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French Correction

At Le Bistro, relive the days when food snobs believed the only good cuisine was Gallic.


In a town that has changed as dramatically and rapidly as Tucson, it is no easy feat to keep a small independent restaurant afloat. Yet Laruent Reux, chef/owner of Le Bistro, has managed to keep his business quietly thriving since 1988. For those of us who remember, Tucson was quite a different beast then, and Le Bistro was one of a few serious dining options.

For the most part, much about Le Bistro has remained the same, including the decidedly French menu: escargot served en croute, frog's legs sautéed in provençale sauce, rabbit done up in a dijonnaise sauce and served on linguine, quail roasted and flambéed with cognac and served with grapes and green peppercorns. They are all here. So is the odd sensibility that once terrorized the American culinary scene that if it wasn't French, it really wasn't worth eating. This attitude manifests itself in many ways in the dining experience at Le Bistro. The staff is efficient but fairly chilly. The greeting at the door isn't merely curt but an appraisal, a swift determination of your worthiness.

At least we passed muster. Our meal began with a server suffering from either a general state of crankiness or acute impatience. Our party was trickling in and we didn't want to place an order immediately. Rather than accommodating the fact that eventually we'd all be assembled, the server indulged in some menu snatching and huffiness the situation really didn't call for. Naturally, as such events usually unfold, our party took on a final configuration minus one member, and we decided to proceed with ordering dinner. Apparently this taxed our server beyond the limits of patience; she took the order and stalked off.

We did, however, get our Terrine de Canard (duck paté, $6.75). This was the largest helping of paté I have ever seen at a restaurant. Perhaps our server was trying to atone, or perhaps this was the end portion of a loaf, but it was a solid adobe brick. And it was very good, with a creamy, rich and satisfying texture. With a handful of cornichon and a small salad with a creamy, tart dressing, the rich flavors were offset nicely.

An appetizer from the specials board, scallops with goat cheese and green chile ($9.95), turned out to be much better than it sounded. Served in a pool of rich, lemony beurre blanc, three fat scallops dolloped with goat cheese and draped with a roasted Anaheim chile had been plated with care. Although there wasn't anything strikingly "French" about this dish, we went with it. We were pleased.

By now the restaurant was busy enough that our server was no longer merely surly, she was too busy to notice us. Or our water glasses and bread-basket refills. We didn't have to wait too long for entrées, but our sever briskly deposited them and vanished.

The Demi Canard Croustillant ($18.25), a "crispy" roasted half duck with raspberry vinegar sauce, was a bit disappointing. The sauce was lovely, a velvety rich raspberry sauce, but the duck was a tough and greasy affair. With some scalloped potatoes and a few turned carrots and fanned snow peas, this plate felt as if it was visiting us from decades past. In concept, design and execution, the dish was kind of stuffy, slightly pretentious and not very pleasing.

Bouillabaisse is a widely translated and high signature dish. Most chefs are fiercely protective about their recipe, and one must be careful addressing a dish with so many translations. Chef Reux's bouillabaisse ($18.95) had a hearty and complex broth, redolent with root vegetables and tomato. The bowl was generously portioned with shrimp, scallops, sea bass and salmon. Salmon seemed like an odd choice, but there it was swimming about in the bowl. Served with an oddly creamy rouille, this bowl was warming, but a bit flat. Still, this was nothing that a few grains of salt didn't set to order.

It should be noted that the crowd that embraces Le Bistro is of a decided mindset and generation. They not only remember when French cuisine was considered the zenith of the gastronomic universe, they still believe it. The lack of salt in the food might be a direct accommodation for this elderly generation. Other small details may pass by them unnoticed, like the large rents in the vaulted ceiling in the side dining room; perhaps an older, more challenged vision won't register these small dings and nicks. But one thing this crowd knows and loves is dessert.

Desserts are an event at Le Bistro. The pastry chef, Albert Savarese, is at one with the confectionary world. His slowly revolving tower, staged prominently by the entrance of the restaurant, will capture your attention even if you aren't moved by desserts. Sporting names like "Winter" and "Ecstasy," these desserts seem to defy gravity and modesty both.

We opted to try the flourless chocolate torte, dense and rich and sauced in impossibly clear and light fresh raspberry essence. The torte vanishes on the tongue in an impossibly light and ethereal fashion. Likewise, the Apple Cinnamon Swedish Cheesecake was a daunting wedge that collapsed beneath the fork. Light, creamy, neither too sweet nor too cheesy, this too bordered on perfection. Whatever misgivings we had about our rushed service melted away in the face of such impressive desserts. The portions are so huge, we felt very young and very small.

Amid the dining room's jungle greenery strung with Christmas lights, one guest leaned across the table and confided, "Oh, my god, I feel like I'm with my parents down in Florida." Slightly dated, still serviceable, needing salt, Le Bistro can still happily lose a diner in front of an enormous plate of dessert.

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