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Best Fine Dining

150 N. Main Ave.

FEW STARS SHINE as bright in the Tucson culinary firmament as Janos. The devil's in the details, and the twinkle in restauranteur Janos Wilder's eyes is from a mix of sensible mischief and detailed mastery that makes for high art.

Janos' cuisine takes from the staples of what has become the Southwestern culinary grammar that includes poblano, jalapeño, habañero and more exotic peppers, grill smoke, fried or steamed tortillas, and the varieties of salsa and mole. These are applied with French culinary technique to the regional profusion of fresh herbs, greens and vegetables to create a world-class table. At Janos, food speaks with a simple, localized but worldly eloquence.

Janos may be the star, but without the brilliant background his kitchen provides, the star would not shine as bright. Chef de cuisine Jack Mitchell and patissier Fabrice Mallet are outstanding. Mitchell's deft hand is behind the sinuous curve of a ruby trout, skin grilled crisp, then stuffed with mesquite bacon, apples and pecans, a plume of smoky-mint flavor enhancing all. And Mallet's French baking comes to the fore with blue corn cakes of fine taste and texture and deceptively light tarte tatin for dessert, with Granny Smith apples, sliced just so, caramelled in butter and sugar, and baked quickly with a pastry crust tasting of burnt sugar. The detailing from this kitchen etches the palette's memory.

Herbs and vegetables glow under Janos' ministrations. Even at his new, lower-cost lunch and catering venue Wild Johnny's Wagon, in the plaza behind the restaurant, the vegetable and salad choices are stellar.

Fresh herbs and nasturtiums grow on the restaurant's popular patio, and it is these that create so much of the palette sparklers of the Janos menu. A prime example is a main course plate with gateau of grilled wild mushrooms, tomato pistou and asparagus flan.

The shapes, colors, textures of this platter are as sensuous a treat for the eye as the combination of flavors is for taste. The pistou, in particular, is a marvel of taste and texture, combining dill, thyme, tarragon, basil, black pepper and oregano in a concassé of Roma tomatoes with white wine, garlic and scallion to make something far beyond the single excellence of any one ingredient. The various points of flavor tease and please languidly.

There are few restaurants in the country where you will find the mature complexity of taste and texture, the confident mastery of sensuous flavor that you'll find at Janos.
--M.F. Munday

READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: There are few restaurants remaining in the United States that provide service and cuisine in the grand style that such historic venues as Delmonico's in New York, the Palace Hotel in San Francisco or the Broadmoor Casino in Colorado made famous. That we have had one such restaurant in Tucson for 30 years seems improbable. But since 1965, the Tack Room, at Rancho del Rio off Sabino Canyon Road, has provided constant and consistent attention to food and table service of impeccably high standards. From gracious greeting upon entering the foyer warmed by the lit fireplace, to coats being held for us as our group departed, the Tack Room envelops diners in a cocoon of pleasant care. The service is complete, attentive, anticipatory and never cynically obsequious. Warm, fresh breads and rolls arrive. A relish tray is served. Drink orders are taken. Caesar salad is made tableside. The pacing of the dinner gives ample time for talk. With entrées finished, orders are taken for coffees and brought to the table--with condiments of grated chocolate, turbinado sugar, cinnamon sticks, cream and schlag, that slightly vanilla-enriched and sweetened version of whipped cream, which only the Viennese would have considered essential. After dessert--and before the check--a silver tray with almond coated chocolate truffles is served. Linger at the table, unrushed. Tucson should be very glad Tack Room remains a fixed point of excellence in a crowded universe.

STAFF PICK: We know a woman who's addicted to the seafood soup with big chunks of salmon and scallops and crab, garlic and tomatoes at Vivace Restaurant, 4811 E. Grant Road. She also likes to dip her bread in olive oil mixed with chopped garlic and herbs. She swears by the iced cappuccino. And the desserts, she says, are exquisite. Amazingly, this woman is not the size of Rhode Island, although she indulges at least once a week, sometimes twice. Nope, she's slim and petite. Of course, sometimes her garlic breath could stun a vampire, but Vivace's good food is her tonic for pleasant living.

Case History

1998 Winner: Anthony's in the Catalinas Restaurant
1997 Winner: Janos
1996 Winner: Janos

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