Dining Out | Local

From downtown to the Foothills: the best culinary temptations for spring

The patio at Bodega Kitchen & Wine
The patio at Bodega Kitchen & Wine
The patio at Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa
The patio at Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa

Tucson isn’t the left bank of Paris, but elegant ambiance, lovingly prepared Southwest and ethnic dishes, and spring outdoor dining all contribute to the tasty local restaurant scene.

“Spring creativity came to me in a dream last week about drinks,” says Chef Coralie Satta, owner of Ghini’s French Café. “It’ll come to me soon with other dishes.” For now, Satta, who was born in Provence, France, is contemplating a watermelon spritzer and a chocolate mojito for her Friday night dinner menu. She’s planning French rosé wine tastings for the spring, along with a new lunch menu.

“We’re bringing back our stuffed portobello mushroom, which is gluten free,” says Satta. “I’m thinking about more vegetarian options at this time of year, too.” Ghini’s has a pet-friendly patio.

For downtown patio dining with a different flavor, Chef Jared Scott at Maynard’s Kitchen is “really excited about cooking with ramps, wild leeks that are hand-foraged, from Oregon. They’ve never been cultivated,” he says. “They’re great for grilling or pickling.” A French-inspired bistro, Maynard’s will be serving a summer cassoulet, house-made sausages and new vegetarian dishes, including a new rendition of vegetarian scrapple — a traditional Amish dish — featuring eggplant.

On Mother’s Day, says Scott, “we’ll have a unique family-style brunch, an entire duck feast that even uses the fat to make biscuits. We’ll have blueberry shortcake for dessert.” Maynard’s also offers a personalized menu with a 48-hour notice. “If you have a special event and want every dish explained to your guests,” he says, “call me.”

The Historic Hotel Congress Cup Café is known for brunch on its patio in the heart of downtown Tucson. Nightly live music and a revolving pie case highlight this destination — if you’re there for dinner, late night drinks or just the fun of hanging out in an authentic Western hotel. Whether it’s for a lunch of Nicoise salad or the lettuce wrap with falafel and smoked cashews, or a more elegant dinner of duck two ways, The Cup is ready to serve from 7 a.m. till 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Elegant dining is on tap at Le Rendez-Vous, with a wide selection of small plates such as brie en croute, mini Wellington and seared salmon in the bistro at lunch or dinner. Specialties of the house include Chateaubriand for two, coq au vin and filet a poivre vert (brandy flambéed pepper fillet with green peppercorns).

Before hot days arrive in Tucson, patio dining — along with spring specials — abound at local restaurants. At the Westin La Paloma Resort and Spa, “we’re focusing on the seasonal vegetables of spring, the sweetness of English peas, grassiness of asparagus, earth tones of mushrooms, fava beans and artichokes,” says Chef Russell Michel. “We make a vibrant risotto from those ingredients,” in addition to serving wild-water salmon, artisan salads using quinoa and farro grains, and desserts.

The Westin La Paloma will host a Mother’s Day brunch with such traditional menu items as roast leg of lamb and prime rib, with a seafood station and “a decadent dessert display,” says Michel. Aside from those holiday treats, “everything on our menu is designed to feed the body, not just filling it up,” he told the AJP, “but preparing the body for the rest of the day.”

El Cisne owner Phil Ferranti, who grew up in Tucson and Mexico, also relies on fine traditional dining. “We have tablecloths and linen napkins, which is not the stereotypical view in America of Mexican restaurants. This is a place to dine,” says Ferranti, not a place to grab a quick burrito. “Our signature dish is wild-caught sea bass, or cabrilla rebozada, pan-fried in lemon butter and capers.” El Cisne will offer a prix fixe Mother’s Day Fiesta Mexicana — indoors or on the patio — with a choice of appetizers such as jalapeno rellenos, a sea bass entrée, and a margarita or glass of wine.

“We have a sultry-looking, very old-fashioned elegant bar. It’s worth coming here just to frequent the bar,” says Ferranti, adding that he’s had the same cooks and managers working with him in Tucson for more than 20 years.

Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink, a newcomer to Tucson restaurant clientele in the past two years, provides a full-evening experience, says Chef Tyler Fenton. For people who want to enjoy the beer garden, it now has a wider selection, including more unique European beers. “We have a new cocktail program inside the restaurant,” he says, with unusual house cocktails such as the mid-day moon, consisting of a blend of rums, sunflower syrup, lemon and creosote essence. Seasonal changes are also on tap across the menu.

“We’re bringing back our crostini with roasted asparagus and goat cheese,” says Fenton, who started Reilly Craft Pizza with his brother, Zachary, who is in charge of finances, and his sister, Courtney, now living in Los Angeles, who serves as the restaurant’s social media manager. “We want to be part of the community. We listen to our guests. You can come in for a quick lunch, come for an evening date, sit at the bar, have a few drinks and then decide to have dinner.” And there’s going to be a new cocktail lounge in the basement at the end of the summer.

