Tuesday, November 15, 2011

It Was a No-Brainer

Wanting to make Kitty Humbug’s first foray in the food review world, we chose what was one of our favorite restaurants from our Tucson visit twenty-two months ago – Café a la C’Art at the Tucson Museum of Art.

“Café a la C’Art, and its sister company Carte Blanche Catering, have been family-owned and operated at the Museum for more than 12 years. Judith Michelet, her son Mark and his wife Shirley are true 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, 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” (www.cafealacarttucson.com).

Since our last visit, the café has undergone a large-scale expansion. To the best of our memory, seating then consisted of one indoor dining space plus the outdoor patio overlooking the museum courtyard. Since then, Café a la C’Art has spread out to include a number of small rooms in the Museum’s Historic Block, many of which contain fireplaces, cozy window seating,

and decorative door molding. Fortunately, the café’s food is still of the same exceptional quality that we so fondly remembered.

As described in the Tucson Weekly: “This tiny lunch venue located in the historic Stevens House adjacent to the Tucson Museum of Art is a small culinary masterpiece. With a limited menu, the focus is on quality and taste, both of which are outstanding. Ordering from the counter gives patrons ample time to ogle the mouthwatering desserts, which are best selected with the rest of your lunch; with patrons lining up outside, the case might be empty by the time you make it through the line a second time. The patio and French garden chic add extra appeal.”

It was windy at our Tucson RV park home, and we were concerned that patio dining would be impossible. So concerned that Chuck called and asked if the café were open. So strange must have been the question that the delightful young woman taking our orders suddenly turned and asked: “Are you the folks who called about the wind?” You see, there was almost no wind in downtown Tucson.

The menu is short and includes a soup of the day, salads, sandwiches, burgers, and their famous desserts which change daily. At first blush, the menu seems simple. But when you look closely, many familiar favorites have been given a unique twist. Yes, you can order a BLT—the Café BLT with smoked peppered bacon, avocado, pepper jack cheese, tomato, fresh spinach leaves, and chipotle aïoli on focaccia. But you can also order the Salmon BLT— seared filet of salmon, smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato, and chipotle aïoli on freshly baked focaccia.

Want chicken salad? How about the Gingered Apricot Almond Chicken Salad Croissant with oven roasted chicken breast, dried apricots, almonds, and sprouts on a freshly baked croissant. Or a Roast Beef Sandwich with bleu cheese, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato, and aïoli on a crusty roll?

We both started with a cup of Southwest Chicken and Sweet Potato soup that contained pieces of roasted chicken with chunks of sweet potatoes, carrots, and tomatoes in a chile-infused chicken broth enhanced with chopped cilantro. The soup came garnished with a wedge of lime and flour tortilla “crackers” with melted cheese and poppy seeds. The lunch was off to a great start as we kept looking at each other and saying “Wow” with every bite.

Chuck went with one his favorites from our earlier Tucson visit—the Cuban Sandwich with shaved roasted pork, black forest ham, sweet pickles, and provolone on a freshly baked roll. There are number of notable facets to this Cuban. First, was the substitution of sweet pickles for the more traditional dills. Chuck is not a dill pickle fan and appreciated this deviation from the norm. Second, a Cuban is a pressed sandwich and renditions too often don’t really press the sandwich. Sure, they may heat it slightly so that the bottom and top crusts crisp, but the interior doesn’t warm. Here, the Cuban spent enough time in the sandwich press that the cheese melted and the meats warmed. Wonderful.

I was almost lured by the day’s special—a shrimp and avocado salad with baby greens. But I have always ordered salad here and wanted to venture into the sandwich menu. So instead I chose the Roasted Turkey Club—thin slices of turkey breast, smoked bacon, dried cranberry salsa, lettuce, sprouts, tomato, and herbed mayonnaise on a fresh croissant. Every turkey should be this lucky! I don’t know if the croissants are house-made, but it was light and buttery rich. The thinly-sliced juicy turkey was contrasted by the crisp and peppery bacon. But what made this sandwich special was the sweet and tart dried cranberry salsa. It was the perfect balance for all of the other complex tastes.

With your sandwich, you have your choice of fries, a side salad, or—at least on that day—the café’s garbanzo bean salad that, in addition to the beans, contained black olives, red onion, and sundried tomatoes and was garnished with crumbled queso fresco. As Chuck said (and yes, he did pass on the fries), you don’t come to a restaurant like Café a la C’Art and order French fries. But they did look good as we saw them pass on other diners plates.

As we were standing in line to place our order, I noticed a whole cake in the pastry case with white cream cheese icing and garnished with blueberries and raspberries. I couldn’t read the identifying shelf tag. Could it be? Yes, it was--the Buttermilk Mixed Berry Cake that we had discovered two years ago, and which I have never forgotten. Taking the Tucson Weekly’s advice to heart, I didn’t wait and immediately ordered a slice. It was even better than I remembered. Super moist with the tart berries moderating the sweetness of the cake and icing.

So appreciative was Kitty Humbug—shown here with the cake and a glass of prickly pear lemonade—that his purrs of pleasure were overheard by the server. She stopped and remarked that this was also her favorite dessert and asked if we would like to meet the café’s pastry chef. Soon, Laura (pictured here) came to the table and all three of us were able to commend her outstanding baking skills.

Café a la C’Art hasn’t changed since January of 2010 and may have gotten even better. Open for only breakfast and lunch Monday—Friday, it is a favorite of both locals and tourists and earns our highest 5.0 Addie rating.

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