Don't Head For The Hills

La Vista Is Little More Than A Pretty Package.

By Rebecca Cook

BEFORE DETAILING MY impressions of La Vista, the top-of-the-line restaurant at the El Conquistador Country Club and Resort, it might be helpful to share the main criteria I use in evaluating a restaurant.

First and foremost is the quality of the food. I can endure a wide range of inconveniences as long as there's that light at the end of the tunnel. Innovation, creativity and character count for a lot in my book. I thoroughly appreciate the restaurant that steps outside of the mundane, endlessly repetitious chain mentality that permeates our dining culture these days. From the affluent aerie of Janos or the Gold Room, to the streetside charm of BK's Hotdog & Taco Stand on South Sixth Avenue, a cadre of local eateries exemplify some of the finest aspects of living and eating in Tucson, Arizona.

Chow Service is a close second, and periodically lifts a mediocre dining experience to memorably pleasant. Topnotch service coupled with a solid menu, such as at Daniel's or Anthony's in the Foothills, can tip the scales to excellence.

But the bottom line for me is value: what kind of bang do you get for your buck? It's one thing to have a merely adequate meal for under $10, and quite another to fork out $50 for the same kind of experience. Although I have the advantage of turning over my dining bills to someone else, I well remember when it was my own hard-earned cash that crossed the table. If a meal was outstanding, I considered it money well spent.

Conversely, when the experience was less than stellar, I was--literally and otherwise--a tad put out. In my role as a restaurant reviewer, I aim to spare readers that bankrupt sense of chagrin.

With that in mind, although La Vista offers several pleasing dishes and features, it fails to justify its somewhat pricey menu. La Vista is solidly passable. Is that good enough when you're spending close to $20 an entrée without the accompaniment of soup or salad? You be the judge.

For years El Conquistador's high-end restaurant was the White Dove, located inside the swanky northwest resort. Although the resort still offers more casual dining, the big daddy now is La Vista, located in the Country Club a few miles away from the resort proper.

One of the advantages of this location is a breathtaking and uninterrupted view of the surrounding mountains, desert and distant city lights. White linen tablecloths, decorative oil candles and live music by the jazz combo Styles (on Friday and Saturday nights only) give an unmistakable air of urbane elegance.

Our server at La Vista almost immediately jarred the genteel mood when she appeared tableside carrying several wine glasses in both hands. As she wondered aloud if she could bring us anything, her eyes darted furiously to other parts of the dining room, leaving the impression that we had better make up our minds quickly as she had better things to attend to.

Resisting the urge to wave our arms to get her attention, we instead made the simple request for a few more minutes to peruse the wine list.

As it turned out, this didn't take long. La Vista's wine list is extremely abbreviated to primarily domestic choices, and these without a vintage year to distinguish them. Odd.

Executive Chef and General Manager Steven Michael Braun (formerly co-owner of Boccata Bistro) has imbued La Vista's menu with a combined northern Italian and French sensibility, a disposition reflected in such dishes as pâtés, pastas, duck confit and rack of lamb served with cassoulet beans.

We ordered a wild mushroom soufflé ($7.25) and shrimp cocktail with three sauces ($9.75) while examining the rest of the menu more thoroughly.

The mushroom soufflé, while fairly tasty, was somewhat of a disappointment due to its rather dense, meatloaf-like texture and meek earthy flavor. Its sable morel sauce saved the dish with its savory flavor.

Six large, chilled Guaymas shrimp--immaculately fresh, sweet and firm--were served in duets on a colorful platter splashed with classic red cocktail, Dijon vinaigrette and raspberry yogurt sauces. The piquant red and mustard sauces worked well, but the raspberry yogurt departure fizzled. Whoever imagined that this sweet, fruity dip would enhance such magnificent shrimp was seriously misguided. A garnishing nest of fried shoestring zucchini and yellow squash similarly merited no more than a shrug.

Next up, a Roquefort salad of mixed mesclun greens, diced red and yellow tomatoes, toasted walnuts and sliced Granny Smith apples drizzled with a sharp, creamy dressing was serviceable but not scrumptious. The toasty crunch of nuts, sour apple and tangy Roquefort cheese dressing were quite enjoyable, but those faintly sweet tomatoes stood out like someone in the orchestra playing off key.

The rest of Braun's menu, while not extensive, offers some interesting possibilities. One is a polenta lasagna ($14.50) with slices of grilled, marinated eggplant and zucchini, roasted red peppers and caramelized onions layered with half-inch thick rounds of this Italian corn-meal cake, gorgonzola, parmesan and marinara sauce. The diminutive tower is surrounded by a moat of basil cream sauce.

While we applaud the originality of this dish, there were some glitches in the finished product. For one thing, the bottommost layers had been unpleasantly burned, leaving them tough, chewy and slightly bitter tasting. Also, all the effort seems to have gone into the presentation; there's no vegetable, no pasta, no garnish. This conservative portion would hardly have been enough to quell a hearty appetite.

The châteaubriand ($24.50) suffered from a similar mood of stinginess. Though this single slice of tenderloin beef was quite tender and tasty (and well-paired with a deft and golden tarragon reduction sauce), the portion seemed inordinately petite for the price. In addition, the meat was overcooked to a pinkish medium, rather than the deep red of the medium rare requested. As an aside, I find it nearly impossible to get a steak served rare these days. I can guess the reasons, but if a restaurant asks the diner's preference, the least the kitchen can do is honor it.

Side dishes of rosemary and garlic spaetzle and julienned summer squash were not enough to fill the void, especially considering the first was so potent as to ambush the palate, while the latter limped behind, too overcooked and oily to be seriously considered.

The biggest success of the evening was a horseradish-encrusted fillet of salmon ($17.25). Two modest fillets, lightly breaded with herbs and fresh bread crumbs, were served atop a mound of wild rice and sautéed spinach, making this entrée the most prodigiously portioned. Unexpectedly, the bite of horseradish reflected more in the accompanying mustard sauce than on the fish itself. The combination of flavors worked well on this fresh, flaky steak, rendering the breading almost superfluous.

Dessert trays here offer a host of after-dinner temptations, ranging from homey fruit pies to extravagant profiteroles. On the hostess' recommendation that the crème brûlée ($5.25) was "the finest in town," we ordered that along with a cranberry napoleon ($5.50).

Both were remarkably light (which would have been greater appreciated if our meals had been more substantial) and delicious. The crème brûlée was indeed smooth, silky and speckled with a generous grind of vanilla bean; and the napoleon, made with ice cream and airy layers of crisp phyllo dough, was quite nice. A bolder stroke with the pale cranberry sauce drizzled over the whole would also have been welcome.

Coffee apparently is served in single servings with no refills. Although we took our time nibbling on our desserts, our cups remained empty long after drained of their contents.

So that, my friends, is La Vista: a restaurant that hopes for great things, but has yet to wake up and smell the coffee. While clearly there are sparks of genius here, the inconsistencies and high prices fail to inspire accolades.

La Vista at El Conquistador Country Club. 10555 N. La Cañada Drive. 544-1980. Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for Sunday brunch. Closed Mondays. Full bar. All major credit cards, but no personal checks. Menu items: $4.75-$26.50. TW

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