Spice Is Nice

This fantastic Oro Valley bistro has everything--except customers

Spice Bistro in Oro Valley is a bit of a mystery. Labeled as "fine Southwestern dining," this charming spot does just about everything right, from the fresh, unique twists on traditional fare to the stylish décor and the friendly service. Yet on both visits, the place was basically empty--and one of those visits was on a Saturday night.

That night, there were only two other couples in the place, so we had our choice of tables. As the server (who also acted as bartender and hostess) gave us our menus, she talked up the food, assuring us that each bite would be full of wonderful flavors, no matter what we ordered. Quite a statement!

As we dug into the complimentary hummus and crisp flour tortillas, we realized she might not be exaggerating. Darker in color than most hummus--perhaps the garbanzos had been roasted--the paste had just the right touch of garlic and lemon. The flavors were there, but they were not so intense as to lose the taste of the beans. We practically licked the bowl clean.

The candlelit room holds a tiny bar with a full array of libations. The multicolored walls--ranging from deep red to a mustard green--act as a backdrop to works by a local artist. Rows of small tables with benches and pretty metal bistro chairs line two walls. One set of benches offers brightly colored pillows; the other is a muted tan. The kitchen, which is separated from the dining room by two beautiful tapestries, takes up the rest of the area. There is also a small patio out front.

For appetizers, we started with the chorizo-seasoned grilled shrimp ($12) and the buttermilk-fried garden bowl with calamari ($8). John's shrimp was dusted with a warm glow of seasonings and was ideally grilled. It came with a dab of super-fresh guacamole and a few slices of mango. More tropical than Southwestern, this was a great appetizer; there was enough shrimp for the dish to be considered an entrée at other places in town.

My garden bowl also came with a generous portion. The bowl came filled with not just calamari, but also onion rings, red and yellow pepper slices, and at least four spears of tiny asparagus, all of which had been dipped in a light, flaky buttermilk batter. There was a smattering of greens below and a drizzle of chipotle aioli on top. Chunky salsa was served on the side, but that was totally unnecessary--the dish was full of wonderful natural flavors.

Our drinks--a Ketel One on ice with two olives ($7) for John, and a Rodney Strong pinot noir ($9) for me--went over well. For his entrée, John ordered the rib eye ($21), and I ordered the halibut ($22).

The steak came with a dollop of gorgonzola honey butter, Tombstone fries and seasonal vegetables (in this case, more asparagus). The rib eye was as tender as could be and, like the appetizers, seasoned perfectly. The steak was big enough to warrant a to-go bag. (It ended up being the basis for a killer hash the next morning.) The fries resembled roasted potatoes rather than fries. They were good, but could've been crispier. The steak held up to any found in most meat joints in town.

Like everything else we'd sampled, my fish was seasoned so that the fish was the main flavor, embellished by the spices and a bit of orange pineapple relish. The snowy white fish flaked apart. The cilantro polenta side was a standout, with both a wonderful mouth feel and an earthy, rustic flavor. Asparagus was again served on the side.

We had room for dessert--and this was the only time that the kitchen didn't hold up. We ordered the chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream and blackberry drizzle ($6). The cake was dense but slightly dry. It definitely needed the ice cream and blackberries for moisture.

For my next visit, my good buddy Pam Pierce met me for a midweek lunch. We were the only people in the place, except for a couple that showed up as we were leaving.

We chatted a bit and then ordered. Pam went with the server's suggestion of lime-marinated fish tacos ($9), and I ordered the shrimp ceviche tostada ($9).

It wasn't long before the meals arrived. As with dinner, the presentation was artful and creative. Pam's dish featured three grilled tilapia tacos served atop a sweet mango salsa and soft flour tortillas. Pam loved them. The fish was delicately grilled, and the salsa added a unique brightness to the smoky grilled fish. The rice served alongside was speckled with bits of veggies. Pam, not a big fan of rice, had nothing but great things to say about the dish, and she polished it all off.

My tostada was unlike any other tostada I've ever had. There was plenty of perfectly marinated shrimp, tossed in that lovely chipotle cream. A bed of dark, fresh greens added both color and a slight bitterness. Two flour tortillas fried to the crackling point provided a crunch. This dish was exactly as the server had described on our first visit--each bite was a delight.

For dessert, we split the bananas Foster ($6). It consisted of a huge bowl of liquor-soaked sauce with warm, sweet bananas poured over three scoops of vanilla ice cream. The ice cream melted, slowly, yet retained an ever-so-slight chill. This is the very definition of what a dessert should be.

Everything about Spice Bistro is spot on. The food is fresh, flavorful and presented with panache; the service is casual and professional. There is a strong sense of style throughout. So why wasn't it busier? Perhaps it's the location. Or maybe it's packaged wrong. After all, with all the seafood and fruit on the menu, the word "tropical fine dining" might be a better spin.

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