It isn't the crispy zucchini fritters that keep us returning to Feast. Or the retro rumaki appetizer with cool, crisp water chestnuts cuddled up to silky chicken liver and wrapped securely in a wide swath of bacon.
Oh, those things — and many others —would be reason alone to frequent the small Tucson restaurant.
But making it even more of a magnet is the come-on-in-and-make-yourself-at-home ambience.
Chef/owner Doug Levy opened Feast eight years ago as a gourmet-to-go shop. Some customers would go, others would sit right down at the few tables he had and devour the food right there. He has since expanded the dining area to 20 or so tables, slyly dividing the room with a partial wall to retain a sense of intimacy. And while to-go is still available, customers often crowd the tables and a cozy-on-up-to-me bar.
Levy frequently cruises through the restaurant, clearing off tables and chatting with customers as though they were old friends. The staff also makes frequent stops at tables without being intrusive.
Levy changes the menu monthly, yet doesn't neglect favorites such as the strawberry shortcake. Oh, that strawberry shortcake. It is reason enough to make daily stops at Feast. But more on that later.
We spread our visits to Feast over a few months so we could sample a variety of the dishes. Now we are in this mode: We can't wait to see the August menu (it was out Tuesday, too late for this review) but fear for what might be removed.
Here's what we mean: In June, baby back ribs ($17) were on the menu. The succulent ribs were topped with a South Carolina-style sauce cut with a touch of black pepper, a fair amount of sweet molasses and bunches of mustard. Served with creamy mashed potatoes made with lots of butter and cream, and a sweet coleslaw lightly laced with mayonnaise, it was a memorable dish both for the tenderness of the meat and the sweet zestiness of the sauce.
And it wasn't on the July menu.
Levy taketh, but he also giveth.
In July, salmon ($16) appeared. Seared to keep its moisture and flavor, the farm-raised fish was topped with a ragout of warm tomatoes grilled with enough lemon to make you pucker and a sprinkle of fresh basil. And on the side: crispy zucchini fritters, which felt decadent and healthy at the same time.
There are sometimes holdovers from month to month, such as the mashed russet potato tacos ($9.50) on both the June and July menus. The silky potatoes were mixed with sautéed yellow squash and stuffed into crispy taco shells. They were surrounded by guacamole barely spiked with chile and a gloriously spicy pico de gallo. While the guacamole danced with nuance, those tacos were surprisingly bland. Still, it was nice to have some variety in veggie offerings.
There's also the duck salad ($9.50), another holdover. It had tossed mixed greens with fresh mint, radishes and slices of seared duck breast that were a touch on the fattier-than-need-be side but still rich and tasty.
Another repeat was the aforementioned rumaki ($7.50). It brought us back to our parents' cocktail parties of the 1950s and '60s but in a much more sophisticated way, especially thanks to the tamari-sherry reduction sauce that served as a shallow pool for the appetizers. Sadly, Levy says that comes off the menu this month.
This summer, Levy took requests for favorites from customers and has featured some of them every week. Recently, one of those favorites was the Vietnamese beef salad ($9.50). Tender slices of grilled beef marinated in a ginger and tamari mix looked like rays shooting out from a salad of greens; cool, soft papaya; a small pile of rice noodles; and crisp, thinly sliced red bell peppers. Crunchy peanuts were sprinkled on top, and fresh herbs — cilantro, mint and basil — were thrown into the mix. The salad nearly sparkled with bold flavors and colors and left a lingering taste of hot and sweet, crisp and soft. Oh, if only were the salad on the menu daily. . . .
But it isn't. However, the strawberry shortcake ($6.50) has been a daily offering this summer, and will be through this month, Levy said.
And a most holy offering it is: sweet, roasted strawberries are served over light, flaky biscuits and topped with whipped cream. Real whipped cream. Roasting the strawberries gives them an extra oomph that pushes the already good dessert to an elevated level.
And every day of the year, Levy serves up his soft, chewy, chocolaty chocolate mousse cookies (65 cents each). Thank him for that.
If you go
4122 E. Speedway, 326-9363. Check www.eatatfeast.com for the monthly menu.
• Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.
• Family call: It's a sophisticated menu, but we bet the kids would be happy.
• Noise level: It can get loud.
• Vegetarian choices: A few choices beyond the usual pasta are available each month.
• Dress: Casual.
• Reservations: Not accepted, but call on your way in and they'll put your name on a list.
• Price range: Most entrees range from $10 to $18.
• Wine list: Chosen to complement dishes, the wines are nicely priced. There are some real gems from little-known wineries.