Where to begin? By saying that Feast Tasteful Takeout is one of the most lovable restaurants in Tucson? That this tiny, aptly named place is an inspired hybrid of a haute-European deli, a laid-back neighborhood joint and a specialty food and wine store? That it makes wonderfully intelligent use of the Internet and two phone lines to inform and respond to its devoted clientele while changing menus monthly? That having eaten there twice, I'm ready to move in? (This is a sentiment I formerly reserved for the mythic trattoria in Stanley Tucci's film Big Night--if they'd just let me sleep under the pasta table, I'd be happy forever.)
However, before I begin rhapsodizing in detail, journalistic ethics demand that I divulge my connection to Feast's owner-chef, Doug Levy (most recently of The Dish): We attend the same yoga class at the Tucson Racquet Club--a hotbed of Tucson cooking talent, by the way--where he regularly impresses me with the excellence of his ujjayi breathing. Other than that, I can only say that he's pleasant, always puts his mat away and has pretty good flexibility for a guy.
So, I had no idea. This man can cook--and what's more, he sincerely, wholeheartedly wants you to eat. You can tell when you step through the door that the food is what Feast is all about. This is a place that exists to make lovely food available--with as little fuss and as much pleasure as possible.
In the interests of feeding Tucson well, Feast fields a huge catering menu and everything on the in-house is available to go--call ahead and they'll have it boxed for you. Since the restaurant sits on the south side of Speedway--at the top of the rise two-and-a-half blocks east of Alvernon Way--it's probably on your way home. My first experience there was take-out: Two servings of the daily special: grilled wild Alaskan king salmon with grapefruit sauce, roasted scallions, mashed potatoes and asparagus ($13.50) plus--hey, why not?--strawberry shortcake with roasted strawberries and whipped cream ($4.25).
Had I taken a look at the menu online--www.eatatfeast.com--and called for the daily special, all this would have been ready as soon as I arrived. As it was, I was urged to make myself comfortable, given a large glass of ice water with lemon and told that my dinner would be ready in just a few minutes. It was. In the meantime, I sat and chatted with a regular who was also waiting on the salmon. She assured me that, yes, they were always this nice and, no, you could not cook like this at home. While we sat, people came in, mooned over the beautiful dishes in the big display case, recognized one another and stopped to chat. One woman was knitting. I took advantage of the lull to pick out a Pighin Pinot Grigio ($13.75) more or less at random from the shelf. One of the two attentive Pre-Raphaelite women running the front got me a cold bottle when my food was ready.
Whisked home--insofar as Tucson traffic allows for whisking--dinner was still piping hot and uniformly superb. Takeout at Feast gets plunked into as many tidy, little pasteboard boxes as necessary. (What a concept--takeout without a ghastly heap of Styrofoam!) The shortcake, for instance, came in three little boxes inside a big one--one for the hot toasted shortcake, one for the warm roasted strawberries and one for the cold whipped cream. With tip, under $55.
Everything was seriously good. The salmon was moist, the grapefruit sauce light and subtle, the vegetables perfect. And the shortcake--well. It's a far, far better thing than Nana used to make--she swore by Bisquick, while Levy produces a true, dense-but-delicate, buttery shortcake--and just as comforting. The shortcake was the shape of things to come: Feast does everything well, but its particular genius is for making the familiar sublime.
Having done both take-out and eating in, I recommend staying, if possible. (There are only 26 places and no reservations for small parties.) The room is serenely beautiful, the company warm, the service so perfect that it doesn't feel like service. You pick your table, order at the counter and then one of the dear, knowledgeable, red-headed staff brings things to you as they're ready. The staff can also help with your beverage decision--Feast has a huge wine-list, plus a selection of sodas that includes Moxie, Nehi and Orangina. You heard it here.
The feeling is relaxed, but the whole operation is as neat and sparkling as a new pack of cards. Levy and his gang have made all the right choices, as far as I can see: The napkins, for example, are paper, but the silverware is heavy and feels good in your hand.
So. On the night we opted to eat in-house, we started by splitting an order of ricotta and spinach pancakes with tomato sauce ($4)--two soft, cheesy little nummy things, hot and slightly gooey, topped with a fresh, parsley-flecked tomato slurry. For the main course, we diverged: Ed had the grilled ribeye steak, mashed potatoes and snap peas ($13), while I went for a slice of the glamorous torta alla Milanese with side salad ($7.25).
We both moaned pretty much the whole time, doing that "Here, you gotta taste this" thing across the table. The torta was blonde, glorious puff pastry stuffed with spinach, Fontina, roasted peppers, prosciutto and whole hard-boiled eggs--all of which somehow collapsed with every bite into solid, harmonious goodness. Even with a dish as spectacular as this, Levy's cooking isn't about showing off--it's about a fortunate melding of flavors. The sauce on Ed's succulent Angus steak, for example, was billed as "Cognac-mustard demiglace"--a nightmare in the wrong hands. You didn't taste Cognac or mustard, though, at Feast--you tasted the gravy of the gods.
Portions at Feast are human-sized, so we were able to find room for dessert, as was our duty as reviewer-diners. Buttermilk panna cotta ($4.25--a denser, milkier cousin of flan) was delightfully cool and smooth, while the made-to-order beignets ("with a molten pistachio-chocolate center"--$2) were smoking hot, fragrant and totally scrumptious. I can still smell them, actually, if I close my eyes.
Even washing it all down with a pleasant Chilean white, we got out for under $65, including tip. Not that we really wanted to leave.