Upbeat and Urban

Montana Avenue is a can't-miss option for 13 out of the week's 14 lunches and dinners

Montana Avenue is billed by the Fox Restaurant Concepts folks as serving "regional American cuisine." Can anybody tell me what in the hell "regional American cooking" means?

After all, "regional American cooking" could mean just about anything. Therefore, I perused the Montana Avenue Web site for clarification. It explained: "The menu, a delicious blend of updated comfort foods, will take its cue from the rich culinary traditions of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California."

That helped, until I actually looked at the menu: Who has ever considered ahi with a spicy carrot broth, or white prawns with roasted garlic and a citrus emulsion, to be "comfort food"?

Whatever. While I'd argue Sam Fox's concept explanations can be contrived, I can't argue the fact that he generally runs excellent restaurants--and aside from an uninspired brunch effort, he's done it again with Montana Avenue.

Garrett and I first visited Montana Avenue on Wednesday, April 26. It was Dine Out for Safety night, the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault's annual fundraiser, during which participating restaurants donate a portion of their proceeds to the worthy organization. All of the Fox restaurants are Dine Out for Safety venues, and we decided to check out Fox's newest Tucson place.

We liked what we saw. Montana Avenue has an upbeat, urban, chic vibe; it feels like a place you'd find in Scottsdale or New York (and I mean that in a good way). The designer took a page from Frank Lloyd Wright and used numerous rectangles. The colors are muted--browns, grays and black are highlighted by light maroon. A bar lines the eastern wall, and the southern wall is partially made of glass, featuring a Joshua tree landscape etching; diners can peer through into the kitchen. Booths, tables and two-sided bar-style seating (with cowhide on the seats of the raised chairs) are all options, as is a spacious outdoor patio with a big fireplace. A warning: When busy, as it was on our inaugural visit, it can get very, very loud.

After debating whether or not the person sitting in the booth directly next to us was Jim Click (it was), Garrett and I got down to the business of ordering. There's a fair amount of duplication between the lunch and dinner menus. Each features about a dozen appetizers and salads, and another dozen entrées. Lunch will set you back $8-$12 for a sandwich or an entrée; dinner entrées cost $14-$29.

Garrett and I split three appetizers: the spicy tuna, sweet crab and sea greens ($13), the Santa Barbara mussels with "spicy" chorizo ($10) and the chilled shrimp, sweet pepper and celery salad ($11). I was also daring enough to try the soup of the day, a chilled soup with cantaloupe, jalapeno, mint and pineapple salsa ($7).

Our delightful server promptly brought the appetizers. The mussels were OK; the chorizo was not as spicy as advertised, and the mussels were a bit overcooked, but we nonetheless liked the flavor. We thoroughly enjoyed the shrimp/pepper/celery salad, which also included avocado, onion and an accompanying cocktail sauce. But as good as it was, it paled in comparison to the fantastic tuna, crab and sea greens concoction. Served cold and molded into a hockey puck-like shape and topped with seaweed, this dish was absolutely delicious. In addition to ample supplies of tuna and crab, other ingredients--including not-too-sweet melon--tantalize the taste buds. It's a fantastic summertime appetizer. As for my soup ... it was weird. On my palate, the ingredients didn't mesh well together, and it could have used some more natural sweetness.

After appetizers (and after buying some raffle tickets from the good SACASA folks), our dinners arrived. I'd ordered the New York steak, wild mushrooms and potato puree ($29), while Garrett had ordered the chicken crepes with smoked corn and havarti cheese ($14). My steak, other than being a bit fattier than I prefer, was pretty much perfect. It was topped with greens and the aforementioned mushrooms, and while they were fine, as were the potatoes, the steak didn't need the help--it stood on its own. Meanwhile, Garrett was enjoying his crepes--served in a small skillet, the dish looked more like a shallow casserole than anything else. It tasted fantastic. The creamy havarti cheese and the chicken dominated the flavor, and Garrett said the more he ate, the more he liked it.

While Garrett finished off his crepes, I got most of my steak to take home, because I was not going to miss dessert. About a half-dozen desserts were available (all $8). I got the maple sugar chocolate flourless cake topped with roasted banana gelato and an Irish crème glaze; Garrett chose the Kentucky bourbon bread pudding. After a longer-than-expected wait (it was the only service downside of the night), we finally got the delectables, and delectable, they were.

We were impressed, and we greatly anticipated our next visit; we chose to try out brunch. Offered on Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., brunch includes sandwiches and some breakfast offerings that sounded quite good. Unfortunately, whereas our dinner was almost uniformly great, our brunch was sub-par.

Garrett's visiting mom, Brenda, joined us. The service was fine; the view of the mountains from the outdoor patio was beautiful; the first course, six mini-muffins called Spike's breakfast sweets ($6), was excellent. And downhill it went from there. Garrett got the spinach, goat cheese and avocado omelet ($9) and asked them to add chorizo; he said that without the chorizo, the unseasoned omelet would have been completely mediocre. Brenda's huevos rancheros ($8) was unlike any version of the dish we'd ever seen--the eggs were scrambled, with beans, tortillas and nothing else. There was no salsa or sauce and--again--seemingly no seasoning. Who wants to pay $8 for eggs, beans and tortillas--and nothing else? My eggs benedict with a crab cake (no ham) and spinach (a pricey $14) featured hollandaise sauce that was almost flavorless. Given the small number of brunch customers and the absolute lack of flavor in the dishes, Montana Avenue needs to revamp or reconsider this meal--fast.

Montana Avenue is worth visiting during any of the other 13 lunches or dinners during the week. While phrases like "regional American cooking" and "comfort food" can't really describe the restaurant with any real meaning, here's another phrase that works: pretty damned good.

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