Sky Highs

The Red Sky Café Takes Western Nouvelle Cuisine Onward And Upward.

EVEN WITH NEW restaurants constantly opening in our booming metropolis, it's still rare to find a young venture worthy of wholehearted recommendation. However, one such uncommon find is The Red Sky Café, the latest restaurant to occupy the former Maxwell's location at Pima Street and Swan Road.

The place isn't flawless--some minor kinks in service and acoustics need smoothing--but the food is such a cut above the competition, in terms of both quality and cost, that you'd have to be taste impaired to be unimpressed by owner/chef Steve Schultz's creations. Very good things are happening at The Red Sky Café.

At first glance, settling in the former Maxwell's space might seem a bit curious. Home to a trendy hair and nail salon and a host of small businesses, the modest two-story complex doesn't exactly foster a genteel ambiance.

But in the evenings the location works fairly well, incorporating a small outdoor patio set off by grassy lawns and the intimacy of an inner courtyard. The hustle, bustle and contested parking space typical of a strip mall vanishes as the sun sinks and the nine-to-five crowd heads home.

Inside, the modest restaurant exudes subdued chic, accented with dark teal-covered walls, oil and watercolor landscape paintings, and contemporary furnishings. Tables nestle cozily close together, and when occupied by an assortment of convivial personalities, the restaurant can be very, very loud. If the eatery aspires to become fine dining, sooner or later this jarring cacophony will have to be addressed.

Billed as an American bistro, The Red Sky Café specializes in nouvelle cuisine with a distinctive Western flair. Willcox tomatoes get top billing, as do Oregon wild mushrooms, California field greens and a Monterey Bay seafood stew. Portions are incredibly generous, and entrees are accompanied by choice of soup or salad, an uncommon event in today's à la carte world.

Given the kitchen's generosity, a slice of the warm bread provided with your menus is probably a sufficient first course, but in that case you'd forego some of the fabulous appetizers, including porcini mushroom risotto, rock shrimp napoleon and griddled salmon cakes. Unable to endure such a sacrifice, we selected the roasted portobello mushroom with goat cheese and roasted red bell pepper and garlic coulis ($5.75).

The round of sable fungus surrounded by a moat of orange sauce wasn't much to look at, but with one taste we saw past appearances. The tender, earthy character of the mushroom was perfectly balanced by the sharp gaminess of the goat cheese and the gentle tang of the garlic infused purée. Every bite was pure pleasure.

Next, we partook of the house salad and the soup of the day, an artichoke bisque. The toss of California field greens, tender green beans, sliced pear tomatoes, cucumber, red onion and grated carrot is one of the finest first-course salads in town. Among the selection of dressings and vinaigrettes, the slightly oily balsamic vinaigrette seemed particularly well matched to the peppery, bitter and sweet vegetables.

The soup was the only vague disappointment of the evening. Smooth and silky, it imparted none of the vibrant flavor so evident in the rest of the Red Sky dishes we sampled. The bisque was pleasant, but quite forgettable.

The same could not be said of one of the day's special entrees, grilled Alaskan halibut served with a tomato, artichoke and basil salsa, set atop creamy Parmesan risotto and surrounded by a variety of sautéed vegetables ($17). The thick fillet was flaky and just-off-the-line fresh, and the flavors of the vegetables, basil and risotto melded together in divine harmony. It was a magnificent culinary performance.

Penne pasta served with a savory sauce of oven-dried tomatoes, wild mushrooms, fresh basil, artichokes and lots of grated Parmesan cheese was another winner ($9.25). Presented in a large bowl and layered so thoroughly with the aforementioned ingredients that it spooned out more like lasagna than spaghetti, this dish was worthy of the heartiest appetites.

Order pasta in most restaurants and that's all you get. No side dishes or errant starches to distract you. At The Red Sky Café, the same delectable sauté of vegetables served with the halibut also accompanied the penne. Including pattypan squash, asparagus and white beets, this vegetable melange is a grand accompaniment that everyone should enjoy, and The Red Sky Café revels in showing it off with every entrée.

Desserts change daily and are all made on the premises. Apple cobbler, vanilla crème brûlée and key lime pie were the choices when we visited, and although I was initially disappointed that chocolate was glaringly absent from the list, I soon delighted in a stunning alternative.

The Red Sky's key lime pie ($4.50) is a gorgeous amalgam of sweet, sour and graham-cracker toastiness that's exquisite from the first bite to the last. This is the kind of dessert I'd need to keep far away from, because if it were within easy reach I'd soon spoon away the entire pie. A dubious idea for the waistline, but absolutely divine when served in discreet servings.

There's always a lot happening on the local dining scene, but don't overlook The Red Sky Café. If current trends hold, this should become one of Tucson's hottest new restaurants.

The Red Sky Café. 1661 N. Swan Road. 326-5454. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Sunday brunch served 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Mondays. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, checks. Menu items: $2.50-$23.50.
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