Food all day, but dessert stands out

At Cafe a La C'Art, it's all pretty good, but the pastry chef is clearly a genius
2013-03-28T00:00:00Z Food all day, but dessert stands outKathleen Allen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 28, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Here is the best part about being grown up:

You can toss your mom's advice and eat dessert first.

And at Cafe a La C'Art, the temptation to do just that is great.

The glass case near the cash register is loaded with seductive sweets that beckon and beg to be devoured.

Savor that thought; we'll come back to the desserts.

It's long been known as a lunch spot that serves up voluptuous sandwiches (and desserts).

Judith Michelet added breakfast hours a few years back and bravely began serving dinner last June, about the time Tucson emptied out.

Dining is spread out over the historic adobe Stevens-Duffield house's large enclosed sun porch, several smaller dining rooms and the brick patio with tables guarded by colorful umbrellas. Those who remember when Janos restaurant was in the same building years ago will recall the building's distinctive ambience.

The small dinner menu, created by chef Nick Blum, goes more uptown (though the prices are fairly reasonable) than the casual breakfast and lunches. You can choose from a few fish, a couple of steaks and several vegetarian options.

And there is a touch of finesse - table service in the evenings; breakfast and lunch are ordered at the counter.

A recent dinner there began with the bruschetta appetizer ($11) that celebrated the most happy marriage of port-poached figs with bacon and cheeses.

The toppings were copious - lots of those swoonable figs, a creamy gorgonzola, a barely nutty fontina and crispy applewood bacon, all topped by Parmesan and seated on a toasted baguette. Some might say overkill, but we say hurrah. The flavors played off of each other, as did the textures. It's an appetizer to be shared, but you may not want to.

On another visit, we dove into the mussels ($9). The appetizer had about two dozen tender mollusks swimming in an underseasoned white wine broth that was spiked with a not-too-spicy andouille and sautéed fennel and shallots. While the nearly garlic-free broth disappointed, the andouille was a nice surprise, the fennel a good touch, and one is always happy to eat mussels without one bit of grit on them (that's sometimes a trick, we've found).

Entrees here are big, and not terribly dolled up. The grilled rib-eye ($19), thin, tender and buttery, was drowning in a sauce chock-full of wild mushrooms and spiked with ancho chiles. There was a smoky underline to the thick sauce, and we must admit to loving it, but the steak nearly disappeared under it. The zucchini on the side was cooked so that there was still a quiet snap.

There was also a too-generous hand with the sauce on the salmon ($18), which might have been all right if it had been the lemon beurre blanc promised on the menu. But the citrus in the sauce was orange. Lots of orange. And it just did not work with the moist, perfectly pan-roasted salmon.

Ah, but the crab cakes ($19) completely redeemed the restaurant. There were two generous cakes, crisp on the outside and loaded with more crab than filler, which is a common problem with crab cakes. They were laced with a simple red pepper coulis that set, rather than hogged, the stage for the star.

Cafe a La C'Art gives a nod to its lunch menu with its portobello sandwich ($10). Slices of tender, made-there foccaccia served as bookends to a firm mushroom dressed up with goat cheese, sweet roasted red peppers, tender caramelized onions and a light spreading of pesto. One could be convinced to become a vegetarian with this dish.

But it is the grand finale, the desserts, that leave you with the sense that life is good. Really good. We are convinced of this: Pastry chef Lora Corella is a genius.

The large lemon square ($3.50), with a lemon custard sitting on top of a buttery shortbread and dusted with powdered sugar, insisted on being consumed slowly, consciously, by one diner. That is, he refused to share.

The towering chocolate bomb ($4.95) involved a moist chocolate cake that served as a base for a velvety chocolate mousse topped by a shiny chocolate ganache. No, no, it was not too much chocolate. And it was sublime.

As was the almond torte ($3.75). The intensely almond cake was happily matched with a thin layer of dark chocolate.

And those are just three reasons why you want to shrug off your mother's advice and eat dessert first.

There are many more at Cafe a La C'Art. We're sure she would understand.

Cafe a La C'Art

• Where: 150 N. Main Ave., 628-8533.

• Hours: Breakfast: 7 to 10:30 a.m. Mondays though Fridays; 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (a limited lunch menu is available during these hours on weekends). Lunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Dinner: 5 to 9 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.

• Noise level: Thanks to the thick adobe walls and many small rooms, dining is a quiet treat.

• Alcohol: Small wine menu.

• Family call: The kids will like it; just keep them away from that dessert case.

• Vegetarian options: Yes.

• Gluten free: Available.

• Price range: Dinner entrees range from $11-$19.

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