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The sea bass with sunchoke puree, roasted mushrooms, bok choy and Japanese yams

Good House Keeping

by Nikki Buchanan | Photography by Heather Gill | Scottsdale magazine | March 6, 2014

As anyone who has experienced James Porter’s offal dinner on Halloween will tell you, this classically trained chef possesses a sense of humor and a decidedly playful streak. Step into his certifiably petite Old Town restaurant, whose stonewalled exterior and flower-filled patio conjure the French countryside, and you enter a cozy, pretension-free zone where food means fun.

When Porter opened his small in size, big-on-charm hideaway Petite Maison (French for “little house”) in 2009, he hewed to French bistro tradition, offering up beloved classics for an audience who neither required nor preferred a challenge. But fives years in, he grew bored with the same old-same old; so when his lease was up and he decided to recommit to the space, he also decided to give the decor and the menu a refresher.

These days, the narrow, wood-paneled interior looks lighter and infinitely more modern, thanks in part to whimsical, foodcentric art; elegant, upholstered bar chairs; a black, ivory and tan color palette; and textured lampshades created by Porter’s wife, Wendy. The pleasing result is a subtle, sophisticated room that looks spacious but retains the intimacy for which it’s famous.

Because Porter is as cerebral as he is witty, his new menu is built upon a motif, paying homage to famously French-influenced food cultures of the world such as New Orleans, Vietnam and Morocco. It’s a mouthwatering but frustrating read for want-it-all food nerds who will probably start planning a second visit well before the first course has arrived.

Then again, most of us could happily content ourselves with Maine lobster souffle, an ethereal bit of lobster fluff enriched with buttery Comté cheese and drizzled at service with asparagus crème anglaise. “Heavenly” doesn’t begin to describe it. Heartier appetites might prefer wagyu bone marrow so perfectly roasted that its sublimely rich interior remains properly firm yet fatty—just right for spreading on lightly toasted baguette. Braised escargots and white anchovy serve as traditional Provencal accompaniment.

Lightly crisped oyster fritters, studded with corn, aren’t in the same league (why, oh, why didn’t I order the coquilles St. Jacques scallop ravioli?), but it’s hard not to like them just the same, given the celery root tartar sauce and fennel pollen, which move an otherwise average dish over to the plus column. And should you find yourself thinking “what the pho . . . ?” when I tell you that Porter’s sexed-up version of pho—Vietnam’s humble national soup—contains duck breast, black truffles and foie broth, rest assured: It’s insanely over-the-top and utterly delicious.

Clearly, it’s easy to make a meal of appetizers or settle for a lusciously juicy foie gras burger, served on a brioche bun smeared with tomato-onion marmalade—another delicious object lesson in humble-turned-haute, this one even better eaten with duck fat curry fries and molasses aioli.

But Porter offers up stunning entrees as well. Consider crisp-edged sea bass with creamy sunchoke puree, roasted king mushrooms, bok choy and meltingly sweet Japanese yams or an equally mesmerizing rabbit tagine, a Moroccan stew served in the cone-shaped vessel for which the dish is named. Accented with crunchy almonds, preserved lemons, soybeans and spicy North African sausage, it’s a dish that feels wonderfully exotic yet comforting at once.

Desserts create the same slightly jarring effect, ranging from the rich, chocolatey push pops of childhood to a luxurious orange pot de creme, perfumed with cardamom and smoothed with a drift of whipped cream.

Porter will probably have to brook criticism from regulars who refuse to accept change (they can still get the city’s best sweetbreads if they ask), but he did the right thing. He reinvented himself, a surefire way to avoid fossilization.

Where to Sit
On the patio by the fireplace when you’re feeling romantic, at the pretty center-stage bar when you’re not

What to Wear
Dressed-up jeans are just fine, but Porter’s wealthy clientele usually shows up in expensive slacks and sweaters.

What to Drink
The Personality, an elegant (and slightly girly) cocktail combining pear-flavored Grey Goose vodka with elderflower liqueur, lime juice
and Champagne

Petite Maison
7216 E. Shoeman Lane, Scottsdale

Lunch: Tue.-Sun., 11AM-2PM
Dinner: Tues.-Sun., 5-10pm
Happy Hour: Tues.-Sun., 3-6pm
Brunch: Sun., 10AM-3PM
Firsts: $9-$14; entrees: $18-$35;
Sides: $5-$6; desserts: $6-$12