Tucked into the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains overlooking Tucson, Ariz., are two restaurants under one roof, each showing a different side of trendsetting chef Janos Wilder.
One, the opulent fine dining spot called Janos, has won him national acclaim for innovative Southwestern cuisine prepared with local ingredients and French techniques.
The other, a lively, casual, lower-priced spot called J Bar, brings his penchant for zesty cooking and indigenous foods to a broader audience. Its offerings roam southern Arizona, Mexico, South America and the Caribbean in search of boldly flavored dishes and potables to match.
As the “bar” in J Bar suggests, beverages define the concept. “We call it a bar to distinguish it from Janos, yet we link to it with the J in the name,” says Wilder, whom the James Beard Foundation proclaimed Best Chef of the Southwest in 2000. “And it emphasizes the conviviality you have in a bar.” Indeed, the custom-crafted bar of tin and mirrors is the centerpiece of what’s become a prime gathering spot in the desert metropolis of one million people.
The bar, designed by Arizona craftsman Rory McCarthy and built by a local blacksmith, has a handsome patina of age on its riveted tin surface. “We like its rustic Western look,” says Wilder. With its mirrored backbar shelves filled with an impressive array of premium and superpremium spirits, it’s the focal point of a bustling dining room decorated with rich red and gold tones and original oil paintings by local artists.
Each evening, the cocktail crowd quickly fills up the nine barstools and several small tables in the compact bar area. At times, a couple dozen more patrons join them, happily standing and mingling. “Some nights it’s so crowded you can hardly walk through,” quips Wilder.
Bold Nuevo-Latino dishes (opposite page) and a hopping bar (above) draws a crowd to J Bar. Chef/owner Janos Wilder pairs the fl avorful dishes he creates with wines selected from an extensive list, a range of beers or signature cocktails such as the J Bar Margarita and creative Martinis and Mojitos that involve Latin
flavors and local ingredients.
Few casual restaurants boast such a wealth of beverage products and expertise. J Bar’s 350-item wine list—all choices priced less than $100—is culled from the 900-bottle, award-winning collection housed next door at Janos. The wines are selected by wine director and beverage manager Kevin Leeser. Although most J Bar patrons choose from the more casual venue’s list for convenience, the complete Janos collection is available to them.
Beyond wine, the backbar is filled with premium and superpremium tequilas, vodkas, rums, whiskies and other spirits for sipping or mixing into “Bebidas Especiales,” as the section of specialty drinks on the J Bar menu is aptly titled. Headliners include the signature house Margaritas and Mojitos. Interesting craft beers, unique regional beverages like the alcohol-free fruit Licuados and the Michelada beer cooler also entice guests, while tasting flights of everything from ports to small-batch bourbons round out the beverage offering.
Spirits and wine each account for 45 percent of total beverage sales, with the remaining 10 percent coming from beer. The food-to-beverage ratio at J Bar is 70/30.
The upshot of that beverage bounty is great flexibility for matching with the gutsy, unpretentious fare that comes from J Bar’s open kitchen. Wilder’s suggested matches, which servers are also trained to offer, include Original Jerked Pork with Cranberry Habanero Chutney ($15.50) with Corona Extra Beer or a Michelada; Yucatan-style Plantain- Crusted Chicken ($15.50) with New Zealand’s Dashwood Sauvignon Blanc 2005, and J Bar Nachos ($7), a zesty house specialty topped with chorizo, chile con queso, smoked poblanos and salsa fresca, with the J Bar Margarita, featuring Sauza Extra Gold Tequila.
SHARED RESOURCES, SINGULAR STYLE
Guests can enjoy drinks and dinner overlooking Tucson on the 50-seat patio at J Bar, where checks average one-third the tab at the upscale sibling restaurant Janos.
Nuevo-Latino cooking is trendy, but Wilder has not jumped on the bandwagon; his interest is longstanding. The native Californian was fresh from a training stint in two Michelin-starred kitchens in Bordeaux, France when he settled in Tucson to open Janos in 1983. Delving into the food heritage of the desert region, he became one of a handful of pioneering chefs who put Southwestern cooking on the map. In addition to the Beard award, he owns a parcel of Mobil Travel Guide and AAA dining honors and earns perennial high marks in the Zagat Survey.
Both restaurants are housed in a freestanding building on the grounds of the Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa. When Wilder first entered the 7,500 square-foot space with an eye to relocating Janos there from its original downtown location, he realized it was far too large for his fine dining flagship. “But I saw a great opportunity to do a casual concept alongside fine dining,” he recalls. J Bar debuted there in 1999, a year after Janos moved in, offering 50 dining seats inside and an equal number outside on a wraparound porch with panoramic city views.
Sharing space brings beneficial economies of scale. Since much of J Bar’s prep work is done at Janos, it needs a relatively small kitchen space. The two share staff , offices and storage for provisions and wine. Wilder’s 10,500-bottle inventory is kept in temperature-controlled storage in two areas: reds in the Wine Room, an elegant 14-seat dining salon with floor-to-ceiling rosewood wine racks, and whites in a separate walk-in cellar.
