You’d think James Beard himself had come down from the heavens and opened a restaurant in the Old Pueblo.
That’s how intense the buzz was last October when Ryan Clark announced he would leave Lodge on the Desert to become the chef and a partner at the struggling Agustín Brasserie.
Within a few months, the restaurant got a facelift, a new name — it’s now Agustín Kitchen — and by mid-December, Clark was stirring the pots at the downtown-area restaurant.
And then the buzz got even more intense.
“One of the best restaurants in Tucson” declared one December diner on the tripadvisor.com site. “Simply devine (sic)” said another. On Yelp, there were a few disgruntled diners, but it received a four-star rating and most reviews were like this one: “I can’t wait to go back for more.”
Clark is just 29, yet has built a reputation for himself through multiple wins in the local Iron Chef competition; a cookbook, “Modern Southwest Cooking” (Rio Nuevo Publishers) released late last year; and the magical meals the Culinary Institute of America graduate created at the Dish, Canyon Ranch and Lodge on the Desert.
We paid a couple of visits to Agustín to check out this wunderkind’s new venture ourselves. Here’s what we found:
The ambiance: It’s loud, thanks to the cement floor. But tucked into the Mercado San Agustin, it also has its charm. The patio overlooking the plaza features rustic tables that were smooth-topped but look to be made from reclaimed wood.
Inside, there’s an open kitchen and a dining room with booths that hug the walls and tables scattered in the center. The plaza complex is designed to evoke a Tucson feel, and the restaurant continues that without getting kitschy.
The menu: Think local. Clark has embraced the farm-to-table concept and is head of the Southern Arizona chapter of Slow Food. The menu proudly boasts a list of some of the restaurant’s area purveyors: Double Check Ranch, The Green Valley Pecan Co., Blu — A Wine & Cheese Stop, and plenty more.
Clark has just introduced his spring menu, and it includes two pasta-free (!) vegetarian offerings: zucchini blossoms stuffed with apricots and baked summer mushrooms. It’s hard not to love a menu that offers vegetarians more than salads and pasta primavera.
The offerings are intriguing and seductive. But the proof is in the eating. And that’s just what we did.
First course: We admit it, if something comes with a “parmesan Twinkie,” as the Agustín Caesar ($9) does, we’ve gotta get it. It was a crouton kind of shaped like the pastry, toasted to a golden brown and coated with the cheese. And mighty tasty. The salad had whole cloves of garlic roasted to a sweet, tender goodness and thin shavings of dry jack cheese to accompany the crisp romaine. We wish it hadn’t been so light on the anchovy emulsion, but hey, that’s quibbling.
Bread and butter isn’t a given at Agustín, but if you must have it you can shell out $2 and get a small loaf of warm whole wheat with a side of not-too-garlicky basil pesto that makes you wonder why you ever thought of putting anything else on bread.
A stand-out appetizer was the “current jars” ($16). The menu describes it as “smears,” but that really is a more apt description for what you do with the four spreads, which are packed to the brim in small round dishes. The offerings, which come with a generous pile of crostinis, include a smoky salmon that smacked of freshness. Salty, slightly sour capers added the perfect oomph to the spread. The sweet oven-dried tomatoes touched with oil paired nicely with the low-key burrata. Burrata is a fresh Italian cheese made with mozzarella and cream. While its texture is silky, the flavor can be too subtle for some. But when matched with those tomatoes, it’s perfection. The richest spread was the oxtail rillette (think of a chunky pate). Oxtail — though the tail of a cow is used these days — is a meat that smacks of a rich, beefy flavor. It can be an annoyance to cook — it must be done slowly — but the results are sublime. Clark adds just enough black pepper to notice, but not overwhelm.
Main course: Chicken. It’s got a lousy rep. It’s generally overcooked and not particularly flavorful, especially the breast. But then there is the chicken breast ($18) at Agustín. The menu points out that it’s 83 percent butterfat, no doubt thanks to it being poached in butter. Tender as a fish, decadently divine thanks to the abundance of butter and a cream sauce touched with dill and preserved lemon. But the kicker: the mashed potatoes piled under the chicken. They were infused with lemon and they soared.
The waitress said that Clark was particularly proud of his sous vide hanger steak ($19). Hanger steak is not an expensive cut of meat — it can be a bit tough — but it is exceptionally flavorful. Sous vide is a method of cooking — the meat is sealed in an airtight bag and slowly cooked in a water bath at a low temperature. The result is an evenly-cooked and tender steak. Clark then quickly sears the meat before it goes to the table, giving it a nice crust. The hanger was still slightly tough, but the slices were juicy and smacked of beefiness. On the side was a chimichurri demi-glace with a slightly fiery edge.
While dinner was near flawless, lunch was a bit uneven. The butter leaf salad ($10) came to the table looking lovely with the well-chopped greens on top; all the good stuff — fresh sweet corn, crispy almonds, soft goat cheese, were underneath. Once you tossed it you understood why that job was left up to you — it looks kind of messy. It was topped with a fig-balsamic-strawberry dressing that overpowered all the tastes but the goat cheese.
The pho ($16) looks lovely with leaves of deep green basil and cilantro and bright red slices of jalapeño on top. The broth was packed with silky rice noodles, and a few Pacific white shrimp, which were slightly overcooked but not enough to rob them of their sweet, fresh flavor. It was the broth that disappointed — it was your everyday beef broth, not the rich and distinctive pho broth one expects. It was as though the ginger and fish sauce — standard ingredients in the Vietnamese broth — were skipped.
The hamburger ($12) is made with Wagyu beef — known for its marbling and sometimes dubbed “American-style Kobe.” The meat has an intense flavor, and though the burger was more medium than the medium rare requested, it was still juicy. Crispy fries made a fine companion to the meat, but the bland, toasted roll didn’t appeal.
Dessert: Hello heaven. A generous scoop of the ginger-vanilla gelato ($4) — made by Tucson’s Tazzina di Gelato — was a cool finish to dinner. The hint of fresh ginger matched with the intense vanilla bean flavor was perfection.
And the bread pudding ($9) — well. The warm pudding had chunks of soft bread saturated in a dark chocolate and was dotted with fresh coconut and golden raisins, and crowned with a scoop of pistachio gelato, which melted into the pudding and made for an explosion of sweet textures and tastes.
Service: Service is friendly and conscientious. But not particularly well-informed. At dinner, we asked where the bread was from. “World bakery, right here in town,” we were told. Not a bakery we knew. Turns out it’s Small Planet Bakery — guess its easy to see the confusion. There were little glitches like that at both meals, but nothing to ruin the experience.