Dining Out

Fall dining out: a cornucopia of pumpkins, fresh fish and cooking with love

Although we live in the desert, fresh fish has become a popular option on Tucson restaurant menus, as are more gluten-free dishes. Going with the flow of the latest food trends is key as area restaurants dive into fall.

It’s pumpkin time at Gourmet Girls Gluten-Free Bakery/Bistro in Northwest Tucson. Their creations include pumpkin muffins, pancakes, waffles and pies, all without gluten — a protein found in wheat, barley, spelt and rye that wreaks havoc on the health of an increasing number of people.

“We’re like therapists in a way,” says Susan Fulton, who co-owns Gourmet Girls with Mary Steiger. “Food is so important in our lives. It’s very gratifying to provide alternatives to our customers. One woman broke into tears when she was able to have [gluten-free] eggs Benedict for the first time in 13 years.”

Gourmet Girls sells gluten-free Thanksgiving products such as stuffing made from rice flour, tapioca and potato starch. “There’s an emotional side to being left out of holidays or social events, particularly for children. It’s upsetting if you can’t partake,” says Fulton, adding that when families frequent the bistro parents often tell their children, “you can have anything.” Gourmet Girls is open for breakfast and lunch every day but Monday; it will open for dinner on weekends this fall.

Heading further northwest It’s Greek to Me’s specialty in Catalina is seafood — the fresher the better. James Pastore and co-owner Jeffrey Bridge bought the restaurant on July 1, kicking up business with “fishgrams,” emails to more than 500 people letting them know about seafood specials over the weekend. “We call three fish purveyors on Wednesday and Thursday,” Pastore told the AJP. “We know what’s coming in on Friday. It may be halibut from Alaska or open-ocean farm-raised salmon. The word is out.” The restaurant used to be ranked 28th in guest reviews for Tucson-area eating establishments on TripAdvisor; it’s risen to fifth.

Bridge, a past president of Congregation Bet Shalom, “is a rocket scientist who will take care of the front part of the business” when he retires next year, says Pastore, who’s executive chef. “We make our own hummus, our own yogurt. The only thing we buy in a can is imported tomatoes from Italy. Greeks eat traditional dishes like moussaka or spanakopita at home. When they go out to celebrate they eat seafood.” In addition to fresh seafood, “our house specialty is lamb shanks,” he says. “People come from miles around for that.”

Over at the Flying V Bar and Grill, many specials have a Latin flair. “We’re known for our margaritas, tableside guacamole, tuna or sea bass ceviche and ribs,” says Ken Harvey, executive chef at the Flying V and five more restaurants on the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort property. At the Flying V “we feature a different addition to the guacamole every night, like pomegranates, figs or mango, whatever’s in the moment.”

A popular event at the main hotel is the Blues, Brews and Barbecue, taking place every Sunday on the patio, says Harvey, where guests are surrounded by a giant herb garden. The resort’s restaurants cater to locals as well as hotel guests,. “We serve 6,000 to 10,000 guests weekly,” he notes, adding that fall menu changes are on tap in all six restaurants. Looking ahead to the holiday season, Harvey suggests making reservations for special holiday teas in the hotel lobby starting Nov. 14. “We start with champagne, then a small salad, an English tea service with five varieties of small sandwiches, finishing with petit fours,” says Harvey.

Tucson outdoor dining goes with the territory. Breeze Patio Bar and Grill at Radisson Suites Tucson serves “well-rounded American cuisine,” says chef Duncan Bulkley. “We use all fresh ingredients. We’re a from-scratch kitchen,” which includes 24-hour short ribs cooked in veal glace in a red-wine reduction. Breeze will introduce a happy hour this fall with a tapas menu. As a large hotel “we have to appeal to a wide clientele,” notes Bulkley. “We serve kobe burgers. Sometimes we serve breakfast at dinnertime. We offer vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free dishes.” When he started to serve a vegan asparagus soup, “at first customers would ask, ‘what’s that?’ Now it outsells the soup of the day,” he says. “There’s a perception that healthy food might not be as tasty but that’s not the case with our asparagus soup. It’s very tasty.”

Merging healthy and tasty is the way to go for many Tucsonans. “Our seafood, mostly from the Gulf of Mexico, is delivered fresh daily,” says George Ferranti, who co-owns El Cisne with his father, Phil Ferranti. “We have great certified Angus steaks delivered daily. Our chicken is free range.”

El Cisne serves dishes from three different regions of Mexico: Oaxaca, Veracruz and Sonora. “We specialize in cabrilla (sea bass) and huachinango (red snapper) from the Gulf of Mexico,” he says, adding that halibut is a new fish entrée for fall.

