Mixed Views

Signature Grill at the JW Marriott Starr Pass offers a blend of delights and disappointments

I was immediately smitten with the Signature Grill's outdoor patio.

It was a gorgeous night, and the lights of Tucson twinkled beautifully in the distance. The sounds of crickets and guitar music from the pool area below mixed to create a relaxing vibe. The patio at the Signature Grill was officially my new favorite outdoor dining spot--and the evening had the potential to become something truly magical.

Unfortunately, the service and the food would let us down.

The restaurant was fairly quiet when we arrived on that recent Saturday evening, despite the fact that the restaurant at the JW Marriott Starr Pass Resort and Spa was not allowing any online reservations that weekend. (A large convention was taking place at the resort, and management closed off Internet reservations fearing a walk-in onslaught; however, a call to the wonderful concierge got us a reservation without any problems.)

Our server delivered menus, and I asked him about a wonderful special I'd seen on the restaurant's Web site: any appetizer, main course (with a couple of exceptions) and dessert for a mere $39. The waiter apologetically explained that the special was a summer offering that had just ended; when I mentioned that the special, without any sort of expiration date, was still posted on the Web site, he said he'd let management know. As of this writing, more than two weeks later, the special is still listed.

Anyway, the mouthwatering, Southwestern-inspired menu includes about 10 appetizers, 16 entrées and a handful of soups and salads. We decided to start out with the tableside guacamole ($10), the smoked pork sopes ($9) and the smoked barbecue beef-brisket tamales ($9). I also ordered the red pork pozole ($7), and Garrett selected the jalapeño and cheddar cornbread salad ($9). For main courses, I picked the ancho chile-spiced snapper ($26), and Garrett chose the lobster enchiladas ($26).

A busboy soon arrived with the ingredients for the guacamole, which are described on the menu as "a fresh blend of avocados, onions, tomatoes, cilantro and spices." In workmanlike fashion, he mixed up the avocadoes, onions, tomatoes and cilantro--and that was it: Alarmingly, no spices, as the menu promised, were added. And guess what? The guac was bland.

A little while later, the rest of the starters began arriving (and in between, we had to ask for water twice before receiving any). While the guacamole was a huge disappointment, the appetizers were both big successes. The sopes--think mini-tostadas--were a hit thanks to the succulent, juicy shredded pork, although the accompanying red chile sauce could have had more spice. The tamales were the hit of the night--the shredded beef, the masa and the roasted corn relish were fantastic. The night's prospects were looking a little brighter.

When the salad and pozole arrived (after a longer than normal wait), Garrett was immediately underwhelmed: The cornbread element of his salad consisted of two small cubes of cornbread off to the side, and that was all. The salad itself was good--he especially liked the chunks of corn freshly cut off the cob, which were mixed with bacon and ranch dressing--but that name needs to be changed. Fortunately, my pozole was fantastic; Garrett felt it was a bit watery, but I enjoyed the pork-and-hominy concoction. It even had an impressive little kick.

Soon after, the main courses arrived--and we both found ourselves dismayed. My snapper was a nice piece of fish--without any flavor. The flavors in the crust didn't permeate the thick piece of fish at all, and the mango salsa that came with it didn't make a difference. I barely ate any of it, and instead devoured the accompanying Dungeness crab flautas. They were delicious.

Then there were Garrett's three lobster enchiladas ... which had almost no lobster inside of them, and what little lobster there was had almost no flavor. There wasn't much to the red-chile enchilada sauce, either. It's also worth noting that the kitchen made no effort at presentation--in fact, the accompanying rice and beans were slopped onto the plate so haphazardly that they almost completely buried one of the enchiladas. $26 for this? Please. We were so disappointed that we decided to skip dessert.

We returned a week and a half later to give lunch a shot. (Breakfast is also served.) Again, we found that the restaurant's Web site is not to be trusted--the real lunch menu was much more limited than the menu displayed online.

We sat inside, and again enjoyed the décor and atmosphere. The room has a circular feel, largely due to the large pillar in the middle of the room. The walls are dominated by brick and the open kitchen on one side, and windows on the other.

Our lunch visit had much in common with our dinner visit. Some dishes were excellent; the baby iceberg salad with pepper bacon, tomatoes and bleu cheese dressing ($7) was perfect, while the rock-shrimp ceviche ($10) had a great lime taste, a lot of shrimp and a delicious mix of vegetables--onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, cilantro and even pickled onions. Some dishes were uninspired; the guacamole, this time pre-prepared, was still ho-hum, although there was a hint of spice. Some dishes were lacking; Garrett's chicken quesadilla ($12) was light on chicken, while my organic chicken sandwich ($12) benefited from a juicy, flavorful chicken breast but suffered because there was not enough of the tasty pesto sauce. On one hand, the server thoughtfully offered to split the shared salad onto two plates; on the other, we had to ask what the special was and practically had to tackle him to get our check after a lengthy wait.

After those two visits, I have totally mixed feelings about the Signature Grill. Flashes of brilliance (those tamales, that ceviche), combined with that gorgeous patio, have me yearning to return. But the lack of attention to detail (the Web site, the guacamole), combined with some below-mediocre main courses, have me wondering if my money would be better spent elsewhere.

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