A Real Corker

Jonathan's Tucson Cork Is A Great Place To Pop In.
By Rebecca Cook

ALTHOUGH RESTAURANT reviewing is generally considered to be a pretty cushy assignment, the task at hand occasionally proves far more difficult than first imagined.

Chow When I recently invited my good friend Kevin to join me on a Friday night review of the Olympic Flame, the entire evening quickly spiraled into a fiasco of comic proportions.

Upon arriving at the restaurant, we were seated in a sparsely occupied dining room and then summarily ignored for the next 20 minutes by everyone but the busboy, who conscientiously attended to our water glasses.

Our thirst thoroughly quenched after three refills but our stomachs still rumbling for attention with no relief in sight, we decided to leave for the time being and move on to someplace more interested in feeding us. After all, this was Friday night in restaurant-filled Tucson. How hard could it be to find someplace else to eat?

Next on my list was the Solarium, a restaurant that's been part of Tucson at least as long as I have, and one I've heard nothing about in recent years.

If one assumes the popularity of a restaurant is an indication of how good the food is, the nearly full parking lot at the Solarium seemed a promising indication. That joint was jumping.

Approaching the foyer, however, we soon encountered the reason for the crowd. A perky, cheerful woman was seated behind a long table apparently helping people check in and fill out name tags for some sort of reunion.

I assume the place was open to the general public as well but, somehow, being in the middle of such a socially oriented event didn't appeal to us and we beat a hasty retreat to regroup and form yet another plan.

Who knows what quirks of fate were responsible for this series of events, but thank goodness they lead us eventually through the doors of Jonathan's Tucson Cork, where we were warmly welcomed and our hunger finally sated in a most delicious way.

Chef Jonathan Landeen (who, coincidentally, was at the Solarium for eight years before making the move to the Cork about two years ago) has indeed created a refuge for the famished. The place was known for its outstanding cuts of beef in the old days, when it was called the Cork 'N' Cleaver, and Landeen has managed to retain that reputation while adding an array of fresh seafood and chicken dishes that easily appeal to the less beefy among us.

Image We began with an appetizer of button mushrooms sautéed in a butter chili sauce that had just a hint of heat and went well with an ice-Cold Beer.

Entrees are served with choice of soup--currently either a daily special or albondigas--or salad. We both opted for the salad, a fresh melange of mixed greens, cucumber, red onion, tomato and sliced red, yellow and green bell peppers. The blue cheese dressing was a standout: pungent, not overly creamy and studded with bits of blue cheese.

On this first visit I tried Landeen's Southwest chicken, two chicken breasts stuffed with feta cheese, ground chicken and green chiles and topped with a compound salsa butter sauce. Utterly tender, moist and full of flavor, this is a dish to enjoy many times over.

According to Landeen, his restaurant is reflective of an entire Southern cuisine, including not only the Southwest but Louisiana and Florida as well.

Trained in the dining Mecca of New Orleans, traces of the bayou can be noted throughout the Cork's menu, nowhere more obviously than in the fish specials where some blackened variation is always present.

Kevin sampled one of the three daily specials from the sea, a grilled cabrilla. The fish was absolutely fresh and well complemented by a salsa of black beans, chopped tomato, onion, chile and fresh cilantro.

Other fish specials included a salmon oven-poached in a lemon-caper butter sauce and fresh ahi tuna served with mango relish.

Side dishes include choice of rice pilaf, or either baked or garlic-mashed potatoes, the latter falling nothing short of ambrosial if you're any kind of a garlic lover.

On a second visit, I decided to take the plunge into high cholesterol living and go for the beef. Although it might be a guilty pleasure, I don't regret a single mouthful of some of the most flavorful beef I've tasted since leaving Montana.

Prime rib doesn't get any better than that served at Jonathan's Cork; absolutely tender and delicious and not too fatty, it's worth any amount of cardiac risk. Unless you're seriously famished, I recommend the petite cut, which, believe me, is far from skimpy.

The top sirloin, a cut which can often be a little on the tough side, was equally tender and tasty, our only complaint being that it was slightly overcooked for the requested medium rare. No matter, we gobbled it up happily.

Room should be reserved for dessert at the Cork, a selection that includes a dense bittersweet chocolate mousse served in a creme anglaise and a New Orleans-style bread pudding served with whipped cream.

The service at the Cork is relaxed but not dismissive and the space, while cozy, is rustically reminiscent of a rambling ranch house, complete with a Santa Fe fireplace in the bar.

Lucky for us we were thwarted in our attempts to go elsewhere that Friday night. Jonathan's Tucson Cork is definitely a safe and delectable haven for the hungry.

Jonathan's Tucson Cork. 6320 E. Tanque Verde Road. 296-1631. Open daily for cocktails with food served in the bar from 3 p.m. on; TW

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