Heart Healthy

Le Sans Souci, 7030 East Bella Vista Drive, Cave Creek, 488-2856. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 5to 10 p.m.

Guys have a hard time dealing with Valentine's Day. A simple, sincere "I love you," uttered with simultaneous direct eye contact, would melt your sweetie's heart 364 days a year. But that maneuver won't cut it on Valentine's Day.

At any other time, presenting her with a $3 bouquet of flowers that you picked up from a vendor stationed on a traffic island would probably make her squeal with schoolgirl delight. Not on this day.

A box of candy? Only an insensitive clod would have failed to notice that she's been dieting since January 1. Lingerie from Victoria's Secret? After she stumbled on your stash of catalogues, you really had no other option. A coupon for discounted oil and lube service? The only services they'll be conducting are yours.

Freud was perplexed by the question, "What does a woman want?" But every February 14 in turn-of-the-century Vienna, I bet even he figured it out: romance. She not only wants your affection, but your time and attention, too.

These days, in turn-of-the-century Phoenix, that generally means staring lovingly into each other's eyes while lingering over an expensive meal in a fancy setting. You might want to do it at Le Sans Souci, an unstuffy new restaurant where the mostly older clientele routinely dresses up for dinner. The place will appeal to couples whose romantic impulses are stimulated by cozy surroundings and French fare. Less traditional couples, on the other hand, might opt for an evening at Paris After Dark, which dishes out a unique blend of 1890s food and 1990s entertainment.

Le Sans Souci is a reincarnation of Scottsdale's Chez Louis, a place many Valley old-timers fondly remember. This time, Louis Germain, the proprietor, has taken a lovely old home whose neighborhood has been rezoned commercial and fashioned it into a rustically charming, and somewhat cramped, restaurant setting. Look for wood-and-Mexican-tile floor, wooden beams across the low ceiling and flowery window curtains. You want to be in the homey main dining room; the other eating area, much less pleasant, feels like a small bedroom, despite the whitewashed brick walls hung with estate-sale paintings.

The menu is thoroughly predictable, traditional French without a trace of novelty or innovation. Of course, I'm only referring to the dishes. When it comes to spelling and punctuation, the menu is wildly creative. Conversation flagging? French speakers can amuse themselves between courses tracking down enough Frenglish, errant accent marks and typos to send a copy editor into cardiac arrest.

The carelessly written menu made me wonder if the kitchen would be equally slipshod. For the most part, however, it wasn't.

The slip-ups occur at the beginning. I didn't care for the unappetizing pile of Melba toast, and the French bread is just as resistible. Soups are particularly weak. Good French onion soup can be overwhelming; the version here, lacking a Gruyere crust, isn't even whelming. Vichyssoise is thin and watery, not thick and creamy. The watercress soup has a little more substance, but much of the flavor comes from sodium.

Other starters are better. The oysters in the oysters Rockefeller are plump and juicy. The coquilles St. Jacques (scallops in cream sauce), served in a big shell ringed with mashed potatoes, is another worthy alternative.

The lack of creativity in the entrees is balanced by the skillful preparation of the familiar old favorites. Tournedos Rossini, a dish that dates back to the first half of the 19th century, consists of a tender piece of filet mignon wrapped in bacon, topped by foie gras in an opulent mushroom sauce. Scalloped potatoes and a tasty mix of cauliflower and pea pods round out the platter.

Veal Oscar, created at the Waldorf-Astoria about the time of the Coolidge administration, puts a thinly pounded slice of breaded veal underneath asparagus and a bit of crab, all smoothed by a tarragon-scented bearnaise sauce. It's a tasty mix.

Treasures of the Sea combines a couple of shrimp and scallops with hunks of salmon and a forkful of lobster, all flamed in a sherry cream sauce. The kitchen can do better, however, than the one-dimensional mound of rice it places alongside.

Le Sans Souci also offers a four-course, prix-fixe menu--soup, salad, entree, dessert--that delivers substantial savings over the ala carte choices.

Here, too, you find venerable French specialties, like cuisses de grenouilles, meaty frogs' legs sauteed in lots of garlic and butter. In contrast, the coq au vin features a somewhat scrawny half chicken. And it's oddly prepared, too. Usually served in a winy stew heaped with mushrooms, onions and bacon, this bird sits more or less naked under a few tablespoons of wine sauce. It's not worth clucking over.

