Filler Suds 'N' Sophistication

The River Road Brewery Is An Outstanding New Restaurant.
By Rebecca Cook

WITH THE EXCEPTION of some outstanding-tasting beers, almost nothing at the River Road Brewery jibes with what you've been led to expect.

The building where the brewery is housed is sleek, modern, elegant.

Chow In the midst of this grandeur on the main floor are the large, stainless-steel vats in which the beer is brewed, and often you'll see someone preparing the latest batch. Cloth sacks of grain can be glimpsed in their storage space just under the elevator, and floor-to-ceiling fermenting tanks stand encased in glass against the east wall of the second-floor dining room loft.

This is a real working brewery.

It also happens to be one of the best new restaurants to open in Tucson in quite some time, with a menu that far exceeded my modest pub-like expectations.

Thanks to the talents of Executive Chef Marianne Banes and the vision of owner Tom Jones, the River Road Brewery offers Tucsonans the opportunity to sample beer with character while you're nibbling on carpaccio of rare beef, fresh cavatelli with smoked duck, or grilled cabrilla with poblano avocado cream and three-tomato relish.

Not that Banes and Jones haven't given a nod in their menu to the more traditional pub fare. You'll still find fish and chips, burgers and bratwurst; but for those individuals as interested in cuisine as barley, there's plenty else to choose from.

Appetizers may be as far as you get with the menu if you're more interested in the River Road's brew, but that's an excellent place to start and could well entice you to stay through dinner.

Image An order of steamed clams ($6.95) served in an intoxicating broth of blonde ale, garlic, parsley, lemon and butter arrived at our table still bubbling. At least a dozen clams peeked out at us from their shells and we had no trouble polishing them off in a matter of seconds. They may have been a little more chewy than the ultra-fresh ones you get on the Pacific Coast, but they were nevertheless delicious.

Another occasion began with an order of the pepper jack cheese straws ($5.95), which were served in a small goblet and pre-dunked in a lemon cashew sauce. Rolled, flaky pastry pirouettes--accented with red and green chile peppers and dusted with caraway seed, were unusual companions to the tangy, smooth nut-butter--but, somehow, the combination worked. Our only complaint was that we thought three "straws" too skimpy a portion and would have like to have had a few more.

Soups, salads and sandwiches are represented on the menu, some in forms you can readily recognize and others a slight surprise.

I had the avocado, mango and rocket salad ($7.95), containing grilled shrimp, mixed greens and sliced, marinated red onion with a roast garlic-lime vinaigrette and a cilantro mayonnaise. The fruity blend of mango, avocado, onion, cilantro and lime was a refreshing splash of sweet and sour.

The portabello sandwich with mozzarella ($6.95) was broiled and served open-faced with tomato, roasted red pepper and spinach-walnut pesto. Despite its appetizing ingredients, this sandwich disappointingly leaned to the bland side. Not even side-servings of large-cut french fries and jicama slaw added the needed zip.

Offerings are expanded at dinner to include more meat and fish dishes, many elaborately prepared and painstakingly presented.

We sampled the daily fish special ($16.95), which was a grilled halibut served with fresh and wild mushrooms, red chile-pepper broth, steamed mussels, tomatoes and onions. The fish, which was served in a large bouillabaisse-style bowl, was fresh and flaky and the broth fragrant with tomato, onion, chile and a slight smoky taste.

I tried the herb-crusted half chicken ($12.95), which was coated in a bread crumb-herb mixture and roasted until crisp-tender. I'm a sucker for chicken cooked in a homespun style, and the subtle influence of the thyme-scented coating and the moist quality of the meat won me over completely. Served with cheddar mashed potatoes and a sautéed vegetable melange of squash, peppers and onions, this was first-class comfort food.

You must leave room for dessert when dining at the River Road Brewery, but you and your guest can easily share one order without going away hungry; the portions here are enormous.

Pastry chef Jane McChesney, formerly of Milagro, has created some sweet-tasting masterpieces, including a chocolate mocha espresso cake (dense layers of chocolate cake with a lighter mocha filling and the whole iced in a bittersweet chocolate glaze, $5) and a TW

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