The Nature of the Bistro

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Bravo Bistro, 4327 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 481-7614. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Wednesday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."
--Alice Through the Looking Glass

Wouldn't it be wonderful if just by naming something we could make it so? My first order of business would be to call my boss Mother Teresa, my father-in-law Mr. Rockefeller and my home the Playboy Mansion.

Humpty Dumpty isn't the only one who believes we can make words mean whatever we want them to mean. Valley restaurateurs surely do.

It seems like every other restaurant these days fancies itself a "bistro." That's because their owners want diners to think they possess the energy, the casual sophistication and the culinary deftness that mark their European counterparts. It's certainly a good marketing ploy. After all, if you had $50 to blow on a Saturday-night dinner for two, where would you go: "Joe's Diner" or "Jacques' Bistro"?

The problem is, as Alice noted, that if words mean whatever we want them to mean, they don't mean anything at all. Fortunately, two of this town's newest bistros, Bravo Bistro and Suzanne's Bistro, take their names seriously. Both give you a taste of the bistro experience.

The proprietors of Bravo Bistro spent some years at Tomaso's before venturing out on their own. They've clearly thought their new enterprise through.

The place looks and feels good. With room for about 50 diners, Bravo Bistro is just the right size, with just the right amount of bustle. One of the partners cooks, the other hosts. He offers a hearty greeting when you enter, checks on how you're doing after you're seated, thanks you for coming when you leave and remembers you when you come back. Up-tempo, finger-snappin' Tony Bennett tunes furnish brisk audio background. Eye-catching paintings of French cafe scenes that line the white brick walls provide colorful visual background. The signs are all promising.

So is most of the Mediterranean-themed fare. The warm pita bread and garlicky hummus spread that greet you make for good immediate nibbling. But it's a mistake not to offer a basket of fresh, crusty French or Italian bread when the food starts arriving. The pita simply doesn't cut it. Pita with antipasto? Pita with smoked salmon? Who wants to dip pita in the white wine sauce that bathes the mussels, the bleu cheese sauce that bathes the polenta or the garlic sauce that bathes the escargots? These sauces cry out for bread, and Bravo Bistro ought to be listening.

Several starters show some flair. Grilled polenta brings two small disks--I wouldn't have minded a third--draped with a hearty Gorgonzola cheese sauce. An appetizer special of black mussels simmered in wine and garlic unleashes a heady combination of aromas. The light escarole soup gently nudges your taste buds. The antipasto for two, however, isn't quite as zesty as it should be. It's not as well put together as it should be, either. The platter features the usual veggies--eggplant, olives, mushrooms, squash, peppers, tomatoes--along with fresh mozzarella. But it needs some Italian meats or seafood, or at least some other cheeses, to justify the $10 tag.

Most of the main dishes sparkle. Osso buco seems to be on almost every menu in town these days--I wouldn't be surprised to see it at a McDrive-through window in the near future. Bravo Bistro's model is first-rate, a man-size veal shank perfectly braised in an aromatic vegetable brown sauce, paired with the traditional saffron rice accompaniment. At $21, it's the most expensive entree here, but you won't feel shortchanged.

I'm also a big fan of the couscous dish, which is served with grilled chicken, veggies, chickpeas and, for a twist, asparagus, all with a delightful ginger tang. It's not what you'd get in North Africa, but what it lacks in authenticity, it makes up for in flavor. Chicken scarparello is just as fetching: chicken breast and zingy sausage in a pungent lemon garlic sauce, teamed with rice, grilled sweet peppers and veggies.

Pasta fans will be delighted by the tortelloni, a filling portion of half-moon-shaped pasta stuffed with ricotta and perked up by a pesto sauce flecked with pine nuts. Fruitti di mare offers basic bistro-seafood pleasure--big, juicy sea scallops, jumbo shrimp, clams and calamari in a fragrant tomato sauce, served over a bed of linguini in a big bowl.

Oddly enough, the one entree disappointment is trumpeted as a "house specialty." It's the grilled salmon, an unremarkable creature whose honey mustard marinade and balsamic vinaigrette herb sauce required instruments more sophisticated than my tongue to detect.

