Vino and Victuals

A chic, urban décor and mostly fine food await diners at Armitage

If you want to know one reason why so many independent, locally owned restaurants are struggling these days, look no further than La Encantada.

This mall on the northwest corner of Campbell Avenue and Skyline Drive is home to six restaurants, all chain-owned, all well-reviewed, all of which were not here five years ago. Four of them have received positive reviews in this fine publication; a fifth just received a rave review in the morning daily (not that that's saying much).

The newest and most independent of these six La Encantada restaurants is the Armitage Wine Lounge and Café. (It's barely part of a chain; there's another Armitage in Scottsdale, and that's it.) The Tucson Armitage is celebrating its one-year anniversary this week, and here's another reason for celebration: It's now the fifth La Encantada spot to earn a positive review in the Weekly, despite a bland brunch.

My co-worker Robin and I visited Armitage on a recent Wednesday evening. Armitage seemed to be having a decent night, with a steady stream of customers coming and going. I arrived first, and seated myself--that seems to be the thing to do, as there's no host/hostess, and no sign to the contrary. The wide-open front of the restaurant includes a high, industrial ceiling; a friendly, upscale bar; a variety of lounge, table and bar seating; and large windows, allowing a view of the lower La Encantada parking lot. The back part of the restaurant feels more secluded, as the ceiling is lower, to make room for the impressive wine-storage area above it. There's also a nice patio, too, and the whole décor could best be described as "urban wine chic," thanks to the barrels and crates decorating the area above the bar, the muted colors (with a little yellow and maroon to spice things up) and the hip, jazzy music.

The menu--which is more or less the same for lunch and dinner, with the evening hours offering a little more "heavier fare"--contains an unclassifiable mixture of goodies, ranging from fries ($5, with "gourmet dips") and hummus ($9) to steamed mussels ($12) and an antipasto plate ($15). Salads and flatbreads (thin-crust pizzas, really) join a handful of sandwiches/paninis and five main entrées ($14-$27) to constitute the offerings.

We ordered the bruschetta ($10; you pick four pieces from eight types), the spelling-challenged margarita flatbread ($10) and the ahi tuna sliders ($11) to start, along with a bottle of wine: the Gainey 2006 riesling (normally a ridiculously overpriced $40, but a decent-for-restaurant-prices $20 on our visit, thanks to the half-price summer Wednesday special). Our server was polite and competent; service was never an issue on either visit.

The wine arrived, and then came the food. Robin and I found the bruschetta to be more hit than miss; while the piece with tomato and mozzarella was unspectacular (too much bread, not enough topping), the other varieties--with pesto chicken and tomato; prosciutto, goat cheese and tomato; and marinated artichoke and spinach--were all quite tasty. The flatbread--with mozzarella, parmesan reggiano, tomatoes and fresh basil--was refreshing and well-prepared, though it could have used a little more basil to help the other flavors pop.

The ahi tuna sliders were the most interesting starter, a bad idea that was well-executed: Ahi has such a mellow, light taste that it got lost among the mayonnaise-based ponzu tartar sauce and the ample bread, but the cabbage, hints of cilantro and drizzle of lime gave the little sandwiches a nice blend of flavors. The ahi ended up providing merely heft and texture, but overall, the dish worked. Go figure.

Both of our entrées were worth ordering again. Robin's farcito pollo ($16, a chicken breast stuffed with spinach and cheese) was a bit mushy and greasy, but the flavor was undeniably good. The accompanying tomato confit was unremarkable, but the asparagus spears were perfectly prepared.

As much as Robin enjoyed her dish, she agreed that mine was better. The seared yellowfin tuna ($17), served with orange soy syrup and wasabi cream, was a delight: cooked rare and offered with sauces that complemented, not overwhelmed (in contrast to the ponzu with the sliders). My only beef with the dish was the fact that the side vegetable, bok choy, which was undercooked and stringy.

For dessert, we ordered the baked cookie ($7) and the cheesecake ($7); both impressed. The warm cookie stood out among its toppings--ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate sauce and caramel--while it was the dulce de leche sauce that carried the not-so-cheesy cheesecake to success.

Overall, Armitage was so delightful that Robin and I weren't quite ready for the evening to end, so we decided to trudge up the stairs (where we encountered a beautiful yet massive tarantula) to NoRTH for an after-dinner drink.

Garrett and I returned to Armitage to try the Sunday brunch. On paper, it sounded encouraging, with a wide choice of goodies (from eggs Benedict, $7 to $11, to a filet and eggs, $15) and drink specials (including $3.50 Bloody Marys). And the décor and service were as fine as ever.

The problem was the food. Garrett ordered the Belgian waffle ($9, with strawberries, whipped cream and powdered sugar), and I picked the breakfast scramble ($9, three eggs with spinach, mushrooms, bacon and smoked cheddar); we also decided to sample the biscuits and gravy ($6 for a half-order; $9 for a full order). It seemed the cook on that Sunday morning forgot the spices. Garrett's waffle was flavorless, and the strawberries were few and far between; even if it had been good, at $9, this waffle was overpriced. The price of my scramble was no issue; the lack of flavor was, as there was not enough bacon and cheese to propel the seemingly unseasoned concoction past "bland." Finally, the biscuits were blatantly undercooked; I would have sent them back had this not been a review.

Despite those lame brunch offerings, I recommend giving Armitage a shot. The décor is nice; the service is good; and the food has some flair--just like at most of the other restaurants up La Encantada way.

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