I was recently having a conversation with a restaurant-industry friend, and I asked him a question: What was the last truly special Tucson restaurant to open?
It was disappointing that neither of us could come up with a restaurant that's opened within the last couple of years. That's not to say that good restaurants haven't popped up—they most certainly have—but no place came to mind that we'd call consistently great.
Agustín Brasserie is not yet the next great Tucson restaurant—while there's not a lot of French-themed food in town these days, the menus are too predictable, and the restaurant is lacking a discernible specialty dish—but it has more potential than any Southern Arizona restaurant I have seen that has opened in recent years. The space is nice; the service is competent; and the food across the board is enjoyable, if not always perfect. If the kitchen staff can take the adequate menu and add some true inspiration, then maybe, just maybe ...
One of Agustín's greatest strengths is its décor. The room, in the newish westside Mercado San Agustín, exudes an elegant charm without crossing into pretentiousness. White walls and hanging orb-shaped lamps pair perfectly with dark brown and black tables, walls and accents. The pink and white carnations offer a classy touch. The bar area looks inviting, and lit candles are placed around the room. The restaurant can get noisy when busy, but unless you're rather hard of hearing, the volume won't be an issue.
About eight starters, two salads and some seafood choices join 11 entrées on the current dinner menu. For starters, Garrett and I decided to try the soup of the day, a shrimp bisque ($10), as well as two starters: the spinach-and-artichoke dip (a pricey $11), and the crab cakes ($12).
All of the starters were successes, to varying degrees. The bisque was not quite as warm as I would have liked, due in part to the cool white sauce added on top, but it was delicious, rich without being too much so. The two crab cakes were splendid; the only issues were with the accompaniments—the lemon crema was lacking in lemon, and the mixed greens in lemon oil were somehow oversalted. Garrett and I had differing opinions on the spinach-and-artichoke dip: I liked the garlicky, runny, cheesy concoction, while Garrett felt that the addition of too much spinach made the texture undesirable. I loved the French bread it came with, while Garrett would have preferred chips or perhaps crostini. However, we both gave the dish lots of presentation points: The dip was served in a cute oversized ramekin.
Both of our entrées had excellent bases, but were lacking in the details. My steak frites ($21) featured an amazing 10-ounce New York strip, cooked to a perfect medium-rare; the skin-on fries were fine, but could have been a bit crisper. The big flaw was the sauce: I went with the ginger-soy sauce over the au poivre sauce on the server's recommendation, and it was so salty that the kitchen must have made an error.
The meat component of Garrett's black-and-blue burger ($14) could not have been much better. The black-peppercorn-crusted ground beef was not too compact, leading to a juicy burger that still held together. However, some of the accompaniments—the tomato-and-bacon jam and the blue cheese—were so sparse that they could barely be tasted. Garrett had to ask for more blue cheese, and wound up waiting for a while for it to be delivered.
Stuffed, we got a dessert—the pecan bread pudding with a bourbon glaze ($6)—to go, and it was revelatory. Not too dense but not too soft, it was a bit rich, but full of delicious flavor.
We returned for a lunch visit a week later. Be warned: Agustín Brasserie's current hours are somewhat confusing; the restaurant is open for lunch only on Thursday and Friday (with a Sunday brunch). The lunch menu is limited, with five starters and seven entrées joining shrimp and oysters as the only offerings. We were the only customers in the restaurant shortly after 11 a.m., though people trickled in as we ate.
We decided to start with the vichyssoise ($6), as well as two Crystal Point oysters ($3 each) and three peel-and-eat shrimp ($2 each). The vichyssoise was deliciously creamy, with a few small soft potato chunks, and topped with a small handful of crunchy fried-onion pieces. The seafood was top-notch, although it was expensive, and the three shrimp varied quite a bit in size.
My risotto ($12) was the best thing we enjoyed at Agustín Brasserie. It was flawless, with a deep mushroom flavor and a creamy yet solid texture; the three small asparagus spears on top were tender and fresh. However, as an affirmed omnivore, I wished that it would have been offered with the optional addition of a protein.
Garrett's soft-shell BLT with frites ($13) was also rather enjoyable. I've never been wild about soft-shell crabs—I find the texture off-putting, and the meat can tend toward a fishier flavor, as was the case here—but Garrett likes them, and he gave the dish a thumbs-up, saying the crab melded well with the bacon, greens and tomato-basil aioli.
With the addition of some special, signature dishes—of course, doing so is easier said than done—and some polishing of the details, Agustín Brasserie could become a special destination. It's not there yet, but I am keeping my fingers crossed that this could become Tucson's next truly special restaurant.