Gastronomic Oasis

The Venerable Lodge On The Desert Scores Big In The Resort Cuisine Department.

By Rebecca Cook

OVER THE YEARS, Tucson has gone from a quaint little burg in the desert to a burgeoning metropolis, complete with myriad deluxe resorts. All this is good news for the thousands of northeastern refugees who flock to our city every year to thaw and rejuvenate in the Arizona sun. Those of us who live here year 'round, however, have sometimes stood back, shaking our heads in confusion as we try to figure out why anyone would spend hundreds of dollars a night to stay in a hotel that would comfortably fit into any community in the United States.

Fortunately, there are still a few establishments in the Tucson area that not only offer visitors satisfactory food and lodging, but succeed also in personifying an authentic and beguiling Sonoran Desert charm.

Chow Since 1936, The Lodge on the Desert, located off Alvernon Way between Broadway and Sixth Street, has been one such place. Small and adobed, with lots of rough wood beams and saltillo tile, the resort has been a comfortable haven for former prime ministers, Hollywood stars and a variety of politicians.

In years past, the dining room provided Western Continental meals for guests as well as the general public. Though it's been awhile since dining at the Lodge on the Desert registered on the rave scale, as of last October the kitchen has seen some significant renovation. Cielos, the newly opened restaurant in the Lodge, offers an extraordinary opportunity to live well (if only for a few hours).

Executive Chef John D. Harings, formerly of the classy l'Auberge de Sedona, has transformed the former abode of prime rib and tenderloin steak into a gastronomic oasis accented with soulful Spanish flourishes. The menu is by no means exclusively Spanish, but the traces of the Old World are unmistakable: a fine selection of tapas, paella, and several dishes featuring Spain's most famous cheese, manchego.

The dining room, one of the primary beneficiaries of a recent million-dollar renovation to the resort, is a lovely place to while away the hours. Muted colors, high-back (and fairly comfortable) chairs and an abundance of natural light filtering through the space all contribute to an agreeable aesthetic.

Dinner at Cielos is a high-end affair, with entrees running between $21 and $29, not including a first course of soup or salad.

It's a commitment to shell out that kind of money for an evening meal, so diners may understandably want to know if the food and service are worth it.

On the first count, have no fear. Chef Harings' cuisine is impeccable. His dishes sing with the ingenuity, style and nuances of taste for which world-class restaurants are famous. For both true and wannabe gourmands, eating at Cielos is the fine-dining equivalent to being the kid in the candy shop.

An appetizer sampler featuring shaved Bayonne ham, marinated green and black olives, wedges of manchego cheese, herbed bread sticks, boquerones (fried smelt), and a tangy black-olive tapenade got things started at our table. Looking forward to grand things later in the meal, this modest tapas platter was a savory and restrained way to begin, especially with the accompaniment of warm rolls in herbed, sun-dried tomato and caramelized-onion renderings.

Entrees at Cielos read like works of art, and as they were placed before us elegantly encased in charming ceramic bell domes, we sensed we were in the presence of greatness.

The roasted lamb loin served with braised white beans, tomatoes and herbs in a tarragon-lamb reduction was excellent: tender and done to a delicate medium-rare perfection. The beans, served with asparagus spears and piped mashed potatoes, complemented the meat beautifully.

A sizzling pan of fresh seafood paella was most impressive, the saffron rice cushioning a bounty of salmon, mussels, sea bass, shrimp and crayfish.

As plentiful as the paella was, a serving of fresh Maine lobster au gratin with champagne sauce, tomatoes and manchego cheese seemed a little on the light side, although its flavors were undeniably delicious. Finally, the braised pheasant breast with a vegetable melange of tomatoes, olives, and red cabbage, served au jus in a sherry-vinegar, was out of this world.

Dessert is just the flawless finishing touch you'd expect: a chocolate anise torte, a Spanish crème brulee and a tapas platter featuring puff-pastry creations with banana, pine nut and honey cream, and a bleu-cheese filling with caramelized pear served with a zabaglione dipping sauce and a bittersweet fried chocolate custard. All were resounding successes.

The only glitch in our evening was the service. One waiter pretty much tried to do it all, and on a busy Saturday night it just wasn't possible to meet every table's needs in a timely and efficient manner. One hopes for full cover at a restaurant of Cielos' promise.

Lunch and breakfast are also served here, at more moderate prices. A lunchtime meal of farfalle pasta with grilled salmon, tomatoes, shallots and a light, creamy pesto sauce was absolutely wonderful, as was a bread salad with tomatoes, matchstick smoked gouda and red onions tossed a subtle sherry vinaigrette. A soft-shell crab salad also intrigued, though it wasn't as much of a standout as the other dishes.

All in all, there's not much to dislike about Cielos. The Lodge on the Desert may not be as renowned as the Arizona Inn nor as opulent as Ventana Canyon, but make no mistake: Their restaurant is making a big splash on the fine-dining resort scene.

Cielos. Lodge on the Desert Resort. 306 N. Alvernon Way. 325-3366. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Full bar. All major credit cards accepted. Menu items at breakfast: $2.50-$7.25. Lunch: $5.75-$12.95. Dinner entrees: $21.95-$28.95. TW

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