Fantastic Flavors

Lodge on the Desert is showing hints of greatness following a renovation and a fire

Lodge on the Desert has always seemed like one of those hidden Tucson gems that natives like to keep in their pocket, showing it off to visitors on special occasions and holidays—though we rarely venture there by ourselves.

The kitchen and hotel underwent a massive $15 million renovation in 2009—and the kitchen was the subject of an arson fire in February 2010, which caused an estimated $100,000 in damage. The restaurant officially re-opened their full kitchen in late November, even though they were open and operating out of a kitchen in a trailer in the meantime. I also learned after my two visits that the menu is undergoing a complete revamp. In other words, we concede that timing of this review (which we've already delayed multiple times due to the fire and delays in the kitchen reconstruction) could have been better.

Ted and I decided to swing in for a casual lunch on a Saturday afternoon. After being seated by the executive chef, Ryan Clark, it became apparent—and remained apparent—that the restaurant was woefully understaffed. Despite the renovation, the décor in the sit-down portion of the restaurant seems dated and a bit drab. The bar looks to have gotten the most bang from the decorating buck, but on neither visit was a bartender on duty. In fact, not only did Clark seat us; he also poured our beers ($5 each, the "Lodge Amber" brew from Thunder Canyon Brewery).

Our server was gracious—when we saw him. He was busy, being the only server for several large parties and a few other tables. We started off with the freshly-made guacamole and house-fried chips with smoked salt ($6), which was delivered promptly, considering the staffing situation. The kitchen does a spectacular job with the presentation of all of their dishes, and the guacamole was no exception: Served in the half-shell of the avocado, the guacamole's cool, creamy texture paired well with the hot-out-of-the fryer chips, and the smoked salt on the chips added a wonderful depth to the flavor of the guacamole.

The menus were quite limited during our visits, but Chef Clark is expanding them now that he has access to the brand-new kitchen. I ordered the malpeque clams ($10.50), a curried clam dish with potatoes, spinach, cilantro and a soft-boiled egg. The scant dozen steamed clams were all open and cooked nicely, and paired well with the mild yellow curry and the eggs. The amount of potatoes in the dish was overwhelming, and they were cut into chunks too large to easily eat with the clams, but the brightness of the spinach and cilantro helped to cut into the potato-heavy flavor. The eggs were hard-boiled rather than soft-boiled, but that didn't negatively affect the flavor of the dish. The dish was good, but not exceptional.

Ted ordered one of the two burgers on the menu, opting for the "all-natural beef burger" ($11) over the classic burger ($10). He ordered it medium, but it was delivered well-done, and so was a bit dry. Thankfully, the red-onion jam and the blue cheese helped moisten it, and gave it a smoky, rich flavor. The thin-cut, crispy fries that came with the burger were absolutely stellar.

After we ordered, the only person we saw at our table until our check was delivered was our hurried busser, who was hustling around dropping off and picking up plates.

Our return visit was on a weeknight for dinner, and again, the restaurant seemed understaffed. We waited about 10 minutes to be seated—not because there weren't open tables, but because the hostess disappeared after she seated the table previous to us. Again, there was only one server on staff, and all things considered, she did an exceptional job.

We ordered the spinach Boursin fondue ($8) and organic baby spinach salad ($7) for appetizers, along with a bottle of Lurton pinot gris ($32) from the short but fairly diverse wine list, which features about a dozen reds and a dozen whites, mostly ranging from the low $30s to the mid $50s.

The appetizers, which were again beautifully presented, were not bad, nor were they notably good. The spinach salad was a classic combination of spinach, apples, blue cheese and candied pecans, but was heavy on the vinaigrette and light on the pecans. The spinach Boursin fondue was dull and lacked any sort of piquant flavor, cheese or otherwise. It seemed that without the seasoned toast pieces, there wouldn't have been any flavor at all.

After we were finished with our first course, the entrées took an additional 20 minutes or so to arrive—but were stunningly good when they did. Ted chose the special of the evening, a half-rack of lamb with sweet potato hash, sautéed spinach and ancho "jus" ($25), and I ordered the shrimp penne rigate ($22), with asparagus, tomatoes, toasted pepitas and cotija cheese in a roasted poblano cream sauce.

The lamb was cooked to a perfect medium-rare, with a crisp, seared outer crust, and it paired nicely with the soft onion, potato and sweet-potato hash. Ted commented that he could have used a little more spinach, but it was otherwise excellent; the smoky and ever-so-slightly spicy ancho jus really completed the dish. My pasta was a great mix of textures and flavors, and had a generous portion of shrimp. I especially loved the tiny tomatoes, cooked whole, which literally exploded with bright flavor in my mouth.

Dessert options were limited to just three ($7 each): an ancho chocolate torte, Grand Marnier truffles, and banana pudding. We chose to share the banana pudding, about which I was skeptical—pudding always seems like a mundane dessert. However, this was banana pudding with style. Served in a crème brûlée dish, it had a deliciously crumbly cheesecake-like crust and was served with two brûléed banana halves. The pudding was more like a custard in consistency, and wasn't overpoweringly banana-flavored.

Considering Chef Clark's talents and since more menu options are on their way, I am sure Lodge on the Desert can retain its classic charm while becoming a place that Tucsonans frequent without or without out-of-town guests—though a little streamlining of the Southwestern theme and more staff would help.

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