"Organic," "local" and "sustainable" are the latest buzzwords in food, but can a restaurant really live up to those standards? Primo at the JW Marriott Starr Pass gives it a half-hearted effort, but pales in comparison to the original Primo in Rockland, Maine, which I had the pleasure of visiting last week while attending a friend's wedding.
The two restaurants, despite having the same name and the same chef and proprietor, offer two completely different experiences. Ted and I visited the JW Marriott Primo in Tucson the weekend before leaving for our Maine trip. The atmosphere is a bit stuffy, and service was friendly, but not as attentive or as polished as I would expect for a meal that costs upwards of $50 per person. The wine list, which offers more than 100 bottles, had four types of Arizona wines, and so we chose a bottle of white from Callaghan (Sonoita) for $40.
We started off with the fritto misto ($15), which was nothing more than a bowl of tempura-fried calamari, small shrimp, chunks of white fish, cauliflower and a few other mystery veggies, with a slight drizzle of red pepper aioli. Although the dish was not bad, I didn't find it to be very exciting—it needed salt (which, incidentally, is not provided at the table), and I thought it could have used a little more aioli. The calamari rings and shrimp were tasty, but the vegetables and fish were a bit bland. I inquired about the localness of the dish, and found that none of the ingredients were locally sourced, nor were they organic.
Next up was the farmer salad ($14, which we would see again, just a few days later, on the menu at Primo Rockland), which we shared. The salad ended up being the highlight of the meal, with several types of romaine lettuces, generous meaty lardons of bacon, and a local soft-boiled egg from Sleeping Frog Farms, coated in a sweet but tangy white balsamic vinaigrette. The flavors melded together beautifully.
Dinner was far less impressive—my grilled moulard duck breast with farro, dried fruits, sautéed greens, turnips and apricot compote ($34) was closer to medium-well than my requested medium-rare, and Ted's pork saltimbocca (Primo's signature entrée, $28, featuring locally-sourced pork from Niman Ranch) with garlic mashed potatoes, spinach and prosciutto, was too salty and a little tough. The four halves of the baby turnips were the only thing on either of our entrées that came out of Primo's garden, which is a terrace-style garden that the dining room overlooks, featuring several fig trees, lots of herbs and quite a variety of vegetables—but by any measure, not enough to sustain an entire restaurant operation.
The original Primo in Maine is situated on a beautiful four-acre property, which features vegetable and herb gardens, greenhouses, chickens, pigs, fruit trees and more. I expected the original iteration of the restaurant to be stuffier than the Tucson version, since it's in a gorgeous old converted Victorian mansion, but it was warm and welcoming, and not the least bit stuffy. There were families dining, and the place was packed, even at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday.
In the Rockland location, we started with the seared Hudson Valley foie gras ($17), not the most environmentally sensitive thing to serve when talking about sustainable foods. It was prepared perfectly and served with a zucchini bread and a blackberry-gooseberry jus, which all included locally-sourced ingredients. I was tempted to try the pork saltimbocca, but instead opted for the grilled local swordfish with steamed local cockles, pimenton, green beans from the garden, chorizo and soffritto ($35). The swordfish had beautiful char marks and was moist, and the chorizo was flavorful and added a nice spice to the green beans. Ted ordered the seared dayboat scallops with porcini tagliatelle and several types of mushrooms ($36). The scallops were seared to perfection and the pasta was laced with savory chunks of Parmesan.
Primo is definitely a dining experience, and the organic/sustainable/locally-sourced angle works well in Maine, where the agriculture, fishing and farming communities can support it. The food is expertly prepared, and the old Victorian mansion almost creates that sense of magic and wonder that should accompany the perfect evening out. However, the concept doesn't translate as well in Tucson. Perhaps it's the idea of combining something so organic into a big corporation, such as the JW Marriott, or maybe it's that magic is difficult to re-create without feeling formulaic.