During Arizona Restaurant Week, eateries across the Northwest and throughout Tucson pick some menu favorites, knock real dollars off their prices, and reach out to new customers.
Restaurant Week, which runs Sept. 18-26, is "almost like this hidden gem in the middle of summer," said Kristina Dziedzic, general manager at Wildflower in Casas Adobes Plaza. "It'll help us kick start the season."
For Bluefin Seafood Bistro at Casas Adobes Plaza, the week is "a way to open up to a whole other sector of guests," said James "Murph" Murphy, who runs Bluefin with his co-owners, Tim Ivankovich and Jeff Azersky. It's always Murph's goal to make guests "feel special," and eager to return.
Clayton Van Hooijdonk, executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain, said every restaurant week "exposes you to different guests." This year, the resort's poolside Turquesa Latin Grill is featured "And it's very affordable."
Indeed, participating restaurants are cutting prices on three-course meals, while serving "what our clients like best, because they continue to order it," Bluefin's Murphy said.
Wildflower's Dziedzic said the week's fare consists of choices "that won't go away," even with seasonal menu changes. "They're always a hit. And it's a really great deal."
Saffron, the Indian restaurant on North Oracle, and Dove Mountain Grill at Tangerine and Dove Mountain, are trying Restaurant Week for the first time.
Dove Mountain Grill general manager Ward Mack hopes to "show people what we can do for cuisine," and to demonstrate the Dove Mountain Grill and its kitchen staff, led by chef Brett Vibber, "can put out a great product."
Saffron owner Saurabh "Mintu" Sareem likes the idea of a discounted introduction to the restaurant. "I'm pretty sure they're going to come back," Mintu says. "It's a very good way of getting new clients in, trying new food."
For several of the eateries, Restaurant Week helps to create impressions, and overcome misperceptions.
People think the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain is "formal, stuffy and expensive," said Shaun Beucler, director of food and beverage at the resort. "We're trying to break that mold."
People think Saffron's Indian food is spicy, Mintu said. "We can make it very mild. It's a good, healthy cuisine."
Dove Mountain Grill serves up cuisine, not "bar food," and chef Vibber has come home to Tucson, grooming relationships with local growers to feature regional fare.
"Our main focus is getting things as close as possible," said Vibber. "This part of Arizona, there's an endless wealth to tap." Heirloom tomatoes, 12 kinds of basil, squash for Marana Squash Soup, local grilled vegetables, local peppers, in-house breads … "we want to showcase it," Mack said.
The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain featured Cayton's a year ago. This year, it wants people to experience Turquesa, where guests can taste the creations of Carlos Garcia. Garcia is "very passionate about the food he's serving, and the ingredients he's using," said Beucler. "I believe a lot in Carlos."
Garcia, from San Juan, Puerto Rico, brings the tastes of his native land and the Caribbean to Turquesa. He buys local produce, and brings a unique touch. His tembleque dessert – coconut custard, fruit salsa and guava port wine jelly – is an interpretation of his grandmother's traditional Christmas dessert. "How cool is that?" Beucler asks. "It just hits home."
"This is a hidden gem," Beucler said of Turquesa.
"It sets you in a different time zone, really," Van Hooijdonk said.
So does Restaurant Week, Sept. 18-26.
Being paid to eat
To promote Arizona Restaurant Week, the ever-simmering Sam Brace of the Caliber Group set up a foodie's dream afternoon – stops at five Northwest restaurants, with scrumptious samples at each.
Full disclosure – I am not a foodie. No distinguishing palate. No fancy descriptives, no references to smokiness, fruitiness, nuttiness, richness … no 'ness. Just the facts, ma'am, with exclamations sprinkled like chocolate sauce on warm, caramelized bananas. (Drool here.)
Second full disclosure — I ate large, free portions of nearly everything put in front of me at all five restaurants. And ate. And ate, at least sampling every piece of moist pork, chicken, fish and shrimp, and all three luscious desserts.
It started with creamy clams casino, on a bed of rock salt with cabbage slaw, a marinated roast pork tenderloin that simply melted, and Scottish salmon crusted with rosemary and black pepper at Bluefin in Casas Adobes Plaza. And the black beans, firm and chewy with strong pepper "tones." There are many black beans in this boy's diet, and these were primo.
By the time we walked over to Wildflower, also in Casas Adobes, I was … a little full.
"Rookie mistake," declared Kristina Dziedzic, general manager at Wildflower, about early indulgence. Real foodies resist the childhood rule that plates must be cleaned.
At Wildflower, the kitchen staff put in front of us pan-seared salmon, thick yet evenly cooked, on a bed of creamy white polenta with a pile of arugula. And generous slabs of bruschetta, the bread grilled over a wood fire, topped with smooth goat cheese and spears of young asparagus finished with red pepper marmalade. Ooooooh. Gotta eat all those.
For dessert, Wildflower's outrageous warm chocolate brownies with ice cream and one of those white- and dark-chocolate sticks, accompanied by a cold butterscotch "pot de crème" capped by caramel and sea salt.
"Mix them together," Kristina urges, and of course we do. The sweet tooth always rules. Sam drips chocolate sauce on my copy of the menu, then leaves me. Three more restaurants to go, on my own. Ahhhhh, well. Someone's gotta do it.
The lunch rush has passed at Saffron, the Indian restaurant on North Oracle. While proprietor Mintu has something prepared in the kitchen, he invites a tour of the lunch buffet. The mango pudding is, well, bright-orange pudding … until a bite of mango sends a burst of tart, sweet flavor onto the tongue. It's quickly scarfed. From the kitchen comes chicken tikka masala, what Mintu calls the national dish of England. The boneless, spice-infused chicken is tasty, and not oily. It's dipped into a tomato, cream and spice sauce, and it's flat-out good. No wonder the English love it (particularly in comparison to their other food).
Then there's the traditional Indian bread, naan, a soft white delight baked on the wall of a clay oven, with little black kalanji seeds. It's thin like a tortilla, but fluffier. Each bite melts. Warm bread is always good; this stuff is terrific.
At the Dove Mountain Grill, chef Brett Vibber whips up shrimp rellenos, a huge roasted Anaheim chile stuffed with Baja prawns, Mexico's fresh cheese "queso fresco" (that's Spanish for "fresh cheese"), surrounded by saffron rice pilaf, corn, and crispy yucca chips, which Vibber pronounces "yuka." The combination of mild, roasted chile, and prawns mellowed with white cheese … ooooh. It's time to lift the shoulders, as my late Portuguese grandfather would do, to fit in as much food as possible. De-lish.
They are not serving crackers at the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain, the day's final stop. At Turquesa, the poolside restaurant run by chef Carlos Garcia, the Mexican seafood salad campachena has wondrous textures and flavors. Carlos takes a fat chunk of lime, spices it, then grills it for the mahi-mahi tacos. When squeezed, the citrus falls apart atop the must-be-eaten fish dish, accompanied by pineapple slaw, fire-roasted salsa, green onions … wow.
The afternoon's third dessert is a beaut. Carlos calls it Aztec Flambe, a mesquite tortilla wrapped around warm carmelized bananas, topped with vanilla ice cream, strawberries marinated in tequila, pistachio crumbs with sugar and chocolate drizzle. OMG. I eat every superb bite, and would have slurped the melted remnants had I been alone.
"Dinner?" Lisa asks that evening. No. Maybe not tomorrow, either.
More than 40 taking part in special week
More than 40 restaurants throughout metropolitan Tucson are serving three-course meals at special prices during Arizona Restaurant Week, Sept. 18-26.
This is the second time Arizona Restaurant Week has taken place in the region, and the third year the metropolitan Phoenix has hosted the event.
The Arizona Restaurant Association introduced the nine-day event to entice diners to try some of the region's finest cuisine at a set price, which will be $19, $29 or $39 per person, excluding tax and tip. Some restaurants are including an alcoholic beverage in the fixed price.
"Arizona Restaurant Week is an enjoyable way to dine out in and around Tucson without breaking the bank," said Steve Chucri, president and chief executive officer of the Arizona Restaurant Association.
For information, go to www.facebook.com/arizonarestaurantweek, www.twitter.com/azrestaurantwk, www.youtube.com/user/AZRestaurantWeek, www.foursquare.com/user/azrestaurantwk, and www.ArizonaRestaurantWeek.com.