Not-So Suite

Suite 102 Is More Cacophony Than Symphony.

By Rebecca Cook

THE PROBLEM WITH trendy restaurants is that they sometimes have difficulty making sense to the dining public. When hard-pressed to describe the fare in some such establishments, the otherwise discerning critic is often forced to resort to "eclectic." Truth be told, this is frequently a cover for places of thematic confusion.

This may or may not be the case with Suite 102, a trendy upscale bar and restaurant with two Tucson locations. First, one must decide whether the establishment is a bar, a restaurant or one of those rare entities that skillfully manages to strike a balance between the two.

Chow The marquee at each venue proclaims Suite 102 a restaurant, which would lead a casual observer to conclude most people go there to eat. Wander in during lunch and this indeed is the case. Although a large, open bar dominates the center of the space and several televisions are suspended from the ceiling (tuned to either a sporting event or CNN), it's still possible to believe the primary focus is the kitchen.

An appetizing list of sandwiches, pasta, lavosh pizzas, burgers, salads and quesadillas constitute the noon menu, and all are served with respectable efficiency. The surroundings are on the posh side of casual, and if you're dining alone, the aforementioned television sets provide unobtrusive distraction. It seems ideal for suits and skirts on the go.

Suite 102 seems at its best when it sticks with "bar food." The burgers are thick and juicy, cooked to medium-rare perfection (unless another preference is indicated) and served on soft, full-textured buns. French fries are long handles of deep fried potatoes that contradict their essentially greasy nature by being tender-crisp and delicious.

Serving pizza on lavosh, a cracker-like flat bread, is inspirational in a place that serves beer in equal or greater proportion to its entrees. It's a welcome deviation for those looking for a tasty meal on the light side. An array of traditional toppings are available (nothing gourmet or off-the-wall), piled on with a modest smear of red sauce and an arsenal of melted mozzarella. Along with a small green salad and (depending on where you have to go after lunch) a beer, it's a fine repast of reasonably healthy comfort food.

Although untested, Suite 102's salads looked ample and inviting, and a persistent rumor about a sublime lobster sandwich bears further investigation.

So far, so good. Though stamped with the markings of a typical bar-n-grill scene, who's going to quibble as long as the food and service hold up?

Yes, well. Be advised. At the close of the work day, that ample bar steals the scene. And the boisterous goings-on seem aimed at a crowd made up of singles. Don't get me wrong--I have nothing against happy hour hijinks. But if you aren't there to party, the peculiarities that such inebriated mingling engenders won't do much to enhance a meal.

The noise is deafening, relegating the shouting match at your table into a simulation of dinner conversation. The smoke, though theoretically confined to the bar area only, is a cloud wafting wherever it pleases, thoroughly strafing the senses of taste and smell. The waitstaff is literally running around in an attempt to fulfill an overwhelming number of requests. Needless to say, these factors do not a genteel ambiance make.

Amidst the ruckus we were seated at the sole unoccupied table (reservations are not taken on Friday and Saturday nights). We received menus and water and then nothing, not even a nod, for the next 30 minutes. I confess I'm always miffed at such glaring inattention, but this experience was especially irksome because we weren't even extended the courtesy of an order from the bar to ease the wait. This denotes either gross incompetence or a deplorable shortage of staff.

Finally, our winsome waiter appeared, out of breath and in a visible hurry. In lieu of honoring our drink requests, he nodded quickly and said he'd be right back. Our protestations (tears, shameless begging, heads banging on the table) convinced him this was not satisfactory. Grudgingly, he took our order...then promptly disappeared for another 15 minutes.

Suite 102 boasts an extensive martini list; your head will swim from a mere scan of the intoxicating mix. We ordered a few samples of the house specialties, which contained various amounts of rum, gin, scotch and something blue, but found the finished products disappointingly weak, even though they were served in the requisite stemmed glass and looked beautiful.

Our waiter again disappeared, and long after the glasses were empty, he surfaced to take our dinner order. If the drinks had been potent, we might've been inured at this point. For better or worse, we were in full possession of our senses, and extremely hungry.

A slightly expanded menu marks the dinner hour, adding a few substantial entrees to the grill and salad fare. We dove into a salmon and pesto farfalle pasta, surf-and-turf combo with steak and crab-stuffed shrimp, and lavosh-crusted chicken breast.

Unremarkable green salads soon arrived, but it shouldn't come as a surprise that a full 40 minutes elapsed before the appearance of the main course. By this time, the noise was off the scale and my patience had run thin for the disruptive giggles of a gaggle of young women at the adjacent table, desperately trying to attract the attention of the table of men behind them.

I suppose a stellar meal might've redeemed this entirely dreadful experience, but you know that isn't the case. First, the pasta: green and white bow-ties coated in a creamy basil-and-garlic pesto studded with chunks of pink salmon. Aside from a strong fish flavor, the salmon was remarkable for being cold and completely raw at the center of each and every piece. It made my companion queasy.

Although it took some effort, we managed to get our waiter's attention and point out the concern. He returned from the kitchen to announce that this was the chef's intention. An unwise choice perhaps, but a fair one--except that this pertinent fact ought to be included on the menu, or offered by the waiter. Not everyone likes sushi. To their credit, the kitchen honored the request for another order of the pasta, with the salmon thoroughly cooked, though our appetite for the dish had waned.

The lavosh chicken was tender and moist, if a bit unsensational in flavor. It was promisingly accompanied by a ragout of artichoke, sun-dried tomatoes and grilled onions, but the only flavor that came through was the latter. A sauté of julienned zucchini, onion and yellow bell pepper was tasty if overcooked, and the mashed garlic potatoes were delicious.

The surf and turf proved the highlight of the meal. The tender, petite sirloin steak was served in a port wine reduction sauce, and held forth alongside the house specialty of shrimp stuffed with crab, cream cheese and herbs. Whereas the fish surprised us, we expected the steak to be rare, and were mildly disappointed with its more medium preparation. The shrimp also was a bit tough, but the flavors nevertheless melded in a pleasurable whirl.

A dessert of chocolate pâté sliced and served with a berry and chocolate sauce was quite edible, though the fruit quotient of the dark sauce appeared nothing more than a processed food topping.

In the final analysis, Suite 102 can be said to be consistent in its contradictions. When it's good (as at lunch), it's very good. But when it's bad (dinner in the midst of a crowded bar?), it's terrible.

Suite 102. Two locations: 5350 E. Broadway Blvd. (745-9555), and 7850 N. Oracle Road (531-0668). Open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, DC. No checks. Menu items: $3.50-$17.95. TW

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