Pure Thoroughbred

In Its 52nd Year, The Venerable Tack Room Once Again Wins By A Length.

By Rebecca Cook

ALTHOUGH I'VE ENTERED into some pretty hallowed halls in my tenure here, I'd never had the pleasure of supping at The Tack Room, perhaps the city's most celebrated restaurant. Since its inception in 1947, The Tack Room has racked up more awards, distinctions and accolades than is reasonable to expect from any dining establishment. How I managed to sidestep its welcome mat for all these years, I'll never know.

Now, however, my résumé as a Tucson epicure is complete. I have at last been to the sacred mountain. And it was worth it.

Chow When one has waited nearly 20 years for an experience, she anticipates failed expectations. To The Tack Room's credit (and my amazement), the restaurant nonetheless delivers on every promise of excellence, and every rave review.

Since 1940, the property off of North Sabino Canyon Road has included a quarter horse racetrack, cotton farm, dude ranch, and most recently, upscale housing division. Through it all, the building that houses the restaurant has remained virtually unaltered. The heavy wooden doors leading into its plush foyer, its dark, wood-beamed ceilings, decorative kerosene table lights, polished copper warming plates and accouterments, and its staid oil paintings of Indians and Sonoran landscapes all speak to the area's history. Large picture windows offer a (still) peerless view of the Catalinas.

It's an ambiance that suggests a more gracious era; a bit of culture and class on the wild frontier. This western outlook might feel like false pretension somewhere else, but at The Tack Room it's a scheme that works.

Service is generally impeccable, although there was a slightly uncomfortable lapse in attention after we were first seated. It took several minutes before the first of many servers approached our table, but the glitch was remedied thereafter with the proffering of menus and refreshment, and the service for the remainder of the evening never faltered.

Executive Chef Alan Sanchez brings considerable experience and expertise to The Tack Room's extensive menu. Sanchez's credits include San Remo (during its Pacific Rim days), AZ Stixx, Pastiche and (most recently) Hugo O'Conor's at the downtown Manning House. While in the past The Tack Room may have embodied a strictly Western/continental cuisine, the present operation embraces a global sensibility.

Outstanding cuts of grilled meats, dishes utilizing regional ingredients such as chiles, pecans and pistachios, and a variety of pastas highlight a menu with distinctively French and Asian-influenced creations.

Those quarter horse aficionados might've been thrown for a loop by pork tenderloin in Thai red curry, or a grilled chicken breast in a citrus marinade of orange, sesame and wasabi, but modern sophisticates are in for a treat.

A complimentary appetizer of wild mushroom duxelles layered in puff pastry and drizzled with a semi-sweet port sauce is presented while you consider the menu. This exquisite morsel whets the appetite with a blend of mushrooms, buttery pastry and a rich sauce. It's guaranteed to make you hungry for more.

We followed its lead with an appetizer of fresh lobster and wild mushroom cake ($14.50), served with a salsa of tomato, scallions and mixed bell-peppers, with a honey-basil vinaigrette. Its consummate freshness was stunning, with each ingredient combining to exude a sweet, earthy immediacy.

A grilled pear and aged gorgonzola salad ($8.75) sounded lovely, but misfired badly. The pears lost their texture in their grilling, and the gorgonzola was a bit on the bland side. Even the spiced roasted pecans, seasoned heavily with curry and cumin, clashed mightily with its counterparts in a heavy, balsamic dressing. They obliterated most of the other flavors. If anything, one supposes it's an acquired taste.

The Tack Room's house salad of mixed greens ($7.50) fared better, served simply with a raspberry walnut vinaigrette--a fruity dressing that's definitely not everyone's cup of tea. The same roasted pecans accented this salad as well, and with much improved success, along with enoki mushrooms and Belgian endive.

Hot, fresh French and dill rolls accompany the meal. Halved and spread with a dab of boot-shaped butter, they're scrumptious.

For the main course, Chef Sanchez regularly assembles a "Suggested Meal," which includes three courses for a cost of around $45. The night we visited, a grilled and smoked Georgia quail, marinated in soy and garlic, was served with sweet potato and grilled corn pudding with mango and balsamic sauce; cornmeal-crusted salmon medallions joined in a salad tossed with caramelized shallot, sherry and dill vinaigrette; and a trio of flavors featuring lobster, scallop and shrimp pâté, grilled duck and grilled pork tenderloin. Tempting, but we passed in favor of the double lamb chops ($36) and seafood lasagna ($28.95). We were not disappointed.

The lamb chops rank among the finest I've ever tasted, deliciously grilled to the specified medium rare, succulent and enormously tender. Their tamarind demi-glaze was a stroke of genius; a dense, faintly sweet enhancement to the already glorious chops. Almost as enjoyable were the crispy corn fritters on the side, made with stone-ground and whole-kernel corn, and diced red pepper. An apple-mint chutney provided colorful accompaniment, but the lamb was so savory any condiment seemed superfluous.

The seafood lasagna preparation looked more like an Italian bouillabaisse (sans mussels) than a tiered pasta. My companion pronounced the lobster, scallops, shrimp and large chunks of fresh salmon amazingly good, and a perfume of saffron, white wine and chive-scented broth provided further proof. He did, however, express some confusion about the two squares of pasta--one on the top and one at the very bottom of the bowl. Although fine in texture and taste, its presentation seemed a bit contrived.

At my insistent prodding, he replied, "It's excellent...I guess I just don't understand it."

A la carte vegetables are offered tableside from a sizzling hot serving tray, and cost an additional $3.75 to $5.50 per serving. We sampled banana and chayote squash preparations, both of which were satisfactory but not worth the additional cost.

The dish worth waiting for, the pièce de résistance, is a dessert of baked Alaska for two ($15.90), something I haven't seen in restaurants for years. What a treat! A double layering of white sponge cake and vanilla ice cream is surrounded with creamy meringue, doused in liquor and then--voilà!--flambéed. The spectacle is sensational, and the flavors equally stupendous. The ice cream remains frozen while the meringue achieves a toasty, delicate brown. What can I say? For high drama and a light touch, no other dessert comes close.

The Tack Room's wine list is sizable, with several French and California vintages to choose from. If you really want to gild the lily, check out the Chateau LaFite Rothschild for $875. For those of us on more modest budgets, there are plenty of decent bottles in the $20 to $40 range.

These days, hype and hyperbole signify little more than obtrusive marketing. But this is hardly the case where The Tack Room is concerned. This is one restaurant that's earned its superlatives. It's not cheap, but the best seldom is. Indulge.

The Tack Room. 7300 E. Vactor Ranch Trail. 722-2800. Open 6 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday (June 1 through October 1); and 6 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (October 1 through May 31). Full bar. V, MC, AMEX, DC, checks. Menu items: $7.50-$45. TW

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