Cafe Reviews

Four Ever Young

Au Petit Four

It was her diet that did it. Not many people would dare consume such a steady stream of ultra-rich foods like chicken pâté, roast duck and Yule log, plus several glasses of wine every day. Really, ingesting that much fat and alcohol, how could French citizen Jeanne Calment have expected to enjoy a normal life span?

In the end, she didn't. Calment passed away August 4, 1997, at the age of 122. At that time, she was the longest living human being whose age could be confirmed by reliable records. And scientists credited her survival to what she ate. Bordeaux cardiologist Serge Renaud called it "the French paradox" -- despite diets high in saturated fat, the French tend to live longer and have one of the lowest rates of coronary and cardiovascular disease in the industrialized world, he found. He credited part of the cure to maintaining small portion sizes, and part to wine -- two or three glasses a day, he said, combats heart disease and cancer.

Then just last month, U.S. and French researchers announced at a conference in San Francisco that the French are tightening their grip on the world's longest average life expectancy -- projected to be 85 by 2033.

I want to party with the French. And happily enough, a couple of new bistros in town make that very easy. Au Petit Four, opened five months ago at the Esplanade, is delightful enough on its own. But being able to convince ourselves that it's health food makes this cafe almost too good to be true.

Au Petit Four is owned by Pierre and Catherine Berraud-Dufour. About seven months ago, they relocated their pastry shop from Lyon, setting up in a tiny space near the Esplanade's movie theater escalators. It's easy enough to skip on by if you're not looking for it.

Slow down. This is the real deal. There's no wine served, but no problem -- stop in at Vintage Grape across from Roy's in the mall, and pick up a bottle of your own. (Be practical and bring your own glasses and corkscrew, too.)

Prepare for a civilized French rhythm, too. While Au Petit is fast food, it doesn't feel that way. Everything on the compact menu is made from scratch and prepared to order. At lunch, it's no stretch to sit back for more than an hour, basking in the fine weather and people-watching on the patio out front, or cozied up at one of the little tables inside. This is a great pick for solo diners, too, who can snuggle up with a good book while they nibble.

The Berraud-Dufours arrive at 4 a.m. each day, Pierre tells me in his musical French accent, preparing the expansive selection of pastries, rolls and muffins fresh daily. How to choose, with golden flaky croissants, plain or stuffed with almond or chocolate? What's more tempting, fruit Danish, brioche, apple turnovers, palmier, scones or tartines (French bread slices) with Arizona Harvest organic jam and butter? For unbridled celebration, will it be beautiful eclairs, fudge cakes, fruit tarts, Napoleon, slabs of Bavarian flan or custard cream? Pain suisse is a fine breakfast, the sweet croissant dough folded over dark chocolate chips and baked, to be sipped with a cup of steaming espresso.

The menu expands at 11 a.m., with offerings of salads, sandwiches, quiches and tartines. Au Petit's Nicoise salad is wondrous, bringing a pretty pile of field greens topped with sliced hard-boiled egg, quartered tomatoes and Kalamata olives. It's centered with a mound of flaked tuna, then surrounded by boiled white potato slices, all sprinkled with parsley. This mellow albacore sure doesn't taste canned, forked between pulls of soft French country bread and dipped in a fabulous vinaigrette. I only wish the traditional green beans and anchovies were included.

The house salad is appealing as well, cascading with ribbons of thin, silky smoked salmon sprinkled with lemon, olive oil and basil -- though sometimes the kitchen goes berserk with the lemon and ruins the dish. It's not really salad so much -- the fish nests atop toasted baguette slices moistened with crème fraiche. But as with every dish here, it comes with field greens and that incredible vinaigrette, a blend of Dijon, olive oil, balsamic, salt and pepper that glosses our lips like butter. Try it with the goat cheese salad, the tangy, creamy chevre grilled on sliced baguette.

Everyone knows that a critical component of French dining is the bread, and Au Petit doesn't let us down. Ciabatta (Italian country bread) is good, but the baguette is masterful, the torpedo loaves expertly chewy and crusty.

Baguette's a perfect vehicle for the mozzarella sandwich, lightly stuffed with a single slice of opaque marbled prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, ripe tomato, green leaf lettuce and olive oil. Eat slowly to savor the pleasing textures of salty and smooth, chewy and soft.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet