The sun is unmerciful right now. It beats down on the well-trod mercantile of Main Gate Square with unrepentant hostility, making the concrete and pavement sear with a visceral odium. Sitting on a patio right now, even surrounded by overworking misters, just isn't going to cut it.
Up a ways, there is a comfortable sanctuary on the corner of Park and University, a familiar one, but when you step inside it seems that things have changed. The large ornate clock still hangs on the wall above the full service bar and even the tables and chairs look the same. But something is different. When you finally sit and gaze at the menu, you come across dishes with names like Uitsmijter and Patat Oorlog.
The heck is that?
What was once Wilko is now a subtly resplendent retreat called The Dutch, and rightfully so. The chef and owner, Marcus van Winden, is from a small town in Holland but honed his skills here in the states cooking in Texas, Maryland and on cruise ships before settling in Tucson. He smiles bright as you ask questions about his food, and he speaks with an excited tone while he explains.
"The Netherlands does not have that big of a cuisine," notes Marcus, "but I have a very European flair in my cooking. So I wanted to bring those flavors here to Tucson, stripped down, although with a good amount of butter."
The Uitmijter ($9) is a fairly common breakfast dish in Holland, but van Winden has made it into a hearty yet delicate brunch item for us. On thick toast he piles locally grown heirloom tomatoes, thinly shaved ham, a perfectly cooked egg and, of course, some Gouda cheese which, if you didn't know, is named after a city in Holland. In its simplicity, there was absolute clarity and a very homey feel.
Patat Oorlog ($8), also known as War Fries, is basically a Dutch version of poutine. You've got the shoestring cut potatoes but instead of gravy it is topped with a peanut sauce infused with sambal (which gives it a fun kick), house-made mayonnaise and diced white onion. For some bizarre reason this all works and paired with a craft cocktail, it helps you begin to forget about the summer woe back out on the streets.
Van Winden said he has had little resistance from the locals about taking over the space once occupied by a popular eatery, but opening right at the lip of a Tucson summer? That can be a bit risky.
"For me, living in Tucson is like being on vacation," van Winden beams. "For the restaurant, summer will be a learning phase. You need to survive the hard times in order to come out with knowledge of what works and what doesn't. I have confidence that this will work."
Van Winden' confidence can only be backed by the fact that The Dutch is engaging on so many levels. It is cozy and inviting, with an impressive and rotating selection of beer and wine. But it is the food that will create a following with classic dishes delivered with polish and subdued inventiveness.
If you are a brunch fan, The Dutch is pretty much the only game in university town. The French toast ($9) is dense but fluffy and covered in real maple syrup, candied almonds and a sonnet of berries macerated in vanilla. The breakfast flatbread ($14) is handmade and layered with smoked salmon, avocado, herby cheese and a delicately baked egg.
The beef carpaccio ($14) is a mouth-melting stunner with added brightness from a frisee salad, chew from pine nuts, saltiness from shaved Parmesan and a richness from truffle aioli. For lighter fare, I recommend the beets & blue salad ($7), a fun soiree of roasted red beets, Swiss chard and tangy blue cheese. A perfect way to chill in the depths of summer.
But don't get the thought that The Dutch only serves genteel European dishes. They do, but they also serve a thick cut flat-iron steak ($26) that would make any Arizona ranch hand happy. It is classically paired with buttery smashed potatoes, locally harvested green beans and finished with crispy onion strings and a Merlot demi-glace. My favorite was the house burger ($16) which was a half-pound of beautifully cooked ground beef capped with mushrooms, a caramelized onion jam and creamy Boursin cheese. Very heerlijik.
"I do plan on bringing to our menu something from the Netherlands called bitterballen," van Winden says. "It is basically a croquette but I plan on using chicken instead of the usual beef or veal. That is a dish that is very Dutch and I think Tucson will love the flavor from my home country."