Filler Perfectly Suited

Nice Location, Neat Building, Good Food--Cottonwood Café Has It All.
By Rebecca Cook

WHEN I FIRST noticed some renovative action on the site of the former Lunt Avenue Marble Club, I must confess to a feeling of gleeful anticipation.

Chow The location, on the northeast corner of Broadway and Alvernon Way, has always seemed to me an ideal spot for a successful restaurant, given its proximity to El Con, Randolph Park and two major hotels.

The only question remaining in my mind was whether the new restaurant could combine an excellent location with outstanding food and service.

The Cottonwood Café opened its doors to a new era in mid-January and, having sampled its menu and observed its budding popularity firsthand, I can assure you the place has met this challenge admirably.

Those who remember the Lunt Avenue Marble Club will marvel at the transformation. Still spacious and rambling, the new establishment exudes a chic western Santa Fe charm, with rammed-earth walls accented by a brick courtyard and tree-lined patio.

The interior abounds in terra cotta and turquoise hues which gave way to sleek ranch house-style furnishings. It's a style perfectly suited to Tucson: obviously upscale but cool and casual.

Although perfectly suited for the Sonoran Desert, the Cottonwood Café concept was actually piloted east of the Mississippi. With additional restaurants in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Bethesda, Maryland, the Tucson opening marks the restaurant's first excursion into the land of its inspiration.

A stunning fusion of Native American, Spanish and Western regional cuisine characterizes the Cottonwood Café's menu, and the results are often spectacular.

Cowboy potstickers, crispy wonton-like dumplings filled with a piquant mixture of finely ground chicken and herbs served with a four-chile dipping sauce, are a perfect companion for before-dinner cocktails. Also begging to be washed down with something wet and cool are the snakebites, jalapeños stuffed with shrimp and jack cheese and served with cilantro mayonnaise and lemon.

On another occasion, clams steamed in white wine and garlic and served in a jalapeño-rosemary broth began a meal at the Cottonwood in grand fashion. Served with a basket of focaccia and corn breads, this dish was an absolute delight.

The Cottonwood Café actually offers three different menus, one for lunch and two different dinner menus, depending on whether you sit in one of the indoor dining rooms or on the patio. Although there is significant crossover between various items, you might want to peruse the options before making your decision on where to be seated.

Although reservations for lunch are not generally necessary, one windy afternoon saw people driven off the patio and into the dining rooms, leaving very little space for drop-ins like us. Fortunately, food is also served in the bar and so my friend and I took up residence there.


Our bartender/waitress was especially helpful in describing the menu and making specific recommendations of her favorites.

I tried the Zuni roll, a combination of smoked turkey, boar bacon, scallions and havarti cheese rolled in a soft flour tortilla and served with a raspberry-chipotle sauce. Although hesitant at first to dip into that sauce, I soon found it to be the consummate companion to the to the other ingredients in the tortilla roll.

Also delicious were the enchiladas verdes, corn tortillas filled with grilled chicken, jack cheese and pico de gallo, a finely chopped relish of onion, jicama, green chiles and other vegetables. A tomatillo green sauce and sour cream complemented this dish well.

Dessert this day was a rich New York-style cheesecake served with a mixed fruit puree and a chocolate pecan pie, which was a cross between the richest brownie you've ever eaten and fudge. Both sweets were heavenly and, although relatively full from our entrees, we couldn't resist consuming every last bite.

Dinner at the Cottonwood Café is a special occasion. The dining rooms and patio are dimly lit and take on an elegant glow.

Slower paced than during the lunch rush, dinner is clearly meant to be lingered over and enjoyed.

Although not extensive, dinner entrees cover almost every conceivable taste, from the beef lover's reddened prime rib to the vegetarian's innovative layered vegetable pie.

I was enticed by the salmon Veracruz, a generous portion of grilled fish served with a sauce of tomatoes, red peppers, capers, green olives and roasted garlic.

Having been raised in the state of Washington, I admit to being fairly picky about my salmon, which often reaches this part of the country far from fresh. Although tasty, the Cottonwood's salmon suffered just a bit for being too many days away from the ocean and, as a result, was slightly dry and "fishy" tasting.

My partner's meal of the Rocky Mountain lamb rib chops was nothing less than sensational, however.

Grilled to medium-rare perfection, the chops were tender, succulent and blended amazingly well with the accompanying trio of raspberry chipotle sauce, cilantro pesto and chutney. Served with roasted potatoes and crisp-tender asparagus bundles, this was a meal to savor.

To conclude our supper, my companion and I shared the chocolate nachos, which consisted of shortbread cookies dipped in a dark, bittersweet chocolate and served with white chocolate mousses and dark chocolate sauce. By all means, leave room for this dessert--it's a chocolate-lover's paradise.

Good food, excellent service, Southwestern charm and an ideal central location--the Cottonwood Café is a welcome addition indeed to Tucson's growing restaurant scene.

The Cottonwood Café. 60 N. Alvernon Way. 326-6000. Open for lunch 11:15 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and Sunday brunch. Dinner served 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, CH. Menu TW

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