The new crop of Tucson restaurants seems to trend toward reinventing classic regional-American dishes with local ingredients—which would be a wonderful and creative thing if seemingly every new restaurant wasn't doing it.
However, Elle Wine Bistro is one of the original local-turned-gourmet restaurants in Tucson—so, in theory, it should be one of the best. Elle has been dishing up twists on wine-country classics since 1998 (albeit through several different owners), and was until last year Elle Wine Country Restaurant at the Broadway Village.
The latest iteration of Elle, at Campbell Plaza, is sleek and modern, almost to the point of starkness, which is quite a departure from the former identity. The restaurant wasn't busy either time we visited, yet the service suffered from a lack of attention to detail both times.
Our first visit to Elle was on a weeknight for a casual dinner. Even though there were only three or four other tables occupied, we got seated at a tiny two-top in the middle of a row of other tiny two-tops, which would have been loud and cramped had there been any other patrons.
Dinner started out with wine, as it should at a wine bistro. I picked a $9 glass of Kangarilla Road/McLaren Vale, which was one of the lower-priced reds, and Ted selected a Raw Power Shiraz by Old Plains for $7.50. Elle's wine selection is broad, but tends toward somewhat pricier varieties, especially in the reds. They offset this by offering a "splash" of wine for half the price of a glass.
Instead of an appetizer, we ordered 10 selections of the "morsELLEs," little two-to-three bite-size tasters for $20. There were 10 options on the tasting menu, so we decided to have one of each. After noshing through three or four of the tasty little bites, we noticed that we had only received nine of the 10 selections. Our server hadn't checked in on us or mentioned anything when he dropped the plate off, so when the manager wandered by, we mentioned it to him, and he told us that they were out of the missing 10th item, and quickly offered to replace it with a second helping of one of the other options.
My two favorites were the tiny heap of goat cheese-stuffed Peppadew peppers, and the fried brie with spiced green-apple chutney and roasted garlic cloves; Ted enjoyed the crispy fried onions with Oaxacan barbecue sauce. The chimichurri-marinated beef skewer was tender, but quite bland, and the rest of the selections were unremarkable.
Our entrées took quite a while to arrive after we were finished with appetizers, but they were definitely the highlight of our two visits. Ted ordered the zatar-crusted grilled rack of lamb with saffron couscous and olive-tomato relish ($30), and after much debate, I decided upon the gnocchi with house-made Italian sausage and fresh mozzarella in a tomato sauce ($18). The lamb was a perfect medium-rare, and paired well with the salty relish and the mild couscous, though the zatar spice blend was barely evident. My gnocchi was a little bit heavy and on the al dente side, but once mixed with the well-seasoned sausage bits and gooey mozzarella goodness, it was delicious.
We finished off dinner with a lovely New York-style cheesecake ($7) and more wine—a chardonnay from Peirano Estates ($9) for Ted, and the Tinto red blend from Trenza ($10.50) for me.
Our next visit to Elle was for a weekend lunch, and the restaurant was nearly empty; we were able to pick our own appropriately sized table this time. We decided to try out the custom cocktails and beer list—I had a mojito ($9.25), and Ted ordered a Boont amber ale from Anderson Valley Brewing Company ($8.50). The mojito had a nice, light, summery flavor, but had too much ice and was small for the price.
The Elle lunch menu has quite a bit of overlap with the dinner menu. We tried the petite portion of the crispy fried calamari ($7; or $11.50 for the regular size). The calamari was fresh and not chewy, but the Caesar dressing served with it wasn't a good flavor match.
Our lunch entrées were less than spectacular, and our server was inattentive and a little brusque. Ted's fried shrimp po'boy ($12) would have been much better if it wasn't literally dripping with the spicy mayonnaise remoulade sauce. I had the chimichurri steak salad ($13; or $9.75 for the petite size), which was unimpressive, at best. The steak pieces weren't completely cut apart, so when I went to stab a slice, I came up with a big string of steak. Even though the meat was sauced with chimichurri, both it and the salad greens were devoid of flavor.
With all of the various reinterpretations of classic cuisines by new restaurants comes great pressure to truly excel. The reinvention and relocation of Elle has the potential to succeed, with the clean, modern design, and great ideas like the wine "splash" and the "morsELLEs" menu—but since Elle is a Tucson icon, the expectations and the bar are set even higher.