Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Promising dinner leaves only questions

Lindsey Deeren and Matt Eklund dine at the bar at Terra Cotta, which long has been renowned for its Southwestern cuisine.

Lindsey Deeren and Matt Eklund dine at the bar at Terra Cotta, which long has been renowned for its Southwestern cuisine.

Dry quesadillas. Uncooked lamb. Hurried, indifferent service. This is not the performance I expected from what is supposed to be one of our finer restaurants.

Terra Cotta is a dining institution in Tucson, a pioneer in forging that fusion of American, American Indian and Mexican food known as Southwestern cuisine. On the short list of places where you’d want to impress out-of-town guests, Terra Cotta has owned a top spot since the day it opened two decades ago.

Yet I walked out completely baffled after a disappointing experience one recent Friday evening. It was like a relationship that had gone bad; I had more questions than answers.

Didn’t anyone notice that bread was never brought to our table?

Didn’t anyone notice that our rack of lamb – with its jiggly outer layer of fat – was practically raw?

When someone from the restaurant came to our table to apologize for the lamb, shouldn’t he have identified himself?

Shouldn’t the restaurant have made sure that the replacement dish – a grilled New York Strip – was cooked exactly to order?

When the restaurant comped us for that steak, shouldn’t we have been told, rather than have to decipher the bill?

When we ordered dessert, shouldn’t that have been a sign for our server to ask us if we wanted coffee?

And most astounding of all, how can any restaurant in Arizona – not least one that touts itself as a repository of “creative regional dining” – screw up quesadillas?

One of my two companions – the one who ordered the Pecan Crusted Rack of Lamb ($28) – characterized the evening as a “train wreck.” I don’t think I’d go quite that far.

Although that default steak ($26) was ordered medium and was delivered closer to rare, it was still a beautiful piece of meat.

The Black Pepper Crusted Maple Leaf Duck ($22) was tender and moist, and the accompanying tempura-battered scallions were outstanding. But the carrot flan also on the plate had just an essence of carrot flavor, almost too thin to be noticed, and there wasn’t enough pomegranate demi-glacé to allow each slice of duck an ample coating.

The Vegetarian Sampler ($16) included an earthy “mushroom medley” artfully served in a sort of corn husk canoe. Its rich, smoky flavor proved far superior to the dry, oven-roasted enchiladas.

The Quesadilla Duet appetizer ($9) also spent too much time close to a heat source. The one stuffed with beef tenderloin, gorgonzola and red onion compote edged out the one with chorizo and lobster, if only because the spicy chorizo overwhelmed the lobster.

The high points of the evening came at the beginning and the end. The Garlic Custard ($8) appetizer was creamy and smooth and paired perfectly with salsa and hazelnuts. And the Chocolate Lava Souffle dessert ($6) was a delight.

Still, I felt so conflicted about the evening that I had to go back. Every restaurant can have an off night. So back I went, two days later – by myself. I sat at the bar and ordered the Stuffed Poblano Relleno Platter ($19). It was very good. And this time I got bread.

AT A GLANCE

Terra Cotta, 3500 E. Sunrise Drive 577-8100

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, 4-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 4-9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday brunch

Price: Appetizers, soups and salads, $6-$12; wood-fired pizzas, $13-$15; entrées, $16-$28; desserts, $6-$8

Bar: Full

Meat options: Apricot Chutney Stuffed Pork Chop ($18) and Chile Braised Short Ribs ($23)

Seafood options: Goat Cheese Stuffed Prawns ($21) and Grilled Salmon ($21)

Vegetarian options: Tucson Spinach Salad with roasted red peppers ($8) and Basil Pesto Pizza ($13)

Dessert options: A “Real” Split Banana with hot fudge and brownie ($6) and Pumpkin Swirl Cheesecake with cranberry sauce ($6)

Currency: Cash and credit

Last health inspection: A “good” rating May 17, when two violations were found and corrected. Potentially hazardous foods were not held at proper cooling temperature, and food contact surfaces and equipment were not cleaned frequently and properly to prevent food contamination. In six previous inspections going back to 2002, the restaurant earned two “excellent” and four “good” ratings.

The Black Pepper Crusted Maple Leaf Duck comes with outstanding tempura-battered scallions.

The Black Pepper Crusted Maple Leaf Duck comes with outstanding tempura-battered scallions.

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