Our displeasure deepened when we saw that the fish came with the most forlorn-looking scoop of plain white rice you can imagine. When the host stopped by to check on us, my companion complained about it. He eyed the rice for a moment, and agreed with her assessment. "Not too flavorful, huh?" he said. "Let me see what I can do about it." He disappeared into the kitchen, then reappeared with a plate of rice sizzled with garlic, peas and pine nuts. Why didn't the chef think of this in the first place? Still, give Bravo Bistro credit for trying to please a disgruntled customer.

The comforting homemade desserts make lingering an appealing option. Bread pudding is ample for sharing. Smothered with chocolate sauce, it's heavy, sweet and very tasty. Creme brulee is competently fashioned. And although I've had enough tiramisu to last me until the year 2097, the rich, creamy version here is so good I'm beginning to have second thoughts.

Bravo Bistro won't dazzle you. But not everyone wants to eat in a state of fevered dazzlement. This place is for grown-ups with grown-up tastes. If that's what you see in the mirror, add Bravo Bistro to your dining-out list.

Suzanne's Bistro, 4669 East Cactus, Phoenix, 996-4414. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to close.

The husband-and-wife team behind Suzanne's Bistro--she cooks, he's out front--used to operate Le Gourmand on the Valley's far, far west side.

Now they're where the action is, in the booming restaurant zone near Paradise Valley Mall. Unfortunately, most of the restaurant action here is from chains like the Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Outback Steakhouse: I counted a dozen similar examples within a mile of Suzanne's Bistro.

It doesn't take much to stand out with this kind of competition. But Suzanne's Bistro would stand out in almost any neighborhood in town.

It's a cozy, casually sophisticated place: linen-lined tables topped with butcher paper; framed pastoral and cityscape paintings on the walls; lots of greenery; and, blessedly, no music.

The meal gets off on the right foot with outstanding homemade bread accompanied by a Gorgonzola spread. If I hadn't awakened to my professional duties, I'd have made a meal of them.

But then I'd have missed a scrumptious appetizer, a "quesadilla" tower layered with crisp yuca chips, cheese, shredded chicken, black beans and mango salsa. The starter salad is also first-rate: lively greens creatively teamed with plums and caramelized walnuts coated with a bleu cheese vinaigrette. However, the hors d'oeuvre of shrimp and fruit combined in a sundae glass, doused with a tart grapefruit dressing, proved too quirky for my taste.

The entrees range from $13 to $18, and it's a range you can be at home on. The kitchen is especially adept at seafood. One evening's ocean special featured wonderfully moist sea bass, encrusted with a sun-dried tomato pesto and paired with spinach pasta. On another occasion, the chef turned her talents to monkfish, which she bathed in a vigorous, Thai-style sauce scented with ginger, lemongrass and coconut. A side of crispy soba noodles furnished the appropriate harmony for the monkfish melody.

Meat lovers aren't neglected. The pork tenderloin bursts with flavor: two seared medallions smoothed with a heady cognac- peppercorn sauce and gilded with a terrific shiitake mushroom-corn salsa. Veal au poivre is just about as tempting, with three thick medallions burnished with an apple-leek puree and served with a lip-smacking creamy potato gratin.

Not everything shines. Although it sounds like ideal bistro fare, the sliced duck breast doesn't quite work. The meat is a bit fatty, and the lemon sauce it's glazed with is too pungent. And the wild-mushroom cannelloni entree would be better as an appetizer. As a main dish, it's simply too one-dimensional to sustain interest. Maybe I'd have felt differently if the saffron pasta it was supposed to come with had shown up, but I doubt it.

At Le Gourmand, desserts were by far the weakest part of the meal. Happily, they've been tuned up here. The flourless chocolate cake layered with chocolate lace cookies, topped with white chocolate ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce, is irresistible. The homemade ice creams are a lot better than I remember them, as well. Try one soaked with a high-voltage dose of Grand Marnier.

One nice touch left over from the Le Gourmand days: prix-fixe dinners. Priced at $21, the three-course meals--you choose from selected appetizers, entrees and desserts--are quite a good deal.

Suzanne's Bistro isn't pitched at excitement-crazed trendoids or the drooling chain-restaurant crowd. It's aimed at neighborhood folks looking for well-crafted food offered at a fair price in a comfortable setting. Gee, who knows? Maybe the concept will catch on.

Bravo Bistro:
Grilled polenta
Fruitti di mare

Suzanne's Bistro:
Quesadilla tower
Pork medallions
Coconut curry monkfish

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