(March 9, 2014) Continuing on our painstaking efforts to rank the Best Sunday Brunch In Tucson, Ms. Karen, Neighbor Roy, & I marched down to the Agustin Kitchen. So far we’ve reviewed brunches at Cushing Street; Tanque Verde Guest Ranch; La Paloma Resort; Hacienda del Sol; and still have several more to experience.
Agustin Kitchen doesn’t offer a gigantic spread like the big resorts do. As at the old, but delightful Cushing Street Bar & Restaurant in Barrio Viejo, the new Agustin Kitchen in the Mercado on Congress west of the freeway allows guests to choose from either the Breakfast or Lunch menu starting at 10 AM on Saturdays & Sundays. Read More
Also, unlike the big resorts, cocktails such as Bloody Marys & Mimosas are not included in the price. But the price at the big resorts is $40 per.
We had reasonably high hopes for this dining adventure because (a) it has received generally positive online reviews and (b) Ryan Clark is now the executive chef and partner of the restaurant. He recently moved to Agustin Kitchen from Lodge on the Desert.
Chef Clark is 3-time Tucson Iron Chef champion and 2-time World Margarita Champion. Thus, arguably, he is the best chef in Tucson.
In a not-too-distant past life, this place was opened as Agustin Brasserie. We had dined there and it was very good. No one wants to talk about why it closed abruptly last year.
The general feel of the interior has not changed all that much under this new management. The kitchen is now open so you can observe what the chefs are concocting. Similarly, they can now watch your reaction to what they just served you.
The bar is the same, except I did notice that the tables now have a very rustic, French peasant look; the kind of table you might find collecting dust in the rear of a European antique shop. Splendid framed photographic art still graces some of the walls. If you go, be sure to take a close look at them. Definitely exceptional.
First things first, our waitress took our drink orders. Hot tea for Neighbor Roy; Bloody Mary for Ms. Karen: deep eddy vodka, AK spice blend, fresh horseradish, lemon, & pickled things ($9).
I ordered a Bellini: sparkling wine, peach, strawberry, grapefruit, & bitters ($9). Grapefruit was the dominant flavor.
We knew what to expect for a $9 morning cocktail: a fairly small volume of mostly ice and juices, light on the alcohol content. However, that is NOT what we got.
One of the bartenders brought our drinks and set them on our table. At first, all we could do was look in disbelief. They were HUGE. Each was garnished with a whimsical presentation adoring the mouth of MASON JARS … a quart of booze. And it was only 10:45 IN THE MORNING!
Now we understand why the Modern Streetcar tracks pass right by the Agustin Kitchen. If we had consumed the entire contents, we would have been unfit to drive and relegated to Tucson’s public transportation system.
Sadly, the Modern Streetcar is not going to be operational until sometime this summer, so in the name of public safety, we left half of our respective drinks on the table as we left. Sadly, I must say, because they were so good.
Neighbor Roy ordered Green Eggs & Ham: two spinach baked eggs, smoked tasso,
manchego and dry jack cheese, toast ($11).
Ms. Karen ordered the Chicken Enchiladas: two sunny-side eggs, chicken machaca, salsa verde, roasted peppers, melted jack cheese, avocado ($10).
PORK BELLY HASH
I ordered the Pork Belly Hash: two eggs any style, roasted fingerlings,
carmalized onions, apple bacon jam, hollandaise ($12).
All three were served in an iron skillet. Roy, who seldom eats breakfast at all, let alone toast, pronounced his Green Eggs & Ham “Excellent!” I inquired as to how he liked his toast, having noticed that he had consumed it entirely. “That was excellent bread. Fresh! Don’t quite know what all was in it but clearly a multigrain, which I love.”
Ms. Karen, who puts salt on just about every dish, said her Chicken Enchilada was quite tasty and mildly spicy, sufficiently so that she did not feel the need to add salt.
As to my Pork Belly Hash, I was disappointed on several levels. First, had I known that it did not come with some toast or fresh rolls, I would have ordered a side ($2). Second, my skillet had only the tiniest morsel of pork. Third, there were precious few carmalized onions. The overall taste was fairly bland. I, who never put salt on my food, salted aplenty trying to coax out some flavor.
As we three were discussing our overall dining experience, Ms. Karen mentioned that next time she would not order a meal that was served in an iron skillet. She said her food had a distinct metallic flavor. Neither Roy nor I tasted the skillet. Apparently, Ms. Karen’s taste sensors are even more sensitive than Chef Clark’s or she had a badly seasoned skillet.
I mention this latter because when I interviewed Chef Clark earlier in the week, he was proud of the fact that the menu is “driven by my palate”. The menu changes seasonally and according to the Chef’s tastes.
He emphasized that his foods (meats, fruits, vegetables, flour, cheeses, olive oils, & breads) are locally sourced as much as possible. And everything he serves is USA domestic, including beers & wines.
Southern Arizona Wines
I noticed that he has three Southern Arizona wines on his wine list, two from Dos Cabezas Wineworks in Elgin, AZ. I mentioned that, over the years, we have tasted a lot of Southern Arizona wines, but seldom find one that is even marginally worthwhile. Moreover, Southern Arizonans can purchase truly good wines from California, Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand for half the price of the Southern Arizona wines.
Chef Clark got up from the table, walked over to the bar, and returned with a bottle of Dos Cabezas white wine and a wine glass. He poured me a sample. It was OK. Better than I expected.
Fresh or Frozen
I asked where he got his fish. “Santa Monica (CA) Fish Market”, he replied. “Flown in daily.”
“Is it ever frozen before it’s served,” I asked. “Always fresh, never frozen”, he replied.
“Does your fish meet with Seafood Watch’s standards for sustainable practices”, I asked. “Yes”, he said emphatically. “It’s somewhat more expensive, but worth it.”
Never Buy Seafood From Trader Joe’s
I shared with Chef Clark my decision never to buy fish from stores, such as Trader Joe’s, that do not adhere to Seafood Watch standards for sustainability and ecologically responsible practices. We humans, in our greed and carelessness, are rapidly depleting fish populations, destroying habitats, & polluting our oceans, rivers, and lakes. Aware and responsible consumers are the only hope we have.
Now for my really big question. “Around Tucson, I have only found fresh, never frozen, fish at AJ’s Market at La Encantada. Can I purchase fresh fish from Agustín Kitchen?”
“Yes,” he replied. “Just give me some advance notice so I can order you the kind of fish and quantity you want.” That, I must say, is a fine service. Simply put, fish that has been frozen does not taste as good as fresh, never frozen, seafood.
I inquired as to any less common dishes. Chef Clark mentioned that he offers 2-3 specials each week, such as spot prawns, and from local farmers: duck, turkey, and quail. He told me that his specials are more expensive than the offerings on his regular menu, in the $32 to $42 range, but worthwhile. He invited me to come for dinner and sample his specials. I do believe we will do that soon.
A Tucson native, Chef Clark is smart, innovative, and dedicated to locally sourced, farm fresh ingredients in all he serves. In 2012, he was nominated by Food and Wine Magazine as one of the top 10 Best New Chefs in the Southwest and is currently Vice Chair of the Southern Arizona chapter of Slow Food.
Just published, Chef Clark is the author of Modern Southwest Cooking that includes innovative recipes, such as Prickly Pear Mojito, Yam and Ginger-Jalapeno Pave, California Halibut and Sauteed Succotash, Hanger Steak Chimichurri, and Habanero Creme Brulee.
Agustin Kitchen is new and still a work in progress. But it has the potential to be among the Best of the Best, maybe even as good as Café Roka in Bisbee. We’ll be back for a progress report.
100 South Avenida Del Convento