In the most vibrant part of Tucson, an area littered with college students and young entrepreneurs, flocked with coffee shops and ever-growing, lies a classic French restaurant. Well, almost. Maynards Market and Kitchen resides just off of Congress Avenue, the official downtown, in an old train station, and serves two purposes. Maynards Market, as the name implies, is a shop. As a wine shop/cafe and bakery/brunch spot, the Market draws attention of all sorts of yuppie-types who want to sample a local winery or enjoy an open-air midday meal. Maynards Kitchen, however, appears as the perfectly perfect French restaurant we are accustomed to seeing only in places like New York, Paris, or movies like “Ratatouille.” Seated in an old train depot, accompanied by the clinking of glasses and jubilant occupants and warmed up with canned jazz, Maynards spins you away to France.
Boasting locally sourced goods, a seasonal menu and many, many awards, Maynards’ menu takes American cooking with a hearty French background and dishes out beauty. One warm May evening, I rounded up a group of friends and dragged them down to see what the fuss was all about.
A reservation that went from four people to five and then back to four did not ruffle any feathers, and when a group of gangly teen girls showed up to claim it, not an eye batted. We were seated immediately and given menus and water, tucked into a corner. Edged on two sides by windows, the low lighting added warmth to our small group. Our server, Jeffrey, steered us toward the best dishes, and welcomed us with charm and exuberance. Our meal began with two shared starters: the steak tartare and seared scallops.
The tartare arrived as a low mound of meat, capers, carrots and jalapeños, the latter three pickled, accompanied by foreign crackers. For an extra treat, we ordered the tartare with a raw egg yolk. The steak itself was spectacular. Unconcerned with raw meat and eggs, we munched away on a French classic, albeit confused by the crackers. A rusty red, they held the texture of a dry sourdough starter: crumbly, pasty, a faded hint of must, and the vague aftertaste of sun-dried tomato. When we asked our waiter what they were made of, he asked the chef who, Jeffery related, “wouldn’t budge on the subject.” Whatever they were, they were definitely unique, although maybe not completely enjoyable.
The scallops, meanwhile, were heavenly. They were served on a lake of apple butter and dressed in apple chutney and dried apple chips. Surprisingly, they did not go the extra mile and add a fourth configuration of apple to the dish. The sear on the scallops was golden-brown and thick, and they cut like warm butter on my fork. Two scallops between four people was a severe shortage, but we stayed ourselves with the idea of our entrees still to come. The combination of apples of three textures and scallops was a lovely one, but slightly unbalanced. Even a haphazard squeeze of citrus would add the tang I found myself wishing for on an otherwise perfect dish.
It was not long after the last scallop piece disappeared into my mouth that our entrees appeared. Two of my group ordered the tagliatelle, one the half-chicken and I ordered Sonoran Red Wine Risotto that came in a bowl the size of my face. Purple-stained rice, dotted with scallions, embellished with a healthy serving of roasted root vegetables and red-stained onions and garnished with turnip chips delighted my eyes. And while the red wine flavor was a little lacking, the combination of flavors and textures meshed into a delight to the senses.
Stuffed to the brim, we peered over the dessert menu with hesitant interest, eventually coming to a consensus on two of the mouth-watering options before us: the white peach fluff budino and white chocolate lemon chiffon torte. Their descriptions were vague, and when both arrived, I was rather disappointed to see they had been plated identically. The peach fluff budino was lovely. Served as a kind of trifle, its small mason jar revealed a nicely sweet flavor with little texture variance. The dessert hit only one note, but hit it well. Its companion, a lemon chiffon torte, struck a delightful chord. It was no symphony, no chorus of strings, but it played its part well.
The meal was followed by a leisurely stroll along the tracks, long since retired, to stretch our legs and hold on to our last shred of French fantasy. The disappointments few and far between, a meal became an event to remember, and we strolled away, back to the bustling and grooving streets of downtown Tucson.