Nice Blend

Cuvée World Bistro provides a fine dining experience--even if it tries too hard to be chic.

From the moment you walk in the door of the former Presidio Grill, it's apparent that the folks now occupying the space are trying to make their new restaurant the most hip, the most trendy, the most chic place on the planet.

First, there's the name (a wine/ champagne term referring to a blend). Then there's the jazzy music in the background. The watercolor paintings on the walls, courtesy of the Etherton Gallery. The modern-looking bar on one side of the room, and Roman-style columns on the other side. The rust-colored wall, featuring ... a rust-colored stripe. The almost-too-cute menu featuring not appetizers, but "Better Try This First," and not sandwiches, but "Sam-uh-chiz."

It's like the folks at Cuvée are almost trying too hard.

Fortunately, these folks don't restrict their efforts to the chic-ness game. They also put a great deal of effort into the food and the service--and it shows, making Cuvée one of the better new places in town to have an important business lunch or a fine evening out on the town.

I went to Cuvée with James Reel, The Weekly's arts editor, for lunch on a recent Friday. The Speedway Boulevard digs were crowded, so I was glad we got a table without having to wait.

Cuvée has three separate menus, depending on the time of day: a lunch menu, a dinner menu and a bar menu (for late nights and the no-man's land between lunch and dinner). Each of them, features appetizers, salads ("A Little Greenery"), "Just Desserts" and a recommended wine or beverage with each selection. Lunch features "Almost Salads" (a shrimp and scallop ceviche along with a sweet onion and tomato salad), the aforementioned "Sam-uh-chiz" and several entrées ("Other Good Stuff"), while the dinner menu forgoes the Sam-uh-chiz in favor of moderately priced dishes with lamb, duck, baby back ribs, salmon, steaks, lobster fettuccini, seafood kabobs, polenta, grilled vegetable strudel and a black angus burger.

(Just so you know, the menu is slated to have a few tweaks made soon, so a few of these items may change.)

James and I decided to order an appetizer, the wild mushroom cakes over avocado pesto and roasted red pepper coulis ($6). I was in a soup mood, so I ordered the black bean soup with cilantro sour cream and salsa vinaigrette ($4.50). Our friendly server also brought us a basket with three types of bread: a mild sourdough, cornbread and a honey-oat triangle. I tested all three, and they were delicious. I especially enjoyed the honey-oat bread, which was sweet without being the least bit syrupy.

We were glad we tried the mushroom cakes and the soup first. The soup earned an A+ for presentation--the dark-colored soup came with the dollop of salsa in the middle and a zigzag line of cilantro sour cream along the surface. Its taste was strong and smoky. Too bad it doesn't get that cold in Tucson; this would make for a fine winter warm-up.

The two cakes were delicious. The amazing thing was the avocado pesto and red pepper coulis didn't dominate the flavor--the mushrooms did. James aptly described the taste as "earthy" in a good way. These cakes were a treat I'll order again.

For the main course, I decided on the grilled chicken and avocado wrap with Tabasco mayonnaise ($7.50, includes house salad or "crispy Cuvée fries) while James ordered the fettuccini with sautéed wild mushrooms, fresh tomatoes, leeks and gorgonzola in a light infused olive oil ($10). We also each ordered Cuvée's ice tea, a light-colored green tea with a hint of citrus.

After chatting for a while and noticing how the room can get quite loud when the conversations of happy diners collide, we got our meals.

My wrap, which also contained cheese, tomato, onion and lettuce, stunned me when my first bite sent me gasping for water--the Tabasco sauce made its presence quickly known. It seemed the wrap was front-loaded with the Tabasco mayo, as only that first bite knocked me over; it should have been better distributed. Other than that eye-watering foible, the wrap was quite good. The fries, with a healthy dose of seasoning salt (it tasted like Lawry's, to be honest) were fine, but nothing special.

James also enjoyed his pasta. While the fettuccini itself was "unspectacular," the toppings blended together nicely. The caramelized onions and the cheese, James said, were proportioned perfectly. Describing the salty gorgonzola as "quite strong," James said a little went a long way, and that if there had been any more, it would have overwhelmed the dish. As it was, the dish was a success.

We ended the meal with dessert. James got the black pepper bumbleberries with vanilla bean ice cream and brown sugar balsamic glaze ($5.50), while I ordered the single malt butterscotch pudding ($5.50). My pudding wasn't great--it was separating slightly, and it had a watery taste even after I removed the dollop of merengue and stirred it. The accompanying two sweet cookies couldn't fix the pudding's blandness. James, however, was delighted with his "ice cream and berry taco salad," as he called it. Served in a shell like a taco salad, it was decadent--the glaze, with the slightest hint of balsamic vinegar tickling the throat, made the dish stand above the usual berry-and-ice cream combo.

Thoroughly satisfied with the meal, I returned that night with my boyfriend, Garrett, to try the late-night fare. (Cuvée stays open until midnight on Friday and Saturday.) Only one other table and a handful of stools at the bar were occupied, and it was a one-man show, with the bartender doubling as the server. We wanted to order the "Just Dips," featuring Cuvée crisps with horseradish cream, salsa vinaigrette and warm bacon and blue cheese dips ($5), but they were out. The bartender/server offered to bring us the crisps sans dips, but we declined, as our hearts were set on sauce. Instead, I ordered the heart of romaine salad with Danish blue cheese dressing, candy spiced walnuts and fresh tomatoes ($5), and Garrett got the homemade chorizo and Chihuahua cheese quesadilla with avocado salsa ($7).

Garrett liked his quesadilla; we were surprised at how oil-free the dish was, considering the ingredients. It was tasty, with the avocado and cheese perfectly complementing the not-too-overwhelming spicy sausage.

My salad was delicious as well, except that the kitchen went with style over substance: the lettuce was delivered as two intact hearts of romaine. While it looked nice, it was a pain to eat, as I had to hack off chunks of lettuce with my fork, and then round up a walnut, a tomato chunk and a little dressing with each bite. Forgive me, but if I am already being good and ordering a salad, I don't want to be forced to exercise as I eat it.

Exercise aside, Cuvée is a nice addition to Tucson's restaurant world. The people behind the scenes are clearly succeeding in creating a fine bistro--even if they try a bit too hard at times.