Smooth as Pâté

Bar 58 and Bistro's upscale food will leave you fat and happy

The few times that foie gras appears on the menu at Bar 58 and Bistro, it's accompanied by the specification "humanely raised." Presumably, that means that some poor goose or duck did not sacrifice its liver after a lifetime with a feeding tube jammed down its throat.

Or perhaps the practice of gavage has been perfected to resemble an evening at Bar 58: being pampered with an abundance of fine wine and rich food to the point that you hardly care that your liver is becoming a quivering ball of fat.

58 Degrees and Holding Co. is a small chain of three wine shops and wine-storage facilities, with two locations in Tucson. The one at Williams Center has sported a bistro pretty much since it opened. The St. Philip's Plaza location opened its bistro only this year, and, happily, everything is already running as smooth as pâté.

From the quiet bar, you are escorted into a cozy adjacent room that probably seats no more than 50 people. The windowless dining room is all stone arches, wood and plaster walls, tinted concrete floors--wine-cellar chic, without the mold and chill.

Naturally, wine is a central attraction here. The list offers 55 wines by the glass, not counting the dessert beverages, and they're drawn from around the world. There's even a good selection of relatively affordable (less than $40) French wines. (If affordability is not an issue, ask for the reserve bottle list.)

The lunch and dinner menus are nearly identical; the lunch options are only marginally narrower, and everything is offered at full price. There's a selection of starters--soups, salads and "smaller plates" that turn out to be quite substantial--plus the sort of small but choice charcuterie section you'd expect at a finer bistro: foie gras, duck confit, steak tartare and a trio of meats "baptized with accoutrements."

There's also a chef's cheese selection, an assortment of bruschetta (note to monolingual Americans: It's pronounced "broo-sketta," not "broo-shetta") and sandwiches and panini (note to monolingual Americans: "panini" is the plural of "panino"; there's no such thing as "paninis"). Finally, there's a list of four (at lunch) to six (at dinner) entrées, billed as "large plates," though they're actually smaller than the "small plates"--but with good reason, as will eventually be clear.

I started with the "pomme frites" ($6; note to monolingual menu typesetter: There ought to be an S at the end of "pomme"). You know them as French fries, but you probably don't know them like this: batter-fried, sprinkled with Brittany grey sea salt and cracked lampong peppercorns, and served with a mildly spicy paprika aioli and a subtle housemade ketchup. The frites were crunchy but not the least bit greasy, thanks in part to the Euro-style presentation, wrapped in what's supposed to be a page of an Italian newspaper, but is actually a tissue made specifically for this purpose. It's a more than generous serving, probably better paired with a salad or soup than with an entrée.

One of those salads is called "Goats in the Garden" ($9), and it's hard to go wrong with such simplicity: spinach leaf, toasted pepitas and grape tomato, with fresh goat cheese and housemade pancetta (high-class bacon, with nary a thread of fat to be seen) huddled at the side, all anointed with a cider vinaigrette that bites back ever so gently. More elaborate are the tuna nachos ($12), spicy ahi tuna seared rare and topped with tomatillo-pineapple salsa and streams of wasabi aioli spread across a bed of wontons and a few greens. The overall flavor is faintly sweet; it's subtle, but there's so much going on that one can barely taste the tuna.

Bar 58 plates everything on porcelain dishes with the space-age contours of metal Nambé ware, but it's the food that's visually arresting when the French 58 arrives at the table. This is the restaurant's version of French onion soup ($7), with the broth, shredded gruyère and a bit of bread served inside a baked onion, which lies atop a bed of coarse salt. The onion is topped with a few red pepper slices from which rise a scallion with its green end splayed; the whole thing calls to mind a tiki cocktail. Luckily, the soup's flavor is far more delicate than a cocktail's, but the drawback to the fancy presentation is that it's hard to dip a wide spoon into the onion, and you end up devouring the soup with the help of knife and fork.

The entrées are less generously proportioned than the starters, but that's a good thing: They are exceptionally rich. We might have been better off with the pasta or chicken dishes, but we unwisely opted for the coronary specials. Mine was the most potentially damaging: beef tenderloin "Rossini" ($26), a tender little disc of beef sautéed with wild mushrooms and gorgonzola, topped with "humanely raised" pan-seared Sonoma foie gras and served on a roasted-garlic parmesan fondue, alongside creamy mashed potatoes with truffle oil, made crunchy by the inclusion of Willcox mesquite smoked bacon (note to menu typesetter: There are two Ls in "Willcox"). Delectable, every bite, but just a few of those bites produce instant satiation.

The melt-in-your-mouth braised lamb shank ($17) was accompanied by a tomato rosemary pecorino romano polenta, almost the semi-liquid consistency (though not coarse texture) of grits. The grilled mahi mahi ($19) was not at all as oily and "fishy" tasting as this fish can be; it was suffused with the flavors of its accompaniments: fricassee of roma tomato, chive, Willcox mesquite-smoked bacon and shitake mushrooms, served with a lemongrass-scented beurre blanc, atop herbed Israeli couscous. Another potentially oily character, the seared breast of duck ($22), also fared well under the chef's care; it was almost dry at the small end, but this was offset by the prickly pear, apple, toasted cumin and marion berry demi-glaze and pear soubise that tasted very much like barbecue sauce. The duck was served with a scant mouthful of baby vegetables; if you don't order a salad, you're not likely to get your proper quota of veggies here.

Overstuffed already, we pressed ahead to the dessert menu, sharing a slice of flourless chocolate cake ($7), warm, rich and dense but not pucklike; a white and dark espresso chocolate mousse billed as "March of the Penguins" ($7), airy and not too heavily coffee-flavored; a "tres leche" cake ($7; note to menu person: Add an S to "leche") that was actually flavorful, something not often true of this milk-drenched item; and, best of all, a generous portion of cabernet cassis gelato ($5), not as dense as the Italians make it but served on an outstandingly nutty florentine cup, all atop a puddle of Cointreau sauce.

Too much, which is just about right.