Although the Hotel Congress has been a part of the downtown Tucson scene for a long time, the Cup Café is a relative upstart. Some of you may remember when the B&B occupied the space; when they exited in 1990, the Cup opened its doors. For quite some time the Cup was a focal point of downtown. It was what one might even call terminally hip. Local musicians and artists met and gathered, ate and entertained one another with their endless unfolding dramas of love and loss. The food met their expectations of being inventive and inexpensive. Most of the time, the artists also served as the staff, taking turns entertaining from behind the counter, as well as in front of it. In short, the Cup Café set a stage for the downtown scene.
It is a difficult task, then, to be endlessly inventive, to keep the stage set and the drama unfolding. In his Poetics Aristotle teaches us that "tragedy attempts as far as possible to keep within one revolution of the sun, or to exceed this only a little." Leaving us to ponder exactly what happens when this orbit is defied. Or, more bluntly, when in some odd fashion, time stops. A frozen tragedy is perhaps the most grievous of them all.
When you walk into the Hotel Congress, the lobby remains the same, impeccably restored. But set foot into the Cup Café and you'll feel as if you're caught in some frozen tableau. It is distressing to see that the friendly little bar that once anchored the dining room has been removed. No doubt this was done during the current renovation to add additional seating, but it feels that much of the spirit of the original Cup has been sliced out with it.
Servers will probably not greet you. They didn't on both occasions I visited. But there is a tidy little sign by the door informing you to seat yourself. The staff still dresses in retro black vintage clothing. This creates the unnerving effect that you're still lost somewhere in the '80s, yet the cast of players has changed. The same familiar characters and costumes that were there then are still with us, but now more fresh-faced young actors play the part. But alas, the script refuses to renew itself.
Neither has the menu. Many of the original Cup menu items remain, although there are some new additions. We decided to be courageous and despite the decidedly muted interior and oddly static environment, foray into the brave new world of the Cup Café.
We started with Roasted and Toasted, an appetizer of roasted garlic heads, toast points and Montrachet cheese, and an order of nachos. Since its heyday, someone has taken the time to learn the art and pretense of presentation. We were served a long white platter with toast, a small bowl of a white dipping sauce and two roasted heads of garlic. The roasted garlic was served cool, but had been roasted to the requisite creamy state. The dipping sauce however was odd since the consistency was more like a loose yogurt than a cheese sauce. We sampled lightly and politely waited for nachos.
The nachos were enormous--mounded up and clearly meant to appeal to those who are addled and hungry. The usual standard chips, beans and cheese with some sour cream and salsa all clamored for favor, but be forewarned: They are liberally laced with freshly sliced jalapeno. We thought this was a fine way to overwhelm the rest of the dish, but not everyone might find it to their liking.
Entrees were a mixed bag. We sampled an old menu standard, the Chicken Satay. Again, someone in the kitchen has stepped up the pretensions in terms of plating the food. A shallow bowl was liberally sauced with a sweet, peanuty satay sauce. Skewers of chicken were placed at the edges, and in the middle, an enormous pyramid of coconut rice added a slightly surreal touch to the dish.
The Spicy Siamese stir-fried vegetables were returned. On the menu they were described as "a seasonal mix of garden vegetables and minced garlic, stir fried in red curry, topped with cilantro and fried shallots." We received a tumble of vegetables drenched in syrupy sweet soy- and sesame-based sauce that was heavy handed at best. Still, it was the strange addition of a liberal dousing of tarragon to the sauce that sent the taste buds reeling and the plate on its way back to the kitchen. Perhaps someone grabbed the wrong spice rack or wasn't paying attention, but this was a clear miss.
Mushroom Risotto was a comforting find. We all huddled around it, overjoyed to find a simple plate that hadn't been strangely stretched in the wrong direction. A creamy mushroom risotto, graced with some polenta croutons and wearing a jaunty sprig of rosemary, was simple and a success.
We left the Cup slightly puzzled as to the intention of the newly remodeled café: Was the now sparse and muted dining room trying to "grow up"? And if so, why did the whole staff look like some odd casting for a remake of another Addams family movie? Why did the menu attempt to sound so expansive, and yet the plates fall apart under the fork? Clearly a drama was unfolding, and we were determined to re-visit one more time to make sure we had a proper viewing.
Our second outing found us witnessing the same scene. We ordered quickly since some of the floor staff seemed a bit cranky, not quite receptive to having to serve customers on this fair eve.
We sampled Artichoke Crostini. Again, a striking presentation set the moment, but the buck stopped there. Canned artichokes chopped up with some tomato had been smeared on slices of baguette. Served with a small ramekin of tepid olive oil and a spoon, as if this were a remedy, the dish left us unimpressed.
A Spinach Caesar was simply a spinach salad with croutons, a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese and a dressing that had no bearing to any Caesar dressing I've ever encountered. Garnished with a wedge of tomato that had apparently never seen the light of day, this was a salad I wouldn't order again.
Disenchanted, we placed an order for entrees, feeling the inevitable build to a predictable plot. We ordered herb-crusted halibut and vegetable polenta. The halibut was a paltry serving, which was sad since halibut, when properly prepared, can withstand a wide array of abusive sauces. Alas, here the halibut had been dipped in some substance that formed a clingy, gummy skin. No herbs were present. A side dish of crunchy, mealy lentils accompanied the fish. A glorious spray of asparagus graced the plate and restored momentary faith in humanity.
The vegetable polenta, a "polenta cake Napoleon," was stuffed with grilled vegetables. Topped with a leathery slab of griddled Portobello mushroom and speared with a branch of rosemary, this dish had good intentions that had somehow gone awry.
We sighed, no closer to unlocking the strange pageant unfolding around us. In a way, dear reader, this was a fine meal to count as my last as your fair restaurant reviewer. It served as a gentle reminder that neither the body is willing or able, after a fashion, for this long and endured form of affliction. More so, every tragedy must come to an end, like so many restaurant meals, and so we must part ways.
In an Elizabethan tragedy, by the bitter end, bodies litter the floor. It is wise to exit before this mandate. In our case, we paid the bill and walked out into that good night with Aristotle still on our minds. We exited stage left with his final thoughts on the power of tragedy--"to reduce the soul's emotions of pity and terror by means of compassion and dread. It wishes to have a due proportion of terror. It has pain as its mother."