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Peak Cuisine 

Harvest wows with its generous and unpretentious food, emphasizing local and sustainable ingredients

How ironic that Oro Valley, an area synonymous with unchecked sprawl and eco-pillaging, should be home to a restaurant devoted to sustainability, from the seafood to the material used in the servers' shirts.

Harvest Restaurant cannot be held responsible for the sins of Oro Valley. That big ol' strip mall would be there even if the restaurant weren't--and the high quality of Harvest's fare is sure to put any Oro Valley hater in a forgiving mood.

The restaurant is owned by the MaRKeT Group, which is also responsible for Zona 78 and the Grill at Hacienda del Sol, and all of these venues are lucky to share executive chef Ramiro Scavo. His participation alone signals that the menu will be fairly upscale; in this case, it emphasizes locally harvested ingredients served in peak season. Of course, ahi tuna, Lake Superior whitefish and Arctic charr are hardly local, but they are brought in from "sustainable waters."

Harvest opened only around last Thanksgiving, but it's already developed a following that makes reservations highly advisable, even midweek. The dining room, with all its bare surfaces (concrete floor, minimally decorated walls, hardwood tables) can be noisy, and the tables are close together, but the patio area is a bit more relaxed.

My most significant complaint during a visit last week was that the bread was slow to arrive. That's how good Harvest is--its lapses are trivial.

That bread, by the way, came in a basket that wasn't really sufficient for four people, but refills were easily obtained, and, frankly, having to ask for more is better than letting an excess go to waste. The most interesting aspect of the bread service was the spread, a cherry-compote butter. A couple of my dining companions thought it was too "jammy," more suited to breakfast, but I didn't find the fruit content to be excessive.

One of those companions was a peculiar and colorful friend of mine who insisted, for the purpose of this review, on being called Angie, after a dog she was fostering. Angie started her meal with the roasted squash soup ($8), adorned with toasted pumpkin seeds and maple crème fraiche. It's the sort of thing that would be thoroughly comforting in winter, and it was even appealing during the recent unseasonably high temperatures. Angie, a connoisseur of squash soups, approved of this one's creamy texture and overall flavor, aside from a slight excess of cinnamon.

From there, she turned to one of the evening's specials, a seafood ravioli ($22) involving the menu's aforementioned primary fish--ahi, whitefish and charr--tucked into pasta pillows and doused with a shallot-brown butter sauce, with a few veggies along for the ride (that evening, the omnipresent vegetable was broccolini). The portion looked small, but Angie wound up barely making it all the way through, thanks largely to the richness of the cream sauce; the fish flavor, she noted approvingly, was prominent.

Angie's husband, whom I will call Gary, feasted on a pair of appetizers, starting with a cheese tart ($8) that called into play black mission figs, prosciutto di Parma, organic greens and grilled grapes. Gary liked it, but noted that the chef was way too cautious with the figs, which were barely discernable. He had no complaints about the gnocchi ($11), abounding with wild mushrooms plus sausage and sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes). The gnocchi seemed remarkably firm, having apparently been steamed and then sautéed rather than merely boiled. Shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano topped it off nicely.

My wife, Yvonne, has avoided red meat for decades, but she couldn't help indulging in another of the evening's specials, a petite filet (6 ounces) with herbed mashed potatoes ($21). The preparation was simple and effective: The beef was tender and smoky; the sauce was flavorful without being oversalted; and the dish benefited from a smattering of roasted garlic cloves. Her meal began with an organic spring mix salad ($9) involving green beans and candy-striped beets along with the usual greens and a white-truffle-oil dressing, plus some flecks of ricotta that contributed nothing to an otherwise agreeable dish.

I opted for two of Harvest's most popular items: an appetizer of beef-stuffed empanadas ($9) and a main course of lobster mac and cheese ($21). The dough of the three little empanadas encased a filling of organic beef, figs, green olives and, according to the menu, egg, although I couldn't detect that component. A nice, slightly tart green chimmichurri sauce (more common as a meat marinade) came on the side. It was all quite savory, but the empanadas' tendency to crumble made them hard to manage. The mac and cheese employed corkscrew pasta and little chunks of lobster in a white cheese sauce that wasn't quite as rich as it looked; a bit of broccolini and a couple of basil leaves rested atop it all. The portion was substantial, but the flavors were certainly not overbearing; indeed, the dish may be too subtle for some tastes.

We were stuffed but shared three desserts anyway ($8 each). Here is where Harvest's efforts become less distinctive--often a problem with desserts made from organic, healthful ingredients, for some reason. Of the three, the chocolate pecan pie stood out; Angie observed with pleasure that the flavors (including Arizona pecans and chantilly cream) were very well-balanced, with just a touch of chocolate at the bottom, not an overload as at, for example, Kingfisher. The crème brülée was one of those with a pudding texture beneath the crust, satisfactory but not remarkable. The same might be said of the Willcox apple crumble, so oat-y that it seemed more like breakfast food than dessert.

The fact that the desserts are merely satisfactory rather than outstanding should not dissuade you from making the journey north to Harvest. (Let's not forget the attractive, diverse 85-item wine list and interesting cocktail menu.) Older folks living in the Oro Valley area probably appreciate the "sunset menu," which offers several entrées for $12 from 4 to 5:30 p.m., daily. For others, with its upscale but generous menu and unpretentious atmosphere, Harvest will likely become a favorite destination.

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