Desserts are almost comically dated, but fun. Look for the usual tableside flaming suspects: crepe suzettes, bananas Foster, cherries jubilee, baked Alaska. I prefer the coupe aux marrons, vanilla ice cream covered with luscious candied chestnuts. Profiteroles, cream puffs stuffed with ice cream and covered with chocolate sauce, should also send you home happy.

Not everything at Le Sans Souci is romantic. Service can be ragged and harried. And failing to replace cutlery after each course is a major lapse. But if you're in love, you may not even notice.

Paris After Dark, 8525 North Central, Phoenix, 861-2437. Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.

No matter how deeply you're in love, it would be hard not to notice the setting of the seductively named Paris After Dark, which opened a few months ago. This is what I imagine the public rooms of a Turkish bordello must look like: a rich, burgundy-hued dining area, with yards of heavy drapery around the windows, brocade fabric on the chairs, flowery wallpaper, gilt-framed paintings of unknown aristocrats, red-linen tablecloths and piped-in Bach.

There are campy touches, as well. Ceramic cherub heads hang from the wall, and reproductions of classical sculpture are placed throughout the restaurant. In retrospect, I think the statue of Michelangelo's David that occupies the men's-room stall is a particularly bold decorating move. But at the time of our first encounter, I was so flustered that I spent several moments apologizing to the figure for barging in before I realized he was inert.

Paris After Dark's concept is so old, it's practically new: On weekends it's a combination restaurant and cabaret. The fare is prewar continental; and so, too, in its own rakish way, is the after-dinner entertainment. The revue (there's no cover charge) is called Follies After Dark, where, as the master of ceremonies points out, "The men are men, and so are the women." The talented, lip-synching female impersonators put on a great show for an appreciative crowd of both straights and gays.

The menu, like the cabaret, is retro enough to be hip. And the food is generally good enough to get everyone primed and happy by showtime.

The chef's recipe book must have fallen open to the "puff pastry" page when he put together his appetizer list. How else to explain that every starter except the garlic toast comes under a pastry canopy, including the shrimp cocktail? It's good, though--six jumbo shrimp in a rŽmoulade zipped up with capers. I do wish, however, that the mushrooms in a sherry cream sauce had been a little more exotic than the supermarket variety we encountered. And despite the menu's claim to the contrary, I have a hard time believing the desultory dinner rolls were homemade, unless home was a plastic bag.

The meal picks up with the arrival of the soup or salad that accompanies dinner. The hearty black bean soup is scrumptious, and you get plenty of it. The romaine greenery, meanwhile, is improved by either the blue cheese or honey Dijon dressing.

The main dishes are all given French names, with English explanations. Good thing, too, because the French is so execrable that even Le Sans Souci's mistake-filled menu reads like a long-lost work of Flaubert in comparison. Proofreading seems to be a disappearing art.

Fortunately, Paris After Dark cooks better than it spells. Beef Wellington is deftly done, a butter-soft tenderloin coated with mushrooms and foie gras, baked in--you guessed it--puff pastry. It's paired with luscious, tarragon-scented potatoes and squash. The chef also does an admirable job with medallions of beef topped with crumbled blue cheese, a terrific combination. Too bad the Burgundy sauce was watery.

Chicken with artichokes features an ample portion of boneless breast, tastily gilded with artichoke hearts, mushrooms and carrots over a mound of cappellini. Too bad the cream sauce was watery.

Shrimp scampi isn't fashioned with lots of sizzling butter and garlic, as you might expect. Instead, six hefty shrimp are served over pasta, in a sherry cream sauce. Too bad the sherry cream sauce was watery.

Pace your meal so you leave some time forthe homemade desserts. The boule de neige--it means "snowball"--features moist chocolate cake surrounded by whipped cream studded with chocolate chips. The simple creme brulee, I'm thrilled to report, comes unadorned by berries and fruit sauce, a practice I'm profoundly sick of. This model is practically perfect: rich, intense, custardy.

An evening at Paris After Dark is more than a meal--it's an experience. After all, there aren't too many places in this town where your Valentine can see beef Wellington and "Liza Minnelli" on the same bill.

Le Sans Souci:
Oysters Rockefeller
Veal Oscar
Tournedos Rossini
Frogs' legs
(four-course dinner)

Paris After Dark:
Shrimp cocktail
Beef with
blue cheese
Shrimp scampi
Beef Wellington

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