JUST WHEN YOU thought the glutted and pillaged northwest side couldn't manage to shoehorn in one more venue, we've got another birth announcement. If your eyes roll at the thought of yet another trendy hip eatery, you probably won't want to read much further. This isn't for you. But if you have been waiting for Tucson to finally begin to catch up to the high-concept dining scene that flourishes on both coasts, then you might be very interested in checking out the wildly imaginative and sleek new culinary hot spot, Linen.
Chef Taite Pearson, formerly of Janos and the Ventana Room, and his wife, Stephanie Cleek-Pearson, opened up Linen in the historic Casas Adobes center, in what was formerly known as the Landmark. Seating only 40 indoors (there is additional patio seating), Linen devotes itself to a highly crafted and intimate culinary adventure.
The room is impeccably appointed. Stephanie Cleek-Pearson also studied interior design, and Linen is a testimony to her own fastidious good taste. Lustrous earth tones warm the room while huge oversized black-and-white photographs (still life with linen) and intimate table settings give the room a casual, urban feel. Attention to minute details--a lovely scented candle posted by the door to greet you, a tiny muslin sleeve over every votive, a fresh bloom on every table--alert you that the stage has been set, and you are about to be entertained.
This carries over to the service, which is formal, gracious and attentive. Since the menu features many high-minded preparations and unusual ingredients, the wait staff is impressive in its knowledge of the menu's details. Dressed in hip pseudo-Mao style jackets and sporting one white glove, the waiters silently enter a pact with you: This is going to be about performance.
Once you're seated, a small battalion of nattily dressed waiters advances across the floor carrying at chest height the evening's amusé, a small enticement from the kitchen to "open your senses" or, literally, to amuse. While you may be entertained with a portobello carpaccio or a tender serving of beet salad, the flavors are intense and tune the senses. We were served a carrot ginger cardamom purée, a sensuous and lovely sip that unfolded into something much larger.
For such an intimate venue, the dining experience at Linen is remarkably expansive. Taite Pearson is a young chef with some solid training under his belt. While he is still at the wildly experimental and innovative stage of his career, he mostly meets with success; no dishes are merely reckless at the expense of the integrity of the ingredients. What Linen offers is definitely for the adventurous and educated palate.
The olive and tomato tart with roasted elephant garlic and frozen savory goat cheese ice cream ($8) is an excellent example of the swerve and reach on Pearson's menu. The tart itself is simple, an earthy roasted tomato and olive compote tucked cozily into a pastry shell. The bold stroke of genius arrives and awakens the dish with the ice cream, which is inspired in flavor, texture and temperature. If you order this, don't plan on sharing. Make your dining partners order their own.
If you are in the mood to keep on entertaining small tastes and wondrous presentations, then don't miss the salmon tartare ($10). This lovely plate is served with a tidy bit of citrus fennel salad and an herbed maxime and splashed with a blood orange reduction. A towering napoleon is carefully crafted so that wasabi cream and caviar are carefully layered with a succulent salmon tartare and preserved lemon. The outlandish herbed maxime (paper-thin layers of potato sandwiched with herbs, then baked) perched on top provides a glossy and crisp wafer to dip as you savor each stratum. This is a thing of glory to behold and we only wished that there could have been a bit more drizzle of the blood orange reduction, simply because the sultry flavors worked so well with every bite.
Of course you can move on to larger plates and more hearty fare. The Muscovy duck with sweet soy lacquer, watercress and duck confit fried rice ($25) was a winner. Dramatically plated, the fan of duck breast was served with an entire peeled and honey-roasted pear. A festive winter dish, the pairing invited back-and-forth flavor exchanges, a voluptuous bite of pear, a robust bite of duck, a moment's reflection on perfection in an otherwise imperfect world. Although the sweet soy lacquer was strong and powerful, it pulled together and balanced against the more delicate peppery watercress and the honey-roasted fruit. The side dish of duck confit fried rice felt like an odd afterthought, albeit a wholesome and generous one.
The grilled veal chop with mustard spaetzle, crispy veal sweetbreads and roasted grape reduction was a plate with resounding flair ($28). One enormous, tender veal chop was seared to lock in flavor. Hidden beneath it, two perfectly crisped sweetbreads perched atop a generous serving of mustard spaetzle. Only the roasted grape reduction, more salty than fruitful, kept the dish from full realization.
The squid ink fettuccine with morels, pea tendrils, sweet corn, crispy calamari and browned butter ($17) sounded delightful. Perhaps it was just the night we dined, but the fettuccine was slightly overcooked. The reconstituted morels didn't really get a chance to showcase their flavor. Although the corn added a high, sweet note, the pea tendrils had wilted into complete surrender. The overcooked and cold calamari had seen a better day. Altogether, this darkly flavored dish veered into a murky realm that was not exactly memorable. Still, given Chef Pearson's prodigious and richly imaginative repertoire, it is almost reassuring to find a human flaw on his otherwise splendid and ambitious menu.
Desserts are exactly what dessert should be, delicate, complex, and all about fruit. The house-spun sorbets ($7) vary nightly; we tried papaya, blood orange and cassis. Each creamy spoonful packed a wallop of pure fruit essence, both cooling and dreamy, effortlessly blending the three flavors.
The figs, berries and champagne sabayon was a study in the classic dessert, letting the fresh fruit step forward to center stage. No one wanted to share. Blissfully, we had also ordered the vanilla panna cotta with oven-dried strawberries ($6). This is a dessert not to be missed. The silky, feather-light panna cotta is surrounded by tart, intense roasted strawberry slivers that draw out and finish the light vanilla arc. The simplicity of this dish, the silky textures, the simple match of flavors and the lovely presentation make this dessert worth a repeat visit alone.
Like a big and splashy young wine, Linen deserves attention and merit for its bold, innovative menu and sheer exuberance. And, like a young wine, it holds out great hope and promise for how it will deepen and mature.
An exciting prix fixe menu is being prepared for New Year's Eve, featuring both an early (5:30-9:30 p.m.) and late (9:30 p.m.-1 a.m.) seating. The late menu is slightly more extensive, listing six courses with impressive offerings from seared Hudson Valley foie gras and cardamom-infused persimmon to roasted rack of Jamison lamb and truffled celery root purée with petite syrah-lamb reduction. Wine pairings were not yet available, but should be available when making reservations. That is, if there are any seats left.
Linen. 7117 North Oracle Road. 797-3307. Open for lunch Mondays through Fridays 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; for dinner Mondays through Thursdays 5:30-10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 5:30-11 p.m. Full Bar. MC, Visa, DC, Amex, Checks. Menu Items: $6-27. Reservations: recommended.