Crowd Pleaser

Café Terra Cotta satisfies all ages with grace and creativity.

Rigidity and family dining are concepts that don't go together. As parents, we had doubts about our choice of the rather upscale Café Terra Cotta, since our varietal bunch can test almost any restaurant's flexibility save Pizza Hut. We, a seemingly innocuous grouping of pre-teen, teen, young adult to-arrive-later-for-dessert-only and two aging 'rents, make demands that make most hostage situations enviable. But Café Terra Cotta's wait staff and menu get high marks for graciousness bordering on creativity.

The décor was pleasant and conversation making--with an entryway sculpture of a cat standing on its head among other original artworks, mostly bright, accessible and Southwestern themed. Airy, multi-level and very large, Café Terra Cotta attracts a clientele that is a mix of Tucson casual touched with a patina of money. A teen can wear anything from high Goth to skater pants without comment. An adult can drip fur or wear flip-flops.

We arrived with reservations outside on the east patio at 6:30 p.m. on a Friday. But not so quick were we content at that table or the next. We were neatly re-set up twice, settings and water moved. No problem. We braced ourselves for the inevitable bout of choices, broken down into soups and salads; starters, small plates and pasta; sandwiches; pizzas from the wood-burning oven; signature plates. The prices range from under $10 to $50 (with food and drink).

Deliberations required a Scottsdale Margarita (made with Herradura Silver tequila fresh squeezed lime and Cointreau, 12 oz., $9.25). Another of legal age tried the house white Zinfandel (Arciero Winery, Paso Robles, Calif., $4.75), naturally a bit on the sweet side but decent for the price. Hot tea and house-made lemonade ($2 with free refills) came right away with the adult drink orders, a consideration sometimes overlooked at other "grown-up" restaurants.

Because of a burgeoning and fierce hunger in the youngest, it was decided that her father would order the house soup special for that night, a Southwestern corn chowder ($5.95) to share. Near to cheese custard in texture, with a warming bite of chilies, it was perhaps the thickest soup we'd ever had. It was decided also to be one of the coziest, yummiest concoctions as well, with the corn and cream and chilies in perfect balance and visually appealing with a festive garnish of shards of red tortilla chips.

Our pre-teen wanted her tequila shrimp over penne pasta ($12.95) without the roasted green chilies, sweet corn and sun dried tomatoes or the chipotle cream sauce. And she wanted the penne tossed in olive oil and garlic. Of course. No problem, said the patient waiter, without a trace of patronization. Later, it was deemed great. Lots of crunchy, sautéed garlic with a light splash of good olive oil made the pasta divine. The large, fresh, tequila marinated shrimp were cooked it seemed over charcoal which in combination made it perhaps slightly bitter for a child but excellent for the rest of us.

The teen, a slightly more adventurous eater, chose the ribbon pasta with artichoke hearts, fresh tomatoes, asparagus and chayote squash in a pine nut butter sauce ($12.25). But wait: Hold the artichokes, asparagus and squash. What she got, of course was egg noodles with a few bites of tomato lightly coated in a delicate cream sauce (made with white wine, bay leaf, shallots, black peppercorns and cream) which, with or without vegetables, could have used a little more pow! for more jaded taste buds. But it was enjoyed--and again showed the flexibility of staff and kitchen.

But of course there are more exciting, inventive dishes on the menu. My Australian lamb loin ($23.85) for example, was a lovely marriage of the conventional and the extra-ordinary. Served with a summer squash-black olive salsa and Gorgonzola flan, the lamb in a jus and prickly pear reduction was exceptionally flavorful. The light touch of the strong Gorgonzola in the delicate flan was a strong complement. Garnishes of wee branches of baby rosemary were a nice addition to every bite of juicy lamb. I prefer lamb not rare (the chef's preference) and even so it burst with seared-in flavor. Recently it has been temporarily replaced on the menu by the somewhat similar but texturally different Australian lamb shank with white beans, oven dried tomatoes, spinach and a lamb prickly pear reduction ($18.95).

Another house special, mahimahi with a Pacific Rim inspired sauce ($19.95) with roast potatoes and baby vegetables drew mixed reaction. The fish was fresh tasting and firm to the fork, tender in the mouth but was also over salty. This also wasn't a dish for those who dislike hot spices, with a strong dose of chile oil in the soy sauce and potatoes dusted generously with red pepper. The very small portion of more delicately flavored vegetables (carrots zucchini and green beans would have left most vegetable lovers wishing for more.) Our young shunned pizzas, surprisingly, but the offering of pizza of your own design of standard kid-pleasing ingredients such as pepperoni and bacon ($12. 25) could be a lifesaver for some other family. But in general, there is much on the menu to attract anyone from potato eater to raw tuna maven.

Terra Cotta chefs include Matthew Lash (formerly personal chef to Dave Matthews of The Dave Matthews Band), Jeff Fuld (former owner and proprietor of Daniels) and Pat Winkler (sous chef).

Dessert, the favorite course of the older daughter, was ordered in abundance cumulating in sugar frenzy, a family bacchanal. The crème brulee ($6.25) was different than expected--in texture more a pudding than the custard-like affair--came with biscotti. A tarte tatin a la mode ($6.25), described as an upside-down caramelized apple tart with vanilla ice cream, boasted well-seasoned apples that non-the-less tasted canned in texture. The terra cotta dessert sampler ($8.25) featured a lively fresh fruit sorbet, a sampling of the crème brulee of the day and a small but potent bite of the dense Death by Chocolate. The new pastry chef, Fabrice Mallet, formerly of Janos and more recently, The Cup Cafe, has been at Café Terra Cotta since August.

Dining with children allows service and commitment to the diners' pleasure to easily be discerned. Café Terra Cotta ranks high among local designer restaurants in stooping to conquer. For children under 12 a kid's menu is available. Another possible pleasure is the bar menu, offered from 4-6 p.m. seven days a week with discounted drinks and all food items priced at $5.95, including old favorites such as jalapeño ravioli as well as newcomers such as grilled fish tacos.

Café Terra Cotta is that happy blend of innovation and experience where young palates can become educated slowly, while still giving the whole bloomin' bunch the sensation of a night on the town.

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