Cafe Reviews

James Porter’s Petite Maison Brings Beautiful Bowls of French Onion Soup to Old Town Scottsdale

Cozy wasn't what I was in the mood for until a couple of weeks ago.

But then somebody flipped a switch — the nights dropped from balmy to crisp, my wardrobe shifted from tank tops to light layers, and my appetite went from cool gazpacho to comforting French onion soup.

And boy, did I ever find some good French onion soup, right when the occasion called for it. Just like the change of the seasons, Petite Maison itself is a change of pace for chef-owner James Porter.

Change is good in this case. In May, Porter abruptly closed Tapino Kitchen & Wine Bar, his five-year-old north Scottsdale eatery, when the economy was beating up his business and things weren't going so well with the landlord.

Right around the same time, Porter snagged a truly petite restaurant space farther south, on a surprisingly quiet block in otherwise bustling Old Town. For being so close to the intersection of Camelback and Scottsdale Road, it's remarkable how off-the-beaten-path this place feels.

Petite Maison, which opened in August, is no Tapino Junior. While Porter's old restaurant was a sleek, expansive space with an upscale, global tapas menu — and, in more recent years, the site of his AZ-centric "locavore" dinners, which he may eventually revive — the new one is a quaint little thing, with a compact, frequently changing "French country bistro" menu.

Months before Petite Maison opened, Porter had told me he was aiming to make it an affordable neighborhood spot, the kind of place that locals will want to visit often, and I think he's achieved that. Haute cuisine probably wouldn't fly in these frugalista times, anyway.

As with Tapino, Porter and his father did much of the renovation themselves, and somehow that family teamwork comes through in the homeyness of Petite Maison. It doesn't resemble a house, as the name would imply, but it exudes warmth all the same, with a bar down one side of the narrow space, tables down the other, and lots of gorgeous wood in every direction. Outside, the simple patio has a scattering of candlelit tables and a fireplace with vines undulating up the chimney — now is the time to be sitting out there.

Order the French onion soup. Mine was packed with tender caramelized onions and covered in a layer of gooey melted Gruyere. But best of all, its sherry-laced broth had a depth of flavor you just don't come across that often, and every one of my friends ooh-ed and aah-ed about how rich it was. I am sure I'll find myself back here to satisfy an inevitable jones for it.

What other hors d'oeuvres did me right? Definitely the steak tartare, a lovely sight to behold, with an oozy, fried egg yolk atop a mound of faintly mustard-y grass-fed beef. Banyuls vinegar and ultra-thin housemade potato chips made fine accompaniments. Escargots en croute, doused in butter, garlic, Pernod, and herbs, were fragrant little bites topped with flaky puff pastry, while foie gras took the decadence even further, teaming a melt-in-your mouth seared lobe with sweet toasted brioche and slices of caramelized, spiced apples. (I ignored the jarring, too-acidic pickled grapes that came with it, though.)

If the mussels had been plumper and not overcooked, I might recommend them for the tasty white wine and saffron sauce they were swimming in. Instead, my seafood nod goes to silky coquilles Saint-Jacques, a delicate scallop gratin served in a shallow ramekin. One night's housemade duck rillettes, served with toast and apricot jam, was also a delicious start to the meal.

Petite Maison's flat iron steak, teamed with a pile of hot, skinny frites, was seared to a delightfully juicy medium rare. Just as intriguing was the porc et lardons — faintly sweet pulled pork shoulder with celery root, red wine gastrique, and caraway, plus bacon-wrapped pork loin that tasted like it had been lightly brined.

Compared to those two dishes, the poultry options didn't win my heart. Roasted chicken stuffed with goat cheese and smoked mushrooms should have been the consummate "country French" creation, but despite the crispy, golden skin, the meat wasn't moist enough, the whole bird reeked of smoke, and its side of pommes purée didn't have that ethereal creaminess that defines my favorite mashed potatoes. Similarly, seared duck breast just wasn't juicy, although its flavor worked well with lentils and sweet potatoes.

As with the appetizers, seafood was a strong point here, although I'm not sure which fish entree I liked better. Really, I'd say each one suited a different mood. Grilled poisson entier pour deux happened to be striped bass on the night that I ordered it, and it tasted like it had just jumped out of the water. Simply presented with Choron sauce (tomato-tinged Bearnaise), some fresh asparagus, and a bowl of buttery potatoes, it was rustic and comforting.

Likewise, saumon au fenouil was just a really good piece of salmon, whose "crust" of horseradish and parsnip was much more subtle than the menu seemed to describe. Compared to the striped bass plate, this entree was lighter and brighter tasting, the delicate fish accompanied by a refreshing jumble of shaved fennel, watercress, heirloom tomatoes, and oranges in citrus-y sauce vierge.

Was the soufflé au Grand Marnier worth our waiter's hype? (It's the house specialty and takes 20 minutes to make, he told us, so we'd better get our order in . . .)

Quel dommage, it didn't rock my world. I tasted a lot of egg and not a trace of Grand Marnier, so an extra shot of vanilla crème anglaise was in order. I'll take the crème brûlée any day, though — underneath the thin brûléed sugar shell, the classic custard had the just-sweet-enough flavor of perfect hot cocoa, and a velvety texture.

Beyond dinner, Petite Maison is now up and running with lunch, late-night, and weekend brunch service as well. That's a lot of eating, don't you think?

I'm up for it.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig