Temptation hits the second you step through the double doors at Café a la C'Art located off the patio at the Tucson Museum of Art.
There, in all its glimmering glory, stands a glass pastry case filled with the most amazing assortment of treats: fruity trifles, three-layer cakes dressed to the nines, crumble bars in assorted flavors, chocolate in intriguing shapes, golden pies hiding who knows what, varied scones, brownies, blondies, cookies and more cookies. Before you even get a glimpse of the lunch menu you know that you have to choose one or two of them. And we suggest you don't wait because the line at lunch is long and almost endless and if you "wait until after you eat" that piece of raspberry pie or triple chocolate cake may be all gone.
Of course that presents another problem because since you order at a counter they give you the dessert right away and it's utterly impossible to not take a bite or three as you wait for the entrée.
We ordered the hazelnut box ($4.75) and the cranberry/raspberry trifle ($2.50) for our appetizers, um, I mean dessert and then decided on our savory choices: the Cuban sandwich ($10.95) and the Rothschild ($10.95).
The box was a 1 ½ inch cube of thick, hazelnut mousse enrobed in a dark chocolate ganache and topped dramatically with a chocolate and nut topped toffee bar that would've sufficed as a wonderful dessert on its own.
The trifle consisted of layers of tart cranberries, thick rich whipped cream and bites of shortcake served in a small glass so you can see the beautiful colors. Almost light in comparison to the rich box, it was, nonetheless, a differently delightful way to end a meal.
Like the desserts, the entrées were beautiful and well-made.
The Cuban with layers of pink, Black Forest ham, tender white pork, a thinly sliced pickle, provolone and a mild chipotle aioli was served on a sturdy bun that had been lightly toasted. This sandwich seems to be everywhere these days with some dubious versions trying hard to be hip, but the a la C'Art version honored the spirit of this tasty sandwich and was large enough to take home leftovers.
A huge leafy salad—mixed greens, fresh sprouts, yellow and red baby tear drop tomatoes with a light vinaigrette—that accompanied the Cuban was a meal onto itself.
I can't say whether the Rothschild is named after our mayor, but if it is, there are things about him we should get to know. Served on the same big, buttery, substantial bun found on the Cuban, this two-hander sandwich held plenty of chunky brisket braised in wine that infused the meat with deep, dark flavors. Red peppers roasted to a sweet smokiness, melted-to-the-max-pepper jack cheese and some of the chipotle aioli all came together in a savory fashion.
The sandwich came with a Mediterranean lentil salad. Lentils are not my first choice, but here the lentils had some texture and were mixed with all the flavors and colors of the Mediterranean—bits of tomato and onion, chopped olives, hints of garlic and mint. It was a most pleasant surprise and gave me a whole new respect for the humble lentil.
The space is divided into several small rooms which add an intimacy to the meal. Mismatched tables and chairs, hand-painted lintels, gorgeous local art and folksy table toppings make you remember that the Tucson Museum of Art is just steps away. There is also a lovely, well-shaded patio that faces the courtyard of the museum.
Dinner is table service. Thanks to the Tucson Jazz Festival, every room was packed and the front of the house staff, who at lunch had kept everything moving smoothly, seemed a bit taken aback. Things moved along nicely, though, thanks to the kitchen, who was on top of it.
The lunch menu is also available at dinner along with a small but well-balanced dinner menu of four appetizers and four entrées. Plenty of people were ordering sandwiches and such, but we went with the dinner options. We got in at the last minutes of happy hour and enjoyed a special martini ($5) and a glass of pinot grigio ($4). The bar list is also small, but it seems to work. We also discovered that there is a "front" door on Main Street so you can bypass the dessert counter, but why?
We began with the crab cakes ($10), which arrived at the table in a timely manner. On the pretty plate sat three petite plump crab cakes nicely encrusted in panko atop a jalapeño aioli with a rustic slaw of clementines, jicama and chayote. All lump crab, the cakes were fantastic and the slaw acted as a nice counterpoint to the aioli—sweet and crunchy verses spicy and creamy.
The braised short ribs ($16) were cooked the way short ribs are supposed to be cooked, tender and moist with a rich beefiness that comes from true braising. On the side was an interesting cauliflower mash, carrots, pearl onions and a nest of crispy fried onions. Again, a fine balance of tastes and textures.
Mediterranean flavors came into play again with the Cornish hen ($16). Topped with stuffed green olives, capers and dried plums that had been cooked to near melting, the tiny bird was moist and fell apart without much effort. A light pilaf laced with yellow lentils was the ideal side.
Of course there were desserts. Our server recommended the chocolate bomb ($4.95), a huge tower of all things chocolate (cake, mousse, ganache, shaved sprinkles). Decadent and impossible to eat at one sitting, we enjoyed it for days.
To counter the richness of the bomb, we opted for the apple tart ($4.75) with its sturdy, but tender, crust and layers of tiny cinnamon-dusted apples. This isn't your grandma's apple pie; in fact, grandma might feel a bit threatened by this finale.
Café a la C'Art is a true gem. Last year it was named one of the Best Museum Restaurants by "Food & Wine" magazine along with the likes of The Modern a MOMA in New York and Terzo Piano at The Art Institute in Chicago.
Take a trip down to The Museum of Art (another Tucson jewel) and then enjoy a meal at Café a la C'Art. Enter from the patio though, so you don't miss seeing all those luscious desserts.