Cafe Reviews

Transcendental Mediterranean

Cafe Patou, Scottsdale Promenade, 7000 East Shea, Scottsdale, 951-6868. Hours: Dinner, 5:30 p.m. to close, seven days a week.

The Valley has done a lot of growing up during the past few decades. Once a cow town where Midwesterners came to thaw out, the city now boasts new museums and libraries, an opera company, a theater, a symphony orchestra, an arts scene and professional franchises in every major sport. Coffee houses, bookstores, body-piercing parlors, concealed weapons and paved roads--all signs of flourishing big-city life--are part of our urban landscape.

We've even been electing a higher class of crooked politicians. The embarrassment of impeaching a car salesman from the governor's chair is behind us. These days, our grand juries have better material to work with, like the Ivy-educated, blue-blooded, morally and financially bankrupt, con-artist developer currently occupying that office.

Yes, our capital has risen in the world's regard. But not even the most rabid Chamber of Commerce booster could claim that life here is all it could be. When it comes to European charm and sophistication, for instance, the Valley falls way short.

Two new restaurants are trying to close the charm-and-sophistication gap. Cafe Patou and La Madeleine want patrons to suspend their disbelief and pretend they're dining in continental surroundings on continental fare.

The illusion is much easier to sustain at Cafe Patou. Back in 1995, it opened in a tiny, 20-seat storefront in an out-of-the-way Scottsdale shopping center. A wallet-friendly BYOB policy and smashingly good food brought in the crowds. Naturally, the proprietors were tempted to move and expand. A few months ago, they yielded to temptation and went uptown, both literally and figuratively.

First, they moved their operation north to Scottsdale Promenade, home to such big-name restaurants as Sushi on Shea, Such Is Life, Chez Georges and Maria's When in Naples. But the address wasn't the only thing that changed. The restaurant now accommodates almost 10 times as many diners as before. Don't expect the chef to come around to your table to schmooze, like he used to do. Leave the $5 bottle of Trader Joe's wine at home, too--instead of bringing their own spirits, diners now consult a deep, well-crafted wine list. The menu has been significantly expanded and prices have been boosted, as well.

In short, while the name is the same, the new Cafe Patou is vastly different from the old Cafe Patou. I still like it, although for different reasons.

The place now has a big-city bistro edge: Toulouse-Lautrec-style murals and French posters on the walls; tables covered with white linen and butcher paper; wooden shutters; brass chandeliers; and a faux-aged paint job tinged with a shade of ocher that could have come from the palette of a French impressionist. Many in the well-dressed crowd were chattering away in foreign tongues, and we could hear them all. That's because the acoustics in the clatteringly noisy main dining room are so bright you may want to bring earmuffs.

Fortunately, the fare is just as bright. Several of the new appetizers display the hard-hitting flair I long for. One evening's special--mounds of baked semolina teamed with scallops in a pungent balsamic-vinegar sauce--proved especially riveting. Right-out-of-the-skillet crepes filled with four high-powered cheeses are almost too intense to be a curtain raiser. After you've inhaled the taleggio, tomme de savoie, Roquefort and goat cheese, it's hard to believe the meal can reach any higher peaks. I'd save this dish for later, perhaps sharing it for dessert. (Incidentally, as long as Cafe Patou is going to the trouble to serve fine imported cheeses like taleggio and tomme de savoie, rarely encountered locally, why not spell them correctly on the menu?)

Another starter special, lamb "confit" (actually, a block of ground lamb) drizzled with goat cheese, hits all the sensory buttons. But the Thai-curry sauce it's bathed in seems out of place on this otherwise French/Italian-themed menu. The charcuterie platter certainly gives a taste of the Mediterranean--prosciutto, duck pate, olives, Cornichons, cheese, salami. But I recall it was more substantial at the low-rent location.

Happily, all the entree favorites that made the old Cafe Patou so wonderful have survived the trip to the new digs. The free-range chicken, mussels, gnocchi alla Romana, shrimp and salmon lasagna, lobster cakes and imaginatively topped flatbreads are now a few bucks costlier and still impressive.

The entree list is now a great deal longer. But I can report that the new offerings exhibit the same deft kitchen touch. Pork tenderloin is Cafe Patou at the top of its form: pork medallions topped with prosciutto and butterflied shrimp, bathed in a brilliant lobster and Parmesan sauce. Get set for a real flavor explosion. That same sauce baked to a golden brown drapes shrimp thermidor, meaty crustaceans colorfully teamed with rice, red cabbage and spinach.

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Howard Seftel

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