According to a national foodie magazine, French bistro fare is poised to become the dining rage of 1994. What do French bistros serve?
It's a bit easier for the uninitiated to learn first what they don't offer. Don't look for elaborate and expensive haute cuisine, those classic rich and elegant preparations, featuring butter, cream and wine, served up by an army of captains, waiters and sommeliers. Nor does bistro fare have much in common with nouvelle cuisine, which emphasizes lightness, freshness and simplicity. That style of innovative cooking focuses on highlighting food's natural flavors, without burying them under fancy sauces or layers of exotic ingredients.
Bistro cooking certainly can't be confused with minceur cuisine, that horrible 1980s perversion of French gastronomy. Its practitioners tried to do away with flour, sugar, butter, oil and eggs, and succeeded only in doing away with any reason to dine out at all.
Often small, casual, family-run operations, good bistros should dish out hearty portions of familiar French favorites in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. You head to a bistro when you want a satisfying rib steak and fries, a stick-to-the-bones chicken platter or an uncomplicated regional specialty.
Our desert metropolis is never going to be mistaken for Paris, unless the French suddenly take to bola ties, cowboy boots and concealed handguns as fashion accessories. But the Valley does sport its share of cozy French bistros. I just wish they were better. One currently fashionable hot spot is 6th Avenue Bistrot. Ever since the morning newspaper gave it a glowing write-up, the place has been packed. (On one recent visit, we were seated 45 minutes after our reservation time.)
At the moment, though, the place is more unrealized potential than promise fulfilled. 6th Avenue Bistrot still needs some work.
The restaurant occupies a comfortable-size room, with about a dozen tables. Walls of brick and thickly applied plaster lend an air of pleasing informality, as do the homey lace curtains on the windows and the displays of begonias underneath. Unfortunately, it's hard to ignore the insipidly derivative paintings hanging on the walls. They target the Scottsdale art-gallery crowd, not Gallic sensibilities.
I don't know what the breadbasket was aiming at, but after a few bites of the mushy, crustless French bread, I was ready to aim it right back. And what's the thinking behind the coffee-shop-style plate of foil-wrapped butter that accompanies it? The bread and butter here are about as stylishly French as the Coneheads. So, for that matter, is some of the spelling on the menu. It's a bit unnerving to encounter mangled French words. Maybe the proprietors figure locals are too ignorant to spot them. But what if that cavalier attitude spills over into the food? Fortunately, the mussels appetizer put a stop to that ugly thought. A gloriously large serving of tender bivalves, without a trace of grit, came in a creamy, onion-rich, white-wine sauce. The mushroom feuillet, on the other hand, seemed less inspired: chunks of sauted mushroom on routine, flaky pastry dough. The main dishes feature straightforward bistro fare that stops short of the heights. Diners unfamiliar with French food really can't be blamed if they enjoy the meal but still leave wondering what all the fuss is about. Best was the cassoulet, a kind of long-simmering white-bean casserole. This filling bowl came embellished with duck and duck sausage, as well as a thick, aromatic slab of bacon. As long as there's a nip in the spring evening air, the hearty cassoulet should be your first choice. Coq au vin is another venerable bistro staple: browned chicken steeped in a rich red-wine sauce, garnished with mushrooms. If you're going to order a chicken dish in a restaurant, coq au vin will at least give you something to cluck over. But 6th Avenue Bistrot's $15.25 version, although tasty, wasn't anything to crow about. And the best that can be said about the few steamed potatoes sharing the plate was that they were harmless. A seafood linguini is one of two pasta possibilities. Mussels, scallops and shrimp combined with a saffron-tinged cream sauce to create a savory noodle option. And the thinly sliced roast lamb, garnished with spinach, packed an invigorating, muscular flavor. The meat itself, though, was much chewier than it should have been. But I consoled myself by devouring the crunchy, skillet-fried potatoes alongside. Desserts follow the same pattern as the rest of the meal: perfectly serviceable, but a notch short of memorable. The tart Tatin, an upside-down, apple-and-pastry-crust