A Social Zin-ger

Bistro Zin Proves More A Place To Be Seen Than A Place To Dine Finely.

I MAY BE the only person in town who is unimpressed with Bistro Zin, Tucson's hottest and trendiest new eatery, located at River Road and Campbell. Usually a great fan of upscale bistro fare--especially that engineered by local restaurateur Sam Fox--I find myself unable to jump on the bandwagon of unrelenting praise for this latest venture. Based on my experiences, Bistro Zin is a huge disappointment.

In the interest of balanced reporting, however, let me tell you what did wow me about the place.

Wine. Lots of it, well selected and with no fewer than 80 varieties served by the glass, including some that you might never have the financial wherewithal to buy by the bottle, but might be able to afford in a single draught. Bistro Zin employs a cuvée system, which keeps wine fresh for longer periods by pumping out the oxygen in a bottle and replacing it with nitrogen. For those interested in trying new varieties or enhancing their wine repertoire, this feature is a bit of heaven and loads of fun.

Emphasizing fine wine appreciation further are the 22 "flights" of wine listed on the menu, small racks of three two-ounce pours, chosen either to complement one another or provide three different interpretations of the same kind of wine. Once again, this is wonderful stuff.

A dizzying list of specialty cocktails also distinguishes the bar scene, with everything from high-end champagne aperitifs to "black and blue" martinis. The bar itself is quite small, but the boundless enthusiasm and boisterousness that's generated there blankets the entire space.

Hues of dark raspberry splashed on the walls, black leather booths and a gallery of black photograph posters give the interior an illicitly cool ambience. Seating, though limited and snuggled so tight that you occasionally feel the need to properly introduce yourself to the person next to you, is pleasant and quite comfortable.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the quality of the food is erratic, and that's putting it mildly.

When I mentioned my recent experiences to a friend, she responded with exasperation, "But Bistro Zin isn't about the food. It's just so cool."

I'm confused by this argument. Is Bistro Zin or is it not a restaurant? (The blaring music might seem to indicate it's a disco, but I noticed no dance floor.) Don't restaurants specialize in food? If so, how can the quality of the food be irrelevant, especially when the prices hover in my-grocery-bill-for-the-week range?

Excuse me, but I think the food is the whole point of the enterprise. Unfortunately, this is the area where Bistro Zin stumbles.

Our meal started promisingly enough with appetizers of surprisingly rare character. Fabulous by far was a composition of thinly sliced Parma ham coiled around a snowy nugget of Roquefort cheese and a slice of purple fig ($6.50). These roulades were arranged around a modest pile of greens and the platter was drizzled with a heady balsamic glaze, the addition of which established every possible taste on the spectrum to be realized in a single dish. If I had stopped here with a flight of wines in front of me, I might number myself among Bistro Zin's fan base today.

Alas, the meal continued, and the slide toward mediocrity was pronounced.

The fresh artichoke bisque ($5), a velvety bowl of puréed broth, sounded like a great idea, but paled in the tasting. Chicken broth constituted the dominant flavor, completely obliterating all trace of the subtle green vegetable. An herbed goat cheese pastry that came with the soup provided the only deviation from blandness.

Salads include mixed wild greens, baby arugula, picked watercress, warm Maine lobster and artichoke variations. We nibbled on the watercress, but found the novelty of the dish didn't compensate for the dreary munch of relentless greenery. Only faintly relieved by a sherry vinaigrette dressing and a few flecks of red bell pepper, this is a salad only those passionate about watercress could enjoy.

Entrée selections include seafood, duck, steak, roast chicken, lamb and mushroom ravioli. Separate side dishes of vegetables, french fries and macaroni and cheese may be added to your order at additional cost.

After discovering that the mushroom ravioli was no longer available, we plotted a course of seafood splendor, ordering the Maine lobster sautéed with truffled sweet-pea risotto and lemon chervil butter ($28) and the scallops pan-seared with saffron pearls, tomato concasse and lobster broth ($16).

Although the three pieces of lobster were sweet, they were a bit chewy and dry at the edges. The risotto, which has to be one of the greatest Italian contributions to world cuisine, was an absolute nightmare. Neither the peas nor the rice were fully cooked, giving both unpleasant gritty consistencies. The earthy richness of truffles was missing in action, along with any hint of tangy lemon or peppery chervil.

The scallops appeared to be of a more recent vintage than the lobster--every orb very tender and sweet--but the accompanying pearl couscous and tomato purée that came with it were utterly forgettable.

Desserts (all $6) are extravagant. You'll be overwhelmed as your server launches into a litany of choices that seems to go on for hours.

A lemon tart with fresh berries seemed the ideal summer treat, but once a layer of tuile cookie cup mounded with raspberry sorbet was set on top of it, I wasn't sure what to think. A "less is more" approach would have maintained the integrity of the ingredients and allowed the individual components to be noted and savored.

A creation featuring panna cotta (a light custard made without cream) proved satisfying and quite creative. Surrounded by a selection of fresh berries and an orange-vanilla-wine sauce, this light dessert could sidestep any inference of indulgent excess.

The service at Bistro Zin is quite fickle. It took forever to get orders in for food and drink and another lifetime for these to be delivered. Our harried server's irritation with our menu questions was quite evident. He did manage to focus pretty well for the first half of the meal, but then failed to check back to see if we were pleased with our entrées and hastily delivered the check before asking whether we'd like dessert and coffee. Not good.

I guess I don't care anymore about hanging with the "in" crowd. Give me some out-of-the-way place where the food is fine and the wine plentiful, and I'm happy. But, if you're wondering where to find the most happening place in town and don't necessarily care about eating or expense, be sure and check out Bistro Zin. It's so cool.

Bistro Zin. 1865 E. River Road, No.101. 299-7799. Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, for dinner daily from 5 p.m. to midnight. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, DC. Menu items: $4-$28.