Ferranti started cooking with his father, who’s owned restaurants for 25 years. Takeout and catering are both available at their new location at Swan and Sunrise. Plus, says Ferranti, a University of Arizona graduate, “we’re a Wildcat bar,” showing all the UA games.

Another family owned local restaurant is Le Rendez-vous, founded by Jean-Claude Berger 31 years ago. His son Gordon Berger, who spent 2007 to 2010 living and cooking in Paris, became the owner-manager early this year. “We’re traditional French but are branching out now,” Berger told the AJP. “We’re adding small-plate options such as vols-au-vent, a small chicken and mushroom puff pastry. [Customers] can try lots of different small plates. It’s more fun that way.” Rendez-vous has a happy hour from Tuesday to Saturday, with a large French wine selection.

Tavolino Ristorante Italiano features Italian wine classics and has added a page to its menu with artisan cocktails, which customers may sip while listening to live music on Friday nights. Tavolino will now be open on Sundays, says owner Massimo Tenino, whose recipes were taught to him by his mother and grandmother in Northern Italy. The new Sunday brunch will have a Bloody Mary-building option; diners can choose their own vodka or top their drink with gorgonzola cheese.

Almost all pastas are made fresh daily in house, says Tenino. A fall addition to the menu is a one-pound bone-in veal chop, with organic tomatoes and lemon. A big hit for the past year has been branzino (European sea bass) presented to customers whole or filleted at the table, he says, adding, “I don’t know anyone else in Tucson doing this.” Starting Nov. 1, Tavolino will offer its holiday gift card promotion.

Steak remains a perennially popular entrée. Michael William Bujold is the executive chef at the Desert Diamond Casino Tucson property, where The Steak House Restaurant features prime ribs and prime cuts of beef. As they say there, “the service is rare and well done …” They also serve seafood.

From Mexican and Greek cuisines to sushi, fresh fish is in demand. “This is a good time for tuna because when the water gets colder the tuna produce more fat,” says Leona K. Watabe, who co-owns Yuki’s Sushi with her husband, Yuki Watabe. Most of their seafood hails from San Francisco, she says. Fish — therefore sushi — has become so popular in Tucson because it’s “a very healthy food.” Yuki’s daily specials depend on what’s freshest from week to week, says Watabe, adding that “we want to keep prices reasonable while maintaining high quality.” Yuki’s Sushi has a happy hour Monday through Saturday.

An unusual promotion invites diners to bring their dogs for house-made treats at Sullivan’s Steakhouse “yappy hour” on Mondays from 4 to 7 p.m. on the patio. Their new fall menu features “The Sure Thing” three-course, prix fixe dinner. The restaurant will donate a portion of the proceeds to breast cancer research, says Giovanni Pace, executive chef. And there’s live music at the bar seven nights a week, including “Swinging at Sully’s” on Thursday nights.

If diners are craving ethnic dishes “you don’t have to leave Tucson to find authentic Lebanese food,” says Joe Abi-Ad, owner of Falafel King. “Everything is made from scratch in our kitchen.” One of his specialties is fatayer spinach pie, made of phyllo dough stuffed with chopped spinach, tomato, onion, lemon juice, olive oil and spices. Abi-Ad has been cooking his native Middle Eastern cuisine for more than 30 years in Tucson. Before that, his family was known for their culinary prowess for generations in Lebanon. Abi-Ad also owns Joe’s Pancake House and is the former owner of Le Mediterranean.

“What really separates us from the dining scene,” says Grant Bennett, co-owner with Mike Smith of the Eclectic Café, “we’re the anti-concept concept restaurant. We bring together food from a variety of [ethnicities] and styles. It’s a wonderful place to come to when you can’t decide what to eat. From sandwiches to quiche to pasta to Mexican to Jewish deli-style corned beef that we make ourselves,” customers can choose from the Eclectic’s extensive six-page menu.

“Everything is made in-house. We bake around 12 turkey breasts a day,” says Bennett. “This season’s specialty is Mexican, with a new cilantro-lime-pesto burrito that can be made with chicken, shredded beef or halibut. If it’s popular we’ll put it on our regular menu.”

“French Provence cooking is different than anything in Tucson,” says Coralie Satta, chef/owner of Ghini’s French Caffé, which she opened in 1992. “Since its inception I’ve bought local vegetables, I buy local and I’m heavily involved in the community.” Ghini’s offers Friday night bistro specials with new additions for the fall. “I’ll probably make meatloaf sliders, butternut squash and sage butter pasta,” says Satta, who grew up in Southern Provence and moved at age 6 with her family to the United States. “I went back to Provence to visit my grandmother every summer. I [remember] sitting in her kitchen sink peeling potatoes as a young girl.

“Eggs Provencale is [Ghini’s] signature dish. I made it with my grandmother. Now I’m getting teary-eyed,” Satta told the AJP. “She’s my inspiration for cooking with love.”