Admirable Agustín

Ryan Clark's takeover of the main space at the Mercado might be one of the best things to happen to Tucson food

Back in August of 2012, my predecessor Jimmy Boegle reviewed Agustín Brasserie, giving it a somewhat positive review, happy with the aesthetics of the location and elements of most of the dishes, but unhappy about the prices and the trouble. In the end, while he was more kind to the place than many others were, Jimmy wanted the restaurant located in one of the best (non-downtown) spots in town to be deserving of its space. The Brasserie just didn't hold up its end of the bargain, so when the restaurant went on a seasonal hiatus in June of last year that lasted into the fall, the culinary rumor mill (a mill of possibly 50 people or so, but still) was going nuts speculating about when and if the location would reopen and in what form.

So, when the announcement came in late October that Ryan Clark, one of Tucson's few superstar chefs—apologies to the many talented people making food in this town, but the triumvirate of the Tucson toqued probably consists of Daniel Contreras, Janos Wilder and Clark, right?—was going to take over the cornerstone of the Mercado, in the process turning it from a Brasserie into a Kitchen, that seemed like a definitive positive step. Clark's star is definitely on the rise and he probably needed to move on from the hidden-in-plain-sight Lodge on the Desert, so the combination made a lot of sense and the general excitement reflected that the general eating public agreed.

And it would be a lot easier to write a review of Agustín Kitchen if there were numerous missteps with the service or a few clunky dishes. I'd make a few pointed remarks about not getting your money's worth or get in a shot that Clark's overrated. Fortunately for Tucson diners with some extra cash and unfortunately for my altweekly disillusionment, Agustín Kitchen is as good or better than I expected based on Clark's resumé. So, here we go, my almost entirely ecstatic review of a place I'd probably eat at once or twice a week if I hadn't chosen a life in the not-so-lucrative world of journalism.

Both times, there were items on our table that we described as among the best of that sort of dish we'd ever eaten, whether the deeply flavorful "gunslinger red and lime" crispy calamari ($12) from the appetizer menu the first trip or basically all of the entreés our table of four had on the second trip. We tried to take a survey of meats for that dinner and I felt a mild sense of regret that I chose the Amish chicken cutlets ($17), because, well, chicken, but even those were great, mostly driven by the super brightly flavored preserved lemon jus and dried tomatoes surrounding the thin boneless chicken breasts and mashed potatoes. The only reason I might not order that dish again is the fact that ordering chicken seems like a deeply unsexy choice compared to the braised lamb shank with some sort of horseradish spiked potato side ($21), the beautiful and sort of easy to screw up diver scallop and pork belly ($19) and the gasp-inducing (not joking, my wife actually gasped when she took the first bite) sous vide hangar steak ($19) with a wild pile of thinly cut perfect onion rings on top. If I were nitpicking a little, the sauce for my chicken, while warm, looked like it might have been sitting under a heat lamp for just a second too long, since there was a little bit of a film, but once I started eating, that minor issue wasn't a concern. Everything was great.

And now an aside of sorts to celebrate the beef tartare ($13) from the appetizer menu (sadly a dish that isn't discounted during the restaurant's surprisingly seven-day-a-week happy hour, although the also delicious steamed mussels and tasty-but-not-mind-blowing bruleed goat cheese are). I don't know if there are that many menus in town that are serving finely cut raw beef, and Agustín has the advantage of serving Arizona Wagyu beef, but the soft egg topping the meat along with a please-jar-this-and-I-don't-even-like-Parmesan-or-mayo Parmesan mayo makes for a dish that shouldn't last for long at any table. We had the tartare on our first trip and skipped it on our second to try as many things on the menu as we could. While we enjoyed the aforementioned mussels and goat cheese options as well as Clark's signature jarred spreads ($16 and they were good, although the lemon ricotta seemed to be a little too sweet that early in the meal and the pork rillette was just OK), I missed the tartare. I'm missing the tartare right now actually.

The desserts, which are sadly losing editorial space in this review to the above love note to raw meat, were also stellar, in particular the pistachio gelato ($4), which we spent a lot of time trying to figure out. It couldn't just be great local pistachos driving that flavor, could it? I suppose we could have asked, but sometimes it's better to leave things a mystery. The drinks were also uniformly delicious.

For some reason, possibly I want to feel like we got something out of Rio Nuevo and partially because it's just a lovely space, I really want the Mercado San Agustín to succeed. As long as we as a city can swindle Ryan Clark not to leave for a bigger pond, Agustín Kitchen should be a great anchor to bring people over to that end of the light rail line to experience more of the Westside.