The Semifinalist

At Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, Janos Wilder offers some brilliant dishes—but execution can be a problem

I am a fan of Janos Wilder. He's a great ambassador for Tucson's culinary world, and he supports wonderful causes (like Native Seeds/SEARCH).

However, I've dined quite a few times at Janos and J Bar, both at the Westin La Paloma, and I've never had a meal that blew me away. (I've never had a bad meal, either.) Yes, I'm holding Janos Wilder to a higher standard than other chefs, due to all of the acclaim he's received. The most recent honor is a biggie: He's a semifinalist for the James Beard Outstanding Chef Award of 2011. There are 20 names on the list, including Janos, two Iron Chefs and all sorts of other familiar names.

Therefore, I was looking forward to my visits to Janos' new downtown joint. Perhaps at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, I'd finally get Janos Wilder's cuisine.

The good news: Our dinner visit was the best experience I'd ever had at a Janos-owned restaurant. The bad news: The lunch visit was the worst experience I'd ever had at a Janos-owned restaurant.

Janos and his staff put a lot of design work into Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, and it shows. Diners can gaze east into the open kitchen, or they can look west to the view of Sixth Avenue (and the under-construction UniSource building). The restaurant has a bustling, urban feel. However, not all is perfect; whereas the public entrance at the Barrio—the restaurant which long occupied the spot—was located off the parking area on the building's north side, patrons at Downtown enter off of Sixth, in the process treating diners seated between the door and the kitchen to a draft. Also, some tables are rather close together, and you may have to shimmy between a chair and a support beam to get to a bar seat.

The menu offers "modern American" fare with a nod to various world influences. For dinner, Garrett and I started with the roasted beet carpaccio ($10) and the griddled garlic bread ($10). Both were delightful; in the carpaccio, beets melded nicely with avocado mousse and several citrus fruits—and were upstaged by the stunningly good "goat cheese croutons," fried balls containing creamy, delicious cheese. The garlic bread, while oddly light on garlic, was packed with flavor, dominated by the taste of mushrooms. A creamy leek fondue and pear-shaped baby tomatoes added both taste and texture.

The service on all visits was top-notch; either a server or a bus person was never far away, pouring chilled, filtered water (from glass bottles kept on each table) as needed.

For main courses, Garrett picked the spicy, minted lamb sausage with pea pappardelle à la Mario Batali ($15), while I went with the spiced seared ahi ($24). While the sausage gets top billing, the pappardelle actually stars in this dish; in fact, Garrett said there wasn't enough sausage to get an appropriate amount in each bite. Meanwhile, my tuna was a delight; it was sliced and placed over a tepary bean tostada with mole, which was also splendid. Unfortunately, the spiciness and the earthy sweetness of the beans wiped out the flavor of the tuna whenever I mixed the two, so I ate them separately.

Two wonderful desserts closed out our meal. The apple strudel ($8) with butterscotch ice cream was surrounded by a to-die-for maple sauce; the delicious pineapple upside-down cake ($8) paired perfectly with coconut-milk gelato.

Several days later, we met our friend Michael—who knows a thing or two about the restaurant biz—for what turned out to be a disappointing lunch. We encountered several dishes that looked good on paper, but were failures in terms of execution.

We started with the Lily's Laotian chicken and pounded green papaya salad ($6, or $10 for a larger portion), as well as the crispy calamari ($9). The calamari was the meal's biggest success; the squid was not at all rubbery, and the accompanying mango and the tangy green-chile vinaigrette worked well with the seafood. (We could have done without the greens, which had too many stems.) The salad, however, was a letdown; the chicken was rubbery, while the flavor of papaya was almost completely absent.

I ordered the DOWNTOWN burger ($11) with the works—"hand-formed with mushrooms + foie gras," caramelized onions, bacon and manchego, all on a torta bun. While parts were a bit dry, the burger was an overall success. Garrett got the orecchiette with white wine, dried tomatoes, cilantro and goat-milk cheese ($13); although the dish was tasty, the white wine was a bit too prevalent.

And then there was Michael's disastrous Vietnamese bánh mi sandwich, with duck, Asian mayo, plum sauce, serranos and various pickled veggies ($12). There was so much mayo that it was dripping; Michael had to scrape off some of the plum sauce to dial down the sweetness. He offered me a bite ... and that's when I encountered the bone, approximately a third of an inch square, which left a gash in my mouth.

So ... I still didn't get Janos Wilder's food. Even if I considered the lunch debacle to be a fluke, I still couldn't say this was Top-20-in-the-country material.

Therefore, Garrett and I decided to return a third time.

We went on a Friday evening for cocktails and appetizers. I ordered a Cuban sunset ($8) with delicious, fiery habañero-infused vodka, passion-fruit juice, cilantro and simple syrup; Garrett got a dolce vita ($9), a sweet drink with Maker's Mark, smoked cola syrup, amaretto, orange bitters and cream. Off the bar menu, we split the compelling roast Spanish chorizo with pineapple, black beans and tortillas ($4.50); the spicy lamb's tongue taco (an overpriced $4.75); the ahi ceviche with apples, radishes, edamame and toasted nuts ($8, or $15 for a larger portion); and the foie gras bon bons (three for $9).

The tasty drinks, the charming bartender, the meaty taco, the revelatory bon bons (rice cakes with more than a hint of foie gras)—it was all wonderful. The experience wasn't perfection—the ahi got lost in the flavorful ceviche, for example—but it was a true delight.

There at the Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails bar, for the first time, I started to get Janos Wilder's food.