Eternal Flame

Fuego Is Still Burning Strong.

THOSE OF US who have lived in Tucson for a while start to know restaurants by what they formerly housed, chefs by where they formerly worked, and even menu items by how they've been appropriated, recycled, and then renamed.

What a pleasure, then, to follow Alan Zeman, who has been on the culinary scene for as long as I can remember. Ebullient and seemingly owning several body doubles, Zeman left his fiery brand on Tucson's culinary scene when he first opened Fuego over four years ago. With a string of awards and recognitions, Zeman is well established as a chef about town. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, two-time recipient of the ACS Best Chef of the Southwest award, author of a slew of culinary articles for Bon Apetit and a weekly radio host for The Dinner Hour (Thursdays at 1 p.m. on KTKT), Zeman is a culinary force of nature. So it's no great surprise to find his restaurant not only still thriving, but living up to his formidable reputation.

Initially, Fuego's ambitious menu razzled and dazzled with lots of dishes that involved fire: served with fire, fiery to the taste, and generally ablaze with Zeman's culinary passions. In those early years, I distinctly remember being served a dish that had the sprigs of herbs set on fire. When it was placed in front of me I remember feeling particularly grateful I hadn't moussed my hair with anything flammable. But now things seem to have calmed down to a confident simmer. The menu feels more comfortable with itself, more sure of its strengths. The serving staff is knowledgeable, friendly and efficient. Overall, Fuego seems to have matured quite nicely.

On a recent visit, we started with the Fresh Diver Scallop Sauté ($10), a lovely study in minutiae, every flavor and texture attended to with care. Five plump scallops are seared and served with tender sugar snap peas and roasted corn salsa, all nestled cozily in a bed of sautéed baby spinach. This dish was not only plated with great care to please the eye, but the flavors of the dish presented a subtle and satisfying union. Both textures and flavors complemented each other. The high sweet flavors of the snow peas, scallop and corn work well with the earthy flavor of the spinach. A hauntingly smoky presence of sage and thyme wrapped the dish together deftly. This is a light and delicate way to begin a meal.

If you're a fan of oysters, then be sure to ask about the daily specials as Zeman takes great care to select quality oysters. We sampled the British Columbia Ice Oysters ($10.50). A quiet sip from the very bottom of the icy blue sea, these oysters have a slight steely tinge to the flesh, followed by a rush of sweet afterwash. As we are just entering the season of oysters, keep an eye on daily flown-in specials.

The Crispy Calamari Salad ($8) is another pleasant plate to nibble from. The calamari is tender, whisped in a light batter and fried until just crisp. The delicate cornmeal crust works particularly well with the honey-lemon-lime vinaigrette. The sweet raw corn salsa, the hot calamari and the cool respite of the lime dressing all work to stimulate the appetite. This plate sets the stage for dinner.

The entrée portion of the menu offers many seafood and meat selections. Our choice, the Charred Salmon Farfalle ($17), provides a wide range of flavors and textures. This ambitious dish showcases many different ingredients: Roasted tomatoes, fresh basil, chèvre, charred salmon, pine nuts and corn salsa all make an appearance. While this jazzy dish is a riot of flavors and textures, the predominant flavors--smoked salmon, basil and chèvre--pull together and keep the rest of the flavors in check. But be warned: This is not for the faint of heart.

The New Zealand Rack of Lamb "Blackberry Bay" herb crust with blackberry sage essence ($24) is a deeply satisfying autumnal offering. Three double chops roasted to your preference, in our case a rubescent medium rare, are served in a redolent blackberry essence (a veal demi-glace infused with blackberry). A generous serving of mashed potatoes and tender sugar snap peas are a simple and pleasing completion to the dish. The balance in flavors, the skill and technique behind the execution of the dish, and the graceful presentations leave one feeling sated on every level. We didn't bat an eye at the asking price; in fact we went on to order more.

One in our crowd was a taco fan. It can't be helped. He eats them wherever he goes. And, delightfully, there is a lighter side to Fuego's menu that isn't afraid to descend from culinary heights. Burgers, tacos and sandwiches are available but treated with the same skill and flair as the rest of the offerings. We tried the Fuego Fish Tacos ($12) and were very glad we did. On this evening, the tacos featured halibut dressed up with a zippy pepper cream, chile rajas, caramelized onions and a light cabbage chiffonade. This is a taco to remember. Served with rice, beans and a fresh salsa, we had to wrestle at least one in the order away from our petulant companion.

To console him, we ordered the classic Fuego Fries ($4). If you haven't tried these, you've got a treat in store. Served in a big wax paper cone, these fries are a testimony to the art of pomme frites. Skinny and tender, fried until just crisp, they are highly addictive. Served with a chipotle aioli that just won't let you stop until the last fry is gone, these will keep you coming back. And then going to the gym.

Desserts are minimal but in keeping with the restaurant's aesthetics. One of them can be set on fire if you so wish, but desserts on fire have always frightened me, seeming to violate the very nature of dessert, which is to soothe and comfort. This probably goes back to a flambé experience gone terribly wrong as a child, but that's a story for another time.

We tried the Port Crème Brûlée ($5.50), and it was agreeable served with mango coulis. The port flavor in the brûlée was faint, but the creamy dessert worked well with the bright mango flavors.

A New York Cheesecake ($5.50) offering was dense, straightforward and well received. Served in a lovely burst of fruit coulis, this provided a simple, dreamy and light note to conclude the meal.

A serviceable wine list and a full bar supplement the menu. Currently, a vodka special offering any of Fuego's 35-38 vodkas from around the world can be sampled for just $3.75 during happy hour. If thou partaketh of this noble potion, this is a great promotional offer. Additionally, any of the menu's appetizers are half off during happy hour to go along with those world-class libations.

To keep things swinging along, Paul Elia hosts Sinatra Sundays. If you loved Frank, then you can't help but get your fingers snapping when Elia swings into high gear, belting out old Sinatra tunes, taking requests and occasional hilarious liberties with lyrics.

Should you find yourself in need of cheering on a blue Sunday, grab a table and lift a glass in memory of Frank. Then indulge yourself and stay for dinner. Under the sure-fire hand of Chef Alan Zeman, you'll be glad you did.

Fuego. 6958 E. Tanque Verde Road. 886-1745. Open for dinner nighltly, 5:30-9:30 p.m. The lounge opens at 5, with happy hour 5-7 p.m. Full bar. AmEx, Visa, MC, local checks. Menu items: $4- $25. Reservations: recommended.