Tiffany Eldridge actually prefers the title of bartender over mixologist. She does not ignite drinks on fire, there isn't a lot of tossing shakers and bottles and above all she just wants you to take the time and enjoy one of her signature creations or a classic libation. In this age of flash and flair with new posh spots popping up and competing for your attention, it is nice to come across a warm spot that resonates with a wink from the past but keeping its eye on the future of the way we dine, or, at least, how we should.
Luckily for us here in the Old Pueblo, SAZ Creole Kitchen & Cocktails has quietly opened up in Saint Phillips Plaza and is already beginning to make a lot of noise. But it is a joyful cacophony of flavors, ideas and heritage inspired by a New Orleans of a bygone era with Eldridge at the helm along with executive chef Robert Kimball, who has years of NOLA culinary experience, manning the back of the house. Between the two of them what they want you to walk away with once you have stepped foot in their modern take on a Bourbon Street speakeasy is what a well to do southerner might have called their home away from home a generation ago. The look of SAZ exudes New Orleans but it is the food and drinks that will send you into a time when we moved a little slower and enjoyed life with a while-away ease and aplomb.
One thing that Tiffany and Robert want to be clear on is the difference between Cajun cuisine and Creole. SAZ likens itself to the Creole factor, meaning elevated food for the more well to do folk hailing influences from the Caribbean, Ireland, West Africa, Spain, Portugal and, of course, France. Creole food has a refinement for it where Cajun has a more down home appeal coming from setters with limited means and having to use what the land and rivers provided. Without pretention, but rather with a calm confidence, SAZ radiates genteel Louisiana charm.
Eldridge, who originally hails from Salt Lake City, cut her bartending teeth by learning from her older sister who has helped open wildly successful bars and high-end speakeasies in New York and Philadelphia. After opening a popular cocktail lounge here in Tucson, she eventually paired up with JAM Culinary Concepts with a vision to create a bit of a time warp for the senses. With the help and skills of chef Kimball they transport you to an era when it was okay, if not necessary, to savor the better things a quaint neighborhood establishment can provide.
SAZ opens at 8 a.m. daily and serves breakfast till 11. If you have ever been to New Orleans, then you must have had a beignet. No, of course you did. Those puffy fritters made from deep fried dough are a staple and they are done to perfection here. Dusted lightly with sugar, they are the one item that has the Arcadian background served but you can't call yourself a Louisiana influenced spot without serving beignets. You also need to try their selection of benedicts and pancakes, in particular the pecan option that is served with a vanilla bean glaze and cream cheese which is an early morning decadence after possibly imbibing in too many of the restaurant's namesakes.
For lunch, one should start things off right with their fried green tomato plate that comes paired with a delicious bronzed baby shrimp sauce which is tart and sumptuous before diving into one of SAZ's imaginative takes on the infamous Po' Boy sandwich, either fried shrimp of oyster, that is finished with a Creole remoulade. There is also a selection of inventive salads as well if you are gearing towards a bit of lighter fare. At night, while sipping on one of the house specialty cocktails, you can nibble on oysters with three different finishes of your choice, a hearty shrimp or vegan gumbo, spicy jambalaya and their signature dish, Chicken Royale, which is seared in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet and completed with the chef's creamy Creole béarnaise sauce and served with tasso ham infused Barabant potatoes.
The food, of course, is extremely delicieux but it is the cocktails that make the whole SAZ experience a heady necessity. If you are looking for something boozy, order the Fan Boat, crafted with Jamaican rum, which is copper pot distilled giving it a slight metallic, yet tongue hugging good, flavor, mixed with lime, mint and the Italian bitter Aperol. A very grown up and spirited drink. If you are patient enough and are craving something sweet, there is Tiffany's take on the Ramos Gin Fizz, infused with lemon, cream and orange blossom water. The snowy peak of refinement, is a perfect example of New Orleans attitude to remind us how good life can get.