Dining memorable with improved fare, effort
It’s happened before, more than once, so I was bracing myself for more of the same.
We walked in the door, stopped at the sign that reads “PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEATED.” No one was within 30 feet of the sign and no one was tending the bar. After figuring we’d waited long enough to be seated, we seated ourselves at a table next to the bar, which was still absent its bartender.
Welcome to Cushing Street Bar & Restaurant.
We sat for about a minute at the table, and I’d already decided we’d be in for a thoroughly frustrating experience when she appeared like a vision, with a pleasant smile, a pair of menus and an earnest greeting.
“I hope you haven’t been waiting too long. Can I get you something to drink while you look at the menu?”
There was something in the server’s voice that told me everything would be all right from then on.
I was wrong. Everything was better than all right. Considerably better.
Over the years, Cushing Street has earned a reputation as a beautifully historic and inviting place with hit-or-miss food and service. Judging from our last meal, the food and service have seen considerable upgrading.
We started with the Tapenade Sampler ($9.75), which featured scoops of artichoke tapenade, olive tapenade, hummus and assorted fresh veggies and crackers. Both tapenades were excellent, with the artichoke version possessing a great balance of acidity and sweetness and the olive tapenade featuring a rich yet refined flavor without being too salty. The tapenades worked even better when combined on the crackers. The hummus was equally good, and had a notable lack of that certain sour/salty aftertaste indicative of canned garbanzos. Its cleaner flavor profile also lent itself to combining with the tapenades.
Scottsdale Culinary Institute grad Brian Sorell has been Cushing Street’s chef since fall, tweaking the menu and adding Asian twists.
Case in point, the Ahi Appetizer featured a generous serving of cold slices of seared ahi that was smartly accompanied by a delicately crafted Asian slaw and a thoroughly addictive pickled ginger, making for a nice departure from normal ahi offerings.
The Pan-Seared Diver Scallops ($19) also featured a pleasing Asian slant. The three large scallops were plump and had been removed from the heat to a tender, almost-sashimilike state, one that paired excellently with the red rice, which carried subtle yet meaningful notes of ginger, garlic, shallots and sesame oil. The rice also had an inviting risottolike creaminess, a texture that was nicely offset by crisp strands of julienned snow peas.
The Asian slant gave way to classic French precision with the Grilled Center-Cut Sirloin ($18), which featured thick slabs of sirloin in a spot-on Port Wine Demi-Glaze. The sirloin was near Kobelike in quality and execution, cooked to an excellent medium rare well-complemented by the demi-glaze. The accompanying roasted red potatoes were beyond reproach, except that it would have been nice to have a few more of them on the plate.
The appetizers and entrees here aren’t distinctive in a grandstanding, “look-how-special-we-are” way, but are nonetheless noteworthy, so the dessert menu was something of a disappointment by comparison. Unavailable on this night from the offerings, which are all made in-house, was Nan’s Carrot Cake, so we opted for the Dark Chocolate Dulce ($7) and the New York Cheesecake ($7). What would have been a serviceable but otherwise average dulce was cleverly topped with candied orange peel. The julienned, crystallized peels made all the difference, making the mousse a lot more interesting than it would have been. This is one dessert garnish that does a lot more than just garnish. The cheesecake was appropriately pungent and rich in New York tradition, but made a departure from the Big Apple in that it’s texture was much less dense, and the inclusion of a house-made strawberry compote was a big plus as opposed to prepared strawberries in syrup.
As the meal wore on, that same sense of feeling left alone that had me initially annoyed started worked in Cushing Street’s favor, as the dim, expansive and somewhat museumlike atmosphere of its Territorial era digs provided a serene state with which to savor its notably improved fare.
If it can get someone to at least approximate a greeter on a consistent basis and ratchet up the creativity of its dessert offerings to match the rest of the menu, Cushing Street could very well become a noteworthy dining destination downtown.
AT A GLANCE
Address and phone: 198 W. Cushing St., 622-7984
Prices: Appetizers from $9.50 to $10.75; soups and salads $4-$14; entrees $12-$19.
Vegetarian options: A few, including Pasta Pomodoro with Artichoke Hearts, Mushrooms & Tomatoes ($12); Hacienda Salad ($6.50); and Roasted Garlic & Brie ($10.50)
Desserts: Chocolate Decadence; Peanut Butter Mousse with Brownies; Nan’s Favorite Carrot Cake; New York Cheesecake; and Chocolate Dulce ($7 each)
Currency: Cash and credit
Latest health inspection: An “excellent” rating April 4. No critical violations were reported.
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