The nondescript neighborhood strip mall, like suburban sprawl and desert sunshine, is an inescapable fact of life in metro Phoenix. Mundane by design, you don’t normally associate Valley strip malls with places like Merci French Café & Patisserie in Scottsdale, a stylish restaurant and bakery that evokes Paris café culture in, of all places, a suburban Fry’s Food Stores shopping center.
But despite its unglamorous strip mall address, squeezed in between a fitness center and Subway sandwich shop, Merci manages to transcend the confines of strip mall stucco and concrete. The restaurant offers a cozy sidewalk patio bedecked with topiary and flowering plants, and a sleek, gilded dining room, which is outfitted with chandeliers, damask wallpaper, tufted booths, and, perhaps prettiest of all, a bakery case lined with artfully crafted French pastries.
The restaurant’s carefully groomed design makes sense when you realize Merci is the domain of chef-owner Duc Liao, whose background encompasses both the culinary arts (Liao is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu) and professional fashion photography. Liao and his business partner/wife, Noelle, first made a big impression on the Valley food scene back in 2008, when the team opened Scratch Pastries, a French café and bakery concept that quickly gained a devoted local following. In 2013, after attempting to launch a second Scratch location in downtown Phoenix’s Roosevelt Row, investor woes spurred the abrupt closure of both Scratch locations.
Merci, which opened at the beginning of 2014 in the same space as the original Scratch location, is meant as a kind of successor to Scratch, carrying on its reputation for refined French pastries, including fresh-made croissants, macarons, baba au rum, and fruit tarts. During breakfast and lunch service, Merci operates as a casual counter-service café, where you’ll find a fairly straightforward menu of egg dishes, open-faced sandwiches, burgers, and salads. For a light breakfast or lunch, there’s quiche, which is served with a small, leafy salad on the side. Merci offers a credible rendition of the classic Lorraine, along with a very good salmon and asparagus quiche, which is eggy and delicately seasoned, generously embedded with hunks of the fatty, full-flavored fish.
There’s also a fine take on the classic croque madame, served open-faced and lightly dressed with béchamel sauce. From the burger menu, the house black truffle burger is less satisfying, the thickly built patty layered with mushrooms and Swiss cheese, but oddly under-seasoned and bland. Its hamburger bun, unfortunately, tends to turn soggy in your hands, the bottom half falling apart before you can demolish the last couple bites. The crab cake burger, a Merci house specialty, is more aggressively seasoned, the fishy patty salty, rich, and delicately crispy. But, on a recent lunch visit, the flattened-down crab cake was a bit soft and crumbly, and the flavor of the blue shell crab was quickly lost in the muddle of bread, Swiss cheese, and avocado.
Dinner service at Merci is only offered Wednesday through Saturday after 5 p.m., when the restaurant transitions into a kind of full-service brasserie. The ambiance is more formal yet still relaxed, with a BYOB policy that encourages dinner guests to bring their favorite bottles (there is an $8 corkage fee). In the evening, the house lights are turned down, jazz plays over the house speakers, and well-coiffed couples lean toward each other across the room’s candle-lit bistro tables. The small dinner menu offers a smattering of French classics — there’s beef bourguignon, for instance — along with Mediterranean-leaning entrees like pesto-dressed asparagus with linguine.
But while dinner offers the comforts of good ambiance, inconsistencies from the kitchen may tarnish an otherwise promising meal. On a recent dinner visit, for instance, the beef bourguignon featured a lovely but rather thin red wine sauce, not nearly thick enough to coat a spoon. And while the menu description advertised tagliatelle, the thickly shaped, ribbony Italian pasta, an egg noodle pasta was substituted without explanation. More peculiar was the fact that the dish was topped with a handful of shredded cheese, reminiscent of the prepackaged quesadilla stuff you buy at the grocery store, an odd addition that didn’t do much to enhance the dish.
Duck confit, meanwhile, delivers the kind of meltingly tender and moist meat that you might expect from duck that has been cooked in its own hot, liquid fat. Indeed, on a recent visit, an order of duck leg produced moist, tender slivers of meat. But the dark, rich meat lacked seasoning, with barely a hint of salt and herbs teasing out its natural flavors. The dish, like many of the lunch and dinner entrees at Merci, was accompanied by a pile of slightly greasy French fries. The house French fries, which are thinly cut, seem to operate on a kind of spectrum of inconsistency: sometimes hot and crispy, and at other times, oily to touch and faintly lukewarm.
On a separate dinner visit, ribeye steak, ordered medium rare, came out lightly seared, but brightly, vividly red beneath the surface, as raw in tone and texture as carpaccio. A polite server quickly whisked away the under-cooked steak, returning a few minutes later with a properly cooked cut. But even cooked to the correct specification, the ribeye was a little chewy and drowned in too much of the dish’s heavy peppercorn sauce.
A better option might be the house jumbo shrimp, which are butterflied and served in a creamy, saucy tangle of pasta, with flakes of Parmesan adding to the buttery muddle on the plate. Gluten-free soba noodles, which are listed on the menu description, were not available during a recent visit, so the kitchen used fettucine as a substitute. The exchange turned the dish into a classic Italian pasta plate, rich and hearty, but it would have been nice to savor the dish as it was originally conceived.
You may be tempted to opt for one of the menu dessert items, which includes sweet crepes, ice cream, and crème brûlée, that quintessential restaurant dessert, with its distinctively craggy, shimmering golden-brown membrane of burnt sugar. On a recent visit, an order of crème brûlée got off to a promising start, the custard softly dense and beguilingly rich. But then my spoon hit a snag near the center of the dessert ramekin, the perfectly smooth custard abruptly giving way to cold, nearly frozen clumps of cream and sugar. The soft, numbing quality of the dessert — its creamy trance — was broken in a flash.
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For dessert, then, you’d be wise to turn your gaze to the pastry counter, with its impeccable lineup of fruit tarts and crumbles. There’s a nicely tangy lemon tart in there, along with a revolving array of treats that stand as proof that beneath Merci’s lovely exterior, and somewhere beneath the various menu mix-ups and kitchen quandaries, there lurks a great restaurant.
Merci French Café & Patisserie
7620 East Indian School Road, Suite 103
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays & Tuesdays; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Sundays
Croque madame $9.25
Black truffle burger $14.95
Duck confit $14.95
Beef bourguignon $15.95