St. Philip's Plaza is fast becoming a haven for foodies and wine geeks.
On weekends, Tucson's Heirloom Farmers Markets fill the plaza. In the evenings, the aroma of wood-fired pizzas from Scordato's Pizzeria fills the air. Union Public House is the very definition of gastro pub and cocktail bar. And the Union team is in the midst of creating another venue directly across the plaza.
Retail-wise there's Alfonso's Gourmet Oils and Balsamics, which also houses Blu, A Wine & Cheese Stop, where you can find some of the best cheese in Tucson. And Flying Leap Vineyards recently opened a tasting room in the plaza.
Now comes Bodega Kitchen & Wine.
It's located in a space previously occupied by several restaurants but the owners have made so many changes that you would hardly recognize the place, including moving the patio to face the plaza, a smart idea.
The restaurant is divided into three spaces; the patio, the main dining room and the space that used to be the patio (now enclosed). Lushly padded, raised booths allow for privacy, café tables are made of wood and metal, and some smaller tables are made of recycled materials. All the walls are painted off-white, with ornate mirrors placed high enough so that you aren't watching yourself eat. The décor also includes a mix of crystal chandeliers, and the bar opens to the patio.
The focus here is on small plates with European flavor and good wines from all over. The restaurant also offers "Mains" (entrée-size dishes) but most of the offerings are meant to be shared, which creates a comfortable, convivial atmosphere.
Most of the items on the lunch menu can also be found on the dinner menu. For example, the risotto cakes ($8) are listed as a "Plate" at lunch and a "Small Plate" at dinner.
These pingpong ball-sized bites are crumb-coated and mild in flavor. The success of this dish, though, comes from all the other items on the plate. A spoonful of sherry braised onions adds sweetness. Sautéed baby spinach with slivered almonds gives the dish a savory tone and a little bit of crunch. And the romesco sauce, with its smoky pepperiness, pulls all the flavors together. I added shrimp ($5). There were only two, which makes the shrimp a bit pricey, but they were a pleasant touch and were cooked perfectly—toothsome and sweet.
The burger ($10) was just OK. The chuck patty was served on a wonderful brioche bun, but it might have been more memorable if we had opted for more additions (Cheddar, Swiss or blue cheese, $4; bacon, $2; sherry braised onions or mushroom duxelles, $1). The cilantro slaw on the side was a fresh touch.
Two soups ($4, cup; $6, bowl) are on the menu: the house tomato bisque and the soup of the day, which was red pepper bisque. Just thick enough, the red pepper bisque sang with the flavor of its name.
Dinner found the patio filled with a well-heeled foothills crowd. We opted for dining inside again because it was too windy.
Our charming server brought bread and a compound sherry butter to the table once she saw we were settled in with the menus. The French bread was appropriately chewy and the subtle flavors in the butter didn't dim the appetite.
Deciding between a main dish or going with several small ones was difficult because there are very few "Mains" dishes and some of the small ones, such as the chicken wings and the pork ribs, seem out of place in such an upscale dining room.
From the Mains section, we opted for the Bistro Tender ($22), a beef filet that came with roasted potatoes, mushrooms duxelles, wilted arugula and bordelaise sauce. We also ordered baked mussels ($10) and sides of haricot vert with almonds ($4) and Manchego polenta ($4).
We tried glasses of both white and red from the wine list: the white, Morgadio Legado Albarino ($10), to go with the mussels; and Torres Ibericos Red, a Spanish blend ($9), just for the heck of it. The Ketel One ($6) martini was well built.
The bistro steak was quite delicious. Tender and cooked medium rare, it came sliced with the sauce on top. The bordelaise was a perfect match and added a retro feel to the dish. The duxelles, which were described as "finely chopped mushrooms, shallots and herbs slow-cooked in butter" were actually larger pieces of mushrooms, but tasty none the less. And whoever cooked the herbed roasted potatoes should give lessons. They were fab, as was the arugula.
The first bite of mussels popped with heat from the thin chipotle béchamel, but the toasted bread crumbs on top tempered it.
Both dishes were good, but what really stood out were the sides, which came in big portions. The long, thin green beans were buttery and tender, with the almonds adding a sweet crunch. The polenta was thick with cheese and so delectable that I scraped the bowl clean.
We tried two desserts: the churros ($5) and the flourless chocolate cake ($8). The churros were a fine rendition of this classic Mexican treat. Six medium-size churros were artfully plated alongside a dark chocolate sauce and a salted caramel sauce. While the sauces were a nice touch, the churros really didn't need them. The outside was slightly crispy and the inside fairly melted in the mouth. The chocolate cake was served in a large coffee cup with whipped cream and a mint sauce. The cake was cold, as if it had been sitting in the refrigerator just waiting to be ordered. Although the chill took away some of the flavor, the mint sauce was still too much. I suppose the thinking was to re-create the taste of mint Girl Scout cookies, but the cake, like the churros, didn't need anything else.
Bodega has a good thing going but there are still some kinks that need to be worked out. I get the idea of small plates, but some of the items (such as the wings and ribs) don't fit in. Despite its claim to be a casual place, Bodega is more upscale. More choices for main dishes would help, too.