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Artistic License 

Artwork and movies create a new dimension at Galleri Café.

If you stay in Tucson long enough, you'll have the opportunity to watch certain buildings house many different businesses--a card shop becomes a designer, a vegetable vendor becomes a used CD store and so on. Occasionally, restaurants change hands in such a perfunctory fashion you might become confused. It's like a complicated moment of déjà vu, only you really have been there before. Perhaps this should be called Veja Du ... you really were there before; you just can't quite fully recall how.

And so it was I found myself in a newly remodeled restaurant that used to house a neighborhood bar, where one's feet used to stick to the floor, and they hosted a pig roast in the parking lot. Vestiges of the original restaurant are still there (Oh, that exposed duct work) but for the most part the Galleri Café has moved in to its new digs and worked on totally transforming the venue.

And so now you'll find yourself in someone else's vision of a place. This can be a slightly surreal moment. The Galleri Café is disturbingly bland, as if all the funky vibes from before needed to be eliminated by creating an atmosphere so creamy, white and plastered, there won't be a scrap of memory you'll recognize or remember. Now it is a gallery and a café--hence the Galleri Café. You'll find art on the walls, lovely tables and chairs and even some small nooks and crannies where you can sit and sip wine around a coffee table. And, one supposes, discuss art.

The art is certainly worthy of a conversation or two. I'm not sure what your conversation might be. Possibly you could discuss the originality of the work. We had a lively debate over whether or not it had been purchased at a local Target. The statue of the woman with the world's most enormous hips and ass, topped off with a pea-sized head, certainly sparks an interesting conversation like, "What the hell is that doing in a place were people are going to sit and eat?" Or, "Say darling, do you see the striking resemblance to your ex-wife?" You won't run short of conversation. No, sir.

But we were there to eat, and so we ordered our saucers of milk and proceeded to check out the menu. To its credit, the menu is pared down and focused. Too often a new venue will try to cover too much ground, sprawling in too many directions with too many offerings. Here the chef is to the point.

We decided to start our meal with the mussels and a Cobb salad. Our server was prompt, gracious and knowledgeable. Occasionally you'll run across someone in the business who is so schooled with the finer points of service they momentarily make you forget their presence. Our server effortlessly appeared, disappeared, kept waters and ice tea full. Since the venue wasn't terribly busy, he didn't fuss or hover. He simply, and mindfully, did his job.

When the mussels arrived, the portion was ample. Although the broth was lovely, a classic white wine and garlic brodo, the mussels were slightly off, reaching that gamey point where possibly a different dish might have been a better choice. Still, we dunked bread and picked our way through the order.

The Cobb salad was a moderately sized salad. We weren't sure if we were relieved or disappointed. The local trend seems to be to make less expensive items like salads so large you need a lawnmower just to find the plate. This salad was modestly portioned. Served with a chopped chicken breast, cheese, and tomatoes, this was a standard version of Cobb salad.

Our hunger not necessarily thwarted, we were growing curious and anxious as to what entrees would bring. We were pleasantly surprised with what we found.

Grilled and sliced pork tenderloin was served in a creamy Dijon mustard sauce. A large serving of heavenly garlic mashed potatoes were a delightful find, but the true treasure on the plate were the vegetables. Carefully turned baby carrots and asparagus had been cooked within a breadth of a delicate crunch. Suddenly, full attention turned to all our plates. Any chef who knows his way around delicate spring-time vegetables is worthy of quiet worship.

We were just as pleased with the salmon fillet served in a balsamic demi-glace. Tiny bits of tomato added a sweet finish to this light sauce. Served with mashed potatoes and more of the same delicate vegetables, the dish made us happy campers.

The sandwiches offer a more pedestrian route. A hamburger was just that. The deli offerings are substantial. We sampled a pastrami and cheese, which wasn't gargantuan, but certainly was filling. A number of sides are offered, and we sampled the potato salad, which was pronounced just fine.

An antipasto platter was a great plate for everyone to sample. A generous serving of fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, roasted garlic, kalamata olives, marinated garbanzo beans, crostini and tiny folds of prosciutto and salami, all made for an excellent plate.

Desserts are not made in-house, which is too bad. A small venue like this might do well to try its hand at some house desserts, or at least elevate the desserts to the same level as some of the more ambitious entrees. We tried a New York cheesecake and a chocolate cake, and while an attempt was made at spiffing up a presentation, neither one was particularly impressive.

We left the Galleri Café musing as to exactly why it is called the Galleri Café, especially when there isn't that much of a "galleri" about it. Is the food like art? Well, no. Is the art like food? Uhhmm, negative. There is a gigantic screen in the corner for watching movies, and this does sound like a novel idea. On Tuesdays, you can sit and dine while taking in an old movie. At other times, major sports events play on the big screen. Perhaps they should call it Cinema Café, or Galleri Cinema. No matter the name, our hope is that this restaurant finds its niche and keeps us from repeating that odd sense of culinary veja du.

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