Ode to Urban Palates

The secluded Lodge on the Desert offers a gracious setting and seasonal menu.

Poets Corner is one of Tucson's best-kept secrets. It's not a lyrical coffeehouse but rather a delightful midtown neighborhood within walking distance of Reid Park, where all the streets are named after poets. I should know since I live here.

Though I often lament the lack of good nearby joints, I remember warm marble rye from Nadine's Bakery and that blustery evening when no one wanted to be the designated driver so we stumbled home from Kon Tiki singing Grease show tunes.

Not to boast, but our answer to the Arizona Inn--Lodge on the Desert--lies at the west end of Poets Corner, hiding behind high hued walls. Before the Blenman/Elm residents protest, I'm not comparing the two--I am just thankful that we have an unpretentious boutique hotel serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and an attitude-adjustment hour within walking distance.

On a recent Tuesday evening, my neighbor Ginger and I found ourselves in an empty restaurant. Why was it empty? Maybe people don't know there's a restaurant here, or maybe when formerly known as Cielo's, it wasn't consistently open. Wake up; it's time to rev up the marketing machine and reach out to nearby neighborhood associations and beyond.

We arrived famished and eyeballed the globally influenced and seasonally inspired menu. Small plates ($5.50-$10) offered frequent standbys of Caesar salad and chicken tortilla soup, a rather unusual panzanella (grilled bread salad), refreshing pear and Stilton salad, prawns and soup of the moment. Ginger decided to live life in the fast lane and ordered soup of the moment ($5.50), and even though bread salad called my name, I chose Spanish prawns ($10.50), because I've christened January as low-carb month.

Relaxing, we immediately noticed that this is a grown-up setting awash in warm golden light with beam ceilings, thick carpeting and tablecloths encouraging diners to have meaningful and heard conversations while Kenny G plays in the background. The Lodge, once a Mexican-Colonial-style private home, was built in the '20s and expanded in the '60s. Lush grounds reflect a true desert oasis of mature landscaping, tiled archways, a kiva fireplace with banco seating and romantic courtyards--perfect for sipping wine under the stars in warmer weather.

Fortunately, Ginger's wild mushroom and goat cheese soup arrived with an extra spoon. It was light years above and beyond the cream of mushroom soup you get in a can. The aroma alone transported me to a green forest on another continent; the earthy taste of mushrooms married with goat cheese offered a dish that still lingers in my mind as I write this.

We also shared Spanish prawns, described on the menu as "amontillado sherry, garlic, almonds." Made from the palomino grape, amontillado sherry ages longer than traditional sherry, so it's darker, softer and nuttier. A generous portion of prawns rested in a deep orange, semi-spicy olive oil sharing plate space with three thick slices of grilled Tuscan bread and a dab of spinach. Had I known about the bread, I would have asked for more spinach or perhaps salad instead. As it was, I did fall from low-carb grace and broke bread to swish in the sauce; it was the right thing to do.

While we waited for our entrées, a few more tables became occupied. Ginger opted for tea glazed Barquetta sea bass ($18), and I chose citrus rosemary glazed chicken ($18). At first, I thought $18 was excessive for chicken and would have ordered something else, except Ginger ordered the sea bass. Prawns came with carb-laden fettuccine; I ate pork the night before; and mad cow influenced my attitude about beef. So, chicken appeared as the only choice.

The food arrived without much ado. Instead of fingerling potatoes, I asked for a double portion of braised broccoli rabe, the accompanying vegetable. Rabe--also known as raab, rape and rapini--is a cross between a cabbage and turnip with six-inch stalks of somewhat bitter broccoli-like buds. However, it was braised with enough butter to melt away any bitterness. We practically clucked over the tender tastiness of the chicken; the waiter overheard and said it was free-range chicken. Ah, that should definitely be listed on the menu to justify the price. These elite of the poultry world purportedly feed on a vegetarian diet free of antibiotics, animal byproducts, hormones and growth enhancers. Half the meal came home with me nicely packaged in a box.

Basted with Darjeeling tea, Ginger's sea bass sat on a mound of mascarpone risotto studded with golden raisins. I have never eaten good risotto in Tucson, but for some reason--perhaps the sweetness of the raisins--this risotto, contrasting with the lean fish flesh that tasted more like red snapper, put this dish over the top of wow. A few baby haricot vert (green beans) added color and crunch.

The dessert menu seemed like an afterthought (pun not intended). It was a sliver of paper with six items written in a hard-to-read font. A simple poached pear or rich piece of cheese with nuts would be a low carb dream; instead, we chose pumpkin crème brulee with two spoons ($5.50). Visions of pumpkin pie-like custard covered with brittle sugar topping whetted our thoughts. Unfortunately, it had no taste--pumpkin or otherwise--and when questioned, the waiter offered to remove it from our check. Meanwhile, Kenny G still droned nonstop.

Overall, it was like finding a long, lost friend whom I want to get to know better. I hope the Lodge on the Desert lights a fire in the decoratively lit courtyard patio fireplace and sends smoke signals throughout the community. One more thing: Change that damn CD.