Oh, Baby!

Seize The Catch Of The Day At Baby Beluga.

WHEN I ARRIVE back in Tucson after any kind of absence, I generally treat myself to a homey welcome with honest-to-God Mexican food on South Fourth Avenue. But with the new Baby Beluga Seafood and Oyster Bar so close to Tucson International Airport, there's an excellent chance I'll be taking my welcome-home meal at this small strip mall eatery near Valencia and Tucson Boulevard.

Once a culinary anomaly in our desert burg, fresh seafood has become nearly standard in local restaurants. Selections frequently vary from day to day, but it's now possible to enjoy seafood that's completely unfamiliar with deep sleep in a deep freeze.

Of course, you'll pay handsomely for the privilege of dining on succulent, hours-old seafood in the Sonoran desert, but that's an unavoidable evil. At most eateries, that is. At Baby Beluga, diners feast on plump shrimp, grilled salmon, oysters on the half shell and crab Louie salads for a price comparable to a meal on South Fourth Avenue.

Baby Beluga's location is a bit bewildering. Situated on a stretch of road that features chain fast food and around-the-clock breakfast fare, the tiny restaurant is a tribute to rugged individualism and top quality.

The cool, blue interior is clean, sleek and inviting. The pictures and murals depicting deep-sea life evoke the spirit of salty shores, and the raised oyster bar -- centered around the bustling kitchen -- provides the kind of appetizing entertainment typical of a sushi bar. Cobalt blue glassware, black linen napkins and fresh flowers accent each table in an array even Martha Stewart would approve of.

The restaurant's glossy appearance aside, it's the food -- all of it carefully prepared, plentiful and consummately fresh -- that makes the eatery extraordinary.

One of the first treats guests enjoy is a seashell bowl of warm cornbread. While it might sound simple, this cornbread is no relation to the crumbly yellow squares served in school cafeterias. The moist little loaves more closely resemble spoonbread or green corn tamale pie. Flecks of grated cheese and minced jalapeño might distinguish some batches of the bread (since everything at Baby Beluga is prepared to order, slight variations are possible), which beautifully complements nearly everything on the menu.

The New England-style clam chowder (cup $2.50, bowl $3.50, bread bowl $4.50) is outstanding. Not overly thick, it's a simple, velvety smooth roux studded with bite-sized cubes of red-skinned potatoes and loads of clams. Baby Beluga's prevailing philosophy seems to be that the freshest and finest ingredients require no superfluous touch ups. The chowder lusciously demonstrates the wisdom of this approach.

In days of old, crab Louies were mountains of iceberg lettuce topped with chunks of fresh crabmeat and ringed with sliced hard-boiled egg, tomato wedges, cucumber and onion slices, occasionally garnished with radishes and carrot curls, and topped off with chunky Thousand Island dressing. Baby Beluga gives the classic Louie ($7.50) a more streamlined update, composing it almost exclusively of crab and mixed mesclun greens, and adding only a single cherry tomato and a few sliced ripe olives for color. Homemade Louie dressing completes the ensemble, a glorious blend of sweet crab, peppery and sometimes bitter greens, and zesty sauce.

Fish and chips also receive a makeover at Baby Beluga, transforming from the often sad and grease-sodden dish to a platter of radiant, golden splendor. White fish, oysters, scallops or shrimp and chips ($7.50) make the decision difficult, and all come piled high on a platter large enough to feed a small battalion. The oysters are stunning for their individual size, quantity and scrumptious crunch. The chips are large, crinkled potato slices cooked until browned but not completely crisped.

Further delights are the garlic prawns ($8.95), a spiral of tender crustaceans atop a mound of pasta lightly tossed in a creamy parmesan sauce, and the Beluga quiche combo ($7.25). Comprising the quiche are two small pastry cups stuffed with a minimum of custard filling and an excess of flaked crab and lobster bits, served with a cheese and wild mushroom sauce. While the cups are delicious, the dish could benefit from a bit more sauce, which is savory but unfortunately scant.

Made-to-order fish cocktails are also available, either served traditionally, with cooked, chilled fish and thick, zesty tomato cocktail sauce, or in the Mexican coctele variation, where the ingredients combine for a seafood gazpacho. For the latter, shrimp, octopus, squid, crab, scallops or a combination thereof can be mixed with chopped tomato, onion, cilantro, jalapeño, avocado, radish, cucumber or mango ($6.00-$7.50). The ingredients of your choice are set aswim in a tomato juice broth and served with wedges of lime and lemon. Along with the cornbread, the combination is tough to beat.

Baby Beluga features a variety of fresh fish daily. I sampled a 10-ounce filet of grilled salmon ($9.95) that tasted as though it had just left coastal waters. Unadorned and delicious, it made a monumental meal with the accompanying large green salad, sautéed mushrooms and bowl of fresh fruit.

A short list of homemade desserts is every bit as alluring as the main course fare. Comprising the selection are New York-style, cappuccino and German chocolate cheesecakes ($3.50), and vanilla and chocolate crème brülée ($3.25), all of which are magnificent. The blissful German chocolate cheesecake boasts a solid, one-inch cap of toasted coconut, pecans and golden sugar, and the chocolate crème brülée is just as luscious. As difficult as it may be, it's worth saving room for these finales.

Baby Beluga serves some of the best food in town at some of the best prices, in a quirky spot near the Tucson International Airport. Whether or not you're traveling, put it on your list. Baby Beluga is not to be missed.

Baby Beluga Seafood and Oyster Bar. 2680 E. Valencia Road, Suite #176. 295-1231. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday. Closed Saturday and Sunday. V, MC, checks. Beer and wine. Menu items: $2.50-$22.95.
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