Fine Dining Meets American Diner At The Café By Peter.
By Rebecca Cook
THE TRADITION OF the bistro is to embody casual charm, relative economy and satisfactory dining.
The custom, like so many other culinary firsts, originated in France. Its ready acceptance here in America is most notable in the number of restaurants specializing in an elegant but informal atmosphere and distinctly regional cuisine. It's also possible that the "grill" craze of recent years might be traced to a small café just off the Moulin Rouge....
In Tucson, chef Peter Raskob has adapted the bistro concept to better suit the landscape of the Catalina foothills; and if a recent Saturday night excursion is any example, the idea has found widespread acceptance.
The Café by Peter is an eclectic eatery. Evidence of the Southwest surfaces in the chicken or beef chimichangas, mounded platters of nachos grandes, and salmon poached in a luxurious tequila-lime butter. The influence of the bayou creeps in every fiery bite of Cajun chili butter (drizzled over grilled steak) and blackened shrimp. And, of course, homage is paid 10 times over to the subtle genius of haute cuisine, which arrives under the escort of grilled trout niçoise, beef tenderloin au poivre, and French Dijon duck. Under one roof, Raskob has brought together a melting pot of flavors.
The restaurant space itself is awash in bright light, courtesy of the windows that wrap around the corner location of a substantial strip mall on the corner of Swan Road and Sunrise Drive. The white walls and sheer lace curtains further accentuate the restaurant's airy ambiance, and several leafy plants strategically placed contribute to a casual, al fresco feel.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served here, and each is a distinct entity.
Breakfast maintains the feel of an all-American diner with eggs being the featured entree: coupled with various cuts of meat; whipped into omelets with a tempting array of fillings (including a tantalizing, 15-bean vegetarian chili); or served sunny-side up in a stunning rendition of huevos rancheros, complete with requisite salsa, cheese and refried beans. Pancakes and waffles are also offered, as are a few seasonal fresh fruit dishes. A petit bowl of fresh strawberries, sliced bananas and cream adds a decadent edge to light eating; or for more sophisticated palates, an offering of sliced kiwi and grapes splashed with champagne. In all, Café Peter gives a glorious reminder of why the first meal of the day is also considered the most important.
Luncheon specials address the idea of decent food at reasonable prices with verve, with no menu selection exceeding $10. Smaller portions of several dinner entrees can be found on the noon-time bill of fare, as well as a couple of quesadilla specials and some mouthwatering burgers. Homemade soup and garden-style salads also offer a satisfactory midday repast.
In devising his menu, Raskob is said to have used many family recipes. (An item titled "Aunt Betty's favorite chicken" lends credence to this report.) While Café Peter features several dishes with continental flair, it's in those old-time, down-home selections that the restaurant really shines. Perhaps Raskob's obvious tribute to another era accounts for the fact that on the evening we visited, the place was almost solely populated with seniors. These folks probably recall a time of gentler, simpler dining, and are thrilled to discover a place that so competently retains a slice of that bygone era. Bacon-wrapped sirloin steak, liver and onions, and country-style pork chops constitute some serious retro comfort food.
For starters, we indulged in a decadent treatment of baby scallops, simmered in a sauce of cream, goat cheese and Frangelico and then spooned into a flaky puff pastry cup. The tender, scallops, with a vaguely sweet natural flavor, paired well with the hazelnut liqueur and pastry, intriguingly contrasted by the sharpness of goat cheese.
Dinner entrees cover a wide spectrum, making Café Peter an ideal spot to dine when you're not quite sure what you want. We settled on a mixed seafood platter (one of the specials for the evening), and a pasta creation with beef tenderloin tips, sautéed onions, and a rich gorgonzola cream tossed over linguine.
The seafood, which consisted of fresh crab meat, shrimp, salmon and swordfish, was poached in a muted white-wine broth and came with a mixture of sautéed vegetables and a baked potato (rice pilaf or baked sweet potatoes were also offered).
Everything on both sides of the table was fresh and nicely put together, though both entrees lacked any assertive spicing or distinctive flavoring. Occasionally, it's nice to be caught off guard by some unusual taste or combination of ingredients--something that arouses the senses and titillates the tongue. The Café by Peter apparently holds to the maxim that less is more, a characteristic that seemed to be appreciated by many of Raskob's regulars.
Desserts change daily, but often include homemade fruit pies and cobblers as well as more sophisticated choices like crème brulee or chocolate mousse. We concluded our meal with a shared crème brulee, a thoroughly contenting vanilla-scented custard, its silky texture offset by the trademark caramelized sugar cap.
Service is efficient and casual, almost to the point of being overly familiar. It isn't often that I get called "hon" while eating in a fine restaurant, but such was the case at The Café by Peter. Maybe I was addressed as such in deference to my being the youngest diner in the place at the time.
The Café by Peter has much to recommend it, and should not be overlooked by serious bistro devotees. Good food, reasonable prices, and homespun charm. What's not to like?
The Café by Peter. 4784 E. Sunrise Drive. 299-4500. Open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for Sunday brunch. Closed Mondays. Full bar. V, MC, debit cards, checks. Menu items: $2.85-$21.50.
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