confection, had a fine, caramelized touch. But the version here is modeled too closely on deep-dish American apple pie. Bread pudding in a rich caramel sauce, and wonderfully intense chocolate mousse, ended dinner on a higher, more caloric note. Is it unfair to put a Scottsdale French bistro to the same test as a Parisian one? For now, maybe. But in the long run, the only sure way to improve the restaurant scene is by raising our standards, not lowering our expectations. March Gourmet, 4121 North Marshall Way, Scottsdale, 994-4568. Hours: Breakfast and Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to close; Breakfast only on Sunday, 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. In one way, at least, March Gourmet is a lot more French than 6th Avenue Bistrot: There's a genuine lack of warmth. From greeting (none) to seating (You can't sit there, sit here.") to service (perfunctory), patrons are in no danger of being coddled. If you want warmth, you'll have to draw it from the two pretty dining areas. In the main, cottagelike room, an assortment of homey baskets and pots hangs on the walls, while vines cling to the windows, forming an outdoor curtain. In the smaller room, dessert- and beverage-filled display cases, and shelves filled with an eclectic mix of kitchen gewgaws, furnish the ornamentation. March Gourmet does a creditable, if uninspiring, job with most of its dishes. But nothing here left me panting to return. The escargots came closest. A half-dozen tender, bubbling beauties were bathed in a lip-smacking, garlic-and-shallot butter. The sauted sweetbread appetizer was also on-target, featuring a nifty garnish of lemon and capers. The fried wedge of polenta, though, was deadly dull, draped with indifferent cheese and a nondescript marinara sauce. The list of "house specialty" entrees includes several of my all-time bistro favorites. I started salivating 48 hours in advance when I learned choucroute Alsacienne was on the menu; it's a white-wine-simmered sauerkraut-and-pork dish that justifies a trip to Alsace. The people of that region take their cabbage as seriously as they do their wines. In the late fall, you see signs everywhere announcing the news that "the new cabbage has arrived."
March Gourmet's choucroute didn't really measure up. The sauerkraut was tough, a bit long in the tooth. And instead of the heaping piles of sharp-smelling pork and ham in a delicious multitude of forms--hocks, sausages, chops and bacon--there were only thin-sliced strips of ham, salami-style garlic sausage and an inexplicable frankfurter that looked like it was plucked from a July 4 barbecue.
The kitchen did better with the cassoulet. The dish starts with white beans, cooked slowly with lots of tomato, onion and garlic. March Gourmet topped them with fragrant helpings of pork loin, sausage and a hefty portion of wonderful confit (preserved duck).
Most French-food lovers know that bouillabaisse, a fish stew that depends on distinctive Mediterranean seafood, cannot really be duplicated outside of southern France. In fact, true connoisseurs insist it's foolish to eat it outside of Marseille. When I told a French pal I'd ordered it in Nice--just down the coast from Marseille--he looked at me as if I'd just asked for a Diet Coke with my foie gras.
March Gourmet's Scottsdale bouillabaisse has a few Mediterranean touches, particularly the pungent broth with the distinctive bite of saffron. But the assortment of fish--one mussel, a few scallops and dreadful, tiny shrimp--quickly reminded us that the only sea we border is a cactus one. The steak-and-fries platter was disappointing. Somewhere, there was a failure to communicate. In France, ordering steak "medium" brings meat that a charitable American would consider, at most, medium-rare. (Order beef "rare" in France, and you're liable to get a live cow.) Our "medium" steak, in a humdrum green-peppercorn sauce, barely suffered first-degree burns--the center was raw. That problem, of course, could be easily remedied. But the fries couldn't. I expected sizzling, crunchy "frites"; we got lukewarm spuds that tasted like they came from a bag. The desserts lined up in the display case didn't inspire too much confidence, with their plastic, fake-food appearance. But at least I was prepared. The chewy napoleon tasted old enough to have personally known the emperor. The raspberry cake was the kind of sweet you instinctively pass over at a hotel brunch. The chocolate mousse-and-meringue ball wasn't worth the calories.
French bistro fare may be hot now, but let's hope March Gourmet and 6th Avenue Bistrot can turn up the heat.