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Tucson trip roundup: Agustin Kitchen, the Coronet, Prep & Pastry, Ghini's Cafe, NoRTH, SEIS, Exo Coffee

finlero | Mar 23, 201511:12 AM

Well color me surprised, Tucson is seriously stepping up its high-end dining game. When we first visited five years ago there wasn't much in the way of fancy chow that knocked our socks off, but we had some unbelievably delicious upscale food this time around.

Agustin Kitchen - the whole food scene at the Mercado San Agustin is pretty amazing, with a remarkably modern and interesting array of food purveyors including a great looking bakery, cheese shop, third wave coffee place, and fancy taco joint (see SEIS below). But Agustin is almost certainly the most interesting, a bona fide farm-to-fork, garden-to-glass type of place that didn't really seem to exist in Tucson until recently. Cocktails were stellar, this is the sort of place that uses different ice for different cocktails. And all the food was at least as stellar. Highlights were the "current jars", a collection of four seasonal "smears" served with fresh bread. The only miss was the brulee local goat cheese, which sounded great but fell a bit flat in terms of flavor and texture. Everything else ranged from delicious to really, really, really delicious. My only major gripe about Agustin at present is that the menu is weirdly structured, with too many smallish dishes in different categories to work well as a three-course progression, and too many larger dishes to work well as a small plates kind of place. If they can figure this out and bring some clarity to the menu, they'll almost certainly be one of the top dining destinations in the state. P.S. The digs were super cool.

The Coronet - went for lunch, definitely want to return for dinner. Another modern eatery with tons of locavore awesomeness. Loved my wilted kale salad with Dragoon session sausage. Also excellent were several different veggie-heavy "tartines" (open faced sandwiches). Dessert was surprisingly good, with both the olive oil cake and homemade cookie assortment being way better than they had any business being. Cocktails look fantastic as well, with a great-looking cross section of original and classic cocktails (paloma > margarita -- finally!); some serious happy hour deals, I really want to get back here.

Prep & Pastry - I see why it's so popular, but I was a little more meh on this place. Good, heavy brunch fare with some modern twists (pork belly sandwich with a soft egg). Baked goods look wonderful and taste OK; I respect that they're doing various cronuts, but they were heavy and a little bland, and I'd rather they focused on bolstering the fundamentals rather than worrying about flashy of-the-moment dishes.

Ghini's Cafe - the only really lackluster dining experience we had. Terrible coffee, bad pastries, and worst of all, my baguette with butter and jam was a basket of diced up pieces of bread with the butter heavily applied in advance. Mildly surly staff, just nothing to recommend this place. And yet there was a line out the door.

NoRTH - as much as I'd love to slam a chain restaurant, the food here is simply beyond reproach. Paper-thin cured meats sliced to order, delicious fresh cheeses, excellent wood-fired pizzas, solid cocktails and a reasonable (and reasonably priced) wine list. Deafeningly loud, which seemed like a conscious choice I could have done without, but whatever fills the place up I guess. Every member of the staff was working their butt off to keep the engine humming, and it was pretty damn impressive. I feel like Fox Concepts establishments are a glimpse into the future, basically where chain restaurants are headed, and while I'd prefer to support a smaller operation, it's exciting to see where the national bar could be set in a few years' time.

SEIS - again at the Mercado San Agustin, basically an upscale, super popular taco stand, the name comes from sporting cuisine from six different regions of Mexico. The food was flawless and relatively reasonably priced, but I felt like it was just a little antiseptic and soulless (see also: every Rick Bayless restaurant in Chicago). Regardless, hard to argue with the setting or the flavors, I would definitely go back. Also, not sure if their "handmade" tortillas are made on premises or elsewhere, but either way they are phenomenal.

Exo Coffee - very respectable third wave coffeehouse with great house-roasted coffee drinks and cool digs. Liked my cappuccino, loved my macchiato, and postively swooned for my cold brew with pinches of chocolate and chile. They could use more and better snacks, but far be it from me to knock them for focusing on coffee craft.

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