Dumbed Down

Café Terra Cotta, a restaurant that once stood for culinary innovation, has become a mediocre parody of its own vision.

When Café Terra Cotta first opened up in 1986, it created a sensation. Of course timing is everything, and the country was poised on the edge of Southwest mania, when everyone went right out and bought a howling coyote with a pink painted kerchief and plunked it in their front yard.

Café Terra Cotta's success flourished, and the restaurant garnered national media and awards, peaking in 1994 with a James Beard Award and nod of recognition by Zagat.

It isn't always an easy thing to maintain the luster of success. Café Terra Cotta has certainly experienced its own fair share of misfortune. We shan't list all their many financial grievances here, but the many attempts to expand the business into a chain generally were met with grim endings: the very short-lived expansion to Los Angeles; the equally short-lived Terra Cotta in Cave Creek; and the Scottsdale location that also eventually closed its doors. The original Café Terra Cotta in Tucson was fated to be the single link in a wished-for chain.

I have always found this to be a curious parable of sorts, one with many lessons embedded in it, but the most curious twist of all has been the latest incarnation of Café Terra Cotta, now housed in its formidable new digs up on Sunrise Drive.

Gone is the friendly cheerful atmosphere once found at the St. Philip's Plaza. Instead, the looming architecture here reminds: you are small. Beware ye who enter here, for surely greatness is at hand.

Of course, once you do make it through the door you only encounter the host station and some kitschy art by the door, but you might need to double your anxiety meds just to work up the nerve to wrestle the door open in the first place. But don't be intimidated, it's part of the spell, the allure. You are here to partake of the local legend... Café Terra Cotta.

OK, so you get seated at a table. It will be covered with butcher paper and a little pot with a cactus in it. If you are lucky, the server won't be so busy or forgetful as to neglect bringing the simpler amenities of dining. Such as, for example, bread plates. Our waiter breathlessly rushed glasses of water and a basket of bread to the table. After a long pronounced absence during which we eyed the bread and butter hungrily, he finally re-materialized and wanted to take an order. Not being particularly shy, we asked if we might start over. We wanted to hear the specials, and it might be nice if we could have some bread plates.

Our waiter stared at us, stupefied. "We don't do that here. You can use the table." We must have looked baffled because he added, "That's what the paper is for."

Well, we just didn't believe him. Not with a foyer like we'd just swanned through. No, this was a corner being cut by a young and inexperienced server and we firmly reminded him of basic health codes and sent him off in pursuit of bread plates. Unfortunately, not many of the other tables in the room had the same presence of mind and we did notice people eating off the paper on the table as if it were a plate.

Well, the menu hasn't changed that much since those first opening days of glory. Many of the old favorites are still available, along with some new additions. Perhaps my memory is becoming addled, but it did seem in the days of yore that Café Terra Cotta had some adventure on the menu. The combination of ingredients was innovative and sparked the palate in a number of different directions. Although similar-sounding items appeared on the menu, uniformly their presentation and flavors felt dimmed and muted.

We tried the Ring of Fire pizza ($12.25) and the shrimp flautas with roasted tomatillo sauce and salsa fresca ($8.75). The pizza was zippy, thanks to serrano chiles. Put an unseeded serrano in just about anything and it will give it a kick, and the Ring of Fire pizza held kick. But the shrimp flautas were mediocre at best; greasy and limp, these held precious little shrimp and a smear of tomatillo. The ginger aioli seemed more like an afterthought than an integral part of the dish, and we let this plate sit at the side of the table.

The Tucson Salad ($8.75)--a chopped salad with corn, tomatoes, chayote, red pepper, chiles, hard boiled egg and gorgonzola cheese with an avocado-cilantro dressing--should have been enticing, but on this evening it was swimming in dressing.

The crab cakes with roasted corn salsa on a red pepper cream sauce ($7.95) were moist little cakes that tasted faintly of crab. There was nothing offensive about this dish, but no celebration of flavors stepped forward either.

Concerned about the integrity of the menu, and searching for some of the old familiar flavors, we were determined to find some enjoyment with our entrees.

The grilled duck breast with guava-serrano cream sauce, pear-persimmon salsa and crispy cotija polenta ($19.95) was a clear success. We were cheered by the complexity in flavors, the spicy and sweet sauces and the duck breast grilled to a turn; the polenta, with its creamy flavors, had been crisped at the edges to a crunch. This was a plate worth every penny it commanded.

But the sunflower-seed-crusted salmon on masa corncakes was a flat and disappointing dish. Why anyone would want to pat sunflower seeds, a fairly fatty and pasty tasting nut, onto salmon is a good enough question, but serve this on top of mealy flavorless corncakes and you've got a problem. Throw on a handful of sunflower sprouts, serve with a yellow molé that has no heat or flavor or aromatic elements, charge $17.95 for the lot and you're going to raise some eyebrows.

The pork tenderloin adobado with black beans and apricot chile conserve ($17.95) should have been a lovely plate, but on this occasion the pork was dried out and overcooked. The apricot chile conserve added a bright note, but the beans were overly salted.

The same careless hand clearly put out the Angus rib eye plate ($22.95), which was overly cooked. The Oaxacan BBQ sauce, the mealy scalloped potatoes and rather flaccid tobacco onion rings left this plate largely uneaten.

Despite the flustered and rather addled service that accompanied the meal, we sat in quiet astonishment that a venue which once stood for culinary innovation had settled for such a mediocre and dumbed-down version of its own vision.

Dessert didn't prove much better. A caramel cheesecake ($6.25) and a chocolate mousse ($6.25) were fairly run of the mill. Our waiter apologized for serving the tiramisu frozen and stammered his way through an excuse about being so busy they'd just pulled it from the freezer. Normally, this would have been returned, but we didn't bother. Oddly, even this oversight seemed in keeping with the rest of the restaurant's current tenet, which is all about serving the masses. Sadly, this theme of mediocrity prevails in everything. Even the towering edifice, studied one last time from the parking lot, thrusting up into the night sky, serves only as a glorified apology, a bombastic signifier of days gone by and things gone awry.

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