Saturday, January 23, 2010

Who Says Chicken is Boring?

Certainly not the chef at the Ocotillo* Café at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Tucson.

Those wanting to eat at the museum have two choices. Choice Number One is the Ironwood Terraces, a self-service cafeteria eatery. The second, the Ocotillo Café, is a sit-down, white-table-cloth restaurant with a more imaginative menu than one would expect in such a setting. Acting on the recommendation of two of the museum’s staff, we chose the Ocotillo.

Even though the day was a little cool, we chose to eat on the patio. As soon as we were seated, we were given water and a basket containing eight pieces of still warm focaccia, along with a dish of the café’s cilantro pesto. This pesto was extraordinary with the garlic, parmesan cheese, pine nuts, and olive oil muting the sometimes strong flavor of the herb. What a way to start the meal.

Our glasses of prickly pear ice tea soon followed, and the tea’s slightly sweet and slightly astringent flavor was a real thirst quencher.

Now for the hard part – making our lunch choices. And this was hard, since there were a number of intriguing selections. There was the Arizona Chopped Cobb Salad with romaine, chicken, jalapeño bacon, egg, queso fresco, avocado, tomatoes, and olives with a chipotle ranch dressing. There was the Santa Fe Shrimp Salad served with greens, dried sweet corn, tomatoes, provolone cheese, avocado, and tortilla frizzles and tossed with lime vinaigrette. Or should we order the grilled fish or adobo shredded chicken taco platter with soft corn tortillas, cabbage, queso fresco, pico de gallo, chipotle lime crema, and black bean pico or the seven-ounce Kobe burger with green chili, pepper jack or American cheese, lettuce, onion, and tomato on an onion roll with fries.

Chuck decided on the Herb Hummus with pita bread, Kalamata olives and Greek chopped salad tossed with a herb vinaigrette. The hummus had just the right amount of garlic and lemon and was pureed into a creamy spread. The salad included chopped tomatoes and sliced olives and was topped with crumbled feta cheese. Not showing in the photo was a ping pong ball-sized serving of olive tapenade. Chuck wasn’t overly fond of the intense olive taste, so I, being an olive lover, was more than happy to eat it with some of the remaining focaccia.

I really wanted to order the Blue Corn Pumpkin Chicken (a chicken breast, black bean and yam hash, bleu cheese green chili polenta, and orange jicama slaw). But there was one problem. I am allergic to oranges.

I asked the server if the kitchen could substitute something for the slaw. When he returned to our table, he told me that the chef could use mango instead of the oranges – if that was alright with me. Was it ever! A gold star to the server for being willing to ask and to the chef for being willing to accommodate my allergy.

I have to say that this was an extraordinary plate of food. Sitting on the bed of hash was a flattened breast of chicken that had been coated with blue corn meal and chopped pumpkin seeds. Under the coating was one of the moistest and tenderest pieces of chicken ever. Over the chicken was a mild Southwest-influenced sauce with raw pumpkin seeds.

The polenta was served as a cake and had a crisp crust. The taste of both the green chilies and blue cheese were noticeable but not overwhelming and let the corn flavor predominate. I gave Chuck a small (I repeat, small) taste and he couldn’t believe that polenta could taste so good. And my slaw was perfect. The softer mango was the perfect foil to the cabbage, carrot, and jicama (a crispy, sweet, edible root that resembles a turnip in physical appearance). When I told our server that the slaw was delicious, he commented that the chef really liked the way this slaw variation looked on the plate with the other food items. Did I start something?

Our plates were cleared and then came temptation – the dessert tray. I know that there were four selections, but my eyes could only see the chocolate bon bon. I couldn’t resist (but I did share). On a thin round of chocolate cake was an intensely rich and creamy chocolate mousse that was then covered with a dark chocolate genache. The plate was adorned with some fresh berries and raspberry drizzle. Heaven on a plate.

This was another extraordinary meal served in a perfect setting and earns another Tucson restaurant a 5.0 Addie rating.

*The Ocotillo cactus is a woody shrub ten to twenty feet tall. The stems range from nearly vertical to widely spreading.

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