The Art Of Eating 

Downtown's Café A La C'Art Is A Masterpiece.

ALTHOUGH CAFÉ à la C'Art has been open for almost four months, I'll forever associate it with the first whispers of spring.

Perhaps it's the garden decor's canary yellow, natural wood latticework, white-framed windowpanes and bright red geraniums that evoke the French countryside in the light and airy space. Or it could be the umbrella-topped tables on the tiled, flower-filled patio, which hums with the sounds of the bubbling fountain in front of the Tucson Museum of Art.

However, the association most likely stems from the supremely simple pleasure of food beautifully prepared under the precepts of freshness and quality. The only thing missing from Café à la C'Art's Gallic repertoire is a lengthy list of outstanding wines at shockingly reasonable prices.

But what the café does offer more than compensates for the lack of the grape. Housed in the back half of the Steven's House (once occupied by Janos), the eatery is a nifty nook that's perfect for ladies' luncheons and a quick bite by well-trimmed downtown professionals. Open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the restaurant caters to a select clientele, but based on the lines that continually snake outside its doors, it's enormously popular.

Patrons who prefer full service might balk at the café's casual system. Selections are made at the counter, silverware and drinks are available from a central station, and numbers placed at the table to help the staff deliver orders. But there's an undisputed benefit to easing your way around the counter: you have plenty of time to contemplate a tempting showcase of freshly baked desserts. You'll want to order dessert along with the rest of your lunch; why wait in line a second time?

With Café à la C'Art's dedication to the midday meal, the menu consists exclusively of sandwiches ("artistry with bread"), salads ("from the garden") and ("delectable") desserts. A soup of the day is also always available. Although the selections are somewhat limited, there's no difficulty finding something delicious. Carte Blanche Catering prepares all the food at the restaurant, and their expertise is evident in all the menu items.

One of the most tantalizing offerings is the salmon club sandwich ($5.95), a generous portion of seared filet placed between slices of herbed focaccia bread spread with chipotle mayonnaise and topped with mesquite smoked bacon, lettuce and tomato. The success of this intriguing combination is dependent on the quality of the salmon, and the day I visited, it was superb. Consummately fresh, seared just until done and seasoned generously with ground black pepper, it was a culinary marvel. The bacon and subtle accent of chipotle provided the sandwich with a hint of smokiness that was nicely balanced by the salmon and focaccia.

Choice of seasoned French fries or the salad of the day accompanies the sandwich platters. The afternoon we stopped by, a pasta salad with an oriental dressing was the day's selection. An aromatic dressing of fresh ginger and sesame coated corkscrew pasta, carrots, red pepper and a touch of onion for a luscious and savory side dish. Slices of melon completed the plate, both aesthetically and nutritionally.

The salads are extraordinary and easily make a modest meal for most appetites. Although they were once fixtures at only the fanciest restaurants, these days Caesar salads have become as ubiquitous as the typical "house" salad. For all the plenitude, however, precious few examples of this green classic mirror the table-side preparations of old. Café à la C'Art's Caesar ($4.50) makes a valiant attempt to approach this standard. Adding a touch of Southwest flair, the restaurant accents the salad with tortilla croutons, slender strips of crispy corn tortilla lightly seasoned with a bit of garlic. The croutons top the leafy romaine along with a good amount of grated Parmesan cheese. For those with heartier appetites, grilled chicken ($5.50) or salmon filet ($6) can also be added.

More innovative is the spinach salad ($4.95), a glorious bowl of dark leafy greens mixed with julienned jicama, dried cranberries, toasted walnuts, red onions, bleu cheese and a heavenly orange balsamic vinaigrette. There's no more delicious way to eat your vegetables. Depending on the component ingredients, each bite is slightly different from the last, making no effort necessary to clear the plate. It's a beautiful balance of sweet and crunchy walnuts and jicama, tart cranberries, sharp bleu cheese and fresh spinach.

Dessert is a very good idea at Café à la C'Art, and we made the most of it with two selections. A feathery apricot and coconut cake frosted with white icing and layered with chopped pecans and fruit filling was spectacular, imparting just a hint of almond flavor. We were also rapturous about a macaroon-filled chocolate cupcake that displayed a satisfying cocoa density. Desserts change daily and prices vary, but these two delights combined for a tab just over $5.

If you have some time to spend after lunch, Café à la C'Art offers customers a convenient opportunity to stroll out of the restaurant and into the Tucson Museum of Art. For years TMA's administration has pondered ways to give their museum a broader appeal. They're on to something now -- get them by the stomach, and their hearts and eyes will surely follow.

Café à la C'Art is quickly making a name for itself as one of the most impressive additions to the TMA collection.

Café à la C'Art. 150 N. Main Ave. Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Closed Saturday and Sunday. No alcohol. V, MC, AMEX. Menu items: $4.25-$6.

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