Royal Treatment

Cantina Romantica at Rex Ranch-A Prince Among Restaurants.

By Rebecca Cook

THE EVENING DID not begin well. "Just take I-19 to the Amado exit and then follow the frontage road until you see the signs," we were told. "You'll be able to find it easily." Famous last words. What we were trying to find was Rex Ranch, an honest-to-God, 4,000-acre parcel south of Green Valley, and home now to a fine resort and world-class restaurant called Cantina Romantica. We headed out with empty stomachs and high hopes.

What those glib direction mavens failed to mention was that there are actually two Amado exits off of I-19 (for the record, take Exit 48). In addition, frontage roads run along both sides of the freeway, necessitating a quick right-or-left decision once you reach the stop sign at the end of the off ramp. As fate would have it, we chose the wrong course; and after several high-speed miles with nary a whisper of free enterprise in sight, we had to retrace our route.

Chow (Note: Hang a left off that Exit 48 ramp).

Eventually we did spot a few low-lying signs that could have said "Rex Ranch," but, as there was no discernible lighting, this was at best a hopeful guess on our part. We trundled along nicely until forced to brake to a halt on the muddy banks of the Santa Cruz.

There were no barricades or warning signs, but the water was definitely running, with faint ripples burbling on the surface. Nothing we could see indicated the depth of the river, but we arrived at the radical conclusion that if this was indeed the way to the ranch, the stream must be navigable to the average motorist. So, despite the unsettling image of our truck being swept downstream (details of the valiant rescue at 10 o'clock!), we forged ahead. I'm happy to report we made it safely to the other side.

Finally we spotted a promising cluster of lights, several cars and other signs of recreational life. Parking proved scarce, however, so we parked quite a way down the road from the circular drive leading up to the mission facade of the resort's entrance. Stumbling up the dimly lit and unpaved drive, we heard the surprising sounds of jazzy music and raucous laughter. Apparently the guests were having a good time.

Feeling a bit like party crashers, we peered inside and caught a stunning glimpse of the revelers. Everyone was attired in complete Mardi Gras regalia, with masks and abundant strands of vibrant beads. Everyone was eating, drinking and mingling joyously, making it impossible to tell who were staff members. Tentatively, we inched into the throng, praying that our reservation didn't include sitting next to the celebrants. It was an extremely bizarre moment--something like being lost in one of the bacchanalian scenes from a Fellini film.

Fortunately, we were soon rescued by one of the disguised servers, who directed us to the other end of the establishment, with the more sedate diners. Weary from our travels, we gratefully joined them.

Rex Ranch is authentically historic, with parts of the building dating back to the 1840s. As such, it embodies a quirky charm both rustic and elegant. (Example: starched white linen tablecloths matched with ordinary paper napkins). The resort is a popular spot for small conferences and business retreats, as well as individuals interested in relaxation of mind, body and spirit. Massage therapists, stables, hiking trails, a swimming pool and nearby golf courses are among the attractions here.

But we're interested in the food, which had come highly recommended by several reliable sources.

Cantina Romantica's menu is by no means extensive, but it does an admirable job of covering the bases. Grilled meats are the specialty here, the aroma of which assails your nostrils the minute you get out of your car. Chef Michael Gilliland, who cut his teeth at such prestigious learning establishments as Janos and The Arizona Inn, gives every item a royal Southwestern treatment. Several varieties of chile are used to great advantage, as are tequila, citrus and prickly pear. It isn't likely you'll find Gilliland's creative genius reproduced east of the Mississippi.

We started with an appetizer of baked artichoke bottoms with brie ($7.95) and would have been more than happy to make a meal of this, just as long as the supply of warm, ranch-style peasant bread held out. Fresh artichoke bottoms were cooked tender and then nestled luxuriously in a pond of melted brie. Rich, buttery and subtly pungent, this appetizer was made to be cut into manageable mouthfuls, and spooned extravagantly onto a piece of warm bread. Wine would certainly be a fine accompaniment, but we found the ranch's own iced well water a refreshing alternative.

Salads are deceptively simple affairs of mixed baby greens, lemon zest and slivered petals of edible flowers ($3.95). What sets this garden variety apart--aside from its consummate freshness--is the selection of dressings. Torn between the sweet vidalia onion and a gorgonzola vinaigrette, we finally settled on the latter and found it gloriously matched the tender greens. The dressing appeared composed of little more than top-quality olive oil, a dash of balsamic vinegar and a restrained crumbling of gorgonzola, yet it was a magnificent addition to the bittersweet combination of lettuces and blooms.

There is much to intrigue on Gilliland's entrée menu, not the least of which is a pecan-crusted pork roulade served with a Santa Cruz chile sauce ($18.95), grilled double-cut Colorado lamb chops with a port wine cherry jalapeño jus ($23.50), and grilled citrus chicken and Guaymas shrimp served with a tequila prickly pear sauce ($21.95). After lengthy deliberation, we finally settled on the wild mushroom and basil lasagna ($18.25) and the tournedos of beef served with blue-corn poblano flautas ($23.50).

This was one of the occasions when the carnivore fared better than the confirmed vegetarian. My order of tournedos (two huge orbs of medium-rare tenderloin beef cut about two inches in thickness and diameter) was absolutely exquisite. Each round was topped with an avocado salsa including chopped red pepper and red onion, further enhanced by a zesty chipotle beurre rouge. Every bite exuded a slightly different character, but each was sublime. The two flautas, filled with melted yellow cheese and strips of mild green chile, gave off their own aura of smoky excellence--a result, no doubt, of a brief tenure on the grill. As if this was not enough, the platter also contained a pair of steamed red potatoes seasoned with parsley, and a bundle of fresh asparagus with orange zest. The entire meal was roundly sensational, even though half of it had to be packed up and taken home as leftovers.

The lasagna failed to inspire the same accolades, but it would be difficult to find anything specifically wrong with the dish. A sizable portion of noodles layered with a generous portion of fontina, feta and mozzarella cheeses, thin slices of wild mushrooms and chopped fresh basil was capped with a crown of sun-dried tomato coulis, all of which combined to make the lasagna fairly tasty if a bit unorthodox. Nevertheless, the consensus was that the dish seemed lacking in some essential flavor, an addition that could catapult it from "pretty good" to "fantastic!"

The sole disappointment in the meal was saved for the very end, when only the pedestrian choices of layered chocolate torte, cheesecake and carrot cake were offered for dessert. Ho-hum. We selected the chocolate torte because it came with a "pool" of fresh strawberry sauce ($5.50). In fact, the sauce, which was a disturbingly creamy pale orange-pink and slightly chunky, was poured on top of the cake, giving it a decidedly unappetizing demeanor. Although it turned out to be relatively tasty, we could not help but note that it bore a striking resemblance to the strawberry bisque (the day's soup special). The torte had a luscious fudge icing, but the cake was a tad on the dry side. Compared to an otherwise outstanding meal, this constituted a dismal failure.

For the most part, the Cantina Romantica provides a rare and sumptuous dining experience, with top-quality fare far from the crowds in a historic and enchanting setting. You can't beat it. Just make sure you get your directions straight before you leave town, and check the latest weather report if you don't have a high-clearance vehicle.

Cantina Romantica at Rex Ranch. Amado, 37 miles south of Tucson off of Amado-Exit 48 on southbound I-19. Call Rex Ranch for reservations and exact directions. 398-2914. Open noon to 4 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday (brunch only). Full bar. All major credit cards accepted. Menu items: $3.50-$8.95 (lunch); $3.50-$23.50 (dinner). TW

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