Exclusive Eats

McClintock's is pricey and remote, but the dining experience is fantastic

Dining at McClintock's Restaurant on Tucson's far northwest side is a rewarding experience, and you really do deserve a reward--by the time you arrive, you feel that you've had to earn the privilege of eating there.

Don't even think about just dropping in for dinner or drinks. For one thing, you wouldn't be able to find the place without research, and for another, there's a checkpoint, and if your name isn't on the list, you'll get picked up by the Border Patrol and sent to Sonora.

No, wait, that's what happens at the Interstate 10 checkpoint. But it's true that you can't get to McClintock's without a reservation, and that you do have to stop and identify yourself at the gatehouse of Saguaro Ranch, an in-development luxury residential community snug in the Tortolita Mountains at the far north end of Thornydale Road. You must drive through a long, unlighted tunnel blasted through the mountains, then stop at the gatehouse, where you will be greeted by some very polite young men in cowboy hats, one of whom will take your name, hop in a golf cart and escort you up the lonely road through a saguaro forest to the ranch-style restaurant building.

(The Saguaro Ranch logo is a "lazy"--that is, horizontal--S below a bar. Let's hope this doesn't represent saguaros plowed under by bulldozers; so far, what little development there is seems to conceal itself within the natural landscape.)

Once the cowboy in the golf cart has led you to the restaurant and pointed to the exact space where you are supposed to park, one or two restaurant staffers will be waiting on the elegantly rustic porch to greet you by name and lead you to your table.

The main dining room (there's also a side room for private parties, a compact but well-stocked bar and something or other upstairs) is exceptionally attractive in an upscale Old West way, with floors of weathered pine planks, stone walls, wood-beam ceilings, the aforementioned roaring fireplace and ample glass doors along one side through which you can view the city lights, if there's not too much reflection from the interior's low lighting.

The wine list is extensive and appealing. I noticed that at an adjacent table, the server was upending a bottle of red wine to empty every last drop into someone's glass; that's not a good idea with those reds that retain sediment, but this is a misstep you'll find even at San Francisco wine bars, where they ought to know better. In all other respects, the service was just right: attentive, but not overbearing.

The menu, according to our resident nosher, Karyn Zoldan, "features organic-American cuisine with Tuscan influences." Even the pasta is organic, if you ask for it. The Tuscan element manifests itself mainly in the appetizers and the presence of a pasta section (pappardelle with beef, bigoli with Muscovy duck confit, linguine with clams and mussels, and so forth). It's also felt in the bread service: a nice selection of slices and rolls, served with mild, delectable roasted garlic, and an individual plate of olive oil and sweet balsamic vinegar (or butter, if you request it).

In the Italian manner, the arugula salad ($12) makes a virtue of simplicity; it's not so complex that you're overwhelmed by competing flavors. A bed of spicy greens is topped by a couple of thin slices of prosciutto, plump Vin Santo-soaked figs, shaved pecorino Romano and a slightly oily champagne vinaigrette.

The organic baby spinach salad ($14) is a bit less successful. The greens are good, and the goat cheese is firm and not overloaded, but the pine nuts and little pancetta lardons offer little real interest, and the dish is over-salted.

Salt is not a problem, and the oil is well drained from the buffalo mozzarella appetizer ($16), with the cheese served on butter lettuce, sun-dried and fresh Roma tomato, basil, extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar. It's a generous portion, which two can easily share.

The organic vegetable soup ($11) is rich in basil pesto, and right now (the ingredients are seasonal) sports big chunks of tomato, peas, cannellini, grains and other goodies; it's hearty, but not too heavy.

My friend Robert is usually displeased when he orders seafood; he finds that restaurants often miss that narrow window between undercooking and overcooking the fish. Yet he declared McClintock's pan-seared Chilean sea bass ($35) to be "exquisite," and "perfectly cooked--melt-in-your-mouth tender," and the grilled pear that accompanied it was a treat. Robert found the rice on the side to be uninspired, but otherwise, he loved the dish.

The grilled scallops ($32) also came off very well; there are only four scallops on the plate, but they're substantial, and in the company of crisp pancetta and roasted shallot risotto, escarole, sauvignon blanc butter sauce and an ice-wine vinegar reduction, they were fully satisfying.

McClintock's would probably have dearly loved us to order the $45 New York strip or the $35 rack of lamb, but I wasn't in the mood. Instead, I opted for the less ostentatious bone-in pork chop ($28), nicely grilled, not stuffed with anything, and just served with a riesling reduction and roasted Fuji apple. The pork was moist and tender, but had little flavor of its own if I took a bite without the reduction, apple or grilled pearl onions. As a package, though, it was quite tasty. The frenched green beans underneath the chop looked rather limp, but turned out to have just the right crunch. The gratin potatoes on the side, glistening with little pools of butter fat, were a bit too rich and too salty.

No complaints about the desserts, though ($12 each). We tried the mille foglie, layers of light puff pastry and flavorful fruit served with a not excessively sweet Madagascar vanilla bean custard. Then there were Ginny's bonbons, two little scoops of vanilla bean and chocolate gelato dipped in chocolate and served with crème caramel and raspberry sauce, a fine variety of flavors in an unpretentious dessert. I hoarded for myself the trio tasting, which you might think of as little dessert flights: crème brlée served with caramelized raw sugar, a bit of sturdy chocolate mousse and a gently sweet crema de limón.

McClintock's, you may have noticed, is expensive by local standards, and remote. But despite a few run-of-the-mill sides, the overall dining experience is ample compensation for the effort of getting there.