Headed NoRTH

Tucson's restaurant scene gets another upscale contender at La Encantada.

Somewhere in the restaurant world, there seems to be a recipe for creating a new, modern, upscale restaurant. It looks a little something like this:

· One good location. A new or booming mall or ritzy shopping center is preferred. (Valet service is a plus.)

· A bushel of young, attractive servers and hostesses. (Having them wear either very dark, monochromatic outfits or very white outfits is a plus.)

· Several dozen pieces of retro-looking furniture.

· One creative chef who can come up with a menu of fancy food that comes in small-to-moderate portions, and that's slightly overpriced.

· One memorable logo. (It's all about branding, baby.)

· A large wine list.

Let the ingredients simmer for a month or two. Soon, crowds and profits will begin to rise.

Well, that's the recipe that Fox Restaurant Concepts followed in the process of cooking up NoRTH, located in the chic La Encantada shopping center (adjacent to three other upscale restaurants: Ra, Bluepoint and Firebirds). It worked like a charm: NoRTH appears to be a hit, and I certainly enjoyed my dining experience there.

The Fox folks follow this recipe, at least to an extent, at all their restaurants, including Tucson faves Bistro Zin, Wildflower and Sauce. They also run a handful of places in Colorado and Scottsdale. It was in that 'burb of Phoenix where NoRTH was born; the Tucson location is the second NoRTH.

I visited NoRTH on a recent weeknight with Hugh Dougherty. We had the good sense to make reservations, and it was a good thing, as the place was packed. We were promptly seated and given our menus to peruse.

NoRTH's look follows the above recipe nicely, with a special added touch: A wonderful view of the city's lights is visible on one side of the restaurant (even if the parking lot and the Skyline Drive/Campbell Avenue intersection get a bit in the way), and they had the good sense to show it off with floor-to-ceiling windows. The other side of the restaurant has brick walls, and the ceiling features pipes, vents and other industrial-looking features. The wooden floor and the retro-looking seats pair nicely, and orange-red lamps provide scenery in the middle of the room. The restaurant has mellow lighting, nice for romance. (And as an aside, two flat-screen TVs hang over a lounge-type area of the room. During our visit, a UA basketball game was on--this is Tucson, after all--and the occasional manly "WOOOO!" or "ARRRRGH!" would cut through all of the conversations, throwing off the mood a bit.)

The menu is self-described as "modern Italian cuisine," and it is packed with various salads ($6-$10) for both lunch and dinner. The lunch fare includes upscale sandwiches (including a concoction with Tuscan chicken salad, roma tomato and olive tepenade, $8), pizzas ($9-10), pastas and fish ($9-$13, with the fish coming in at market price). Much of the same is offered for dinner, without the sandwiches and with slightly higher prices (pizzas are $10-$11, with the pastas and other entrées ranging from $11-$26).

After extensive deliberation, Hugh and I decided to split an appetizer: prosciutto shrimp, truffled arugula and seared lemons (an overpriced $10). I got the grilled bread salad with fresh mozzarella and organic tomatoes ($8) and the risotto with roasted corn and shrimp ($17). Hugh ordered the soup of the day, a carrot gnocchi soup ($6) and the fresh fish, Lake Superior whitefish ($21).

We were also given Italian bread with sun-dried tomato butter. The bread was good, but the tomato didn't add much flavor to the spread. Interestingly, our table was also served a small bowl of olives: two green and three kalamata.

Our pleasant server brought our appetizer first. The three shrimp, wrapped in prosciutto and served on a bed of arugula, along with one burnt slice of lemon and a slice of onion, tasted delicious. The ham was the dominant taste, although the shrimp came through, too, in a wonderfully complementary way. However, since there were only three shrimp, that made it a challenge to split--and it made me think that it wasn't quite worth an Alexander Hamilton.

Hugh's soup and my salad came next, and we were both pleased. Hugh's soup was deliciously sweet with carrot flavor, and the gnocchi had a nice consistency. He commented that the soup was a bit too watery, however. My salad was great, although the almost-tasteless bread added very little to the mix--the tangy dressing and the fresh mixed greens, along with the small tomatoes and onion slices, carried the dish.

After an appropriate passage of time spent engaged in good conversation, wine-sipping and bread-munching, the entrées arrived--and we were duly impressed. Hugh's fish fillet, served amidst a variety of vegetables, was fresh and delicious. He was surprised at its bounteous thickness--he commented that it may have actually been a little too thick--but he loved the light flavor and the tender, slightly flaky consistency.

As he dined on his fish, I was savoring my risotto. The rice and corn provided a sweet, earthly flavor; the four large shrimp, each with a dash of pepper, were perfectly prepared. I had to pick out large chips of Parmesan cheese that coated the dish, so that they didn't overwhelm the flavor--a little goes a long way--but overall, it was a treat.

Nicely sated by our top-notch entrées, we decided to stick around for dessert. NoRTH doesn't have a static dessert menu--so said our server--as they change so regularly. Hugh chose the sorbet ($6), and I chose the flourless chocolate nutello cake ($6), to go along with some delicious decaffeinated coffee ($2). Hugh's berry-flavored sorbet came in a massive quantity--three large scoops--and he didn't come close to finishing it all. He liked it, but there was just too much. Meanwhile, the plate with my cake was practically licked clean. It tasted almost like a really good brownie, and the accompanying whipped cream and fruit worked well.

It was a fine meal, dining with the well-to-do in the Foothills. Yeah, NoRTH may come from a stereotypical recipe. But it's a recipe that works.

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