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Playful Quality

Fresh ingredients and masterful preparations put jaxKitchen on this reviewer's list of Tucson favorites

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The instant you walk into jaxKitchen, you know the potential exists for something special.

The vibe is lively and modern without being cloying. The dining room, divided by a low wall, is open and spacious, with tall windows, pale walls, wood flooring, simple lighting and a few mirrors. The restaurant is abuzz with lively conversation and a staff moving with graceful speed. It just feels good.

The menu--European-influenced but dominated by American comfort food--is smart and small, offering a nice assortment of temptations divided into sections: First, Second, Main and For 2.

We began with the house-made frites ($4) and the heirloom tomato salad ($10), along with a glass of white burgundy ($10) and the house drink, called "the best" ($8): Ketel One vodka with bacon-stuffed olives. A plate of warm bread with a cruet of garlic-infused olive oil and a small bowl of kosher salt was also placed on the table.

The frites were served in a bowl after being fried in peanut oil and seasoned with "fines herbes"; a malt-vinegar aioli was served alongside for dipping. The simple preparation ensured that the potatoes were the star of the dish: They actually tasted like potatoes. What a welcome change. The aioli offered a nice touch, sort of a "fusion" (a too-often-misused term) between the British way to serve chips and a French aioli.

The fresh tomato salad popped with flavor. Again, the preparation was simple; a swirl of saba vinegar (a cousin of balsamic vinegar usually made from Trebbiano grapes) allowed the lovely red, green and yellow heirlooms to shine. It was a fine example of how quality ingredients in the hands of a smart, talented kitchen can make all the difference in the world.

Our entrées showed much of the same. John ordered the hangar steak ($21), and I went with the daily fish ($19), on this night a bluenose sea bass.

The hangar steak--a cut now becoming popular in high-end restaurants that's long been a butchers' secret--was served just as ordered (medium), charred on the outside and juicy pink on the inside. The olive oil-smashed Yukon golds still had the skins on and were a little lumpy, just like at home, only much better. Even the veggies--green beans and baby carrots--had been treated with care.

My fish was charred perfectly; it fell apart with a touch of the fork while retaining a moist and tender interior. The "white risotto" complemented the fish, as did fresh spinach and cherry tomatoes. Every bite was a dream.

Dessert choices were limited, but all sounded tempting. We opted for the cookies and milk ($5). This very grown-up version of a kids' classic included a glass of bourbon-infused milk and four cookies: a sugar cookie, a chocolate-iced chocolate cookie, a huge peanut-butter cookie and a gooey chocolate-chunk cookie. It was a fantastic interpretation of the ultimate comfort dessert.

Service was top-notch, especially considering the place was packed. The staff worked as a team, getting the food out in a timely manner while checking in, with a smile, just often enough. They seemed to really care.

The lunch menu offered some of the same items as the dinner menu, like the Kobe burger and frites ($11), the potato and leek soup ($6), the brioche grilled cheese ($9 lunch, $12 dinner) and, my choice, the chicken orecchiette pasta (squared, because both roasted chicken and chicken sausage are part of the mix, along with tomatoes, spinach, olives and goat cheese; $11 at lunch, or $16 at dinner). Lunch also brings other tempting choices, such as the bacon-wrapped chicken "blt" ($9), which is what John picked. We both ordered the delightfully refreshing house lemonade ($2).

Again, the service was friendly, and everything ran smoothly. The bread wasn't on the table immediately--but that's because it was still in the oven.

The sandwich was served on slices of hearty sourdough, with a tender, juicy chicken breast, some quality slab bacon, lettuce, a couple of those wonderful heirloom tomatoes and a smear of aioli. Some more of those tasty frites were served alongside. This was a first-class version of a traditional favorite.

At first glance, there didn't seem to be much to the orecchiette, but then I stirred it, and the cheese melted into a rich, creamy sauce. Like in all the other items we'd ordered, every ingredient stood on its own while contributing to the whole. The noodles were toothsome; the shreds of roasted chicken were savory; the sausage had a bit of a bite; and the tang from the goat cheese finished it all off in a most delightful manner.

There were only two choices for dessert: the cookies and something called a chilled mousse "latte" ($5). We ordered the "latte"; the flavors change regularly, but on this day, it was dark chocolate. Presented in a cocktail glass, this dessert was clever. The chocolate was creamy with bits of dark chocolate. The "cream" part was a light and not-too-sweet white chocolate. All in all, it was a fine ending to a little lunch.

jaxKitchen is a most welcome addition to our dining scene. Owners Brian and Sandy Metzger and Chef Addam Buzzalini use the best ingredients and offer a mix of whimsy, talent, kitchen smarts and great service. jaxKitchen is the newest addition to my list of favorite places to dine.

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