Spicing up new menus for summer dining often means lighter fare, especially in Tucson’s sweltering heat, and healthy eating has become de rigueur everywhere. Even for meat-eaters, the mantra has become smaller is better.
“Portions have gotten out of control. Really good, grass-fed beef has gotten very expensive,” says Ryan Clark, executive chef at Lodge on the Desert. Instead of larger cuts of inferior or genetically modified beef, he says, he prefers serving the best, smaller cuts and “bulking up with organic veggies. Just because it’s easy for us to eat bad food doesn’t mean we should.”
Shedding the “all-you-can-eat philosophy,” Lodge on the Desert won’t offer a Mother’s Day brunch this year, but will serve bay-leaf-crusted roast beef for dinner, sticking to highlighting its nightly specials. Throughout the summer a dinner special that includes a “chef’s whim” salad, 20-minute sous vide natural chicken and house-made gelato will be on the menu. For Clark, a new cookbook about “center-of-plate items” with the working title, “The Modern Southwest,” is also in the making. The book will be published by Rio Nuevo Press.
Although Sullivan’s Steakhouse is known for its beef, general manager Sean O’Brien this year stresses “a little more concentration on local, the freshest ingredients possible. If it’s tomato season,” he says, “we’ll go to the local farmers’ market for heirloom tomatoes rather than use hothouse tomatoes.” He’s also touting an everyday pre-fixe three-course menu with the choice of a starter, soup or salad served with a new house-made raspberry vinaigrette dressing, and an entrée. A new entrée is roasted chicken and heirloom caprese salad with warm couscous and honey-grain mustard vinaigrette.
Whether alongside beef or chicken, or in a starring role, salads and vegetables are clearly playing a larger part in Tucson cuisine. “I’m a farm to fork chef. I’ll be searching for farm-fresh food in Arizona. That’s my passion,” says Russell Michel of the Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa. “Sweet peas, asparagus, fava beans. I’ll be serving a sweet pea risotto with spring veggies. Vegetarian [dishes] can also be served as vegan,” he notes. “Everyone who comes to the restaurant should have something they really enjoy that tastes fresh and vibrant.”
Michel has provided kosher meals upon request. Recently, Westin La Paloma held a conference where some participants asked for kosher dining. “We utilized local kosher caterers,” he told the AJP.
On Mother’s Day, Michel is preparing a special brunch with everything from a “whimsical waffle station” with tangerine and white chocolate waffles to an entrée station featuring pan-roasted salmon with minted sweet pea emulsion, cherry tomatoes and fava beans.
At the Flying V at Loews Ventana Canyon, executive chef Ken Harvey offers a Blues, Brews and Barbecue brunch every Sunday. This year there’s “a new concept with a giant salad selection and 60 feet of barbecue grill where everything is cooked to order,” says Harvey. He’s also introducing in-house, climate-controlled dry aged prime New York beef, which “creates extremely tender beef. [Plus], we’re the only ones in town with pheasant.”
Starting May 24, the Flying V will begin a desert cooking class; the first session will involve harvesting barrel cactus and using the fruit to make a pineapple upside-down cake. The class is in collaboration with Tohono O’odham Community Action, whose representative will discuss cooking with cactus and lead the harvesting.
Joe Abi-Ad has been cooking dishes from his native Lebanon that have been in his family for generations; in fact he was born in his family’s restaurant kitchen. The owner and chef of Falafel King, he serves traditional Middle Eastern specials that keep customers returning. “People still enjoy coming here after 37 years in business” in Tucson, says Abi-Ad.
Sushi is king at Yuki’s Sushi but this summer “we’re going to focus even more on cold noodle dishes,” says Leona K. Watabe, co-owner with her husband, Yuki, who is the restaurant’s chef. “Sushi is very summer oriented,” says Leona, adding that Yuki’s Sushi is offering new appetizers and has updated their menu. One new item is called kiku’s yellowtail, a hashimi fish entrée, which is served with lemon zest and, she says, is “very light, very fruity.” On Mother’s Day Yuki’s Sushi will stay open on Sunday from noon to 7 p.m. “Every mother will get a rose that weekend.”
