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January, 2009, Page 56
Plates at the Pass
Our other big-deal-meal was at Primo Tucson at Marriott Starr Pass Resort. The Star Pass area is completely new to me, so it was surreal driving through the inky desert night and suddenly coming upon this enormous, brightly lit spaceship-looking structure seemingly hovering in mid-air.
The unattractive entrance to the restaurant is around the back of the resort. Then it’s down a flight of stairs (similar to the positioning of Deseo at Westin Kierland) into a meandering floor plan that leads through a comfortably furnished lounge, an area with a massive open kitchen and, finally, the formal main dining room. It feels very much like a grand old European hotel restaurant, and the generous spacing between tables and hush of the room is virtually unknown nowadays.
Chef Melissa Kelly’s food is billed as inspired by Italy, France and Spain, but it seemed purely authentic Italian to me. The menu is stripped down and straightforward. Each dish we tried was composed of a minimum of carefully handled, superb ingredients. Halibut and bread soup ($9) – the fish flaky and sweet, and the bread soaking up the creamy tomato-leek broth – was faultless. A tangle of frisee tossed with charred octopus, baby green beans, fingerling potatoes and pesto dressing hit the ideal flavor and texture notes ($12). Thin-crusted and crackly, a not-at-all plebian pizza ($16) topped with wilted spinach, roasted garlic and earthy mushrooms tasted like Naples. Kudos to the chef for reworking saltimbocca, made here with juicy pork cutlets rather than veal ($26). I couldn’t resist finishing up with zeppole, another Neapolitan native. The choux-pastry doughnuts rolled in sugar and cinnamon ($8.50) had a delightfully custard-like texture.
My pre-trip research turned up some fairly exotic ethnic restaurants, including Malaysian food at Neo of Melaka. It was love at first sight, much less bite. What could have been a featureless box of a room is stunningly designed with a slash of a diagonal wall separating the space, a vibrant red pepper, curry yellow and lemongrass green color scheme augmented with breathtaking art and artifacts.
Ordering is a struggle with such seductive options as curry puffs, tempura-battered salt and pepper mussels, a wealth of noodle dishes, citrus roasted duck salad and chile king crab, to name just a smattering. We were ecstatic with delicate steamed shrimp wontons topped with tender enoki mushrooms ($7.95) and seriously spicy, smoky Singapore bee hoon noodles ($8.95) studded with slivers of pork, scallions, bean sprouts and reconstituted dried mushrooms. A soft-shell crab salad ($7.95) consisted of a huge crustacean lightly fried in tempura and greens doused with a complex sweet-hot dressing. Hopes for an equally thrilling dessert were dashed by the server, who told us, “Asian restaurants don’t do that.” Maybe they should.
El Saage, a fast-casual Lebanese restaurant isn’t nearly as exotic as Neo, but it delivers a solid experience. The menu features the usual Middle-Eastern gamut – kebabs, shawarma, tabouli and the like at very reasonable prices. One thing you don’t often see is kibbee nayeh ($8.95), a Lebanese version of steak tartare – finely ground raw beef mixed with bulgur wheat and chopped onion. Heaven on a pita. Stuffed grape leaves are classic, refreshingly citric and filled with well-seasoned rice and chopped fresh veggies ($5.95). We balanced vegetarian falafels, granular and crunchy ($4.95), with meaty gyros ($6.95), accompanied with fresh vegetables and tangy yogurt sauce. Warm, pliable flatbread accompanies most orders. For dessert, sticky, nutty baklava fills a week’s sweet tooth quota.
While we were in Tucson, we gambled on a new restaurant called jaxKitchen. The payoff was, well, a jaxpot. The spare, bright room features gleaming wood floors, pristinely set tables and a black-and-white color scheme with tiny candles by black-framed mirrors.
The tight, well written menu features a clever combo of American comfort food and French bistro fare. Lighter options include grilled cheese on brioche ($12), tuna nicoise salad ($15) and a kobe burger ($11). Snack on supernal frites with genius malt vinegar aioli ($4), a cheese plate “served correctly” ($11), steak tartare ($9) or mussels and frites ($12). Entrées include pork tenderloin ($18), a daily fish special ($19) or duck confit with potato salad and green beans ($18). Two can share a whole roasted chicken with all the trimmings ($38) or a 24-ounce rib-eye ($48). And, yes, those prices are amazing – as are owners Brian and Sandy Metzger.
True foodies know it’s tough to get six outstanding meals in succession. But the next time someone says “Tucson,” what I’ll hear is “great dining.”
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