A Silver Platter

Tucson's Premier Bistro Is Still Dishing Out The Divine.

WHEN THE DISH, the nifty little bistro and wine bar located in back of the Rumrunner Wine & Cheese shop, first opened, I declared it to be my new favorite place to dine. Nearly four years later, I feel exactly the same way. Even though there are undeniably several other worthy contenders on the local scene, there is simply no other place I'd rather spend an evening. The Dish remains a standout.

That this restaurant has been able to maintain the magic that initially catapulted it into culinary orbit is testimony to the commitment, genius and hard work of co-owners Tom Smith and Jennifer Elchuck. Even the loss of inaugural chef Doug Levy hasn't marred the quality of the dining experience here. Former sous chef Suzanne Skinner has taken the reins of the kitchen operation and, if recent tastings are any indication, she not only shows herself to be an apt pupil, but also a rising star in her own right.

The restaurant is small and extremely popular, which means that the recommended course of action is to make dinner reservations well ahead of time. The cozy bar frequently has one or two seats available, however, so spur-of-the-moment drop-ins can often be accommodated. If a short wait is necessary, the proprietors will happily set you up with a glass of wine, which you can sip as you meander the aisles of the adjoining Rumrunner. (You can even select the bottle to be served with your meal that evening).

The interior of The Dish is cozy, honey-hued and electric. Cool jazz percolates throughout the space, providing the requisite amount of ambience without ever threatening the auditory calm of the clientele. Service is invariably brisk, efficient and seamlessly orchestrated among a surprising number of players, a rarity in the current cultural climate of bare-bones staffing. The Dish embodies the essence of a kinder, more gracious hospitality, a sensibility that other restaurants (not to mention other businesses) would do well to emulate.

No part of the menu should be neglected, so my best advice is to arrive at The Dish ravenous to the core. Selections change seasonally, and nightly specials vary with the availability of ingredients and the inspiration of the chef. In order to experience the full range of this bistro's possibilities, quarterly visits are almost mandatory.

Currently, it's the summer menu that takes center stage, with a short list of items that miraculously cover every taste, from chicken to fish, from vegetarian dishes to beef and pork. Surely, almost everyone will find something to their liking here. To no one's surprise, the wine list is well chosen and compatible with a variety of budgets.

We began the evening with an appetizer of warm herbed goat cheese ($6.50), a bubbling ramekin of snowy cheese studded with fresh basil, oregano, chopped asparagus, roasted red bell pepper strips and oil-cured black olives, all drizzled with olive oil. Crisp, buttery toast points accompany the dish and make the ideal conveyer for the creamy, savory mixture. Each bite provides a slightly different flavor, sometimes reflecting the salty brine of an olive, sometimes the sweet pungency of basil. As with any of The Dish's openers, this can easily be shared by two people or enjoyed along with a glass of wine as a light supper for one.

Simply not to be missed on any visit to The Dish are the salads, billed on the menu as "green dishes." My favorite is billed modestly as "simple," a garden-variety toss of mixed greens, toasted and chile-dusted pumpkin seeds and fresh tomato vinaigrette ($3.75). The greens, which are as lovely to look at as they are to eat, encompass every possible shade of green and a myriad of taste sensations, from slightly bitter to subtly sweet. The pumpkin seeds provide zest and the vinaigrette a vague notion of saltiness. If there is a gastronomic equivalent of the less-is-more construction, this salad may be it.

By the time you've worked your way over to the "big dishes" portion of the menu, your appetite may not be as intense as it was prior to an appetizer and salad, but persevere. The rewards of gluttony are too great.

We decided to order one of the specials, orange roughy filet served in a red Thai sweet honey curry and accompanied by a purée of mint and green bell pepper ($19.95). We also chose the rack of lamb, presented with a blackberry jam glaze and zinfandel-rosemary reduction sauce ($25). Mashed Yukon gold potatoes and sautéed spinach accompany both dishes.

The roughy is a work of culinary art. The large, tender and flaky filet of white fish is covered by a fiery crimson sauce crisscrossed with a pattern of the verdant mint and pepper purée; this infuses some mellow, dulcet tones into what is otherwise a very spicy dish. The disparate combination of flavors is a delicious stroke of pure genius.

The succulent lamb ribs are cooked to medium-rare perfection and match up gloriously with the wine and fruit glaze, a breathtaking balancing act between tart and syrupy-sweet. Lamb lovers will wax poetic over this one.

Of course, dessert is over the top, but when dining at The Dish, no stone of the menu should remain unturned. Many a time we've shared an ice cream sandwich, two brownie-like layers of chocolate cookie stuffed with Eric's ice cream and capped with a generous squeeze of rich caramel sauce. On this night, however, we shared a caramelized apple tart, served warm and open-faced in an airy puff pastry crust. We were not in the least disappointed with the substitution. The Granny Smith apples are tender and permeated with the aroma of ground cinnamon and a lusciously toasty caramel sauce. What a glorious finale to a divine evening of food and drink.

First impressions, they say, are for keeps. In the case of The Dish, there's never been any reason to alter that initial perception. This restaurant hangs tough at the top of my list of personal favorites.

The Dish Bistro & Wine Bar. 3200 E. Speedway Blvd. 326-1714. Open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, CH. Menu items: $3.75-$25.00.
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