Midtown Makeover

Reinventing Presidio once again.

When Presidio first opened way back in 1988, Tucson was a slightly different cow town. We had a handful of viable dining spots, but not so many casual venues that also sported culinary intent. Over the years, despite various incarnations involving odd and extensive renovations and additions, Presidio's partnerships formed and dissolved. Still, Presidio Grill cultivated a devoted following who also collectively mourned the recent early retirement of the final remaining owner, Deb Gellman Richards.

The new Presidio team, owned by Andy Haratyk and Jacqueline and Stephen Cutler, have decided to up the ante. Recruiting Stephen Draheim (formerly of Janos), the new Presidio menu no longer has casual culinary intentions, but serious ones. Perhaps overly stated ones.

Gone is the former funky/artistic/odd mélange of styles that made up the décor at Presidio. The main dining room now is toned down and streamlined with a contemporary look. Subtle deep red walls, gracefully placed flowers and a row of white columns clean up the space and allude to a more formal dining experience. Gone is the whacked-out weird art I was always afraid would fall on my head. Unfortunately, the silver room (just beyond the main dining room) still feels disjointed and not as welcoming as the sleek outer dining room. Dining in the silver room feels like some kind of futuristic endeavor, a near brush with the Mir station you never wanted. Perhaps it's all those shiny surfaces, but the sound system is deafening and the acoustics bounce voices loudly. If you make reservations, you'll probably want to state your seating preference, and the main dining room is a more intimate and pleasurable experience.

This disjointed sense of incongruity carries over to the menu as well. Over several dining experiences there, both menu items and service were erratic. Perhaps it is just the twitches and glitches of opening a new place, but the ambitions behind the menu give pause. The dinner menu in particular announces some serious pretensions toward culinary ambition.

Chef Draheim's training with Janos pays off in some lovely wins on the menu. Some dishes feel realized and unified, showcasing bright flavors and knowing their limits. On the dinner menu, the potato and goat cheese stuffed chard ($10.50) appetizer is pleasing. Served over braised fennel with red pepper shallot vinaigrette, fennel oil and arugula, the fat little dolma are stuffed with potato and goat cheese purée. The simple combination of sharp fennel, balanced vinaigrette, the creamy cheese and potato all work together.

Draheim's surest strokes are with simple, pure flavors. The roasted kabocha soup ($7) is supple and smooth. Two shrimp, a butternut ring and maple crème add some complexity and a comforting touch. A meal in itself, the dish is confident and deftly turned out. Likewise, on the lunch menu, the coriander crusted tuna steak ($10), served with a buckwheat noodle salad, grilled bok choy and ponzu, rests on not only the quality of ingredients, but easy pairings for the palate. These simpler realizations are Draheim's strengths.

But, as true with any far-reaching ambition, it is easy to fall down. True, the restaurant is still getting its footing, and I imagine a constant tinkering will continue with menu rotation, but many dishes collapse under the dissonance of ingredients or straining ambition. The smoked trout and grilled pear salad ($9.50) should be a winning combination. The ingredients are all high quality: Belgian endive, gorgonzola, grilled pear and trout served in a warm bacon pecan vinaigrette. But the salad itself dissolves into tumescence, a finely flaked and chopped swelling of ingredients that run together without any clear distinguishing flavors or textures.

Other dishes on the menu depart into the realm of overly stylized or contrived. Chicken breast stuffed with crystallized ginger-peanut pesto ($20) was served on a chickpea succotash with wilted spinach and saffron aioli. This is a dish that works better on paper than on the plate. The pesto, here a loose mash of ginger and peanut, tried to zip up the dish, but the flavors got lost in the tumult of other ingredients. The chickpea succotash has its own agenda, and combined with so many other flavors, the dish's complexity dissolves into confusion. With so many competing flavors, even the idea of saffron aioli feels out of keeping. We certainly weren't able to discern the flavor at all.

Breast of smoked duck over farfalle pasta ($23) promised to be tossed with a toasted hazelnut pesto and arugula ($23). Perhaps we hit an off night, but this dish was underwhelming in flavor, texture and presentation. Although the fan of duck meat was tender, the pasta was dry and we were hard pressed to find either hazelnut flavors or arugula in the dish. Although the combination is an interesting one, the flavors flattened out with no clear sense of dimension.

Whole roasted rainbow trout ($22) with toasted orzo pilaf with bacon-wrapped roasted onions and brown butter cider vinaigrette certainly sounded appealing. Although we were served coho salmon (which the server graciously informed us of before we ordered), this dish was starkly plated. The firm, fresh salmon was cooked until moist, but the orzo pilaf fell flat. Sadly, the entire plate was drowned out by a cloyingly sweet cider vinaigrette.

Overall, the service we received was enthusiastic but untrained and still jumpy. Small details were late or overlooked: water, refills, bread. Uniformly, servers seem uncertain about menu ingredients, and there was a lot of running back to retrieve answers to basic questions. While we appreciated the effort, it was irritating to have the server bouncing back and forth for fairly routine information ("Is the duck confit salad served warm or cold?" "Um, I dunno, I'll go check and be right back.") It is difficult to be critical of good intent, but after a while one wearies of the ping-pong ball effect and wished the staff was a wee bit more knowledgeable of their product.

The dessert menu is one of the more interesting ones I've encountered in quite some time. Each offering is original and doesn't bank on widespread favorites. The three-chocolate hazelnut tart with Ragin' Sage espresso custard and vanilla ice cream ($6) is intensely rich but each element melds with another. Likewise, the lemongrass crème brûlée with crystallized ginger tuile and fresh berries ($6) is a lovely twist on a classic dessert. The lemon grass adds a lemony edge but honors the delicate textures of the dish. A stylish presentation, this is a sure and confident offering.

The Bosc pear ($6) poached in saffron syrup with lemon crème fraîche and tangerine essence is a lovely study in the complex possibilities of simple fruit flavors.

For the asking price, and certainly considering the swerve in aesthetics, Presidio Grill offers up a lot of promise but needs to fine-tune its delivery. One can only hope that the venue deepens and becomes more viable and surefooted of itself. With the talent it evidently has on board, this feels like a dream just waiting to happen.

Presidio Grill. 3352 E. Speedway Blvd. 327-4667. Serving lunch Monday through Friday: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dinner: Monday through Thursday: 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday 5 to 10 p.m. and Saturday 4 to 10 p.m. Late night menu: 10 p.m. to midnight. Closed Sunday. Full bar. MC, Visa, AmEx, checks. Menu items: $8-$32.