The Tradition of Terra Cotta

This legendary local restaurant carries on

Terra Cotta could be called the Grand Dame of the modern restaurant scene in Tucson. When it opened its doors almost 20 years ago, Café Terra Cotta, as it was known then, put Tucson on the culinary map. Donna Nordin introduced her guests to contemporary Southwestern cuisine. Needless to say, Café Terra Cotta was a big hit.

Today, like most grand dames, Terra Cotta has developed a fine patina. Of course, like any good woman of a certain age, there are areas that could use a little work. After all there's been a move, a fire, a name change (dropping the "Café")--any one of those can test one's mettle.

Terra Cotta is a beautiful spot, though. The foyer is open with ceilings that reach skyward. The bar off to the right of the main entrance is polished copper and golden wood. Colors on the walls mirror the tones of the Catalina Mountains, which can be seen from the large windows found throughout the dining rooms. The floors are a red poured cement. Two patios are there for the offering. Art is everywhere. It's all local and regional and is the perfect fit for the surroundings (and the food).

We visited on a Friday night. After enjoying a drink in the bar, we were escorted to our table by the hostess. There was a nice crowd on the patio, but, for a while at least, we were the only folks in our part of the restaurant. Tables filled as the evening progressed.

The menu is billed as "creative regional cuisine," and there's no denying the Southwestern and Mexican influences in the choice of ingredients: chipotle peppers, jicama, tomatillos, corn, squash, chiles, cotija cheese. These are all paired with more traditional items such as lamb, salmon, chicken, pork, beef, red peppers, garlic and Parmesan cheese. The wine menu is well balanced, with a heavy nod toward California. A few of the wines are bottled specially for the restaurant.

To be honest, our service that night was only fair. Our captain didn't seem to have either his heart or his head in his work. Or maybe we didn't look like big tippers. But thank goodness for the back staff; they made the evening work.

All the food at Terra Cotta is beautifully presented: art on a plate, with color, shape and size all playing a part. For starters, John ordered the jumbo lump crab salad ($12), which was served in an avocado that had been tempuraed and drizzled with an orange-chipotle sauce. It proved to be an interesting assortment of flavors and textures, although a bit more tempura would've been nice. I had the pan-seared five-spice sea scallop served on a polenta cake and topped with rock shrimp in corn cream ($11). The scallop was blackened on the outside, translucent on the inside. The polenta was fairly bland, but the rock shrimp rocked. Again, a tasty and interesting amalgam of both taste and texture.

For an entrée, I ordered the roasted maple leaf duck with rosti potatoes, braised greens and ancho plum chutney ($21). John ordered the braised pork shank with caramelized sweet potatoes and seasonal greens ($20).

The duck was delicious; the wonderful, sweet wine glaze on the outside was an ideal partner to the pink, tender inside. The rosti potato wasn't crispy enough, but the greens were melted down just fine. The chutney added a bit more sweetness to the overall meal.

John's pork shank in a savory glaze was fall-apart tender. Cubes of well-done sweet potato nicely complemented the huge portion of meat. The veggies on the side were pretty unremarkable, but this modern take on an old comfort meal was quite good.

The only thing that could have made the meal better was a bit more heat--not chile heat, but the temperature type. Yes, my duck was served medium; still, all the food should have been warmer. Whether this was the fault of the kitchen or the server, I couldn't say.

We topped dinner off with a blackberry crème brulee ($6) and a cup of coffee. Again, the dish was good, but this time, it wasn't chilled enough (OK, I sound like Goldilocks. So shoot me).

Lunch a week later was a different story. Service was better--attentive and sincere--and the food was the right temp. We ate on the back patio and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. Potted plants, many of them in bloom, added lushness to the patio. The only thing that marred the experience was the noise of the traffic from Sunrise Drive. Perhaps a higher wall would help abate some of the noise.

John had crab cakes ($10), and I ordered the grilled salmon BLT ($9). John also ordered a ginger ale ($2), which the staff kept refilling without being asked (the same happened with our water glasses). Small things such as that make a difference.

The two crab cakes were served atop of each other with a surprise of avocado relish spread between them. The cakes were lightly breaded with a dash of horseradish for good measure. A garnish of jicama stood on the top, and a fine drizzle of a lemon-Tabasco aioli added touches of heat and tang. John thought they were great!

My BLT had all the regular fixings plus a slab of grilled salmon. The roll was large and buttery, and the lime-chipotle sauce was a nice change from any run of the mill mayo. Delish!

For dessert we ordered Terra Cotta's version of the molten chocolate lava soufflé ($6). Just a little larger than a cupcake, the deep, dark chocolate cake and the gooey molten inside were served up on a puddle of crème Englaise. Three hearts of raspberry coulis were drawn on the crème--divine (and pretty, too).

When a place has the kind of reputation that Terra Cotta has, it's tempting to rest on it laurels. But for the great old lady that she is, Terra Cotta holds still its own when it comes to serving up innovative regional fare, in spite of a few glitches now and then. We should all hope we could do so well as we age.

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