Still Cookin'

Despite The Recent Troubles, The Food At Janos Is As Superb As Ever.
By Rebecca Cook

JANOS WILDER HAS been a permanent fixture in Tucson's culinary heavens for the last 14 years, and in that time much has been written about and made of his genius.

Chow Wilder has consistently taken risks by frequently altering his menu to include dishes of distinctive character and flair, dishes suffused with the bold flavors of the freshest, most seasonably available ingredients.

Located within the dusky rose interior of the elegant 1860s Hiram Stevens' House, Janos has provided an unparalleled fine-dining experience for locals and visiting bon vivants.

Small wonder that when the Tucson Museum of Art, which owns the Stevens' House, stated it intended to follow through with its original lease agreement and soon evict Janos from the space, the response was disbelief followed by outrage.

Nevertheless, the Museum seems firmly resolved to reclaim the home as its own, and Wilder & Company will be forced to find new digs.

But, wait. No need to mourn just yet. Janos' lease isn't up until August 1998. That means we have at least 16 more months to savor the restaurant's wonders at its present locale. Not unlike catching a performance of your favorite musical group on their announced final tour, dining at Janos is a singular experience not to be missed.

Nothing at Janos fails to impress, beginning with the phone call to secure dinner reservations.

"Is this a special occasion, or are there any particular requests or limits on your time we should know about?" I'm asked by the woman answering the phone.

As a matter of fact, I have theater tickets this night with a 7:30 p.m. curtain time.

"No problem," she assures me, "We'll see that we get you out in plenty of time to make that show."

On arrival, no less a personage than the master himself escorts us to our table, effusing about his particular favorites on the menu this evening.

Although we have enough time to order from the regular menu, Wilder has also included a special prix fixe pre-performance menu, designed with the timely appearance of your meal in mind.

We begin with an appetizer of spring splendor: roasted beets, asparagus, green lip mussels and tiny yellow tomatoes tossed with orange sections and spinach, in an orange and walnut-oil vinaigrette, sprinkled with toasted black walnuts ($11). Each flavor remained distinct in this dish, yet was perfectly complemented by the gentle orange essence that suffused it. Aside from being gorgeous, this dish was unbelievably delicious.

Entrees this evening consisted of tournedos of fresh, grilled Norwegian salmon served atop whole-kernel corn cakes and accented with curls of tender smoked salmon drizzled with a bechamel-based Nantua sauce (made with cream and crayfish butter) ($30), and sautéed veal tenderloin layered with a mushroom duxelle and dried cherries and served with quinoa and roasted corn on a saucy bed of exotic mushrooms including chopped Oregon truffles ($32).

The veal was lusciously succulent and deftly soaked up the extraordinary flavors of the mushroom reduction and barely tart cherries.

On a second occasion I opted for another of Janos special menus, a tasting menu featuring five courses, which could be enjoyed with samples of wines from the Beaulieu Vineyards ($55 without wine, $85 with).

A cursory glimpse provides a snapshot of Janos artistry:

First Course: A rosette of giant Maine sea scallops, sliced and served on a crispy potato galette, topped with a bundle of lobster meat and set amidst a lemon-lobster beurre blanc. Exquisite.

Second Course: Boneless quail breast rubbed with garlic and olive oil, grilled and served with a tangy red-onion marmalade, creamy risotto and a clove-scented green peppercorn sauce.

Third Course: A madeira-glazed mushroom baklava consisting of layers of phyllo, exotic mushroom, leeks and pistachios, and served with a demitasse cup of mushroom consommé and froth sprinkled with pistachio dust. If you're a mushroom lover, this is as close to bliss as you're likely to get.

Fourth Course: Rack of lamb marinated in port and cinnamon, rubbed with walnuts, roasted medium-rare and served on cranberry coulis with poached winter pear. A finely wrought symphony of tastes worthy of a standing ovation.

Grand Finale: A stunning Napoleon made with layers of puff pastry, hazelnut mousse, caramelized apples and muscat zabaglione. Deceptively ethereal. Though thoroughly stuffed, I managed to finish this last course with relish.

As stupendous as most everything at Janos is, however, I was almost reassured to see a few signs of mortality. A tortilla-crusted cabrilla was tough enough to require some knife-and-fork action to cut through it, and the cream added to my after-dinner coffee curdled on impact.

Mere trifles compared to the wonders awaiting beyond Janos' front door. If the prices intimidate you, keep in mind that beginning in mid-May the restaurant features a summer sampler menu with your choice of three entrees for only $12.95. A better bang for your dollar you're not likely to find. TW

Photo by Sean Justice

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