Yuma Fine (?) Dining (Very Long)
It really would not be fair for me to rate or fully review Yuma's fine dining options. To be honest, a lot of my fine dining budget is spent on the Monterey Peninsula and in San Diego sushi bars instead of here in the desert. Nonetheless, Yuma has some fine dining options, and I will try to provide a brief discussion of these restaurants in chronological order -- that is the order in which they were established.
Jack ‘n’ Rosie’s is Yuma's original fancy restaurant. Begun in the 1930s and located in the middle of a residential district, this place has been serving fine steaks for over 70 years. When I moved to town, most of my food loving friends told me that there was nothing at this place of much interest. Indeed, on my first two trips to this venerable establishment, it was not hard to notice the signs of decrepitude. Most diners were older than I am (that means they were positively ancient). Steaks were served on the old-style platters with metal inserts, which I remember from the 50s or 60s. The wine list was tiny and poorly chosen. Every meal was served with split pea soup, an iceberg lettuce salad with the standard dressing choices, and half of a twice baked potato. When I asked about seafood, a waitress responded, "Oh honey, you don't want the seafood, it's all just frozen, breaded, and deep-fried." Still, the steaks were good, and the place was a favorite of a friend of mine who moved here when it was the only fine dining option.
As if to disapprove my standard adage that no restaurant gets better when sold to a new owner, Jack ‘n’ Rosie’s has changed and improved considerably this past year under the ownership and management of a young man who was once a busboy at the restaurant. One major thing that has remained the same is the excellent quality of the steaks, each one served with a firkin of excellent salsa – a nice combination. On the other hand, now the seafood is fresh and available grilled. The wine list, while still small, has improved. The soup of the day changes regularly. A blue cheese/french dressing is now the house dressing although other choices are available. Sinatra tunes waft through the restaurant. The owner/manager is present constantly, working as the bartender (and pouring good drinks), keeping an eye on the entire space, and wiping tables when necessary. That kind of hard work, dedication, and focus has definitely improved what was a tired restaurant. However, some things still need changes, as the chairs and tables look like objects from a 1950s museum, and the old vinyl tablecloths don't match the prices charged for the steaks.
Julieanna’s Patio Café brought a much more modern style of fine dining to Yuma. This large restaurant is a beautiful space a few blocks west of the hospital in an area dominated by medical offices and clinics. During our winter season, the outside patio area is packed with diners enjoying the temperate weather and the beautiful garden atmosphere of the restaurant. The bar and indoor dining area have recently been renovated and are also very attractive. The menu ranges from old standbys (there is a Monte Christo sandwich on the lunch menu, for example) to more international and innovative dishes (the Thai style chicken green curry on the dinner menu is actually quite good). The kitchen has a good touch with seafood as well, and the veal piccata is another one of my favorites here.
Conversely, service can range from truly outstanding to downright awful. The wine list, while recently improved, is still too narrow and expensive for my taste. Most soups that I have had here have been mediocre, although the salads can be quite tasty. I have had more good meals at this restaurant than poor meals. I just wish it were a little bit more consistent.
The River City Grill on 3rd St was an amazing restaurant when it first opened. This was the first place in town to offer a range of vegetarian meals (in addition to meat and seafood choices, of course), several international dishes, and an outstanding wine list at reasonable prices. All dinner entrees came with your choice of salads, and each salad - Mediterranean with olives, feta cheese, and marinated tomatoes, spinach with walnuts and Gorgonzola, and the Asian style salad with a soy-based dressing - was a delight. The service was consistently outstanding without being overwhelming. Usually hip international tunes played on the sound system. Sunset Magazine praised the restaurant, justifiably in my opinion, at that time. Unfortunately, I generally feel the restaurant is no longer as cutting-edge. The menu does not seem to change very much anymore, and my last meal there, a halibut special, was overcooked.
Perhaps part of the reason for the previous restaurant's downward slip is that the owners of The River City Grill have since opened on 4th Ave a newer, more upscale restaurant serving Italian cuisine called Ciao Bella. Renovating an old brick Mexican restaurant, Nan and her husband, Anthony, have created a very stylish and contemporary place to eat, full of old brick, dark woods, marbled tabletops, and colored glass light shades. Opera recordings played at low volume match the theme and décor. The wine list is again excellent. The tomato and red pepper bisque is creamy and flavorful. The Oso Buco is as good as any I've ever eaten. The bacon wrapped scallops on a bed of risotto is a nice dish although the one time I had it my scallops were overcooked. Other items, in particular the pasta and lasagna, seem pretty standard. A few dishes have not been as well executed. The crust on the pizza with prosciutto, Gorgonzola, and figs was nice and crunchy. The three toppings went together well except they were terribly unbalanced; the few sweet figs were unable to stand up to the saltiness of the other ingredients. My worst meal, and perhaps not coincidentally my last meal there, was the rack of lamb, which was served with polenta. The rack of lamb itself was perfectly cooked and nicely herbed, but what it was doing sitting on top of a mound of very boring and flavorless polenta is beyond me. The polenta cried out for some sauce, but the lamb provided none.
