a certificate for lifetime oil-and-lube jobs on her car, or agreeing to watch a video of Sleepless in Seattle may thrill her 364 days a year. But none of these gestures will cut it on Valentine's Day. Sure, the depth of your commitment may be incalculable. Nevertheless, on February 14, she's going to be doing some calculating of her own.

That means a week from Sunday, you're in for a long day. You'll have to turn off the television, and turn on the charm. Here are a few ways to boost your romance quotient:

* Prepare to spend time discussing your relationship and where it's headed. Don't bring up the Diamondbacks' need for middle relievers or think aloud about which of your car's fluids needs topping off.

* Don't hand her a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and tell her that's what President Clinton gave Monica Lewinsky.

* Share your heretofore secret erotic fantasy about spending a night with her locked in Nordstrom's shoe department.

* Get out your wallet and take her to a fancy restaurant.
Make that a fancy French restaurant. Why French? The French military may be nothing to brag about--they haven't won a battle since Napoleon took Austerlitz in 1805. French culture is in full retreat--Paris Disneyland, anyone? And they can't make cars like the Germans, electronics like the Japanese or watches like the Swiss. But the French still believe they rule when it comes to l'amour and la cuisine. And isn't that what Valentine's Day is all about?

I tested that point at Bistro Provence, a new, casually upscale French place looking to strike restaurant gold in demographically rich north Scottsdale.

It operates out of one of those new, high-end mega-shopping complexes that are tearing up our corner of the Sonoran desert. It's not the most romantic of settings. Instead of looking out over the Eiffel Tower or a bustling urban scene, diners get to watch luxury cars jockey for spots in the parking lot.

Inside, the proprietor has tried to conjure up a somewhat more continental atmosphere. Faux green shutters surround the windows. Sketches of French country scenes in soft Provençal pastels line the walls. A vase sprouting a red carnation brightens the tables, which are covered with heavy white linen. And the keyboard player providing background music has the good sense to keep the volume low enough so that if you whisper sweet nothings in your honey's ear, she'll be able to hear them.

But don't mistake Bistro Provence for something it isn't. Despite the name, there's nothing particularly Provençal about the fare. And despite the trendy location, there's nothing particularly cutting-edge about the fare, either. For the most part, you'll find the usual suspects: staid, sturdy, French-themed dishes that Valentine's Day celebrants might have ordered in the year 999.

But familiarity doesn't have to breed contempt. The quality is there; portions are surprisingly generous; and the prices, given the location, are within hailing distance of reason.

The rustic, rosemary-tinged bread is wonderful. Unfortunately, the method of serving it isn't. Every five minutes or so, an employee makes the rounds of the room hauling a big basket, dutifully doling out one thin slice on your bread plate. I called her back to our hungry table so many times for refills that it looked like the two of us had developed a relationship. Why not just put a decent-sized loaf out and be done with it?

Appetizers won't bowl you over, but they're serviceable enough. "Provencal" frogs' legs seem to owe more to Buffalo than Provence--they come heavily battered and fried. They are extremely meaty, however, and heaped with enough garlic to keep the werewolves away until Memorial Day. Escargots in garlic butter taste exactly like every escargot appetizer in town. A few ounces of lamb skewered on sprigs of rosemary is small for a $10 nosh. But a lovely onion marmalade accompanying the meat helps take some of the sting out of the cost.

If money is no object--and certainly that's the impression you'd like to be making--splurge on the $19 pan-seared foie gras, teamed with spiced pear and moistened in a port wine reduction tinged with aged balsamic vinegar. It's ample enough to give two people several heady bites.

Soups give you the most bang for your starter bucks. The French onion soup is well-fashioned: thick, not too salty, and topped with a raft of bread, cheese and a sprinkling of fried onions. A chicken-and-wild-rice soupe du jour, meanwhile, also provides hearty nourishment.

The entrees, however, are where the kitchen really shines. There's nothing very complicated about the formula: good ingredients and skillful preparation.

Duck a l'orange is a bistro staple. But it's not always everything it's quacked up to be. Too often, the duck turns up fatty, chewy or dry. Not here--this duck is darned near perfect, boneless, sliced breast meat fanned across the plate, coated in a citrus sauce that's not too cloyingly sweet. The rest of the platter is just as impressive: wild rice flecked with pecans in a maple sauce, sweet baby carrots and crisp green beans. If you weren't in love when you came here, this dish is the remedy.

Coq au vin is a pullet surprise. Presented in a huge ceramic bowl, the fall-off-the bone poultry is simmered in a red wine sauce, teamed with pearl onions, baby carrots and green beans, and served over fettuccine. At $21, it's no bargain, but no one will complain about being shortchanged on flavor.

Fish fans will also find joy. You'd think a French restaurant would be able to spell bouillabaisse (as well as several other French words) correctly on the menu. Fortunately, the cooking is better than the copy editing. Bistro Provence's version of this southern French fish stew comes heavily stocked with two big prawns, several juicy sea scallops, mussels, clams and hunks of assorted fish, in a vibrant fennel- and saffron-accented broth. At many restaurants, salmon can be incredibly boring. But the chef here crusts a filleted slab with potato, adds sides of basil-tinged yellow squash, asparagus and olives, and coats it all in a lightly seasoned tomato sauce. Monkfish, too, gets careful treatment. Several meaty hunks come gilded with olives and capers, and bathed in a fetching lobster-coriander sauce.

Carnivores aren't neglected. The grilled veal chop is as good as any I've had recently, almost impossibly moist and tender, served with a wedge of potato gratinee, mushrooms and asparagus. It doesn't take much more than a cutting glance to get the meat to fall off the braised lamb shank, robustly paired with mashed spuds and wild mushrooms. And if you're a steak-and-potatoes guy, you won't be disappointed with the beefy New York sirloin, crusted with peppercorns, accompanied by potato gratinee and mushrooms.

Desserts don't have quite the intensity that the entrees do, but they're worth hanging around for. Stare deeply into her eyes, and maybe she won't notice you're eating more than your share of the tiramisu, a light, creamy confection. A warm apple tart, drizzled with caramel sauce, also brings the meal to a happy conclusion. A fudgy raspberry chocolate mousse cake will probably release some of those brain chemicals that tell her she's having a good time. And the chocolate-coated black cherry ice cream, set off with raspberry sauce, delivers uncomplicated pleasure.

Death and taxes aren't life's only inevitabilities. Neglect to romance your sweetie on Valentine's Day, and death and taxes are going to seem like pleasant alternatives. Bistro Provence can't make February 14 go away. But for those of us with XY chromosomes, it can make the day easier to get through.

Bistro Provence:
Provencal frogs' legs $10.00
Duck a l'orange 25.00
Bouillabaisse 25.00
Apple tart 7.


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