Playful Quality

Fresh ingredients and masterful preparations put jaxKitchen on this reviewer's list of Tucson favorites

The instant you walk into jaxKitchen, you know the potential exists for something special.

The vibe is lively and modern without being cloying. The dining room, divided by a low wall, is open and spacious, with tall windows, pale walls, wood flooring, simple lighting and a few mirrors. The restaurant is abuzz with lively conversation and a staff moving with graceful speed. It just feels good.

The menu--European-influenced but dominated by American comfort food--is smart and small, offering a nice assortment of temptations divided into sections: First, Second, Main and For 2.

We began with the house-made frites ($4) and the heirloom tomato salad ($10), along with a glass of white burgundy ($10) and the house drink, called "the best" ($8): Ketel One vodka with bacon-stuffed olives. A plate of warm bread with a cruet of garlic-infused olive oil and a small bowl of kosher salt was also placed on the table.

The frites were served in a bowl after being fried in peanut oil and seasoned with "fines herbes"; a malt-vinegar aioli was served alongside for dipping. The simple preparation ensured that the potatoes were the star of the dish: They actually tasted like potatoes. What a welcome change. The aioli offered a nice touch, sort of a "fusion" (a too-often-misused term) between the British way to serve chips and a French aioli.

The fresh tomato salad popped with flavor. Again, the preparation was simple; a swirl of saba vinegar (a cousin of balsamic vinegar usually made from Trebbiano grapes) allowed the lovely red, green and yellow heirlooms to shine. It was a fine example of how quality ingredients in the hands of a smart, talented kitchen can make all the difference in the world.

Our entrées showed much of the same. John ordered the hangar steak ($21), and I went with the daily fish ($19), on this night a bluenose sea bass.

The hangar steak--a cut now becoming popular in high-end restaurants that's long been a butchers' secret--was served just as ordered (medium), charred on the outside and juicy pink on the inside. The olive oil-smashed Yukon golds still had the skins on and were a little lumpy, just like at home, only much better. Even the veggies--green beans and baby carrots--had been treated with care.

My fish was charred perfectly; it fell apart with a touch of the fork while retaining a moist and tender interior. The "white risotto" complemented the fish, as did fresh spinach and cherry tomatoes. Every bite was a dream.

Dessert choices were limited, but all sounded tempting. We opted for the cookies and milk ($5). This very grown-up version of a kids' classic included a glass of bourbon-infused milk and four cookies: a sugar cookie, a chocolate-iced chocolate cookie, a huge peanut-butter cookie and a gooey chocolate-chunk cookie. It was a fantastic interpretation of the ultimate comfort dessert.

Service was top-notch, especially considering the place was packed. The staff worked as a team, getting the food out in a timely manner while checking in, with a smile, just often enough. They seemed to really care.

The lunch menu offered some of the same items as the dinner menu, like the Kobe burger and frites ($11), the potato and leek soup ($6), the brioche grilled cheese ($9 lunch, $12 dinner) and, my choice, the chicken orecchiette pasta (squared, because both roasted chicken and chicken sausage are part of the mix, along with tomatoes, spinach, olives and goat cheese; $11 at lunch, or $16 at dinner). Lunch also brings other tempting choices, such as the bacon-wrapped chicken "blt" ($9), which is what John picked. We both ordered the delightfully refreshing house lemonade ($2).

Again, the service was friendly, and everything ran smoothly. The bread wasn't on the table immediately--but that's because it was still in the oven.

The sandwich was served on slices of hearty sourdough, with a tender, juicy chicken breast, some quality slab bacon, lettuce, a couple of those wonderful heirloom tomatoes and a smear of aioli. Some more of those tasty frites were served alongside. This was a first-class version of a traditional favorite.

At first glance, there didn't seem to be much to the orecchiette, but then I stirred it, and the cheese melted into a rich, creamy sauce. Like in all the other items we'd ordered, every ingredient stood on its own while contributing to the whole. The noodles were toothsome; the shreds of roasted chicken were savory; the sausage had a bit of a bite; and the tang from the goat cheese finished it all off in a most delightful manner.

There were only two choices for dessert: the cookies and something called a chilled mousse "latte" ($5). We ordered the "latte"; the flavors change regularly, but on this day, it was dark chocolate. Presented in a cocktail glass, this dessert was clever. The chocolate was creamy with bits of dark chocolate. The "cream" part was a light and not-too-sweet white chocolate. All in all, it was a fine ending to a little lunch.

jaxKitchen is a most welcome addition to our dining scene. Owners Brian and Sandy Metzger and Chef Addam Buzzalini use the best ingredients and offer a mix of whimsy, talent, kitchen smarts and great service. jaxKitchen is the newest addition to my list of favorite places to dine.

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