Cafe Reviews

LADY SLINGS THE BLEUS

When you contemplate eating at a French restaurant, do you fret about what to wear? Do you fear some snooty waiter will allow you to unintentionally order brains for dinner? Do you suffer from "which fork" anxiety?

If stress seems a natural prelude to ordering a portion of pate, I have news for you. French food doesn't have to be snobby. Two new Valley restaurants, Barbara's and Cafe Riviera, are living proof.

Barbara's opened quietly last March in the Windmill Plaza at Shea Boulevard and Scottsdale Road. Located in the space that originally housed Christos Ristorante, Barbara's is an unexpectedly handsome restaurant with a decidedly feminine touch. Yes, Virginia, there is a Barbara. She can be found in the front of the house, greeting new customers and honoring dedicated patrons by taking their pictures. As one patron put it, "Barbara's is Barbara."

Though the rectangular dining room inspires yawns, care and attention to details overcome ennui. Walls are papered in a muted floral print--reminiscent of tissue-box designs--which gives the room an intimate, private-residence feel. Tables are comfortably large, covered with linen and laden with graceful glassware and heavy silver. I especially like the single silver-plated candlestick, the silver-plated salt and pepper shakers and the tiny bouquet of Royal Stratford bone-china flowers. Barbara's neo-deco flowered china provides the perfect bridge between stately table-setting and boudoir wallpaper.

Tables at Barbara's are graciously spaced in an arrangement that invites comparison (on a smaller scale) with the layout of Ritz-Carlton's Restaurant. As in that proper establishment, a large floral arrangement on a service table in the center of the room provides a visual focal point. Table turnover is not the goal here. The room invites customers to join Barbara for the evening and enjoy her food.

Actually, it's not really Barbara's food--although she and husband Hubert Anguenot have been known to do some of the cooking. Chef Gerald Aimee, formerly of La Marmite in Carefree, took control of Barbara's kitchen shortly after his previous restaurant closed, for good, last spring. I am happy he did.

Aimee is a fine chef who makes traditional French fare come alive. The menu is comforting in its classicism. You won't find anything exotic or outre here, unless an appetizer of fresh tuna carpaccio qualifies. Just tried-and-true favorites we've all come to know and love, like veal cordon bleu, coquilles St. Jacques en gratin, coq au vin, steak tartare. Foods we barely even think of as French anymore, they've become so Americanized and, sadly, abused. It is refreshing to enjoy them with the full French treatment.

For instance, our garlic escargot (escargot au beurre d'ail) is fabulous. The best I've had in the Valley, bar none. Slightly chewy and lacking any rude aftertaste, our six snails are served bubbling hot and seething with butter and garlic. I browbeat my dining accomplice into letting me have four, instead of three--and trust me, this is unusual behavior.

Our duck pate (terrine de canard au pistaches) is similarly revelatory. The semicoarse slabs of pink pate studded with pistachios are marvelous when eaten alone with a bit of sour Cornichon or when smeared on Barbara's warm, crusty bread. Sliced hard-boiled egg and Roma tomato provide other tasty accompaniments. I originally order the pate thinking I will sample some and take the rest home, but guess what? I devour it all a table. Quel dommage!

The aforementioned adventurous tuna carpaccio is good, but overshadowed by the excellence of the other starter. Strips of raw tuna, atop a bed of shredded white cabbage remoulade (piquant mayonnaise sauce), spike out from the center of the plate. A dusting of Parmesan adds even more flavor. On the night we visit Barbara's, service is affable and low-key. Our server is a woman. Because it is a quiet night, she handles the room solo with fairly good results. Although, as things pick up later in the evening, she is less available for us as we move into dessert, coffee and the check. When she comes to our table, she is literally out of breath. An extra hand would solve that.

A salad of greens does not seem to be part of the menu, so my dining accomplice and I each try one of Barbara's four soups. I am enchanted when our choices arrive in deep ceramic urn-bowls with animals carved in the handles. The cream of cauliflower and potato soup (Creme Dubarry) is velvety smooth and hot. I love it. The country-style vegetable with bacon (Soup Paysanne) is literally pale by comparison. This clear-brothed soup contains a garden full of chopped vegetables and potatoes, but is somewhat forgettable.

After such a fine beginning, I worry that our entrees won't measure up. I needn't have. I love the fillets of Dover sole in a creamy leek-filled sauce. The delicately flavored fish, combined with this gentle cousin of the garlic bulb, is a wonderful combination. Best of all, at $14.80, this dish is very reasonably priced. It's a cold evening and New York steak with bearnaise sauce sounds like just the dish to fight the chill. As it turns out, the steak itself is only adequate. I request a steak knife, but our waitress tells us the restaurant has none yet. This is unfortunate. I need one.

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Penelope Corcoran