The Old Pueblo may not have a beach, but Tucsonans can enjoy a “beach grill vibe” at Fini’s Landing, where Chef Tim Stevens is ramping up the salads and lighter fare for spring. The casual restaurant specializes in handheld items, he says, such as burgers, sandwiches, tacos, and their signature dish, the panga. Named for a Mexican fishing skiff, a panga is a halved grilled artisan romaine heart stuffed with fish (from sustainable fisheries), meat or a black bean/guacamole combination, with taco-style condiments such as pineapple- mango salsa.

Fini’s Landing boasts a big patio, equal to the inside dining space. “We’ve got some nice winds coming in from the west” and great views of the Catalina Mountains, says Stevens, noting that half the patio is shaded, with an evaporative cooler refreshing the air. The owners, Scott Mencke and Doug “Fini” Finical, “are always looking for a good reason to throw a party,” he says, with Cinco de Mayo and Mother’s Day specials in the works. And they’ve just installed a new Tiki head statue on the patio. “It’s our new mascot.”

Beautiful views of the mountains are also part of the charm at Gourmet Girls Gluten Free Bakery/Bistro, from the windows or the “baby patio” out front, says co-owner Susan Fulton.

Along with all-day breakfast and lunchtime sandwiches and pizzas, Gourmet Girls is now open for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays, 5-8 p.m. Dinner menu items include fresh fish as well as house-made pastas, such as a fettucine Alfredo, and “a variety of fun appetizers like flatbreads and bruschettas, things that gluten-free people don’t get to eat anywhere,” says Fulton.

A new springtime signature dessert features a meringue shell on a bed of créme anglaise, filled with lemon curd and topped with lavender ice cream. “There’s just so much taste and texture going on in that, it’s truly amazing,” says Fulton.

For more mountain viewing, from downtown to the Foothills, there are plenty of choices for a leisurely dinner. For great views of the Southwest sunset from a patio, the Hilton El Conquistdor Resort’s Epazote Kitchen and Cocktails is the place, says Chef Jonathan Kupper. On the menu, “we highlight what’s in season locally and change our three-course dinner menu special monthly. We serve San Rafael Ranch grass-fed organic beef burgers, Crow’s Dairy goat cheese [from Buckeye, Ariz.] and local hothouse tomatoes and cukes. We even use local agave syrup for our vinaigrette.”

Epazote “specializes in tequilas. We have over 40 different kinds,” says Kupper, adding that locally inspired Southwestern cuisine is key. “We took an old restaurant and rebranded it with extensive renovations about a year ago. In our dishes, we use minimal ingredients. We recognize dietary restrictions and offer a social hour where you can taste items from our bar menu, see what we have to offer.”

At Tavolino Ristorante Italiano, “we like to introduce a new fish every time we change the menu,” says owner/chef Massimo Tenino. “This year it will be sea bass from Mexico, which will be one of the Mother’s Day special entrees — wrapped in parchment and baked with olive oil, tomatoes and fresh herbs” — so that the flavors meld. The new spring/summer dessert menu will also begin on Mother’s Day, featuring panna cotta with fresh berries and a lemon tart made from scratch. And, he adds, “we have a nice patio with a great happy hour and music on Friday nights.”

Loews Ventana Canyon Resort eateries have “a great local following,” says Chef Ken Harvey. “We contract with vendors who offer green and sustainable foods” but much of the preparation is done in-house, such as dry-aging prime New York sirloin to tenderize it.

“All of our seafood is flown in from Santa Barbara,” he says. “We serve Irish organic farm-raised salmon. And at the Flying V Bar and Grill — overlooking the golf course, by a patio-side pool and magnificent sunsets — we always have our tableside guacamole.”

Ventana’s Canyon Café puts on a Blues, Booze & BBQ brunch on Sundays, but on Mother’s Day the cafe will offer a brunch with up to a dozen food stations around the resort, says Harvey, and jazz music performed by the Tucson Jazz Society. This summer, Ventana chefs will lead a monthly “Summer Desert Cooking Series” from May till August.

Brushfire BBQ typically uses summertime to adjust its menu and come up with new items for the fall, says co-owner Ben Rine. “We play with new meats and new ways to eat our barbecue, or what we call ‘a feel for the fire.’ We have a cornbread meatball on our secret menu, which we recommend when people ask what they should get. It’s cornbread topped by your choice of meat, then by our brisket chili, and a choice of sauces.”

Especially during the summer, the locally owned eatery is bound to make many Tucsonans happy: At its 22nd and Kolb location (the other is on Campbell), 24 flavors of ice cream are now available. “We’re not talking gelato or yogurt or soft serve,” Rine told the AJP. “Our batchmaker makes one and a half gallons at a time with real cream. It’s true small-batch classic American ice cream. There’s no corn syrup or dyes. Everything, including all our sauces and swirls are made on-site.”

