Cafe Reviews

Secret Sharer

Halfway through the slightly acidic creaminess of my sorrel bisque, and well into a second bottle of value-priced Pinot Noir with my dining companions, I feel unusually blessed. Seated amidst the colorful hodgepodge of art and antiques that is the Backstreet Wine Salon, all alone on a Thursday night (save for three pals and the restaurant's staff), it's as if someone has given me the secret password to an exclusive private club. And here I am, Lord Lemons, blueblood for a day.

Of course, as I plow through myriad small plates of French-influenced cuisine prepared by the woman I now long to wed one day -- the incredibly talented chef Patrice Barry -- I know I will not be royalty for long. Barely four months in business, Backstreet is hidden behind Gaslight Square at 36th Street and Indian School Road, and not many foodies or oenophiles have discovered it yet. But when they inevitably do, I suspect scoring a table on a Thursday night will be a bit more of a challenge. Few places in town offer such an affordable combo of quality wines and eats, and once this gourmet genie escapes from the bottle, recorking that djinn will be well-nigh impossible.

Backstreet sprang from the gray matter of Valley cork-dork Jock Wulffson, a connoisseur of wine, art and victuals whose extensive renovations of Backstreet's digs have produced cozy, eye-friendly environs, painted blue and yellow, and decorated with marble busts, Arabic couches and brightly hued paintings done by local artists. Once you're past the wine racks in front, stocked with fermented grape juice that ranges in price from $8 to a few hundred, the three dining areas beyond have the cluttered, upscale appearance of an antique mall or curio shop. And if you're in the buying vein, much of the art is for sale.

I play lotto twice a week, so that should tell you I don't have the dolo to drop a C-note or three on some rare vintage. But despite my lack of funds, I still want to drink well when dining out, a tricky matter considering that most grub-houses in this or any burg make a large part of their profits by obscenely gouging their patrons with a 250 to 300 percent markup over wholesale. In many cases, a decent bottle will cost you a minimum of $40 or more. But the wines offered on Wulffson's list are mostly in that $20-plus to $30-plus bracket. There's a wider variety of price and quality in Backstreet's retail racks, and any of these you can have at your table for a $10 corkage. It's said that Wulffson tastes everything he sells, and Backstreet's staff seems extremely knowledgeable about the world of viticulture and varietals.

However, it's that mystical union of fine vine and superior board in my Rabelaisian paunch that I'm after, and that's where Madame Barry's contribution comes into play. This Canadian-born chef is unusually skillful, especially considering that the menu is tweaked on a daily basis, a feat that will surely prove more difficult as Backstreet's star rises.

So many ballyhooed belly-fillers in town serve up fair but tepid fare. The flavors don't pop as they should, and one's left underwhelmed by the mediocre parade of munchables. Not so at Barry's tables, where I was at a loss to find selections I didn't enjoy snarfing. Sometimes the simplest items made the strongest impressions, as in the case of the frisee aux lardons, a salad of tossed, frizzy greenery with house-crafted croutons, chunks of pig pelvis, and a poached egg, runny in the middle. I could eat that salad, with its light bacon vinaigrette, every day of my life, and never grow weary of it.

The texture of the nubbins of sheep's cheese grilled in oregano oil is difficult to describe because your teeth squeak on them as you masticate, but they are quite tasty, and if the cup they came in with two pieces of fried cheese known as frico had been bottomless, I'd still be at Backstreet noshing them. The empanadas were bite-size and flavorful, on some days stuffed with beef or chicken, and on other days with shrimp. Roasted head of garlic? May I have another please, so I can savor each nugget of the stinking rose until my breath puts the fear of God into each and every Anne Rice character?

Only the chicken à la king and the mushroom ragout failed to wow me like the other offerings, but that doesn't mean I left any behind. It was just that there was so much else with which to compare them. Take the natural sweetness of the pesto spreads, arugula, cashew and tomato, respectively, smoothed out onto bits of toasted baguette. Or plats du jour, like the seared salmon, served medium rare, in a cherry sauce with potato croquettes rolled in crushed cashews, or the rotating mixed grill, which might include an exquisite pork-fig roulade, flat iron steak, and two "petite osso buco," resembling oxtails. I was also quite fond of the pork rillettes, the famed shredded pâté, which came with the charcuterie, an all-meat app platter with dry pork sausage, jellied goose-pork galantine, and/or German farmer's bacon. Now do you understand why I'm near-ready to propose to Chef Barry?

Sweets like the mini-chocolate soufflé and the apple-walnut tart pleased the femmes in my troupe, but I much preferred a hunk of slightly funky delice de Bourgogne, a rich triple cream cheese from Burgundy, served with apple slices, niçoise olives, and pecans. The perfect ending to a perfect meal, and one that complements the imbibing of more wine.

Interestingly, Backstreet's space has a slightly sordid yet titillating history. It was once called Ernesto's Backstreet, and reputedly well-known to la cosa nostra. In June of 1986, Ernesto's 73-year-old maitre d' Emil "Mal" Vaci was whacked gangland-style: bullet to the head, body dumped in ditch. Seems he'd been granted immunity by the feds and was likely to sing. The story goes that the hit had not been sanctioned, and so the goombah who ordered it, one Anthony "Tony the Ant" Spilotro, was in turn beaten to death with his brother Michael in an Indiana cornfield. Remember how Joe Pesci buys it in Casino? Art imitating life.

So go for the Mafia stories, the meals, the affordable vino, the atmosphere. At least I was a monarch for a day. As another sovereign once said, "Après moi, le déluge."

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons