Frustrating French

Considering its pedigree, Bistro Philippe is shockingly inconsistent and often mediocre

After Philippe Trosch and Metro Restaurants last year announced that they would be partnering up to create a new French restaurant in the spot that had been occupied by Firecracker, Tucson foodies eagerly awaited one of the most anticipated Tucson restaurant openings in recent memory.

After all, how could Bistro Philippe go wrong? Trosch is one of the area's most decorated chefs, guiding the Ventana Room to three consecutive AAA Five Diamond awards; Bob McMahon's Metro Restaurants is one of the most successful restaurant groups in town.

The buzz from Bistro Philippe in its first months of existence was predictably mixed--I say "predictably," because it's safe to say the expectations were impossibly high. Some friends who dined there had good things to say; others did not; and the idiotic morning daily gave the place a glowing review after visiting the place during its first week of existence. (It's an unethical sin to review a restaurant within its first month, and whoever allows this to happen at the Arizona Daily Star should be fired, period; go read the Association of Food Journalists' guidelines if you don't believe me.) Nonetheless, I expected that after all of the figurative dust settled, Bistro Philippe would be set to impress with its "French regional home cooking"; its pedigree was just too impressive.

Boy, was I wrong.

That's not to say that everything at Bistro Philippe disappoints; there were certainly some impressive dishes. Take my hanger steak with bordelaise sauce ($18.60): It was perfectly prepared--hanger steak can turn into a dry, tough mess if not prepared with TLC--with a delightful red-wine flavor, served unpretentiously, without garnish, on a simple white plate. Or take the smoked turkey, Spanish chorizo and goat cheese open sandwich ($12.75), which was a downright revelatory mixture of flavors that complemented each other perfectly. I could return to Bistro Philippe for these dishes over and over again; they're that good.

But for every success like this, Bistro Philippe offers up an equal number of misfires. While I was fortunate enough to get the hanger steak on our dinner visit, Garrett had the misfortune of getting the baked wild sea bass ($19.50), which was adorned with an underwhelming lemon sauce and topped with a mixture of ingredients that looked and tasted like pico de gallo--which would have been passable had the bass not been overcooked. Garrett was more fortunate on our lunch visit--he got the aforementioned smoked turkey/chorizo/goat cheese sandwich--but our friend Becky was saddled with another open sandwich, this one with pork belly, roasted apple, arugula and mustard ($13.50), that was a complete disaster. Imagine eating cold, fatty, largely unseasoned (all we could taste was a hint of black pepper) pieces of pork, and that's what eating Becky's sandwich was like.

This up-and-down pattern repeated itself over and over during our Bistro Philippe meals. Consider the sides we ordered on our dinner visit: The steamed green beans with garlic butter ($3.95) were fantastic; the pommes frittes ($3.95) were awful: undercooked, oily and stunningly flavorless. Then came the desserts: The apple tatin ($6.95) was a nice treat made even better by the to-die-for caramel sauce that was liberally applied--but the profiterole with vanilla ice cream and warm chocolate sauce ($6.95) baffled us. First, the chocolate sauce was unexpectedly bitter, with almost no hint of sweetness; second, the pastry puffs were too tough to slice through with the provided spoons; and finally, the ice cream had almost no flavor at all. What a disappointment.

The pattern even applies to service. Our dinner server (being shadowed by a trainee) was competent, helpful and professional; our brunch server seemed uninterested and failed many of the basics of Restaurant Service 101. For example: She never once offered to refill any of our beverages, and she didn't clear off the unused wine glasses from the table, no matter how crowded it got with all of our entrées.

What didn't fall into the up-and-down pattern settled into that shoulder-shrugging middle ground. The escargot ($9.95) were just fine, except for one snail that was disgustingly gritty. The oven-baked brie, blue cheese, apricot jam, almond and port wine ($12.25, meant for two) was excellent, though messy, lacking in texture and served with not enough bread. For brunch, my signature omelette with duck confit and garlic potatoes ($14.50) had a nice flavor, but was dry and needed some sort of sauce to make it easier to eat. Our friend Robin's quiche Florentine ($13.95) was bland, and she couldn't help but wonder why she could see the spinach in the dish, but she couldn't taste it.

While we had issues with some of the food and, on the brunch visit, the service, we had no qualms with the décor. The multicolored booths struck me as gaudy at first, but they grew on me by the time my second visit was finished. I liked hearing music from the likes of Frank Sinatra and Lena Horne as we dined, and the black-and-white pictures of France, the red faux awnings and the miniature streetlamps all offered nice touches.

But that food ... I just can't explain it. I know that Philippe Trosch can do better than this. And I hope he turns it around; Bistro Philippe has the potential and the pedigree to become a real gem. But as it stands now, it's a shocking disappointment.

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