Beyond good old-fashioned ice cream, Tucson offers a growing roster of ethnic dining choices. Café Desta serves traditional Ethiopian food prepared by its owners, one of whom is Huruy Zerghi, who holds a Ph.D. in environmental and microbiology from the University of Arizona. “We’re making Ethio wraps from Ethiopian food in Alejandro’s tortillas and delivering them weekly to the Food Conspiracy and Aqua Vita,” says Zerghi. “We’re owned by refugees from Eritrea. We’re creating more work for other refugees.”

For a quick lunch during the work day “where else can you go for Lebanese food, for such a reasonably priced and delicious falafel sandwich?” asks Joe Abi-Ad, owner of the Falafel King. “You don’t have to leave Tucson to find authentic Lebanese food and it’s all made from scratch.” Abi-Ad has been known in Tucson for the preparation of savory dishes from his homeland for more than 30 years.

Yuki Sushi is another Tucson staple. Located in central Tucson and open for dinner, the restaurant has a large selection of Asian entrees, sushi rolls, imported beer and sake. Chef Yuki Watabe has been called a master of his trade, a true artist noted for his attention to detail. His creations “are so beautiful they cause one to pause before devouring a masterpiece,” says Leona Watabe, his wife and co-owner.

In Italian Vero Amore means “true love,” which is what happened when co-owners, brothers Joshua and Aric Mussman, first tasted authentic Neopolitan pizza in Italy. They brought the wood-fired pizza tradition to their restaurant in Tucson, adding salads, pasta dishes and panini sandwiches to the menu, along with house-made mozzarella cheese that’s prepared daily.

An added treat is Vero Amore’s two patios — one in the sun and one in the shade — with music by Birks Works on Saturday nights (full disclosure — Stuart Mellan, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, plays keyboard in the feel-good jazz group).

Dante’s Fire also has live music on weekends, and a late night happy hour daily from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., in addition to the one from 4 to 7 p.m. The restaurant offers an eclectic menu, from beef carpaccio to lamb thagliardia, from tuna tartare to poached salmon to a traditional Kobe beef burger with garlic fries. Dante’s has an extensive cocktail list headed by a summer-cool cucumber martini, topped with cucumber foam.

For French-inspired American food, head to the new Bodega Kitchen & Wine, tucked away in St. Philip’s Plaza. “We provide gourmet, delicious food at a reasonable cost, using simple ingredients creatively,” says Alek Comyford, owner and manager, adding that attractive dishes and ambiance are important. “Both the interior design and patio are off-the-wall beautiful. And you don’t get headlights in your eyes while dining.”

Bodega is in the process of changing its menu to lighter, healthier fare for the warmer season, he says, with a seared ahi salad and a wild salmon and tabouleh entrée. “Our fish tacos for lunch are phenomenal and extremely popular. In May, we’re planning to start brunch during Saturday and Sunday farmers’ markets.”

“This is our 10th year of business,” says Renee Kreager, co-owner of Renee’s Organic Oven with her husband, Steve, but the couple changed the name in 2011 to reflect their own life change. “When I was pregnant with my son, who’s now 11, we committed to supporting local farmers, the integrity of the earth and our desire for healthy food. It’s a big re­sponsibility growing a baby.”

Renee’s seasonal menu of pizza, salads and pasta dishes changes as the harvest does. “It’s the best time of year for local bell peppers, chilis, tomatoes and basil, our most important ingredients,” says Kreager, adding that their popular lavender limoncello in lemon sorbet drink is on their annual “Spring into Summer” cocktail menu.

St. Philip’s Plaza is the home of Scordato’s Pizzeria, lending the hand of Tucson’s Daniel Scordato to the craft of artisan pizza-making. In addition to chef-inspired, high-quality ingredient pizza, Scordato’s presents light Italian entrees such as chicken with fresh mozzarella and tomato, as well as classic eggplant parmesan and stuffed red pepper. And don’t forget a luxurious dessert of affogato, a warm shot of sweetened espresso over white chocolate gelato.

You may feel like you’re in Italy when you dine under the olive trees at Queen Creek Olive Mill and Eatery, about a 90-minute drive from Tucson. “We’ve been in the valley for 16 years,” says Perry Rea, who owns the business with his wife, Brenda. He had worked in the automotive industry in Detroit. “We went from motor oil to olive oil,” he quips, adding that it was Brenda’s idea to start investigating making olive oil as a way to move to Arizona.

Making olive oil “was going to start as a little hobby of mine. But it grew very organically to over 50 products,” says Rea, with more than 600 seats at the restaurant. The mill is home to 7,500 olive trees on a 100 percent pesticide-free farm.

At the eatery, “we have a big day on Mother’s Day with a prix fixe dinner menu or brunch.” On any day, diners can enjoy vanilla bean olive oil waffles for breakfast, an olive oil cupcake, or an olive mill antipasto plate for lunch or dinner. If you can’t make it to Queen Creek, there’s always olive oil tasting — and a full line of products — at the new shop at Tucson’s La Encantada.

AJP Executive Editor Phyllis Braun contributed to this article.