Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Not All of the Art . . .

is hung on the walls of the Tucson Museum of Art. Some appeared from the kitchen at Café a la C’Art, the luncheon restaurant overlooking the Museum’s central courtyard.

And there is where it happened.

After placing our orders we took seats on the patio. Temperatures were hovering around seventy, we could hear water from the fountains splashing just a few yards away, and in one corner sat a guitarist providing music to fit the fine food. “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony never sounded so good. It was then and there that my metamorphosis was complete. I am now that species of the human genus known as the Southwest Snowbirdus Americanus. Goodbye to snow. Goodbye to cold temperatures. Goodbye to winter coats, boots, ice melting salt, and snow shovels.

“Café a la C’Art has been family owned and operated at the Museum for more than twelve years. Judith Michelet, her son Mark, and his wife Shirley are Tucson natives and take pride in presenting artistically crafted menu items based on traditional Southwest cuisine flavors. The combination of this approach with Mark’s training at Scottsdale Culinary School, the CIA in New York, and Greystone in California, creates a memorable, if not remarkable, experience.

Judy and her family believe in customer service and satisfaction as their mantra for doing business. During a busy lunch hour, it is not unusual to see Judy and Mark serving food, cleaning tables and chatting with happy diners who are visiting for the first time or who are regular guests” (from the café’s web site).

As you enter the main dining room and order at the small counter, your first sight is the day’s pastry selection. As I watched Judith serving the next to last slice of the mixed berry buttermilk cake, I knew that the last slice had to be mine. There were two gentlemen ahead of us in line, and I kept repeating silently “You two don’t want dessert. You two don’t want dessert. You two don’t want dessert.” It must have worked since they didn’t order dessert. The buttermilk cake was mine. Now what else do I eat?

The menu includes about ten sandwiches and maybe another eight salads. The day’s special, poached salmon on baby greens, sounded like a possibility, even though poaching is not my favorite salmon preparation. Then I saw that the printed menu included a southwestern Caesar salad with grilled salmon and tossed with chipotle Caesar dressing. Perfect. From the sandwich menu Chuck chose the pressed Cuban sandwich, and I know this is hard to believe from Mr. Potato, chose the Southwest garbanzo salad over the french fries. For his dessert, he chose the raspberry bar.

Now here is where Chuck displayed a spark of adventure that I didn’t expect. Café a la C’Art serves its house special lemonades, and that day’s choices were lavender lemonade and pineapple basil lemonade. Chuck ordered the latter, while I stayed with the generic unsweetened iced tea. Upon arriving at our table, I took a taste of his drink (for the purposes of research only). Two sips and I got up from the table, walked into the café, and ordered my own glass. As I told Judith, the iced tea was for guzzling, the lemonade was for savoring. The drink was both tart from the lemon and sweet from the pineapple, with the basil providing an underlying herbal flavor. I have never had a better glass of lemonade.

The lemonade was just a prelude for our main selections. Chuck’s pressed Cuban was chock full of tender and moist shaved ham and pork with Swiss cheese. After eating about a quarter of the sandwich, he asked me what the green things were. I told him that they were pickles (he doesn’t care for pickles) and that dill pickles are an essential component of a Cuban sandwich. But it turns out that these were sweet pickles and not dill pickles, and that made all of the difference. And his salad was no less spectacular. Garbanzos were tossed with chopped red bell peppers and cilantro, topped with a Mexican cheese, and dressed with a southwestern seasoned dressing. This is a recipe that I would love to duplicate.

My lunch was no less spectacular. The salmon was perfectly grilled with a slight charred flavor (to me this is a plus), but was moist and ultra flaky. The romaine was mixed with black beans and shoe peg corn. The dressing had a very mild heat from the chipotles and a faint hint of anchovies (I love anchovies). And the greens were topped with thin strips of seasoned and fried corn tortillas. (Does one chiffonade a tortilla? These strips were that thin.) And the salad came with two pieces of crisp flatbread that had been topped with cheese and white and black sesame seeds.

And now for the moment we had been waiting for. Dessert. The bar had a crisp base that contained nuts and coconut supporting a raspberry preserves-like topping. It was tart and sweet at the same time.

But the buttermilk berry cake. Let me tell you about the cake. It was super moist with a decadently rich cream cheese icing and crammed with blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. This might be the best cake ever!

This was a meal to remember – the setting, the music, the food – and earns our highest accolades of a 5.0 Addie rating.

As a note, I would guess that ninety percent of the diners that day were not Museum visitors (you know them by the purple stickers affixed to their clothes) and were probably downtown business people or those just looking for excellence in dining.

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