Despite having its origins in Flagstaff, the new downtown Tucson restaurant Proper feels like it belongs in a bustling metropolitan West Coast city. The décor is industrial, but not cold, and the restaurant manages to have an open, airy feel while still being cozy.
The restaurateurs behind Proper are the same folks behind SLO ("Sustainable. Local. Organic.") Restaurant Concepts, which operate Brix Restaurant and Wine Bar, and Criollo Latin Kitchen in Flagstaff. All three of the restaurant concepts revolve around locally sourced, sustainable and organic ingredients, and Proper fits in well in the growing downtown Tucson restaurant scene.
However, while Proper has its aesthetics, values and concept down pat, the service and food can be a bit hit-or-miss based on when you choose to stop by. Ted and I had two very different experiences at lunch and dinner. The dinner visit was impeccable—our server was attentive, friendly, helpful and had great suggestions. And all of the food was excellent, well executed, and delicious. Our lunch visit suffered from inattentive, slow service and the food missed the mark.
Dinner started off with a pint from Proper's superlocal, constantly rotating selection of beers on tap ($5-$6); and the dinner charcuterie plate ($15), which was absolutely fantastic. It featured rabbit terrine, duck rillettes, saucion sec sausage slices, two beautiful cheeses, house-made pickles, poached figs, whole-grain mustard and large shards of lavosh with salt, black pepper and Parmesan. The rabbit terrine and duck rillettes were particularly delicious, both expertly prepared, subtle and not gamey.
Our second course was a selection of two of Proper's "small plates"—the chilled melon and mascarpone soup with berry reduction and mint ($7); and the ricotta gnocchi with oyster mushrooms, arugula, crème fraiche and lemon oil ($10). The soup was revelatory, a perfect creamy balance of sweet and savory, with a nice texture. The mint and berry added little intense bursts of flavor without overpowering the delicacy of the melon and mascarpone. The gnocchi was equally delicious—the puffy little potato pillows were offset nicely by the meatiness of the oyster mushrooms, and the peppery arugula cut the creaminess of the crème fraiche and ricotta well.
Entrees were equally impressive. I opted for the pork belly with parsley risotto and sweet cherries ($16), while Ted chose the pan-seared duck breast with faro, seasonal greens and red onion compote ($18). The flavor profile of the duck was far more complex than the pork belly, but both were excellent. The duck was a perfect medium rare, and the pork belly was tender and soft. The only thing that was lacking was the parsley risotto, which was quite boring when compared with all of the other deep, rich flavors on the table.
Dessert was also tasty—we chose the desert blossom honey panna cotta ($6), which was creamy, rich, floral and just sweet enough. It was a nice, light way to finish a satisfying meal. A word on portion sizes at Proper—the small plates are perfect for sharing, and the big plates are plenty satisfying for an entrée, but don't expect huge, overblown portions. The kitchen crew does a great job of appropriately portioning all of the dishes.
After having such a great dinner experience, Ted and I were excited about trying the breakfast/lunch menu (available until 3 p.m.), which has a few similarities to the dinner menu, but focuses more on sandwiches and salads on the lunch end of things; and has some unconventional but fun-looking breakfast/brunch items.
Ted chose the roasted pork belly bahn mi ($11) with fries (or salad for the same price) off the lunch menu, and I chose the fried chicken and eggs with greens, biscuits and gravy ($12) off the breakfast menu. The bahn mi was the better of the two dishes, but still missed the mark—traditional bahn mi should have airy, light bread with a crispy exterior, and this was served on a more traditionally "bready" American-style roll, which overpowered the delicate flavors and made it heavy. The pork belly had excellent flavor, but the rest of the sandwich lacked seasoning and the fries were just OK. My fried chicken portion was huge (one leg and one thigh), and was juicy but very, very bland and greasy. The cheddar biscuits smothered in sausage gravy were almost good, except that the nice spiciness of the gravy was almost immediately overpowered by a strange lingering sweetness on the finish. The menu lists "local greens", and since it's a fried chicken dish, I assumed they would be sautéed hearty greens, but it was served with raw greens, which were nice, but not exactly what I would be looking for at breakfast.
Proper has some real potential and an opportunity to fill that casual-yet-upscale niche in downtown Tucson's restaurant environment, but it has a few kinks to iron out in the service and food at lunch.