Delicious Dish

One of Tucson's top restaurants has survived a move with its charms intact

This time last year, The Dish was on many Tucson gourmands' lists of top restaurants. But something called "progress" would come along--"progress" in this case meaning "a new Walgreens"--and force The Dish and its sister specialty/spirits store, The RumRunner, to move.

That move happened last summer, and when The Dish reopened, the tiny bistro was even tinier (trimmed from 42 to 25 seats, according to Noshing goddess Karyn Zoldan). Executive chef Jerry Hernandez's menu was pared down, and reservations were no longer accepted. I visited the new Dish a couple of times during its first month of business, and I was disheartened: The new Dish wasn't bad, but it wasn't The Dish that had just months before been one of Tucson's best.

Well, this is why we have a policy of giving restaurants several months to figure things out before we review them: Since then, management has worked out the kinks, thrown in a few more seats and returned the menu to its former glory--and The Dish is back in the discussion of Tucson's best restaurants.

The Dish has long been known for its small, intimate room (those less romantic could describe it as "cramped"), its delicious upscale cuisine (which has the powers to prompt even those less romantic to spout sonnets, sometimes concerning mussels in a saffron broth) and its stunning wine selection (the restaurant has a nice list, plus diners can get any bottle from The RumRunner and pay retail plus $12). All these qualities carry over to the new location.

If anything, the new Dish is even more cramped; if the people at the adjacent table and/or bar stools want to listen in on your conversation, there's nothing you can do to stop them. (Well, that's not necessarily true: Physical violence is an option, something I briefly considered when a cretin at an adjacent table had a cell phone that kept beeping; however, I strongly discourage such violence, as it would likely result in a premature end to your Dish dining experience.) Jazzy music at the appropriate volume, paintings (featuring pears and people melded with flowers) and tile art help create a comfortable bistro atmosphere. The service remains quite good; we witnessed some minor service issues (a customer should never have to ask about the specials or request that a table--already dressed with glasses and utensils--be cleaned, like we did), but the pacing from appetizer to salad to entrée to dessert was perfect.

Then there's the food ... wow. When you visit a restaurant twice, and the worst adjective you can come up with to describe any of the cuisine is "good," that's saying something. Yes, we had some minor complaints: Garrett thought the herb-crusted lobster tail with melted brie, lemon-chive beurre blanc and fresh tomato concassé ($14.75) was wonderful, although he complained he couldn't taste the lobster. (I could.) The cold crab and avocado spring roll with carrots, napa cabbage and cucumber with wasabi-pear emulsion and dragon fruit-ginger stars ($9.75) was the weakest dish due to the fact that there was such little crab, but the other flavors--the avocado, the pear, the mint--still made us want to eat every bite. The vegetable cilantro bisque ($12.50)--a green-colored soup with little white dollops of queso blanco, blue corn and one blackened, hibiscus-dusted shrimp in the middle--needed a little pepper to make the flavors pop, but pop, they did.

And those are the relative misses. The hits: The sautéed snapper with crispy sweet potato and blue crab over sweet pea and orange-zest risotto with pink grapefruit beurre noisette ($32) was one of the best fish dishes I have ever tasted, anywhere, period. I was sad that Garrett ordered it, and not me. Thankfully, my molasses-glazed pork tenderloin stuffed with caramelized onion, apple and smoked bacon with black currant sauce ($28) was also amazing, so sweet (but not overly so) that it could have qualified as a savory dessert. Even the garnishes with the pork were tasty: goat-cheese-stuffed green grapes! The braised lamb shanks with rosemary pan jus, sweet pea and orange zest risotto ($29) were ever-so-slightly overcooked, but the pan jus the meat was swimming in was so delectable that we didn't mind.

Plus, most of The Dish's classics are still there, like the long-stem artichoke hearts with shiitake duxelles ($8.50), the simple and fancy salads ($4.75 and $6.75, respectively, suffering from a bit too much dressing on one visit) and those sonnet-inspiring saffron mussels ($9.50), which may be my favorite entrée in all of Tucson. The big omission concerns the dessert menu: The Dish's legendary ginger tart is gone, which is nearly an unforgivable sin. Its replacement--a chocolate-nut tart in a whiskey caramel sauce ($8.75)--is a splendid dessert, but still, you can't replace a classic.

Besides the ginger tart, The Dish is missing one other element: the ability to make reservations. I understand what The Dish is trying to do by making the bistro a drop-in-only kind of place ... but The Dish simply is not a drop-in-only kind of place. This is, for many, a restaurant to splurge (it has $30-plus entrées, after all), to celebrate a special occasion, a place worth driving in from out of town to visit. But who wants to celebrate a birthday by facing a possible 45-minute wait for a table?

Maybe one day, The Dish will start allowing reservations, at least for special occasions. And maybe one day, the ginger tart will return. And perhaps a time will come when The Dish can add a few more tables, somehow, someway. In the meantime, however, The Dish remains one of Tucson's top restaurants. Thank goodness that after the big move, The Dish remains The Dish.

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