Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Changes could make dinner a winner

Citizen Staff Writer
Review: Joel’s Bistro



Before Joel’s Bistro came along, this cottage in Geronimo Plaza was one of a multitude of star-crossed restaurant locations in Tucson.

Seemed like every six months or so a new restaurateur would try to make a go of it here, only to be added to the string of previous failed eateries a half year later.

Chef/owner Joel Suira has been able to hang on where others had to let go because he’s grabbed a decent breakfast and lunch crowd with excellent crepes, quiches and other well-prepared fare. He also seems to do a good catering business.

When it comes to dinner, Joel’s is packed when there’s a show at Centennial Hall or something else going on the UA, but on most other nights is, well, what some would call intimate and others would call downright dead.

We were the only diners on a recent weeknight, an experience I’ve had three other times here since the bistro opened five years ago. How Suira can offer up to 10 different specials on some nights with such a feast-or-famine fickle dinner crowd and a lilliputian kitchen is indeed a mystery.

The French Onion Soup Gratinee ($6) is consistently first-rate and held true to form on this quiet evening. The broth was rich yet tastefully mellow, the onions sweet and ever-so-yielding, and the cheese generously portioned and expertly browned. Though the bowl doesn’t look that large, the offering can easily be split as an appetizer of sorts.

We also split a rather pedestrian-looking Vegetarienne Salade ($8.95), that proved to be anything but average owing to Suira’s signature house dressing, which toes the line between Italian and Ranch and has uncommonly nice hints of Dijon, vinegar and something of a floral essence.

Our choice of entrees this evening were specials that are listed often enough to be considered menu items: A Tournado of Beef and Roasted Salmon Beurre Blanc combination ($22.95) and Coq Au Vin ($19.95). While they were well-prepared in classic French tradition, they suffered slightly from the fact that some of both dishes seemed to have been prepared at least in part in advance and held before being finished to order. Though there is nothing unique or necessarily bad about this practice – it’s what allows bistros and cafes to offer lots of menu items – we were a little disappointed with the results given the prices.

The Tournado was of ample size and tenderness and arrived with a nice level of caramelization and carefully wrapped in bacon. We ordered it medium rare, and though the beef indeed had the appropriate medium rare suppleness, the color was that of a medium-well finish, probably owning to the fact that it had been braised, stewed or held in its sauce long enough to be stained by it. The flavor also seemed to suffer from the long exposure to the sauce, as it lacked the payoff normally delivered by a nice cut of grilled beef. The roasted salmon was excellent, with a fresh, pristine flakiness and sweet flavor complemented by a spot-on beurre blanc sauce. The problem here was the portion, as the fillet was not much bigger than my thumb.

There’s no denying Suira’s acumen as a French chef, as the Coq Au Vin was near flawless in the luxurious yet close-to-the-vest nature of the broth, with the wine expertly offset by the mushrooms, garlic and other ingredients. As with the Tournado, the problem here was that the chicken seemed a little long in the tooth. It was less than tender, and even the most interior of the meat was stained a hue that was browner than even the beef.

Both entrees came with excellent sautéed-to-order vegetables and mashed potatoes that were nicely spiked with garlic and shallots.

Desserts, which are outsourced from a good bakery, made for a pleasant finish. A cakeish Tiramisu ($4.95) was refreshingly arid and thoughtfully restrained as the cocoa, espresso and sugar were carefully kept in check to give a better showcase to the mascarpone and light cake. The Trio Cheesecake ($4.95) a fixture at Joel’s, is always a pleasant ending. A round, multi-layered, affair, it features a cookie foundation followed by a silky, chocolate cheesecake, a sultry white chocolate mousse and a healthy topping of ganache.

I went back to Joel’s for lunch a few days later for the cute, little personal-size quiches he seems to sell by the hundreds. Everything about the quiche (this one featured shrimp and crab, though technically, I think we were talking krab), was truly exquisite, from the perfectly flaky crust to the sumptuous eggs, cheese, herbs and spices.

Maybe it’s too much to ask of a UA-area restaurant that does the lion’s share of its business before 5 p.m. to pull off dinner in as fresh, vibrant and excellent a manner as it does with its solid breakfast and lunch fare. I can’t help thinking if this bistro scaled back its menu options, the precision and considerable talent Suira has would be better showcased and better appreciated as a dinner destination.


Address and phone: 806 E. University Blvd., 529-7277

Hours: 8 a.m to 3 p.m and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays, 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays

Prices: Salads from $5.25 to $8.95, Soups from $5.50 to $6, entrees from $16.95 to $24.95.

Bar: BYO

Vegetarian options: Fromage de Brie sandwich ($8.50), Broccoli quiche ($7.50), Spinach and Swiss cheese quiche ($7.50), Vegetarienne Salade ($8.95)

Desserts: Vary, but currently include Tiramisu ($4.95), Mango Cheesecake ($4.95), and Trio Cheesecake ($4.95)

Latest health inspection: A “good” rating Oct. 20. Critical violations were reported for potentially hazardous foods not held at proper cooling temperature, and for foods not correctly date marked.

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