Pan-Asian Fusin'

Firecracker Fizzles At Times, But Still Puts On A Good Show.

By Rebecca Cook

DINING AT FIRECRACKER, the latest restaurant installment brought to you by the Buddy's, City Grill and Metropolitan Grill consortium, is a little like watching an episode of Gilligan's Island: Much of it is insipid and clichéd, and you know darn well there are much better things you should be doing with your time. Still, much to your chagrin, you find yourself occasionally tickled by the screwball antics of the likable cast of characters.

Firecracker so earnestly attempts to win diners over with its particular rendering of Pacific Rim cuisine that one can't help but be favorably predisposed toward the place.

Chow The problem is, Firecracker so seldom delivers on its own goodwill, that over the course of a meal your initial approbation inevitably dwindles.

It's not that Firecracker is a complete dud--it most certainly is not. But it does mostly fail to deliver the shower of gastronomic sparks that a bold and innovative menu might be expected to produce.

Starters are listed on the menu as "dim sum," provoking the first puzzle of the evening for anyone familiar with the banquet of the same name offered in many Chinese restaurants about town.

Strictly speaking, dim sum, which includes a mouth-watering variety of fresh-from-the-kitchen small dishes selected from a circulating serving cart, constitutes much more than an appetizer. No matter. At Firecracker we understand hors d'oeuvres and dim sum to be interchangeable terms.

We began our visit with an order of the Hundred Corner Shrimp and Crab Cakes ($7.50) and some spicy ahi sushi rolls ($4.50).

Why, oh why, if you're not going to have a sushi bar where everything can be made fresh and to order, go to the trouble of insulting your guests with a pre-rolled and rigidly refrigerated facsimile of the real thing? Why not just stick with egg rolls and pot stickers, which most kitchens can handle with relative ease?

Sushi is better left to any of a number of fine "bars" now found scattered throughout Tucson. Forget Firecracker's nori-wrapped, grainy rice and tepid tuna imitation.

The shrimp and crab cakes, delicate patties of minced crustacean meat, were a much better deal and were nicely complemented by a subtle ginger aioli sauce, and a spoonful of red and green sesame cabbage slaw.

The menu of entrees at Firecracker ranges from fish to fowl to hoofed beast. Curiously, there are only two purely vegetarian offerings, a chilled soba noodle and vegetable salad, and a stir-fry of soba noodles and fresh vegetables.

Perusing the house specialties, I opted for the five-spice breast of duck ($12.50). I'm still getting used to the notion that many kinds of meat other than steak and roast beef can be ordered to a prescribed doneness, and was slightly startled by the waitress' query as to my personal preference in this instance.

Medium seemed a safe bet, but the finished dish was served a little on the rare side and, even though the meat was juicy, tender and pleasantly laced with the pungency of cinnamon, anise, cloves, fennel and pepper, I scrupulously avoided the more crimson and gelatinous sections of my grilled duck strips. An orange-burgundy reduction was a grand accompaniment to the dish, but the bed of sesame oil-soaked spinach would not have been missed had it found its way elsewhere.

Fresh seafood--including salmon, tuna, mahi-mahi, swordfish, scallops and shrimp--permeates the menu in a variety of tempting guises. The night we visited, the grilled swordfish ($12), which is usually served with a zesty orange glaze, was being offered instead with a lemon-peppercorn sauce, a deviation we willingly obliged.

The generous fish steak was certainly fresh and flaky, but the attending sauce was a cipher, consisting of little more than fresh-squeezed lemon juice. The manager insisted on removing the item from our bill once we complained, a gesture that was totally unnecessary--the stir-fried vegetables and rice that came with the dish matched up so nicely with the fish that we had little difficulty gobbling up the entire portion.

Dessert, or "sweet treats" as the menu denotes, ranges from a restrained and refreshing citrus sorbet to a dense triple chocolate torte. Falling between those extremes is the bananas Firecracker ($4), a Pacific Rim version of New Orleans' bananas Foster, consisting of lengthy slices of ripe banana sautéed in a brown sugar, butter and rum glaze and served atop creamy mounds of vanilla ice cream.

It was an elegant ending to the meal, made all the more festive for the spark-emitting candle perched atop the ice-cream (apparently a Firecracker trademark).

The service at Firecracker was uniformly wonderful, neither overly solicitous nor neglectful, and it was clear the staff was genuinely interested in making our visit a success. A pity the kitchen couldn't bolster the same enthusiasm.

Reinforcing the Gilligan's Island theme is Firecracker's truncated palm-tree-and-bamboo furnished interior. Rotating ceiling fans with palm-leaf propellers complete the slightly corny tropical effect.

I'd hoped to report that Firecracker sizzles. The truth, however, is that most of the time it misses the mark. In fact, it kind of fizzles.

What a difference a letter makes. TW

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