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Approachable Ambiance 

CORE Kitchen and Wine Bar wows with playful, delicious food and hospitality that's far from stuffy

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of the Ritz-Carlton brand is stuffy, high-brow elegance—which is not something that generally fits into my dinner plans more than once a year.

However, my first dining experience at CORE Kitchen and Wine Bar at the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, was anything but stuffy—to be honest, I felt a little overdressed. Our server that evening captured the atmosphere perfectly when he called it "approachable."

A nice dinner out at CORE is still going to put a bit of a dent in your wallet; it's just not as big of a dent as I was anticipating, and that dent is well worth the fantastically prepared, brilliantly thought-out food—and beyond the food, the entire staff at the Ritz-Carlton put the figurative icing on the cake with their incredible hospitality and kindness.

Ted and I first took the long trek northwest on a weekday evening. We arrived a little early, so we spent a few minutes "ooh"-ing and "ahh"-ing over the gorgeous, modern décor and impressive wine room. (A note to the decorator: Please come to my house, and make it look like that.) It was too dark outside to see much of the mountains, but the long drive up featured some lovely views.

Once seated, with menus and the gargantuan wine list in hand (CORE offers more than 2,800 bottles and around 40 glasses), the sommelier came over and was extremely helpful in assisting us to choose glasses of wine that would complement our entrées. I had the Torbreck Woodcutter's shiraz from Australia ($15 per glass), and Ted had the Lioco un-oaked Chardonnay from Sonoma County ($13 per glass). Glasses of wine range from $8 to $20-ish, and bottles range from the mid-$20s to several hundred dollars. Both our server and the sommelier were casual, comfortable and chatty, yet very knowledgeable about the food and wine.

The appetizers at CORE are playful and thoughtfully prepared. We started off with the foie gras ($18), a delicately seared slice served with duck-fried yams, onion marmalade and roasted grapes that packed a slow-moving punch of spiciness. The yams overpowered the delicate foie gras just slightly, and the dish could have used a crispy texture somewhere to balance the rich creaminess of all the other ingredients.

We also ordered the bigeye tuna sashimi appetizer ($15), which proved to be the best preparation of raw tuna that I've ever had. Beautifully sliced diamonds of tuna were garnished with micro-greens and accompanied by crushed Japanese "snack mix," chile-flavored pop rocks and a soy-sauce-based sauce. Our server suggested that we sprinkle on the snack mix and pop rocks, then drizzle a bit of the sauce over the top to get the pop rocks popping. It was like being 8 years old again, but with really, really delicious food: The dish delighted both the palate and all of the senses. Food that makes you smile and giggle is a powerful tool in a chef's arsenal.

The entrées were equally impressive. The main courses feature a Sonoran Desert take on cuisine from across the country. I opted for the buffalo tenderloin ($32) served with "liquid polenta," a sauté of house-made chorizo and rocket greens, crispy fried mesquite "noodles" and three-chile aioli. The tenderloin filet was a generous portion, and was cooked to a perfect medium-rare. I normally loathe polenta, but I loved the creamy "liquid" version. The chorizo and rocket greens added a kick to the dish, and the mesquite "noodles" (fried tortilla-like strips made from mesquite flour) were the perfect textural addition.

Ted ordered the bandit boat grouper ($27), served with shrimp and grits, collard greens, sweet-corn broth and the most amazing crispy, pickled-onion rings ever. The grouper was a huge portion of fish, seared to a slightly crisp outside, and a moist, tender inside. There were numerous shrimp with the grits, and the collard greens added the necessary tang of bitterness, contrasting the sweet, thick corn broth.

Even though I'm not a dessert person, I was extra-careful to save room, and wasn't disappointed. We shared the "fall dream" ($8), which nearly sent me into a sugar-induced hallucination from all of the delicious sweetness. Squares of pear cake (think banana bread, but made with pears, and fluffier) were surrounded by a sweet, chewy caramel cream, squares of pear gelatin, dollops of pear foam and—my favorite—dried pear chips. The chef used several varieties of pears, ensuring that the pear flavor wasn't too monotonous or overwhelming.

CORE is one of the main restaurants within the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, also offering breakfast (but not lunch). We checked out breakfast early one morning, and were impressed with the creativity of the offerings. Two buffet options are offered: a continental buffet, which includes cereal, yogurt, charcuterie, fruit, oatmeal and more, for $15; or the hot buffet ($22), which includes all of the continental offerings, plus cooked-to-order eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes and the chef's daily feature.

CORE also offers a regular breakfast menu, which is what we opted for that morning. I went for the huevos rancheros ($16), which was a humongous portion, with two large, crisp-fried corn tortillas, smothered in chorizo, queso fresco, "boracho" beans and avocado, and topped with two eggs over-easy. It was spicy and satisfying, and I only made it through half of the dish. Ted, on the other hand, polished off his chile-lacquered steak and eggs ($18), a generously sized, perfectly cooked New York strip steak brushed with a chile glaze and served with blistered tomatoes, hash browns and eggs any way you like them.

With playful, intricate food, prepared with an eye for detail, CORE has some of the best culinary offerings in Tucson—even if it's a bit of a drive for most of us. The views are breathtaking, and the atmosphere is casual and approachable. There's no need to wait for a special occasion to head up that way and check it out; just dress appropriately for the experience—Tucson casual.

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