Cafe Reviews

Sorry, Kermit

Death and taxes. The two unavoidables of human existence had me knee-deep in the dumps. It happened after I visited my local H&R Block on Camelback to see how much I didn't get back from the supposedly massive Bush tax cut. Okay, I admit, I did qualify for a piddling refund this year, but it wasn't even enough to pay the freakin' cost of the tax prep itself. With gas prices rising the way they are, by the time my check from the feds arrives, the total won't be enough to fill up my clunker's gas tank.

Next to this H&R Block office was a showroom symbolic of the only real tax relief anyone of my income bracket can expect: a shop for discount caskets and urns. I'm more a casket man than an urn guy, as the thought of burning in an oven -- even postmortem -- is about as appealing as being force-fed Sean Hannity on a regular basis. They had some nice discount coffins on sale, and a morbid curiosity impelled me to look around. Needless to say, after this double whammy of rendering unto Caesar and having little rendered back, and bargain shopping for coffins, I wished I'd had a backpack full of antidepressants handy for emergency ingestion!

But rather than put a call in to the headshrinker and order up a bathtub of Zoloft, I decided to lift my spirits with a visit to my new friend George Venezia, the chef/owner of the recently opened Mes Amis Bistro and Bar in Scottsdale. Venezia is an effusive fellow originally from Nice, France, who loves life, beautiful women and great food, not necessarily in that order. The fiftysomething bachelor dresses like a teenager in jeans and tee shirts, and often breaks into Italian arias while schmoozing with his clientele, many of whom have followed him from restaurant to restaurant.

See, Venezia's a past master of the bistro biz, having started up many a Valley establishment, including such erstwhile eateries as Nantucket Lobster Trap, Cafe Piccolo and Bistro 32, which is where the Zen 32 sushi bar is today. In addition, there's been Chez Georges, Meza Luna and even the first version of Mes Amis, which Venezia operated out of the Borgata until 1995. About nine months ago, he opened Mes Amis, part deux, in a little shopping center a block and a half east of the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale at Gainey Ranch, and, according to him, this is where he plans to stay.

"It came to my mind, all my customers are here," explains Venezia in his charming French manner, meaning they are in the area. "Why not open here?"

Lucky them, because those mugs get to enjoy a true neighborhood bistro that serves outstanding and affordable French cuisine in attractive surroundings. That's almost as rare in our sprawling desert metropolis as a tsunami at Tempe Town Lake. Indeed, Venezia even offers a sunset menu Monday through Sunday, from 5 to 6 p.m., of more standard bistro fare like rosemary chicken or red snapper Mediterranean, for a measly $12 an entree, including soup or salad, and a soft drink.

But where Venezia really shines is in his regular menu, which includes some exceptional appetizers, such as his salmon tartare, pâté maison, and escargots à la normande. The first of these, I literally could eat all day long while swigging back copious amounts of the velvety, black cherry-redolent MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir that Mes Amis has on its wine list. The tartare comes almost as if it were steak tartare instead of salmon; i.e., like a rare hamburger patty set upon a bed of cucumbers, with some toasted baguette slices to one side. With capers, red onions, basil, balsamic vinegar and olive oil, this finely chopped salmon is light and savory -- the perfect starter or nosh. I only wish that it were served with small, crisp crackers instead of bread, which would make it even easier to pop into my mouth.

The pâté maison is delicious: thick, rich slices made of pork liver, pork and veal, topped with a thin layer of fat sprinkled with peppercorns, and served with bread and tasty French cornichons. And the escargots à la normande are a revelation, especially if one is used to the dry, garlic-encrusted snails many U.S. restaurants serve. Venezia's are nothing like those criminally anemic offerings. Rather, at Mes Amis, they are served baked in a round puff pasty, with a thick, yellowish sauce made of garlic butter, white wine, crème and shallots. The snails taste fresh and slightly earthy, as they should, and once they and the light pastry are done with, you'll want to keep the plate around, so you can swirl your bread in the leftover liquid.

I've sampled several of the main courses at Mes Amis, and I'm looking forward to sampling several more in the very near future. His coq au vin, beef bourguignon, bouillabaisse and fillet of sole with lemon confit are all deserving of culinary hosannas. But even faced with such an array of digestive delights, I'm capable of selecting standouts, which for me are the pan-fried calf's liver and the frog legs Pernod.

The liver is the most popular item on Mes Amis' bill of fare, and deservedly so. It's a distinctly old-fashioned dish, one that Venezia's mom used to make for him back in the day: lightly floured and fried, topped with veal sauce and fried onions, and served as many of Mes Amis' dishes are, with green beans and rosemary potatoes. The trés tender liver dissolves on the tongue with minimal mastication, and the veal sauce is so savory I could consume it like a soup, if so offered.

Venezia tells me the frog legs were initially added to the menu at the request of a patron, and they quickly began selling out every night. For me, they are my number one choice when visiting Mes Amis. You get six meaty frog legs, in a Provençal sauce of tomatoes, garlic, butter, white wine and Pernod -- the licorice-flavored apéritif that once upon a time was synonymous with absinthe, but is now mainly a wormwoodless favorite of the French. Venezia insists that "frog legs without Pernod are not frog legs," and I'm inclined to believe him after sucking that sweet amphibian flesh from its bones. Interestingly, I've read in some places that les cuisses de grenouilles, as the Gauls call them, can be an aphrodisiac for men, with much the same effect as a handful of Viagra, but at least in my case, alas, I can report no more than the normal stirrings in that department.

Of Mes Amis' desserts, I'd recommend either the profiteroles or the apple tarte à la mode. The profiteroles are stuffed with vanilla ice cream, and are delivered to your table in a bath of chocolate sauce with whipped cream and sprinkled with crushed nuts. The apple tarte is a smaller, individualized version of the renowned tarte Tatin, the caramelized upside-down apple pastry created by two French sisters named Tatin back in the 19th century. Fresh from the oven, and topped with a big scoop of ice cream, Venezia's version is one of those desserts that causes you to sigh continuously while eating it. The only tart more appetizing I can think of would be Elisha Cuthbert of The Girl Next Door fame.

Mes Amis' food so inspires me with enthusiasm that I've nearly forgotten to describe the restaurant itself, which is airy, with high ceilings and windows, a bar of blond wood and gray-green walls, hung here and there with unobtrusive prints. The interior looks out onto a large, enclosed patio with ivory-colored umbrellas shading round tables covered in white. (Mes Amis usually has live music here on Friday and Saturday nights.) As for the service, it's extremely friendly and helpful, and in those instances when something is overlooked, it's quickly corrected upon request.

"My restaurant is called Mes Amis, because all of my customers, they are my friends," says Venezia.

Very well, George, count me as one of your nouveaux amis, since your Gallic bonhomie and your bistro's alimentary excellence have rid me of my mid-April blues. Taxes? Caskets? Pray tell, what are they?

E-mail [email protected]

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons