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Posted: Tuesday, August 14, 2001 11:00 pm

There is not a restaurant in Tucson that is more appealing to spend a memorable evening or to celebrate a special occasion at than The Gallery at Dove Mountain. The food is innovative and flawless; the ambiance sophisticated and the setting unsurpassed in natural beauty.

You may recall that The Gallery is a private club open to non-members until the club membership is sold out. Membership in this club is expensive and I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity, a true gift to non-members, a gift of exceptional food and presentation modestly priced in a restaurant where you can abandon yourself to the pleasure of dining.

My third visit to The Gallery confirmed what I reported a year ago. It remains a flagship. It is a restaurant with a genius chef at the helm. On this August night, we arrived on the eve of Chef Jason Cooley's 30th birthday. It is amazing that one so young can create inimitable dishes and serve them in an impressive and dazzling style.

We learned that appetizers at The Gallery are really meant to be shared. A generous scoop of baked goat cheese ($8) lightly dusted with Panko, surrounded with chunky marinara sauce arrived to be eaten with the thinnest of crostinis. The goat cheese was warm, creamy and beyond satisfaction. If I had eaten all of it, it would have sufficed as a dinner. A light, crispy pastry bowl held the bountiful rock shrimp cocktail ($8). The shrimp had been lightly breaded and sauted in cocktail sauce. Surrounding the bowl was crisp cole slaw and the shaved potatoes I remembered from my last visit. These are ribbon like, delicate potato chips. Not a trace of oil. Until The Gallery I had not eaten any potatoes like these melt-on-your-tongue delicacies.

Again I ordered the grilled Caesar Salad ($4). Each evening the chef greets guests tableside. When I praised the salad, we witnessed his genuine passion for food as he glowed while expressing joy in experimenting by spreading Caesar dressing on romaine hearts, grilling them until the dressing caramelized, chilling the romaine, and topping it with shaved parmesan. It's a novel and delectable twist to an old favorite. My partner's baby spinach salad ($5) with warm bacon and Dijon dressing roasted red onions and Stilton blue cheese resulted in a delicious pairing of ingredients.

With your salad enjoy poppy seed rolls and petite zucchini muffins. All breads are made on site including hamburger buns for the golfers, explained Elke, who served us with grace, pacing our meal so that we could relish every course.

If you have your heart set on seafood as I did, the stuffed prawns ($19) with lobster salad, sweet potato chips and white bean succotash should satisfy even the most sophisticated diner. The seafood paella ($18) was brimming with shrimp, salmon, halibut, mussels, and calamari in saffron infused Arborio rice. The serving was more than generous and we enjoyed the contents of our take home box for lunch the next day.

The Gallery summer menu includes lighter fare at moderate prices. I want to return for Grilled Chicken Risotto ($12) with mushrooms, fresh herbs (the Chef grinds fresh herbs as needed for each order), crme fraiche, blue cheese and hazelnuts. Or bow tie with rock shrimp ($14) with roasted garlic, sun dried tomatoes, spinach and wild mushroom broth. For those whose mouths water for meat, the herb-crusted pork loin ($16), or the grilled New York steak ($22), I'm sure will be equal to the restaurant's consistency of excellence.

Seduced by something new on the menu, we shared a banana bread pudding with crme artists in the kitchen; we mused as the triangular plate with warm pudding was placed before us. The chef has devised a method of drying bananas so that they are crisp, not hard as chips in grocery stores. The strips of bananas were placed artfully over the pudding and ice cream. The dessert menu included soft center chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream on a white chocolate cookie (I relished this on my last visit), strawberry peanut tart, a peanut butter short bread topped with preserved strawberries, and more. All desserts are $6.

The Gallery is open for dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings from 5:30 until 8 p.m. Reservations are recommended. Call 744-4700. We arrived at 5:30 p.m., a suitable hour to enjoy the drive (23 miles from Campbell and Sunrise).

Lunch is served at the Gallery every day except Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The menu includes grilled chicken quesadilla ($7), mixed green salad with a cup of soup ($7), Chinese chicken salad ($9.50), and sandwiches ranging from the classic burger ($8.50) to grilled portabello mushroom ($9).

October through June, champagne Sunday brunch is served once a month. Begin with the pastry and fresh fruit table; order your entre which is prepared fresh, and revel in the dessert bar. The brunch ranges in price from $15.00 to $25.00 depending on the entre you select. Call for dates.

As we were departing at 7:30, Tom Meade, Food and Beverage Director invited us to follow him to the edge of the northwest patio. There we thrilled at the sun setting over the mountain's rim, the most spectacular sunset I have ever witnessed in Arizona. It was an unexpected bonus.

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