Do you enjoy a bit of culinary torment now and then? If so, you should pay a visit some evening to Amuse Bouche in Surprise. Depending where you live, you will drive 45 minutes or more for some of the best French bistro food in the Valley.
But the journey is not without its speed bumps.
Surprise's Amuse Bouche: Excellent French Cuisine, With a Few Downsides
17058 West Bell Road, Surprise
Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (lunch) and 4:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. (dinner) Tuesday through Saturday; 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday (breakfast)
Pate de foi de volaille: $9
Parisian baguette sandwich: $10.99
Berkshire pork chop: $25
Dark chocolate pot de creme: $7
Hopefully, because of the restaurant's small size, you've remembered to make a reservation and, because Amuse Bouche doesn't have a liquor license, thought to bring along a bottle of wine. You will be seated among the city's most visible residents: seniors.
Decked out in colorful pantsuits and cruise wear, they may complain that the indoor temperature's too cold, mutter that the duck is too spicy, and audibly sigh when told that burrata is not a pizza. You will lift dirty dishes from your table so that your server can place clean ones and will inquire after your flatware. And if you are seated at one of two unfortunately situated tables, those needing to use the restroom will interrupt your meal regularly.
Given its downsides, you may vow never to return to Amuse Bouche. But then you remember the food — the glistening, juicy meats; the moist hunks of fish with their brown, crispy crusts; the delicate, curling pastas; and the luscious desserts drizzled in silky sauces — and realize you'd probably do it all again anyway. It's that good.
Call it a stroke of culinary good luck that French-trained chefs Snir and Kiersten Mor landed in Surprise, an exurb of Phoenix hammered by chain restaurants, to open Amuse Bouche. Enticed by the area's affordable homes and population growth (and the fact that Kiersten's parents lived there when they arrived), the couple established themselves as a catering business in 2005, eventually adding a gourmet take-out option to the mix. Upon the insistence of their customers, the Mors opened their BYOB bistro in 2008 in a Bell Road strip mall. It wasn't long before word of the couple's sophisticated fare spread across the Valley, even capturing the attention of the New York Times in 2010.
The Mors' seasonal menu is a short and thoughtfully crafted list of country-French bistro fare, with enough wiggle room for a few stellar specials. And there isn't a bad dish in the lot.
Despite the restaurant's moniker, there is no amuse-bouche here. But instead of bite-size hors d'oeuvres, you could begin your meal with a smooth and subtly rich housemade chicken liver pâté; a creamy, cheesy, and delicately spicy green chile soup sipped from a handled cup; or, if it's available, a locally made burrata, lusciously soft and rich, and about as good as burrata can get.
Dinnertime salads are simple but satisfying: beds of organic field greens that may be interspersed with handfuls of candied almonds, bacon, fresh bits of goat cheese, roasted beets, and gentle applications of balsamic or orange vinaigrette.
One of the best entrées is the thick and mouthwateringly moist Berkshire pork chop in a red wine demi-glace with roasted fingerling potatoes and asparagus. Like many of the entrées here, the chop is a rustic meal gone French gourmet.
Take, for instance, the juicy beef filet, which rises up from a pool of rich, brown sauce soaked up by boldly flavored Gorgonzola mashed potatoes. Or velvety slices of duck breast atop cinnamon-tinged bits of eggplant, pine nuts, and chiles. Your server will warn you no fewer than three times that the dish is very spicy (it isn't; the flavors of each ingredient work together perfectly). And the heady cioppino, an Italian-American fish stew originating in San Francisco, Kiersten Mor's birthplace, features a first-rate ensemble of clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp, and fish in a subtly smoky, garlicky, and lightly spiced tomato broth. The Mors' version — just when you though it couldn't get any better — also includes housemade pasta.
If meatloaf is your thing, go for it. Topped with crispy bacon and served over a creamy potato purée, it's one of the most popular items with the restaurant's regulars.
Desserts are as noteworthy as the rest of the Mors' creations. And since you've come all this way, indulging in a petite glass of intensely rich dark chocolate custard topped with luscious whipped cream or a shareable hunk of spongy bread pudding studded with blueberries and drizzled in a homemade caramel sauce seems well-deserved.
The only way to get a thick, silky slice of the Mors' exquisite quiche Lorraine — made with bacon and Swiss cheese and cradled in a delicate crust — is to stop by the restaurant for lunch or Sunday breakfast (one of the best in the Valley). But with the quiche comes competition from other exceptional offerings.
At lunchtime, it comes from Cabernet-flavored burgers; melty paninis on crunchy bread layered with cheese and roasted leg of lamb, ham, or pork tenderloin; and a baguette sandwich bulked out with ham, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, Brie, and Dijon aioli that seems as if it could have come straight from Paris. On Sunday, there's eggs Benedict with a sublime Hollandaise sauce, scratch-made corned beef hash, and decadent, thick Belgian waffles with fresh strawberries and bananas, vanilla whipped cream, and brown sugar cinnamon syrup.
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Decisions, decisions, decisions.
Despite its position in a strip mall, the restaurant does its best to look as sophisticated as its food. Its small, bright red interior features a canopy-covered window to the kitchen, framed photographs of French scenes, and a large mural of a Parisian street surrounding tight clusters of shiny-topped tables. The front patio, with its bright, bug-seducing lights, view of the parking lot, and sounds of military jets flying overhead from Luke Air Force Base, is far less successful.
But if there's one thing that will yank you out of your French bistro bubble, it's the service. Forgetful, disorganized, and sloppy, servers seem naive to the fact that the last thing diners want to feel is their stress levels. The lack of professionalism may be forgivable, maybe, when accompanied with a "Creamy Cajun Steak and Shrimp" at the Applebee's a few blocks away, but not over a $27 plate of braised short ribs at a restaurant whose French-trained chefs easily could set up shop in Arcadia or Old Town Scottsdale.
Perhaps one day they will.