The newest venture of this same couple is Anthony's Uptown Deli, a place where one can have sandwiches and other meals or can pick up a number of tasty things to go. For a busy individual with a microwave, this place represents an oasis of tasty and easy-to-prepare choices instead of the boring sameness of most fast food options. Many entrée choices from both River City Grill and Ciao Bella are available chilled and ready to take home. Anthony's also has a selection of fine wines (and occasionally some excellent wine deals), cheeses, salads, fresh fish, and breads. My biggest complaint about the place is that one never knows for sure what will be available on any given day.
Carla Renee’s is Yuma's newest fine dining option. Located in the seemingly cursed Old Town space that previously housed Bon Vivant and Villa on the Main, Carla Renée's presents a variety of grilled dishes in a beautiful double room restaurant. Oddly enough, contemporary country and western radio provides the sonic backdrop, which in my mind seems terribly out of place. Most lunch items that I have ordered here, the “kobe” beef burger and the buffalo chicken sandwich, in particular, have been good. The wine list seems well-chosen although it is not very large. My main complaint about the dinner menu is that it is very limited. In addition perhaps to a special, for entrees, there is a steak, the burger, a salmon dish, a pasta choice, and a chicken breast. While the grilled vegetables that accompany most of these entrées are quite excellent, none of the entrées seems especially creative, and the one time I had the chicken breast, it was quite overcooked and dried out. The service, while always friendly, is sometimes a bit clumsy. In general, I feel that this place is a better choice for lunches than dinners.
In addition to these restaurants, I want to call attention to two other local resources for people interested in fine dining. Old Town Wine Cellar, located on Main Street next to Carla Renée's, is an excellent little wine shop. Mike, the owner, is usually on hand and very willing to provide good advice for anyone who doesn't know what he/she wants. The shop stocks a great variety of different types of wines from all over the world as well as a good selection of California's finest. The prices are also very good for a wine specialty shop. Of particular interest are the Thursday and Friday afternoon tastings. Starting around 3 p.m. both days, one can sample a selection of six different wines for only five dollars. Usually a more expensive wine is also available by the glass. For anyone who wants to learn more about wines or just sample some vino after work, these tastings provide a good introduction.
Los Roys is a new butcher shop just opened in Palm Plaza between 22nd and 24th on Avenue A. Featuring all Angus beef, specialty sausages, and marinated meats, this shop offers discriminating Yuma consumers the best in well marbled steaks and roasts. The Angus burger patties are to die for, and considering their rich flavor, they may ultimately prove fatal – but what a way to go!
For my friends who have lived in Yuma for a long time, the city today seems rich with fine dining opportunities. It's also great to have an excellent specialty wine store, and a first-rate butcher shop. Locals also realize that the city has tremendous resources when it comes to shopping for Mexican food. On the other hand, I have to admit that none of the fine dining restaurants is 100% successful. While each of them is worth visiting and patronizing, I'm not sure that any could survive in a major metropolitan area. Certainly, short-term visitors to Yuma should concentrate on the Mexican restaurants that offer a range and level of Mexican food not available most places in the United States.
Let me encourage anyone who has an opinion about any of these spots to respond to this posting.
Thanks again for another in-depth posting. My next trip is in a couple weeks, and I'll be sure to check out some of the ones I'm not familiar with. Too bad to hear about Ciao Bella's recent food decline--I had high hopes for them. Hopefully things will improve!
Alice in Flag
re: Ed Dibble
I had a chance to visit Carla Renee's as well on this last trip. I liked the ambience, although the A/C was on the fritz. It wasn't totally broken, so we could still be there, but they had a lot of fans going to try to deal with the 119 degree heat outside.
I went with my two co-workers, who became more my *drinking* rather than *dining* companions this night. Since the place was pretty empty--there was one couple at the bar and the three of us--the bartender was apparently feeling generous.
We started with one round of cocktails--my manhattan was very well prepared, I may add. We ordered the seared ahi tuna special appetizer and the won ton appetizer. I was kind of looking forward to the won tons, since they were not fried, but poached. Unfortunately, I think they were overcooked, because they were just slimy. I liked the ahi, though, which was served with a wasabi butter sauce. One of my companions thought the ahi was too dry in the seared part.
I ended up splitting a ribeye special with a gorgonzola crust with one of my companions. I was kind of disappointed, since the steak was really thin and a bit tough on the outside. But, I was pretty tipsy at this point, so I'd better not comment further...
Since it was so slow, we did get to chat with Kyle, our chef, and the bartender (can't remember her name) for a little bit. We were concerned at how slow they were--only two other parties were there while we were there. They did say that the night before was booming...because there was a fire at Lutes Casino down the street and everyone needed someplace else to go. Hopefully some of those people will return, because I think Carla Renee's is well intentioned. They just need to work out some of the kinks on the food and pour smaller cocktails. :-)