Still In Bloom

Wildflower Provides A Bright Spot In Tucson's Culinary Garden.

WHEN WILDFLOWER FIRST blossomed on the scene, it was responding to the fast-paced growth on the northwest side. Despite its trendy promise of "New American Cuisine," Wildflower quickly established a snappy sense of style. The service was well trained (in Tucson this alone is worthy of a visit) and the food imaginative and splashy.

Now, as owner Sam Fox has opted to go corporate (with the additions of Bistro Zin and Wildflower prototypes opening up this year in both Scottsdale and Colorado), we wondered if Wildflower would still hold its own singular and well-maintained bloom.

On a recent weekend afternoon, we found the restaurant to be cool, calm and relatively empty. Wildflower has a lovely dining room, reminiscent of a Grecian temple with its vaulted ceiling, pristine white walls, columns and quiet elegance. This expansive sense of well-being could come from the large hand-painted skylight that offers a perennially blue sky, but more likely it comes from the comfortable hum of a well-run floor. Though it was late afternoon and only a few diners lingered, the waiters were visible, occupied with polishing crystal and buffing silver, maintaining a professional demeanor.

The lunch menu offers a wide range of salads and appetizers, sandwiches and a modest range of entrées. An appropriately light summer lunch proved to be the sautéed salmon over basil whipped potatoes with a salad of pear tomatoes and truffle oil ($9). The salmon, a generous filet done to a succulent turn, rested atop a generous serving of potatoes infused with fresh basil; the texture and flavors made an excellent companion for the fish. The counterpoint of tart pear tomatoes and the earthy truffle-oil dressing kept this dish circulating around the table for repeat tastes.

Not all the lunch entréees spiral to such culinary heights. There are plenty of simpler dishes, and the five sandwich selections provide plenty of options. We tried the Angus burger sautéed with seasonal mushrooms and melted Swiss cheese ($7.95). Grilled to a turn, topped with shiitake and thinly sliced portabello and domestic mushrooms, then brushed with Dijon mustard, this juicy and manly sized patty could easily feed two. An enormous serving of shoestring fries, done to a golden crunch, kept this crowd happy.

Since salads are a popular summer lunch, the seared ahi salad with wild greens, avocado and mango tossed in a cilantro-ginger dressing ($10) sounded like a delightful choice. Although the salad portion of the plate was ample and the tuna seared to perfection, the portions were off kilter. For the asking price, three narrow strips of tuna hardly seemed within reason or balance, particularly when the riot of greens and chopped avocado and mango dominated the plate. The ingredients and the lovely light dressing all want to live up to their potential, but the hand that executed the dish seemed uncertain of how to pull this plate together.

Dinner seems to be the popular choice for Wildflower patrons. Gone was the lovely languid afternoon ambiance that a half-empty dining room evokes. The evening we visited found the bar busy and the dining room packed. This might have to do with the current wine promotion, which offers half-off all bottles on Tuesdays. Our waiter, prompt and well versed in wine, quickly steered us toward a suitable summer red, a full-bodied Zinfandel (Edmeades, '96), a young wine full of cherry and berry overtones. It was listed at $28; buying it for 14 felt like a steal.

As usual, the service at Wildflower was swift, friendly and attentive. Drinks were attended to, used plates and soiled linens whisked away. The service is as it should be: unobtrusive yet efficient.

We opted to try out some of the new additions to the menu. A tower of barbecued baby back ribs proved to be eight tender ribs stacked up like a Lincoln Log cabin (when will this titillation Americans have with "tall" food end?). Still, the ribs were excellent. Clearly, the sauce made the dish. Wildflower's barbecue sauce was mildly tart, a refreshing departure from the cloying, overly sweet sauce that often drowns ribs. Here the balance of seasonings was judicious; a tomato base spiked with a breath of chili, a bit of cayenne, brought all the flavors forward. At $8.50, it was a light and tantalizing way to open the meal.

Another delightful addition to the menu is the Tuscan white-bean ravioli with wood-grilled free-range chicken in a porcini mushroom sauce ($14). Replacing the former goat cheese-filled spinach ravioli, this dish has been transformed with just the right touch for summer. The ravioli is fresh and meltingly tender, stuffed with white bean purée. The slightly sweet and aromatic flavor marries well with the forthright and earthy roasted garlic-porcini broth. A generous helping of wilted spinach, sautéed with fresh garlic, and the succulent wood-grilled chicken offer up the correct smoky flavors that balance without overwhelming. Wide ribbons of shaved parmesan and chiffonade of fresh basil are the final deft touches that leave the diner sated. This fully realized dish pleased everyone at the table.

Not quite the same accolades can be bestowed upon our other entrée, the Maple Leaf duck with Asian greens, plum wine sauce and miso chopsticks. While the presentation was lovely, and the original intention of the dish--a classic union of duck, greens and a sweet plum sauce--married well, the rather large serving of mashed potatoes sat heavily on the plate, refusing to blend with the dish's delicate and distinctly Asian overtones.

Naturally, we saved room for dessert. Wildflower is lucky to have arguably the best pastry chef in Tucson, Karen Aimes (a.k.a. Spike). When dessert arrived tableside, a moment of hushed awe settled over us as we passed the plates around simply to admire the handiwork. It might be enough just to gaze upon the Rustic Pear Tart ($6.75), a lovely wedge of tart that floats on a sunburst of fruit coulis: raspberry, mango, cherry. A fine clear mint coulis drizzled around the edges creates not only an eye-popping celebration of color, but adds the necessary sparkle to the dish's deep and fruity flavors. The tart is dense, a deep almond cakey texture, but the coulis balance the flavors to make this a lovely light summer dessert.

Lovely, yes, but not quite as resplendent as the Earl Grey Crème Brulée, which stopped all conversation entirely. It was beautifully presented, studded with fresh blackberries, raspberries and mandarin oranges, with small handmade cookies as an accompaniment. I assumed the fanfare might be hiding a merely passable brulée, a common and oft maligned dessert. How wrong I was. The sugar crust shattered in just the right way, with a delicate crunch. The brulée was creamy, the texture just right, and the smoky rich flavor of Earl Grey tea was pure inspiration. Desserts are a luminous and impressive experience at Wildflower.

For a lovely, leisurely daytime excursion, an evening well spent, or simply for dessert and coffee, Wildflower maintains its reputation as a well maintained bloom in Tucson's rapidly expanding culinary garden.

Wildflower. 7037 N. Oracle Road. 219-4230. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, checks. Menu items $6.75-$22.50.
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