Cafe Reviews

Oomph ah Pwah

Restaurateur Karen Firestone may be new to the business, but she isn't afraid to make a statement. First, there's the name of her place -- Cafe ah Pwah. She once took exception when I wrote that it sounds kind of Hawaiian. It also sounds kind of silly, here in the no-nonsense Valley of the Sun. Yet it's European, sort of. Ah Pwah is the phonetic pronunciation for à point, French for medium rare.

The virtue of naming a place Cafe Medium Rare eludes me, but Firestone explains that she means it in the sense of cooked to perfection, since most meats and fishes are at their best when prepared to this warm exterior/cool interior finish. Will many people be able to span the bridge from obscure name to even more obscure connotation? I doubt it.

Then there's the location. Cafe ah Pwah is located in the heart of historic Gilbert. The upscale, French-dominant, "globally influenced" restaurant is an odd addition to a small-town main street populated by shops peddling pecan-smoked barbecue, country antiques, farmhouse breakfasts and quilting supplies. Yet Firestone, a longtime Gilbert resident, is confident that the booming area is ready for fine dining. The inspiration came from the success she witnessed at her previous employer, Gilbert's first high-end restaurant, Mahogany Run, situated across the street.

That said, the resulting restaurant needs no complicated translation to be understood. Try stunning. Enthralling. Polished, professional and downright near perfect. Cafe ah Pwah would generate raves in the ritziest zip codes of north Scottsdale; set as it is in the sleepy town of Gilbert, it's an incomparable hidden treasure.

Armed with a degree from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, Firestone lured Mahogany Run chef Mark Rubin to make the move with her about two months ago, setting up shop in Gilbert's (ironically new) Heritage Court. In one sense, the old-town location might be appropriate. This is a restaurant that, while taking a futuristic approach to its menu, remains grounded in the past by sticking to the basic tenets of a successful restaurant. The attention to details makes dining elsewhere seem like a whole lot of work.

Service starts with reservations, often accepted by Firestone herself, and she called to make sure that a requested menu had arrived immediately via fax. (This in the same week that I finally secured another restaurant's menu after two visits, three pleading phone calls and, finally, a faxed request. Both queries were under the guise of simply being an interested customer.)

The service spans that delicate balance between friendly and intrusive, helpful and hovering, personal without being patronizing. No glass goes unfilled, no bread plate sits barren, and between all courses, not only is silverware refreshed, but napkins, too. Firestone visits each table and brings out Rubin when I offer congratulations.

Am I gushing? No question. But the charms of Cafe ah Pwah are impossible to downplay. The magic is made all the more surreal when appetizers are priced from just $6 to $10, and entrees command $18 to $26, including an ample portion of salad or bowl of soup. These days, diners can barely get a reservation at a top restaurant for that kind of dough.

The menu is fancy, though Firestone chose not to force it into a formal setting. Instead, she goes for a classy high-tech bistro look, including polished concrete floors, giant windows, exposed brick walls and an exhibition kitchen glistening with stainless steel and the fluttering shadows of chefs preparing each dish from scratch. Ceilings are high but cradled with ductwork painted black, and well-spaced, circular tables of marble and chrome keep drama on a human scale. The music adds electricity, played at low volume but with high-energy mixes of moody vocals, cuts from the Buena Vista Social Club and what could be described as hip-hop for grown-ups.

Creativity abounds in the cuisine, bringing dishes that challenge without being self-conscious. Selections are short and centered: five appetizers and seven entrees at dinner; five entrees at lunch. There isn't a single failing in the bunch, beginning with sublime, homemade focaccia, served in from-the-oven hot rolls, quartered and crusted with salt, to be dipped in an herb-infused olive oil that wafts the musky aromas of rosemary, thyme and basil.

Cafe ah Pwah's menus feature an illustration of what looks like an orchid. In my only quibble, it should be a sprig of rosemary. Firestone and Rubin can't seem to let go of that 1980s icon -- a smoking sprig of rosemary stuck in virtually everything except dessert. Such a strong herb is calmed by heady rack of lamb, but overpowers other more subtle dishes.

A charred branch pokes out of a blini starter, emitting fumes as dominant as truffle oil. A quick pluck and it's banished to the bread plate, leaving in its wake a gorgeous creation that, while in no way resembling the classic Russian buckwheat pancakes, is an exquisite interpretation. This blini is a cupcake-shaped soufflé of Yukon Gold potatoes hunkering over lacy tendrils of buttery sautéed leek. A crown of eggplant caviar (think ragout), circles of oven-dried red and yellow tomatoes and a hint of saffron oil lend earthy bloom.

A pudgy crab cake lacks nothing -- there's admirably little filler in this fleshy, crisp-edged bundle of meat and diced red and green pepper displayed on a long, white sushi tray. In a pleasing yin and yang of temperature and texture, the cake rests on a chilled slab of Haas avocado, nested with firm corn kernels and the barest drizzle of spicy Thai red curry vinaigrette alongside a tiny tear of mâche (lamb's lettuce).

