On The Shoals

The Reef's fascinating fish tanks lure diners in like the call of a siren.

Anytime a vapid chain bites the dust I say a fervent prayer of gratitude followed by some deep beseeching of the great culinary gods in the sky. O grant to us a restaurant worthy of squandering hard-earned money. Let us please break bread worthy of breaking. Let us eat meals prepared with knowledge, possibly even respect. Let us feast upon ingredients that have not suffered a long and bumpy ride in the back of a truck or sat too long on a tarmac in the beating sun. O keep us from entering the fiery pits of hellish food that has languished under heat lamps, gone limp, then brought to the table anyway. Deliver us from the ignorant hordes of servers who sport names like Buffy and Biff, who cannot tell a cabernet from a cabaret. O please ....

And so when the Wingers on River Road closed without so much as a gasp hope momentarily surged forward. Rumor had it this would be an independently owned restaurant, featuring a slightly upscale but original menu. Further, this would be a family restaurant, and the featured attraction would be enormous saltwater tank. Hence, the name: The Reef.

Well ... this wasn't exactly an answered prayer, but an original prospect. With the summer heat beginning to simmer, being surrounded by large cool aquariums sounds soothing. At this time of the year, anything out of the sun, in dim lighting, with the sound of bubbling water in the background takes on a certain appeal.

The tanks are impressive. Especially the 500-gallon tank behind the bar sporting the bright blue Manta Ray. Don't forget to ooh and ah over the deadly Lion Fish. The kiddies will want to scamper around and look at all the tanks. The marvels of nature. You might find yourself seated next to a tank full of yellow clownfish who alone can secrete a substance that permits exclusive lolling in the deadly poisonous sea anemone. Or perhaps you can unwind watching the tiny shrimp and crabs that ride around on the larger fish, sucking up the germs and bacteria. So many lessons in such a tiny microcosm. There's no end to the metaphorical complexities, the mesmerizing wonders, the fact that you are in a seafood restaurant watching fish watching you.

If you don't know this you should: gimmicks spent on diverting your attention from the menu should signal you to pay close attention. The menu looks appealing. Most dishes have a bit of nerve and ambition to them, at least on paper. For example, the steamed mussels in a coconut curry broth with lime and shallots ($7). The combination of flavors should be simple and an elegant companion to mussels. The portion of mussels was generous, but the broth, a fluorescent shade of green not found in nature, swamped the dish. By turns cloyingly sweet, fatty with coconut cream, and bitter with a bilious smattering of curry, this was not a recommended find.

To console, we tried the evening's oysters which we were assured were "prime" and farmed in Washington. Someone in the kitchen apparently took it upon themselves to shuck the oysters, then rinse them in tepid tap water before returning them into the shells. Flat tasting and relatively flavorless, not to mention served at room temperature, these were made no better by their accompanying sauces: a mango dipping sauce that tasted mostly of raw onion and black pepper and the Reef's cocktail sauce, a homemade ketchup.

Uncertain as where to turn on the menu, and, frankly, frightened, we turned to salad. It's hard to ruin salad. The Reef Salad ($9) was our server's particular favorite. She waxed rhapsodic over the calamari, roasted tomatoes, shallots, garlic, herbs, peas, carrots and feta combination. We were a little dubious, but no, she assured us it would be worth the foray. Always trust your instinct. The Reef Salad was a shipwreck of ingredients that was not salvaged by being served warm. The lightly sautéed calamari featured many wriggly tentacles, which didn't bother me nearly so much as the oozy feta and the hot but still crunchy peas and carrots. Somehow none of this went with the bed of greens which had wilted and surrendered entirely beneath this heap of misery.

There are times as a good and fair consumer when you know to ask for the check and try another night. Perhaps the chef was ill. Perhaps the chef was at home. Perhaps there wasn't a chef at all.

To be fair, we tried The Reef again to see if perhaps we had visited on an off night. This time we dispensed with the foreplay and headed straight for the entrees. The tuna, cooked in a cornmeal crust and served with Louis' lemon pepper slaw, a sweet potato nest and red pepper jus ($16) sounded straightforward and simple. This time the server asked how we wanted the tuna prepared, which was a good sign. Cooked to the requested medium rare, the rather modest portion of tuna was served up in a crisp crust and fanned on the plate. The lemon slaw had seen a better day, chunks of tough cabbage dressed in a lemony vinaigrette neither moved nor repulsed. The sweet potato nest was inedible, a bristling heap of sweet potatoes that hadn't seen the fryolater in recent memory.

Nothing is quite so sad as seeing perfectly good ingredients destroyed by an enthusiastic, untrained hand. There is one consistency to this menu--its imagination exceeds the ability of the kitchen to deliver. Take, for example, the giant grilled scallops served in a mole rojo with purple sticky rice and zucchini salad ($16). The scallops were cooked correctly, slightly sweet and still translucent in the very center. The dabs of mole were a flavorful addition, but again the dominant flavor of black pepper overpowered the dish. Black pepper in the purple sticky rice cancelled out any of the aromatic delicacy. We sampled. We sighed.

Desserts were, well, entertaining. It has been many years since I've sat at the table where desserts were served that looked so appealing yet were utterly deceptive. The pomegranate Crème Brûlée ($5) sounded like an interesting twist. The Crème Brûlée didn't offer up so much as a hint of pomegranate; it simply tasted like burnt sugar. The Cashew Crusted Cheesecake ($6) with chocolate sauce and berries looked delightful with squiggles of chocolate and strawberries merrily strewn on the plate. But the first bite was literally spat back out by one dining member who looked up horrified and choked out, "Salt! They used salt instead of sugar!" Sadly, dear reader, this was true: the cheesecake was salty.

Some transgressions we can forgive and look the other way. Others are too stupefying to consider. Salt may look like sugar, but this is a simple error to correct.

Perhaps the unwary diner should take heed as well. Be wary of restaurants that must use the siren's call to lure you within. Surely there is danger in those waters. A reef may be pretty, but it can still rip a hole right through the belly of the boat, by which time it is far too late for even the most fervent prayer.

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