A Touch of Elegance

Find 1930s style and grace at the Arizona Inn.

Not much of an older and more elegant Tucson has survived in this brave new world, probably because there wasn't much of an older and more elegant Tucson to begin with. But a glimpse into the elegant 1930s is but a door swing away. Drive down the shady narrow lane of Elm Street, park in front of the Arizona Inn and be transported back to a time when the fashionable and elegant used to stroll the grounds. We have spent far too many summer evenings on the veranda waiting for monsoons to arrive, and just the right amount of winter afternoons in the library nursing steaming hot chocolate, letting little ones marvel at the splendid Christmas tree.

Of course Arizona Inn's allure has been venerated among far beyond the local level. It has been awarded accolades from Zagat's as being one of the top 50 small resorts and lodges; it has even earned the coveted Conde Nast Traveler's Gold List as one of the "World's Best Places to Stay." It is hard to believe that 14 acres of anything has stayed intact in this particular neighborhood. But when you stroll the grounds, you can see why the rich and famous choose to be loyal and why the hoi polloi scrimp and save their pennies to take in a cocktail at the bar, or perhaps savor the occasional meal.

For years we avoided the dining room because the antiquated splendor of the hotel translated itself onto the menu in the form of bland continental cuisine. If you wanted a pearl onion, olive, or carrot stick kind of garnish on your plate, then things were well and good. But for real food, well... We re-focused our expectations toward soaking in the historic splendor and stuck to the library or the bar.

That was before the recruitment of Odell Baskerville, a remarkably talented chef who has worked hard to earn some serious culinary respect. Dining at the Arizona Inn is now an elevated event, well within keeping of the stylish environs.

Of course the dining room has always been lovely as a sedate and spacious room, with a stylish corner fireplace. Warmer weather extends the dining room out onto a beautiful starry patio. Any table is a good table at the Arizona Inn. A special nod of approval goes for the small placards on the table that make a gracious request to refrain from the use of cell phones and laptops in the dining room. Bravo!

Our meal began with the Chef's Amuse, in this case, a puff pastry with a dab of cream cheese, a squirt of red pepper coulis, a tiny fold of salami and a dab of salsa. Cheered and amused, we went on to sample some of the chef's appetizers.

The seared Hudson Valley foie gras on apricot brioche with red onion marmalade and blackberry essence ($14.50) is not to be missed. A dark and sultry study in flavors, the complexity found in this dish is not diminished by its minutiae. Slivers of foie gras serve as a creamy foil for the dark, seductive berry essence. The tart and bright apricot and the jammy marmalade finish off the dish, fully stirring the palate to life.

Seared sea scallops on Yukon gold potato blini with frisee and lobster tarragon cream ($12.50) is another lovely opening dish. Plump scallops perch on creamy golden potato blini, and the lobster tarragon cream sauce is light and haunting, just buoying up the delicate texture and flavor of scallop.

The smoked salmon with Sevruga caviar, crème fraiche, toast points and classic garniture ($13) is a great plate for beginning a meal, especially if dining with a small group. A platter of toast points served with the essential garniture (chopped egg, capers, parsley) surrounds a cake of chopped smoked salmon, topped with a dollop of Sevruga caviar and crème fraiche. Simple elegant presentations, combined with quality ingredients, set a tone that follows through on the rest of the menu.

Pan-seared Chilean sea bass is served on a pasta cake surrounded by a tumble of rock shrimp, bay scallops and slivers of shitake mushroom. The summery, bright tomato garlic beurre blanc provided just the right backdrop for the fish, which was heavenly, succulent, and seared to a crisp edge, leaving the inside meltingly tender and buttery ($28).

Bouillabaisse with shrimp, lobster, mussel, crab and fresh fish ($26) was simmered in white wine and, allegedly, tomato and saffron. Our bouillabaisse was simple, served in an insistently blonde seafood broth with nary a tomato or saffron in sight. Still it was embraced at the table for its sheer audacity: a heady seafood broth, crab, mussels, shrimp and fish happily stewed in their own juices.

But it was the grilled New York steak, cooked to specification and flanked by the world's largest jumbo shrimp ($28), that took the prize.Tender and sweet, the shrimp were topped with a tomato-basil salsa. With a generous portion of piped mashed potatoes, a few happy spring vegetables, baby zucchini, carrots and asparagus, this plate was protected with a vise-like grip by the one who ordered it.

A truly delightful find was the vegetarian option--butternut squash and roasted corn cannelloni ($22). A quiet and seductive study on the lowly and modest vegetable, this dish could convert just about anyone. The cannelloni, stuffed with roasted corn and butternut squash, were topped with creamed parsnips and leeks. A generous portion of braised spinach, a welcome earthy note, blended with the sweeter flavors of the dish. Served in a pool of a creamy sunny carrot sauce, all the flavors worked without being over-wrought. This was a happy, toothsome dish, and I almost felt a little jealous of the vegetarian at the table.

By this point, the gracious service, the elegant meal and the lovely surroundings had worked their magic. Our waiter recommended desserts. A blueberry crème brulee resulted in an odd interpretation of a classic. The glassine crust was shard-like, and the brulee was loose and runny with a few berries tossed in. Still, it was refreshing in a faint and disinterested kind of fashion. The chocolate torte had been plated with great care, but it also didn't quite rise to the heights of the rest of the meal.

No matter; we were fat and happy and content with the world, regardless of the era. After dinner, you can choose to listen the piano player and have a cocktail, or wander out into the sweet and fragrant night to sit under the stars and chat beneath a blooming orange tree. Either way, you'll feel restored and refreshed, or at least momentarily transported to a time when the world was a grander place and moved at a more elegant pace.