Riviera Revue

RAZ blends different tasty cuisines with an imaginative, artistic sensibility

So many new restaurants these days are filled with "ideas." But in order to succeed, a restaurant needs more than an idea; it has to have sensibility. Happily, RAZ has sensibility--its management knows what it wants RAZ to be, and then with a deft hand, a clever eye and imaginative palate, executes the vision.

Visit one was a midweek dinner. John and I arrived not knowing quite what to expect from a restaurant that advertises "Modern Riviera Cuisine." As the evening progressed, the meaning became clear: "Riviera" at RAZ includes not just the European Riviera, but the Middle Eastern Riviera, the Mexican Riviera and--just to keep your taste buds tweaked--a touch of Asia (is there a Riviera in Asia?).

RAZ likes to put a twist on the ordinary. Witness crispy pita triangles served with perfectly seasoned hummus in lieu of a bread basket; a mixed berry garnish in place of the ubiquitous veggie medley. Even the water glasses catch your eye. They are curved and look as though they are melting.

Our young server greeted us and told us about the special, a halibut dish. The server was obviously in a training mode, but that didn't get in the way of great and friendly service. When asked about a wine, the server replied that she'd have to check it out since she wasn't a wine drinker. I appreciated that; I'd rather have somebody find the right answer rather than B.S. their way through.

I ordered a Wente Vineyards chardonnay ($7.75), and John ordered his fave--a Ketel One martini ($8)--from the interesting martini list. One drawback is the scarcity of wines by the glass. RAZ has only been open since October 2005; I'm sure this will change as their cellar budget expands.

We ordered the calamari ($7) and the shrimp tapas ($9) for appetizers. For entrées, John ordered the veal loin ($24), and I opted for the seared ahi tuna ($18).

The décor is cool and clean. Walls and tabletops are a cool light green accented by deep purple upholstered banquettes that encircle the room. About a dozen tables fill the dining room. Splashes of silver, in the dining room and adjacent bar, add sparkle. It's an appropriate look for a "modern" eatery.

When the appetizers arrived, we were totally taken with the execution of both plates. Served on a black triangular plate, John's was a tapas-sized portion of tender shrimp sautéed and seasoned with garlic, lemon, wine and chives. For an added kick, the shrimp were sprinkled with red pepper flakes. Totally tasty! My calamari were flash-fried in a barely there batter. They were tender and full of flavor, with two complementary tastes--a citrus/apricot dressing and a horseradish cream squiggle painted on the plate.

The entrées were tops, too. Both were artistically presented and well-prepared. John's dish consisted of several small, perfectly pan-seared veal medallions. Then an aromatic, sweet and savory sauce of apricots and brandy-infused sweet pecans--they called it compote--was drawn across the meat. Several whole pecans were part of the mix. John declared it to be the best veal he'd ever tasted. There were a few crispy potato slices on the side. It was too good--there should've been more!

I truly enjoyed the tuna. Lemongrass complemented the fish, and again, the plate was a work of art. On the side was an uptown version of a carrot slaw. Made up of long, thin shreds of bright-orange carrots, fresh onion slices and a swish of daikon sprouts, it could've stood alone. Served on a black triangular plate, the colors stood out.

It wasn't until after dinner that we noticed the absence of salt and pepper shakers. The food had been so perfectly seasoned, seared and sauced, they weren't necessary.

Two traditional desserts ($7 each) took on a whole new meaning. John had chocolate mousse, and I had the Ibiza sin, a crème brlée. Both were served in coffee cups. The mousse was topped with cinnamon-sprinkled whipped cream and berries. Each bite was a treat of flavor and texture. Ditto on the Ibiza sin, with the addition of more of the candied pecans.

I later enjoyed lunch at RAZ with Karyn Zoldan. Even though we arrived early in the day, it was hot outside, and the cool interior was a welcome respite. We ordered the scallops zahtar ($5) for an appetizer. Karyn ordered the vegetable shawarma ($7), and I ordered the crispy salmon ($11).

Zahtar is a Middle Eastern seasoning composed of sesame seeds, marjoram, thyme and sumac, all mixed with olive oil and salt. The scallops were served chilled with a citrus-infused oil and white balsamic vinegar. There was a sushi like-aura about this dish, and Karyn and I both enjoyed it immensely. The dish was missing the tomatoes noted on the menu.

Karyn's dish was a fine example of tweaking a traditional meal. Shawarma is a Middle Eastern version of gyro that is usually served with well-cooked lamb. Instead, the pita was filled with mushrooms, tomatoes, asparagus, onions, spinach and some more of that tasty hummus. There was also more of that berry mélange as a garnish.

Karyn was impressed with the full flavor of the dish, but noted that the menu said there was supposed to be haricot verts, not asparagus. Our server apologized for not telling us that the menu was undergoing a slight revamp. That explained the missing tomatoes with the scallops.

My salmon was made crispy with a coating of shredded phyllo dough. Served atop grilled asparagus (not haricot verts as stated), the fish flaked at the touch. Purple roasted potatoes and a tomato relish with a hint of tarragon rounded out the plate.

For dessert, we had the sorbet ($7)--raspberry and lime--served in a martini glass. This was a refreshing ending to a great meal.

Except for the minor glitches and the short list of wines by the glass, RAZ proved that without a doubt, it has a lot to offer Tucson's restaurant lovers.

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