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Hidden in Plain View

Let me apologize to the cult of Coup Des Tartes: Your little gem is just way too wonderful to keep a secret. This intimate French bistro has been around for nearly a decade, and yet it still seems off the radar. Of course, local foodies are familiar with the place...
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Let me apologize to the cult of Coup Des Tartes: Your little gem is just way too wonderful to keep a secret.

This intimate French bistro has been around for nearly a decade, and yet it still seems off the radar. Of course, local foodies are familiar with the place — I'd been listening to people gush about it for years before I finally stopped in for a visit. But chitchatting with anyone beyond this city's culinary-obsessed crowd, I was surprised to discover how many folks haven't even heard of Coup Des Tartes. Friends who otherwise know central Phoenix inside and out would draw a blank when I'd tell them about it.

"Huh? Where's that?"

"Oh, you know, it's that tiny historic house on 16th Street, just south of Highland . . ."

There'd be no glimmer of recognition. Then I'd mention that it's the place with the "Rendez-Vous" sign out front. Maybe then they'd understand. Like me, they'd often wondered what it meant. Could it be a suggestion to meet your secret lover there? A signal to bring your French dictionary along to decipher the menu? You could drive past Coup Des Tartes hundreds of times and not even notice it — except, perhaps, for that curious sign.

Turns out, that's the name of the private dining room in the building next door. The restaurant itself has only 14 tables, and even on weeknights, it seems to get plenty of business. On Friday and Saturday nights, it fills up fast. Not only are advance reservations a good idea, they're usually a necessity. On weeknights, though, it's still possible to call a few hours ahead and have a somewhat spontaneous outing.

Anyway, it's not as if you'll be casually dropping by, unless you want to casually drop some cash. Dinner for two, with appetizers and dessert, might run you 80 dollars or more, not including wine (FYI, it's BYOB). As for the atmosphere, it's charming — wood floors, wood blinds, and coved ceilings give the 1930s farmhouse a vintage appeal. Framed photos of smiling children are displayed on built-in shelves above an old fireplace, and there are sprigs of fresh flowers on every table. Lanterns, candles, and subtle track lighting give the cream-and-pumpkin-colored walls a soft, golden glow. Coup Des Tartes is definitely a special-occasion place, even if that occasion is just a good meal.

And the food here is something to celebrate. Although the menu didn't change over the course of my visits during the past few months, it does evolve every so often to incorporate seasonal local produce. Right now, the offerings are rich and comforting, the perfect antidote to a dark, wintry January night.

Appetizers included a handful of organic salads, along with several generously portioned starters to share. The single savory tarte on the menu lived up to my expectations, a tender crust filled with smooth Gruyère custard and sautéed mushrooms that gave off a buttery aroma. The Brie brûlée was as tasty as it was simple, with thin slices of caramelized apple atop a warm, gooey wedge of cheese. It came with plenty of toasted bread and a pretty cluster of grapes, pears and strawberries. As for the papas and lox — a plateful of Alsatian-style roasted potatoes tumbled with crème fraîche, scallions, capers, and velvety slices of smoked salmon — it could've easily passed as an entree. Next time, I might make a meal out of that and a salad.

Speaking of salads, I love how Coup Des Tartes doesn't skimp on the fruits and nuts and cheeses that make each one unique. The Taleggio was a sweet mix of fresh greens, red onion, apples, raspberries, sugared pecans, and a light prickly pear vinaigrette. A few pieces of Taleggio-topped toast added a salty, aromatic contrast. The arugula salad was also intriguing, with delicate microgreens, pear slices, crunchy walnuts, and red onion, drizzled with a sticky, tangy balsamic date dressing that tasted great with crumbles of feta cheese.

Most entrees were composed of roasted meat or fish dressed up with luscious, fragrant sauces. What really made an impression, though, were side dishes that were just as appetizing as what they accompanied. For example, the filet mignon was solidly delicious — thick, juicy, and nicely seasoned. What sent it over the top, though, was the risotto that came with it, a heady concoction of rice, lots of Roquefort cheese, soft chunks of fig, and a few walnuts sprinkled on top. I found myself cleaning my plate long after I was full. And the buttery Yukon Gold mashed potatoes here are some of the best in town, so creamy and full of flavor that my dining companion said she wanted to lick the plate.

I was lucky enough to eat those potatoes twice. First, I sampled the Cordon Bleu-style chicken breast, lightly breaded with herbs and stuffed with Gruyère and thin slices of ham. It was spooned with a creamy arugula sauce that brightened up the heavier flavors. Later, I tried the moist, herb-crusted pork tenderloin with roasted pear and brandy cream sauce. As if the dish couldn't get any more decadent, it even had bits of bacon in it. Both entrees came with green beans as well.

Lobster tail got the exotic treatment, with basil-infused butter, asparagus spears, and heaps of thick, cilantro-flecked coconut curry risotto. The curry wasn't too pronounced, just a whisper of spice to give complexity to an otherwise sweet dish (thanks to roasted rounds of pineapple and fresh mango chunks).

On the other end of the seasoning spectrum, the Moroccan-style lamb shank was spicy, indeed. At the time, I wished I'd brought a bottle of Zinfandel to drink with it. The well-done meat was fork-tender, paired with fluffy couscous and a chunky, harissa-spiked ragout of figs, apricots, and carrots. This was long known as chef Lionel Geuskens' signature creation, and although he left to open his own restaurant last year (the charming Trente-Cinq 35), the dish remains a house specialty at Coup, too.

What about Coup Des Tartes' namesake dessert? There were seven kinds to choose from, everything from the rich, deep-dish Grand Canyon, with layers of peanut butter and Belgian chocolate mousse in a chocolate crust, to the lighter pear hazelnut, with baked pears, a nutty, flaky crust, vanilla custard, a swirl of caramel sauce, and vanilla ice cream. My hands-down favorite was the banana brûlée, with soft, creamy coconut in a chocolate crust. It had two ripe banana slices planted right in the middle, and the whole thing was glazed in smoky-sweet melted sugar.

I didn't think I had room to try any tartes, but it's amazing how quickly my appetite rebounded once I had a cup of chamomile tea and a fancy dessert in front of me. And besides, it was a special occasion, right?

Wanna know what's cookin'? Take a bite out of the blogosphere with Michele Laudig's "Chow Bella".

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