Nestled up in the foothills on an old guest ranch, Hacienda del Sol is one of Tucson's loveliest restorations. Originally built in 1929 as a very exclusive private girls' school, the ranch itself has undergone many transformations, including extensive rebuilding by Josias Joseler and his protégé, Lewis Hall. Oh, the property bristles with historical charm: Spencer Tracy was reputed to have fallen in love with Katherine Hepburn during a romantic hideaway. Greta Garbo and Howard Hughes sequestered themselves there, and scores of America's wealthiest young women learned their lessons in the social graces.
While all that is very interesting and full of enough character to entice tourists from far-flung places, the real story at Hacienda del Sol is the astonishing, meteoric rise of the Grill.
From its opening in 1997, the Grill rapidly garnered some remarkable national recognition. Numerous articles in Esquire, Bon Appétit and Gourmet Magazine noted and praised the inventive and excellent menu Albert Hall put into place. Scooping a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence in September '98 and a slew of other culinary awards including the Food & Wine "Top 5" by Tucson Lifestyle, the Grill has remained at the top of its game
It's hard to say which is most indulgent, whiling away a Sunday afternoon over the three-course brunch, basking in a bit of warm December sun, gazing over the immaculately landscaped grounds or making a dramatic arrival at night. An evening begins with a quick stop to warm your hands at the blazing chimenea before wandering up a footpath path through a garden full of tiny fairy lights and romantic nichos. It's hard not to take a moment to stop and gaze at the well-lit vaulted windows, spilling light and the promise of the splendid warmth within.
The seduction begins from the moment you enter the doors. If you're lucky, the dapper Jack Silver will be there to greet you and settle you in. Charming and gracious, Silver is well versed in all the details and lore of Hacienda del Sol. Of course, should you be in the mood for contemplation, the entire staff has been trained to tailor service in the way it was meant to be: dictated by the customer's demeanor.
Surprisingly, the Grill is an impeccable venue without pretension or stuffiness. The wait staff is attentive, personable and gracious. This practice probably rises from genuine hospitality, a key component necessary to elevate a lodge to a national ranking. The combination is winning, since often high-end venues that deliver a quality product err on the side of formality. At the Grill, the personable service blends with the rustic charm. This sense of elegance and ease become a part of what makes the dining experience so memorable.
Chef Hall's menu is adventurous and tempting. Make sure to take time to sample some appetizers on your way to dinner. The Dungeness Crab Cakes ($9.50) are a particularly good choice. Artfully plated, the two cakes are served in a creamy Madras curry remoulade. Delicate and moist on the inside, these cakes are pressed to a light golden crust on the outside. With its crunchy, juicy textures, the tortilla jicama slaw provides the perfect foil for the warmth of the curry sauce. The earthy corn flavor from the tortilla rajas compliments the tart citrus notes in the vinaigrette. This is a simple yet expansive way to begin a meal.
If you're feeling adventurous, try the Carpaccio of New Zealand Venison ($10.50). Sliced paper-thin and drizzled in extra virgin olive oil, these slivers of venison unfold in the mouth as subtly smoky with a delicate game finish. Dusted with java black pepper and shaved parmesan, a smattering of cornichon and tart caper berries, this is a lovely study in contrasting flavors. Finished off with svelte, sweet ribbons of roasted red bell pepper, this is an inspired interpretation of a classic plate.
If you want to linger a bit longer before ordering main courses, the Grilled Guaymas Prawns ($8.50) is a satisfying but light dish. Three sweet and succulent prawns grilled on rosemary skewers are served upon a slender, crisp polenta coin. The accompanying sauces, a tart rouille and a velvety balsamic fig glaze, provide rich, full flavors from both ends of the spectrum
All the entrees hold some kind of tantalizing promise. An especially satisfying dish is the Roasted Tomato Polenta and Mushroom Soufflé ($22). Although this dish features many different vegetables, the reverent treatment of each component creates a striking unity. Central to the plate is a lovely scoop of a rustic-style polenta wedged with sweet roasted tomato. A sunny splash of red and gold tomato coulis works well to unify the smoky flavor of the roasted autumn vegetables without overshadowing the delicate, nutty flavor of French green lentils. A puffy and winsome mushroom soufflé finishes and balances the high sweet notes in the dish.
The Grilled Sea Bass ($26) served in rosemary-red chili butter is beguiling in its simplicity, grilled to retain its moist flake. The red chili butter complements the rich buttery flavor of the bass without overpowering it. Grilled asparagus, roasted carrots and spaghetti squash provide warm autumnal touches. The Wehani-Wild Rice Pilaf, flecked with bits of fruit, adds a simple nutty flavor that grounds the plate.
Perhaps the most impressive entrée was the Pecan Grilled Double Duck Breast ($26.) As with all the dishes, chef Hall lavishes attention on his presentation. The rosy sliced duck breast fanned out among a colorful assortment of roasted vegetables. The bright flavors of baby squash, sugar snap peas and baby carrots each consider and flatter the predominant flavor of the pecan-smoked duck. Again, the wehani-wild rice mixture provided a toothsome and nutty compliment, a canny match for the complex and tart pomegranate glaze.
In a perfect world, dessert is an inevitability. The dessert menu at the Grill is in keeping with the complexity of the rest of the menu. The Ibarra Chocolate and Espresso Pots de Crème ($7.50) is extravagantly rich yet simply prepared. This is all about chocolate. Period. The serving is an appropriately sized cosy little pot that does not overwhelm. The freshly whipped cream helps to leaven the concentrated, silky chocolate flavors. This is a deeply satisfying way to conclude a meal without teetering into gluttony.
Don't miss the Walnut-Roquefort Capriotada pooled in a warm Tuaca-Caramel Sauce ($7.50). This Tucson winter favorite is elevated to a new level of refinement with the balance of walnut, a hint of Roquefort, and savory plum flavors. The tuaca-caramel sauce is rich, but judiciously served, lending a haunting finish. If you aren't familiar with this traditional Mexican bread pudding, this is an exceptional introduction.
Although such indulgences do come with a considerable price tag, you'll find that a small part of you is secretly pleased to make the sacrifice. The Grill is expensive and worth every penny. As you drive back down that lovely winding hill, the feeling of well-being and deep pleasure that lingers within will certainly put you in the right holiday spirit. After all, in the end, 'tis better to give than receive. Why not start with yourself?
The Grill at Hacienda Del Sol. 5601 N. Hacienda del Sol Road. 529-3500. Open nightly from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m, and 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. for Sunday brunch. Full bar. MC, AMEX, DC, checks. Menu items: $6.50-32.00. Sunday Brunch: $24.95 for adults, $12.50 for children under 12. Reservations: recommended. Website: www.haciendadelsol.com.