Some of Cafe ah Pwah's menu descriptions can make the average diner feel a bit dumb, but what's delivered is universally appealing. An appetizer of sake-seared shrimp sounds grandiose, decorated with sushi rice salad, toasted wasabi peas and red bell pepper chiffonade. Yet it's a brightly colored but simple plate of firm shrimp (artistic, with a few creatures served head-on) over moist rice dotted with red pepper and crunchy, mildly fiery legumes.

Remaining appetizers include two salads, one an ensemble of baby greens, roasted pearl onions, caramelized Granny Smith apples and herb goat cheese in a light port wine syrup, the other romaine hearts with anchovy, roasted aioli and asiago herbed crouton (classic Caesar). Keep in mind that entrees come with a house salad, and it's a fine, tidy mound of mesclun and toasted tomatoes in a suave, eat-it-by-the-spoonful Parmesan peppercorn dressing.

It's a difficult decision between the gratis greens and a steaming cup of soup made fresh each day. One night brings an elegant, full-bodied shrimp chowder; another night a wonderful French onion. The classic broth is swimming with brown-bread croutons, shards of tangy cheese, skinny onion strands that thankfully aren't sugar sweet, and a surprise: the addition of herbes de Provence (an aromatic blend of thyme, rosemary, bay, basil and savory).

At these prices, an intermezzo is all-out luxury. Rubin's sorbet is tantalizing, clearing our palates with a dainty scoop of tart lemon ice sided with an equally mini-me mint leaf. It's an effective segue.

If Cafe ah Pwah sets the stage with expertly crafted appetizers, it brings a standing ovation with even more skillfully executed entrees. We've seen many restaurants struggle and fail to deliver such complicated dishes with such outstanding results.

Oven-roasted game hen is what every ambitious, destined-for-dinner bird dreams of becoming. The half hen has been robustly seasoned with herbes de Provence, fired until its skin crackles with salty crispness, its body releasing rich poultry juices. The chicken liquor seeps into buttery whipped potatoes, sides of glossy cooked baby spinach leaves and broiled Roma tomato, until it meets a tiny pond of Pommeroy mustard veal sauce glistening with white truffle oil.

This is a contemporary French bistro, so I figured it with would feature one of the culinary scene's current darlings: hanger steak. What a marketing coup -- this cut of beef is also known as butcher's steak, since it's often a leftover piece the meat cutter takes home. No wonder, it's a chewy, muscular piece of meat which functions to push secretions out of a cow's pancreas gland. Even prepared à point, it tends to be tough, but if cooked successfully, it can become succulent, with a chewy texture reminiscent of flank steak.

The humble hanger is treated with reverence by Rubin, who marinates it in a restrained balsamic-soy reduction, then serves it sliced alongside a fan of fingerling potatoes, brightly bitter braised greens, tomato tartare (chopped fruit) and a hint of truffle sauce.

The seafood in an entree of skillet-seared sea scallops is pushed way past its too-often squishy blandness by expert cooking and a compelling blend of jus lie and saffron oil (jus lie is French for what's essentially gravy). Its presentation, stacked to resemble a mushroom with a plump goat cheese ravioli as its cap and mashed potato as its foundation, is clever.

And just when we think we can predict her French classics, Firestone shoots out a Moroccan barbecue glazed pork tenderloin partnered with brilliant yellow sweet potato spaetzle (tiny German noodles) alongside pickled red cabbage.

In such company, a vegetable Neapolitan might be overlooked as boring, but Rubin rises to the challenge. This grilled layering of the earth's bounty is quilted with tender potato, oyster and baby portabella mushrooms, melted leeks, roasted plum tomatoes, eggplant caviar and wilted spinach leaves in a design that suggests sunbeams.

Lunch leaves me breathless. This quality of food, this ambiance, for $8.25 and less? Gasoline is now down to $1.06 a gallon; I'm driving in from Scottsdale every day for a supernatural salmon salad, the exquisitely sautéed swimmer crisp-skinned outside, buttery peach-toned inside, served with silky-dressed Yukon Gold potato salad, a pile of baby mesclun and drizzles of the Parmesan peppercorn dressing.

And it's a brave restaurateur who puts pork on the menu when it's just a few doors down from Gilbert's cherished Joe's Real Barbecue. Rubin pulls it off, presenting roasted hoisin-glazed tenderloin, the moist meat subtly sweet and topped with soft carrot curls and romaine on salted herb focaccia. Wasabi-dusted sweet potato fries are genius, the crunchy orange shoestrings touched with just a hint of the sinus-searing horseradish.

Firestone wants guests to taste her vanilla bean crème brûlée -- it's an enthusiastic suggestion on every visit. For good reason. This creamy confection rivals the King of Crème, Vincent Guerithault, for the Valley's most perfect caramelized crust and velvet-thick interior. Firestone wins, though, for her lovely siding of homemade hazelnut brittle and fresh, lush strawberry slices. A round of flourless chocolate cake is marvelous as well.

By it's very name, Cafe ah Pwah suggests an unexpected, inventive dining experience. With such talent in the kitchen and in front of the house, it's nothing short of ingenious.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet