Sacré bleu! Chef James Porter’s Old Town reboot makes glorious transgression of classic French cuisine.
If you’ve kept abreast of the Valley dining scene over the past five years, chances are you know about Petite Maison, whether you’ve dined there or not. Tucked into a quiet block in bustling Old Town Scottsdale, the cozy, unpretentious restaurant has been a vanguard of classic French bistro food from the moment its first customer plunged a spoon into a bowl of rich, sherry-laced French onion soup capped with a gooey crown of Gruyère cheese.
What you might not know: Petite Maison subsequently treated itself to a head-to-toe makeover – and the wholly singular results are worth checking out.
The chef-owner is James Porter, who has cooked in kitchens across the country, including the AAA Five Diamond Award-winning Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, where he worked under Certified Master Chef Peter Timmons. Porter’s command of Gallic culinary traditions made it possible for Petite Maison to transition almost seamlessly from classic to modern French last December, when Porter and his wife and front-of-the-house manager Wendy decided their 5-year-old restaurant was due for a rejuvenation in both menu and décor. At the rebooted Petite Maison, Porter’s polished cooking style remains, but now, along with the modern French presentation, there are dishes that may be inspired by Italy, Japan, and especially Indo-China. The world flavor romp may cause more than one of Porter’s followers to wonder if the chef hasn’t returned to a more playful side, one seen at Tapino Kitchen, his former restaurant serving globally-inspired small plates that shuttered in 2009. But the update here is more evolution than revolution – modern French fare with a DIY edge, and the Porters’ way of keeping Petite Maison au courant without changing its core.
As a result of a seamless integration of familiar sights and ornamental updates, the restaurant has kept its sense of place. Through the flora-enveloped patio, past the arched wooden door, and into the low-ceilinged room refreshed with new light fixtures, fabrics, and art, diners settle into tables (now clothed in white linen) with high-spirited cocktails or robust glasses of Côtes du Rhône. The mood is relaxed yet convivial. The service is skillful and kind. And the menu – an orchestration of respectable, ever-changing modern French dishes put together with pristine meats, fresh-caught seafood, and top-shelf produce – is best perused while nibbling the complimentary slender stalks of cheesy, crisp breadsticks you know you should stop eating but never do.
Porter has made it possible to construct your France-by-way-of-the-world dining experience with a multi-course procession of exceptional small plates. You could begin with a salad of just-picked produce followed by chewy grilled octopus with roasted corn and arugula atop a slick of red pepper rouille, or lightly fried sweetbreads with bacon dashi and thin, matchstick-size fries for crunch. A soup of seasonal vegetables might be followed with duck-breast pho, whose rich broth, filled with noodles, mushrooms and a quail egg, contains an indulgent tinge of foie gras. The braised escargots, flecked with silvery bits of salty, sharp white anchovies, parsley and toasted sumac, are especially delicious atop crunchy slices of grilled bread.
The main courses are perhaps the most indicative of Porter’s mastery of elevating familiar French dishes, but the idea here is that they now take on a more global perspective. There may be a deeply flavored duo of lamb rack and braised neck with a nod to Spain through a topping of earthy and slightly sweet roasted garlic romesco. By way of Asia, you might see velvety slices of smoked duck breast neatly layered upon a crisp wedge of ginger-infused rice cake alongside mushrooms and a subtly flavored kimchi made of bok choy and pear. On the best nights, there is the 12 oz. pork chop. Smoked, cooked sous-vide, and grilled, it is impossibly tender and dead-on medium-rare, its flavor blooming through accompaniments of broccoli rabe, charred shishito peppers and aged Gouda.
For those who may pine for the classic dishes of Petite Maison’s past, Porter left a couple of favorites on the menu. There is torchon de foie gras, of course. Served chilled, the foie is incredibly creamy, its fatty flavor blossoming with embellishments of toasted brioche, quince jelly and tiny Champagne grapes. And Porter’s respectable Mediterranean bouillabaisse – made with marquee-caliber seafood staples like shrimp, octopus, scallops, mussels and clams – boasts a rich and well-seasoned broth that will inevitably have you flagging down your server for another slice of bread. Believe me, I’ve been there.
Petite Maison’s sweets stay mostly on the French side, which isn’t such a bad thing when you consider the offerings. There is a toasted shortbread meringue cookie served with key lime sorbet and light-as-air profiteroles stuffed with vanilla ice cream and nestled in a shallow, inky pool of blackberry preserves. But the most popular dessert is the dark chocolate soufflé.
Its preparation time of around 20 minutes ensures that your server will make an inquiry to its being ordered by mid-meal. And because, by that point, you have breathed in its chocolaty perfume or seen it gliding by your table at least a half-dozen times, there is little you can do but nod your head emphatically. And when it does arrive, and the server carves a heart shape into the souffle’s powdered-sugared top before pouring in a luxuriously silky peanut butter and chocolate crème anglaise, you can hardly help but think the symbol of love is a perfect expression of the dining experience.
Cuisine: Modern French
Contact: 7216 E. Shoeman Ln., Scottsdale, 480-991-6887, petitemaisonaz.com
Hours: Dinner 5-10 p.m. Tu-Su; brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Su; happy hour 3-6 p.m. Tu-Su
Highlights: Duck-breast pho ($12); braised escargots ($12); veal sweetbreads ($15); smoked duck breast ($29); 12 oz. pork chop ($33); dark chocolate soufflé ($12)
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