Second Sight

Janos Wilder's J Bar Is A Saloon Sensation.

TAKE A GENEROUS helping of Mexican cuisine, throw in an inspired dash of gastronomic artistry and add a pinch of hip, upscale ambience and you have the recipe for J Bar, chef wunderkind Janos Wilder's latest culinary wonder.

Adjacent to Janos' flagship restaurant, J Bar rounds out the offerings at the Westin La Paloma Resort by appealing to a more contemporary dining sensibility. Most notable are J Bar's prices, which are about half of those next door (entrees range from $12 to $16, with appetizers priced between $4 to $7). And while the menu pays tribute to the border town of Nogales, Sonora, Mexico (the hometown of Wilder's wife Rebecca), it delights with an epicurean splendor not often found south of the international line.

J Bar is a bar, and the noise level on busy nights can be a bit raucous. It's not unusual for several giddy golfers to amble in off the links and enjoy a little post 18th-hole action; or for a gaggle of beautiful young people to wander in searching for liquor and chic surroundings. For those seeking sedate dining, reservations are best made next door. Intimacy and genteel company aren't the things that make J Bar tick.

The vibrant cherry-red walls, the blue-tinged Mexican glassware on the tables and the arched green-paned windows framing the golf course and the city lights below all suggest a joyful capriciousness. The elevated bar, with an open window exposing the minuscule kitchen, whirs with activity, and the patio would be glorious on some fair, spring evening. J Bar is definitely fun, and the food is different, yet just as exquisitely delicious, from the fare at Janos.

J Bar reiterates its focus on libations by dedicating approximately two thirds of the menu to drink possibilities. Specialty martinis and margaritas appeal to a wide range of tastes; there's a handsome list of high-grade tequilas, bottled domestic and international brews, and 20 or more wines that can be ordered by the glass, each priced at $6.25. Though the wine list itself is not extensive, it is carefully thought out and comprehensive, with each bottle priced at $25. The knowledgeable staff can guide you to the bottle that best meets your needs and preferences. (For those preferring a grander spectrum of grape, Janos' wine list is available upon request).

Not surprisingly, appetizers are well represented on J Bar's menu, each designed to ideally complement the cocktail hour. We started with a quesadilla of flour tortillas grilled with a filling of melted cheddar and diced apple, and the calabacitas chiliquiles, both items far removed from the typical cheese crisp at most Sonoran-style restaurants. Though the quesadilla is pleasant, it lacks Janos' signature kick. Served with toasted pumpkin seeds and a handful of shredded radish and cabbage slaw, the dish could benefit from a scoop of zesty salsa or a dice of jalapeño. The apples impart a faint sweetness and hint of cinnamon, but are unable to provide the desired spice.

The calabacitas chiliquiles consist of blue corn tortillas, queso blanco and diced zucchini layered and baked in the same manner as lasagna and served with a smoky crema poblano sauce studded with kernels of sweet white corn. Unusual as far as chiliquiles go, the unbelievably delicious dish deftly balanced a multitude of flavors.

Entrees can be ordered separately or, as suggested by our waitress, as a group, which means that all ordered items will be presented on a single platter, to encourage sharing. However, as our vegetarian companion couldn't abide the thought of animal flesh encroaching upon his meal, we opted for individual plates.

The evening's biggest hit was the jerked pork, a dish of succulent shredded meat steeped in a marinade of fresh orange juice, vinegar, cinnamon, allspice, chipotle peppers and a heated hint of habanero. A ruby-red chutney of fresh cranberries and additional habanero chiles adds extra pizzazz and a magnificent flourish.

Also garnering applause is the tender chicken breast delicately crusted in crispy plantain chips and served with a green curry and coconut milk sauce. While perhaps not strictly authentic, the chicken is so moist, and the flavors so lightly balanced between sweet and spicy, that I readily overlooked the culinary digression. Sides of whole beans and fluffy rice accented with mint flakes beautifully enhance the main course, as does a show-stealing chile-cilantro cole slaw.

Soft salmon tacos -- flour tortillas filled with tender chunks of fresh salmon, shredded red and green cabbage, chopped onion and cilantro -- are another success. However, the dish again seems to lack punch, and once we notified our server, we found it in a devilish puree of burnt orange chiltepin salsa. Sweet and only vaguely smoky, the chiltepin chile exudes a fiery flash to any dish, and in this case, provides the finishing touch to the perfect fish taco.

The only disappointment is the grilled carne adobado; tender sirloin rubbed in a chili-lime paste, cooked until medium-rare and sliced in flank steak fashion. Surprisingly, the meat imparts very little flavor, although the accompanying salsa fresca does an admirable job of adding intrigue.

While drinks could easily replace dessert at J Bar, I can never resist an after-dinner sweet. We sample the chocolate jalapeño ice cream sundae, a standard at Janos which I've mentioned in this space before. This odd dessert is completely fascinating, though I'm still unsure of whether I like it. A cold, luxurious sweetness and the dense taste of dark chocolate is followed by a slight heat which builds at the back of the throat until a sip of water tempers the flame. Most unusual, but utterly intriguing.

More conventional dessert fare arrived in a trio of fresh fruit sorbets and the raspberry crème brûlée. Cinnamon-spiced apple, mixed berry and pear flavor the sorbets, each a perfect reflection of their fruit's essence. A gentle dessert for even the most sated diner, the sorbet cleanses the palate and slides down the throat like frosted silk.

The magnificently creamy crème brûlée, adorned with whole fresh raspberries, afforded dulcet tones of vanilla bean. Ensconced in the orb of a tuile cookie, the custard can be scooped out either with bits of its container or a spoon.

What can one say? Janos Wilder has done it again. J Bar assumes its place on the list of Tucson's finest.

J Bar. 3770 E. Sunrise Drive at Westin La Paloma Resort. 615-6100. Open for dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Bar open until 1 a.m. Closed Sunday. Full bar. All major credit cards. Menu items: $4 - $15.95.

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