Sinful Surprises

Playing off an interpretation of the deadly sins, Dante's Fire delights

With a name like Dante's Fire, a restaurant takes the risk of being a bit too cute and kitschy. Adding the use of the deadly sins and various vices as menu sections can also be a bit over the top. But the device works at Dante's Fire, thanks to smarts in the kitchen and behind the bar.

Located in a site that has seen any number and style of eateries (raise your hand if you remember when it was the restaurant for a local ashram? Pizza parlor? Bavarian restaurant? Nonie?) Dante's Fire offers items not found other places and has developed a cocktail menu that shows a bit of creativity.

Presently only dinner is served which is another wise choice during Tucson summers. The menu is small and plays on the whole Dante theme using several of the Deadly Sins. (Gluttony and Sloth are smartly replaced with Purgatory and Limbo.) That does make it hard to distinguish appetizers from entrées but it also makes it a fun place to order plates to share.

Meals begin with fresh bread that is made in house. Served with two compound butters (one flecked with rosemary, the other pink from red peppers) the bread is a delight. I especially liked the pretzel bread which is really only pretzel in its chewy, salted crust. The Kalamata olive bread is no slouch either.

From the 'Limbo' section we ordered the tomato burrata ($6). Fresh sweet yellow tomatoes are plated with freshly made light cheese. Shreds of basil and a drizzle of balsamic make the presentation as pretty as the dish is tasty; it is a great way to start a meal.

Under 'Greed' we ordered the Oysters Rockefeller ($10), the Lamb Thagliardia ($13) and the Foie Pops ($16).

The oysters were a lovely version of this classic dish—meaty oysters, with bits of bacon, some chopped spinach, a hint of Pernod all creamy and hot.

The thagliardia was thin squares of house made pasta in a rich savory sauce with bits of lamb, mushrooms and thin, tiny baby asparagus. The sauce held layers of flavor and a perfect texture making it great for sopping up with the pretzel bread. The pasta was ideal.

The pops are a little harder to explain. Tiny but powerful, the creamy foie was plated with perfectly round balls of apple that had been cooked sous vide with sauterne. A smattering of chopped candied pecans were also on the plate. If you order them, I suggest taking one of each in your mouth at the same time. The textures and tastes together are absolutely amazing. I also suggest ordering more than one.

Our 'Anger' choices included Thai Curry Shrimp ($10) and Papardella (their spelling, not mine) Diablo ($9). As one might guess from the category these foods have some heat involved. Given the option of having the shrimp prepped spicier meant the addition of tiny red Thai peppers. There were only six shrimp in the dish, but a small scoop of fragrant jasmine rice in a smooth, curried sauce (bits of fresh ginger, cucumber, tomatoes with a sprinkling of basil) made for a most satisfying meal.

The Papardella Diablo, in spite of the misspelling, was a fine dish. Plenty of flaky crab was stirred into a creamy sauce laced with chorizo, chile and peppers. The portion was small but this was so rich it would've been insane to have more on the plate.

The nightly special, a flank steak ($17) cooked sous vide, wasn't under any sinful category. The procedure sealed in its beefy flavor. It wasn't tough but a steak knife would've helped. It was served with mashed potatoes and two tiny spears of perfectly cooked asparagus.

The dessert section is called Treachery (I looked up the Deadly sins and this wasn't one of them; but it's still a sin) with all desserts made in house. You'd have to have a Devil's chocolate cake ($6) with a place named Dante's Fire. Here there were layers of cake and chocolate mousse, drizzled with raspberry sauce and topped with huge shavings of more chocolate. The promised hazelnut syrup was undetectable, but nevertheless this was a great ending; not too sweet but divinely (sorry) chocolaty. Our other dessert, peanut butter mousse ($6), was also tasty. Topped with meringue that had been seared to a golden brown the peanut butter popped and was amazingly light. The addition of caramelized bananas were a welcome touch.

The wine list could use some work and beers were in short supply, and the cocktails - also listed into sinful categories - have a retro feel. We enjoyed the Sunstroke ($6.50) a nice blend of Ketel One — "shaken and stirred" — with pink grapefruit juice and Cointreau.

Service was super nice, if a little unpolished. They were swamped one evening with a party of 20-plus in the back room so our food was delayed, but we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless.

And I have to note that the dark red tone of the room is a welcome change from the odd décor of the previous tenants.

I'll return to Dante's Fire. I'll bring friends and we'll share plenty of small plates, a few large ones and have a cocktail or three. Then we'll go to confession.

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