The Hilton El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Resort will host its annual Mother’s Day brunch, sporting a new menu, says Ronnie Collins, director of sales and marketing. Other changes are on tap, including a spring dining series at Epazote Kitchen & Cocktails, one of the resort’s four restaurants.
At the May 15 dinner, “locally sourced produce takes the center stage,” says Collins. “All our produce and beef is locally sourced. Arizona-based beers will be featured on June 12,” the last dinner in the series, close to Father’s Day. Epazote, which only serves dinner, has an ongoing special from Memorial Day to Labor Day. “Pick Two Dinners,” devised especially for locals, says Collins, features an appetizer to share, a choice of entrées and a dessert to share. “Up to 50 percent of our business at Epazote, which opened in August, has been local.”
Coralie Satta is the chef/owner of Ghini’s French Caffe. Her upbringing in Provence, France, informs her cooking. She’s working on a new menu and expects to have “more of the French items I grew up with,” says Satta. “I’ll go on a creative rampage and try 15 variations” of a dish for Ghini’s Friday night once-a-week dinner menu. Satta plans to add a basil-pesto version of croque monsieur but she doesn’t intend to stop there. One popular item Ghini’s serves every summer is lavender lemonade. Recently the winner of seven culinary awards from Tucson Lifestyle, Satta says her creative ambition doesn’t stop at cooking. “We’re in the process of creating a fresh, new look at Ghini’s.”
Harvest Restaurant is also changing its look for summer dining with a new patio, says co-owner Reza Shapouri, who bought the restaurant with his wife, Lisa, Harvest’s pastry chef, in October 2011. “Everything is made from scratch,” he says. “All soups, reduction sauces are made without preservatives. We only buy from local purveyors.”
To accommodate diners craving smaller portions, Harvest offers a special sunset menu from 4 to 5:30 p.m., which includes medallions of filet mignon. A new dinner menu item is pesto-crusted salmon, accompanied by tomato risotto and roasted vegetables. They’re also starting a lunch special. “We’re offering more Arizona wines. All draft beers are from Arizona,” notes Shapouri.
Café Desta’s cuisine hails from Ethiopia. Chef and co-owner Minet Abay, 32, came to Tucson as a refugee in 2009. Specialties include vegan stews, spicy meat dishes and coffee drinks made with Ethiopian coffee beans.When ordering two or more combination plates that typically include lentils and vegetables — or may be kicked up with chicken, fish or lamb cooked in a spice mixture called berbere — the dishes can be served family style. All entrées are served with salad on a soft sourdough bread, or injera. And how about coconut mango pie for dessert?
If variety is indeed the spice of life, the sheer number, sizes and types of restaurants in Tucson afford a wide range of dining experiences. The Sheraton Tucson Hotel & Suites features an outdoor dining area in midtown for a relaxing evening out. Their Fire + Spice Restaurant & Lounge menu blends traditional Native American ingredients, tastes of old Spain and the spices, peppers and cheeses of Mexico. Offering entrées of fire-roasted salmon, grilled skirt steak chimichurri and wild west filet, the restaurant has also added small plates for lighter dining.
“We rolled out a new spring and summer menu with more upscale service, a fine dining atmosphere,” says Michael Bujold, executive chef for the Desert Diamond Casinos & Entertainment Tucson property. Dinner at the Diamond Steakhouse starts with an amuse, or gift from the chef; intermezzo, or sorbet to cleanse the palate, is served prior to the entrée. A new menu item is deconstructed tamale quail, cornbread tamale stuffing with Mexican truffle. The steakhouse is now serving wagyu beef, which is the Australian version of kobe beef. “It’s 48 ounces and listed for two on the menu,” says Bujold. “We remove the bone and cut it for you at your table.”
In addition to using Western flair, “we’ve been putting urban, international flair into our entrees and sticking to traditional steakhouse fare. We want to make sure we cover everybody. We also cook off the cuff for our customers with special needs,” offering vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free dishes.
Bujold, who hails from Lake Charles, La., says that Tucsonans will soon “see a lot of Cajun food” at the Desert Diamond restaurants. “We get a lot of international customers. We hosted the Swedish and Danish soccer teams, meeting their dietary needs,” he says.
And for Tucsonans, the range of dining-out experiences is expanding — from barbecue to steaks to small plates to pineapple/barrel cactus upside-down cake.