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Best New Restaurant (Since 7/97)

Nonie Restaurant
2526 E. Grant Road

READERS' PICK: A slice of New Orleans living has worked its way out of the bayou and into the desert thanks to Nonie, an extraordinarily lively dining experience featuring the myriad wonders of Creole and Cajun cuisine. Owned and operated by Chris Leonard (that's right, son to Elmore), Nonie is a haven for expatriates from down the Louisiana way. From the daily variations of gumbo and jambalaya to the fiery use of red pepper to the feathery lightness of powder sugar-dusted beignet, Nonie grandly lives out the culinary tradition for which New Orleans is famous the world over. The specialty of the house is the crawfish etouffee, an elegant Cajun stew so sublime it would satisfy a host of angels and devils alike. Nonie's pasta dishes are equally transfixing, with our personal favorite being a fettuccine mixed with shrimp, scallops, artichoke hearts and a cream sauce of delightfully piquant proportions (not for the mild palate). A list of intriguing appetizers make it difficult to get beyond the first course, so plan on a few Happy Hours to fully enjoy the fried pickles, crispy alligator tail, black-peppered shrimp and oysters on the half-shell. Of course, there's pecan pie for dessert, but if you really want to taste what Nonie is all about, be sure and order the classic bread pudding. Most, if not all, the recipes at Nonie once belonged to Leonard's eponymous grandmother; and no where is this more evident than in this homespun confection. Modestly dampened with a little bourbon, Nonie's bread pudding is the ideal conclusion to a truly transportive meal. The unpretentious facade and a bustling interior accented with multicolored glass beads along the walls contribute to a playful, speakeasy ambiance. The service is first-rate, and the cozy bar is a congenial place to wind down your day. Celebrate Mardi Gras any time at Nonie. Ooh la la! Our cup of gumbo truly runneth over.

READERS' POLL RUNNER-UP: Pastiche Modern Eatery, 3025 N. Campbell Ave.

CLUE IN: Sam Fox, one of the geniuses behind several other favorite Tucson "grills" (including Firecracker Grill, Metropolitan Grill, City Grill and Buddy's Grill) has come up with another winner along the far reaches of North Oracle Road. Upscale in every respect, the Wildflower Grill, 7037 N. Oracle Road, exudes a distinctive L.A. ambiance, luring crowds of beautiful people through its doors with a combination of dramatic design (the floor-to-ceiling glass partition between the main dining room and the bar is breathtaking), sharp service, and food that'd be the envy of master chef Wolfgang Puck. An open kitchen is visible at the back of the restaurant, and the aroma of various meats grilled over a wood fire wafts around the premises like an intoxicant. The menu is a marvel of innovation, reflecting a cuisine described by the owners as "New American," incorporating traditional American foods into the culinary legacies of Asia, Italy and France. Ironically, with a variety of jaw-dropping options, one of Wildflower's most popular menu items happens to be the meatloaf. Served with a generous helping of mashed potatoes, it's comfort food at its most sophisticated. Other high recommendations are the double-thick grilled pork chops (served with cinnamon-scented, caramelized apples) and the grilled chicken. For starters, indulge in nothing finer than the warm Maine lobster salad, served with artichoke hearts and asparagus tips tossed in a white truffle vinaigrette. Dessert is almost as spectacular as the glass wall, with our favorites being a palate-cleansing trio of fresh sorbets (mango, lemon and raspberry), and a chocolate martini--layers of chocolate mousse inside a lavish, stemmed cocktail glass. We admit it's a pain to work our way past all those Mercedes, Porches and BMWs just to get to Wildflower's front door, but once inside, all pretension ends. The food and service here are genuinely superb.

Case History

1997 Winner: Firecracker
1996 Winner: Cottonwood Café
1995 Winner: City Grill

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