Decade Of Distinction

Despite Some Problems With Noise And Service, Presidio Grill Is Still A Top Local Eatery.

By Rebecca Cook

IT'S BEEN 10 years since Presidio Grill first opened its doors for business, bringing to Tucson at that time a hitherto unseen combination of slick urban ambience and a sassy new menu that incorporated many of the ingredients and flavors characteristic of Southwest cuisine.

With the distinction of being Tucson's first upscale "grill," Presidio led the way to a veritable back burner invasion. Think about it for a few minutes. Newly opened or revamped since 1988 are Metropolitan Grill, Catalina Grill, Buddy's Grill, City Grill, Barrio Grill, Flying V Bar & Grill, Cushing Street Bar & Grill, Fuego Restaurant Bar & Grill, Keaton's Restaurant Grill & Bar and Kingfisher Bar & Grill.

Chow And this incomplete list doesn't even include the countless restaurants that borrowed liberally from the "grill" concept but opted to omit the G-word from their official title.

Given all this upstart competition in the last few years, how is Presidio Grill faring? Is the restaurant holding steady at the top of its art form? Or has it instead fallen behind the times, surpassed by some of the more recent additions to the local grill scene?

The hiring of a new executive chef, Jeffrey T. Barker, provided the perfect excuse to get nosy and check out how things stand at the Presidio these days.

The space itself has changed little over the past decade. Some cosmetic work to jazz up the building's façade, as well as the addition of a side dining area, are the only detectable physical alterations. The long, narrow dining room, which conveniently parallels the bar, still has enormous eye appeal, thanks in large part to the contrast of those heavy black vinyl booths and white walls and tile floors.

With different kitchen staff and a continued spirit of ingenuity, the menu has been altered subtly over the years. While many of the original dishes have gone the way of the albatross, a few signature Presidio offerings can still be found.

Most notably, this includes a scrumptious appetizer of halved and roasted garlic bulbs, served with a wedge of ripe brie, a colorful red, green and yellow bell-pepper melange, and plenty of buttery crostini. Time has done nothing to diminish the pleasure of mellow, spreadable garlic and tangy brie atop a crunchy, buttery wedge of crostini. A taste sensation.

Lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch are served at Presidio Grill. We stuck to dinner, perhaps the most representative meal in showing off what the restaurant does best--as well as worst.

From its inception, Presidio's boasted a popular supper club scene. The small front dining room percolates with noise and activity, which can enhance as well as detract from the dining experience. Done right, it's an atmosphere conducive to controlled revelry, an ambience of gaiety and charm.

The brisk pace and commotion has now turned into something of a frenzy, however, fueled in part by what appears to be gross understaffing.

Seated in that side dining room, we witnessed the futile efforts of a single waitress trying to diligently attend to no fewer than eight tables at one time. We waited for menus, we waited for drinks, we waited to order, we waited to be served, we waited for the plates to be cleared for dessert. And we waited an eternity to pay the bill.

To her credit, our waitress comported herself admirably under these trying circumstances. But with a minimum of support staff, she could do only so much.

In addition, the noise in this adjoining dining room was not just busy, it was cacophonous. Never the ideal place for an intimate conversation, the Presidio now rivals the crowd at McHale Center when UCLA comes to town. For a restaurant of quality, this kind of din is ludicrous.

The good news is that the food at Presidio, once you finally get it, is really quite good, if not a bit confusing at times in composition and presentation.

Barker's revised American grill menu infuses many Southwestern and European touches with a dollop of the Louisiana bayou.

A chicken pasta dish was delicious, composed of linguine, tender grilled chicken, roasted poblano chiles,

browned garlic, Roma tomatoes, fresh basil and prosciutto. Savory and satisfying in all respects, with just the right of amount of chile heat thrown in, this was a glorious dish.

Also enjoyable was the manicotti stuffed with pureed eggplant, spinach and ricotta cheese, capped with a dab of roasted tomato and cilantro marinara. Although tasty, this dish suffered slightly from an unremitting case of the blands. The marinara sauce failed to provided some contrasting flavor pizzazz to these creamy-flavored pasta tubes.

A blackened prime rib cut, however, went to the other end of the spectrum and was extremely spicy. Served alongside a mountain of mashed potatoes, smoked onions and the whole crowned with a full ear of corn on the cob, this was most definitely a hungry man's platter. The generous portion of beef was juicy and tender, but the potatoes seemed to need something (au jus perhaps?); and, I must say, the sight of an ear of corn plopped into the middle of the plate struck me as slightly odd. I might expect this kind of thing at some casual barbecue joint, but it was a surprising sight to see while making the trendy grill scene.

The award for most confounding entrée that night, however, went to the seared chicken breast served over horseradish mashed potatoes and topped with a thick tequila cream sauce peppered with chunks of pear, leeks, prosciutto ham and figs. For the most part, the dish was very pleasing. It's appearance, though, was a complete mess. Our interest was further heightened by the unexpected appearance of a small leg attached to what we assumed was only breast meat. A peek under the camouflaging sauce revealed not a simple chicken breast but a fowl that bore a striking resemblance to a halved game hen or squab. Curioser and curioser.

Dessert consisted of a silky caramel and bittersweet chocolate custard and a gargantuan wedge of New York-style cheesecake topped with a full regiment of fresh raspberries. Both were superb.

Presidio may have led the way on the grill scene 10 years ago, but it appears that now it's time to play a little game of catch-up. The food quality is still quite good, but the concepts of ambience and service seem to have been tossed aside. What a shame. Don't they know that some things never go out of style? TW

Presido Grill. 3352 E. Speedway. 327-4667. Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight and Sunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, DISC, CH. Menu items: $3.95-$19.95.

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