Beverage talent is also shared between the two restaurants, making J Bar a casual venue with a fine-dining feel. Leeser, a 20-year veteran of the Tucson restaurant scene and a sommelier well-traveled in major wine regions, is responsible for all beverage purchasing and manages the bars of both restaurants. He also oversees staff beverage training, which consists of presentations and written handouts followed by examinations. In addition, he leads staff in regular product tastings. “They get a good sense of the flavor profiles of wines and spirits and how they pair with food,” says Wilder.
Although Leeser spends most of his evenings working as the sommelier of Janos, he steps over to J Bar as needed to help patrons choose a wine, although the J Bar wait staff are the primary wine sellers.
The two venues also share customers. Thanks to its distinctive style and lower prices—the average dinner check is $25, about one-third of Janos’ tab—it invites patrons to stop in for a quick cocktail or a spontaneous meal, or to bring the kids. In contrast, Janos is a special occasion destination with a la carte entrees ranging from $28 to $50 and a five-course tasting menu priced at $115 per person, including matching wines. J Bar, in fact, has brought Wilder incremental revenue without competing against his flagship.
QUENCHING SOPHISTICATED THIRSTS
The Prickly Pear Margarita, a specialty at J Bar, derives its unique color from the fruit of the desert cactus.
The J Bar wine list is strong in moderately priced vintages from California, France, Australia and Italy. Cabernet Sauvignon is the best-selling red varietal, followed by Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Syrah/Shiraz. The best-selling red by the bottle is Bella Vida Vineyard Pinot Noir 2002 ($68) from Oregon, with Klinker Brick Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel 2004 ($45), from Lodi, Calif. and Australia’s Wayne Thomas Shiraz McLaren Vale 2005 ($61) next in rank. By the glass, Sagelands Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Four Corners 2002 ($7.25) from Washington’s Columbia Valley is the top red. Wines in the Latin vein include Turley Vineyards Rancho Escondido Zinfandel 2004 ($85), from Baja California, Mexico, and Argentina’s Catena Malbec Mendoza 2003 ($50).
Among white wines, the leading varietals are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Riesling. Talley Vineyards Oliver’s Vineyard Chardonnay 2004 ($54) from Edna Valley, Calif., is the top-selling bottle white, trailed by Dashwood Sauvignon Blanc 2005 ($36 per bottle, $9 by the glass) and Chateau St. Jean Sonoma County Chardonnay ($34, $8.50), which is also the leading white pour. All told, the 13 wines poured by the glass account for a little more than half of total wine volume.
In addition to mining the major wine regions, Leeser looks to Arizona’s improving wine industry for good bottlings, like Callaghan Vineyards Lisa’s Selection 2004, a Viognier-Riesling blend from the Sonoita appellation south of Tucson.
While wine is a draw, a major source of excitement at J Bar is the array of Bebidas Especiales, which are priced at $7 to $9. Wilder summarizes the sales trend:”Margaritas rule.” The best seller by far is the J Bar Margarita, mixed with Sauza Extra Gold Tequila, Grand Marnier Liqueur and fresh lime juice. In barchef fashion, the Cranberry Habanero Margarita is flavored with zingy chutney from the kitchen. There are also Pineapple, Blackberry and Prickly Pear Margaritas, the latter sporting a vivid purplish-red hue from a syrup made from the fruit of a desert cactus. For a trade-up Margarita, patrons call for one of 16 tequilas offered at the bar, such as brands like Herradura Anejo. These superpremium Margaritas are priced at $12.
Mojitos are also hot. J Bar’s traditional version consists of Cruzan Light Rum, fresh lime, muddled mint and soda. Others are the Mango Mojito, with Cruzan Mango Rum and mint muddled in mango puree; the Basil and Pineapple Mojito with Cruzan Light and a vodkabased Raspberry Mojito made with Vox Raspberry Vodka and muddled mint and berries. Also popular is the Espana, a combination of Licor 43, the Spanish fruit-and-herbal liqueur, plus passion fruit and orange juice.
Spicing up the mix are J Bar’s Martinis, which include the Cocotini, made with Grey Goose Vodka, Kalani Coconut Liqueur and toasted coconut, and the Elderberry Martini, featuring Domaine Charbay Vodka and Nicolaihof Elderberry syrup.
For after-dinner sipping, customers opt for spirits like Don Julio 1942 Tequila and Corralejo Reposado Tequila, Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey, Woodford Reserve Bourbon and Lagavulin 16 Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky, priced from $10 to $18.
J Bar also offers flights of wines, tequilas, single malt Scotches, Cognacs and small-batch bourbons for customers to explore. An example is the flight of unusual single varietal ports from California’s St. Barthelemy Cellars ($9), featuring one-ounce pours of Barbera, Syrah and Petite Sirah ports.
When it comes to beer, J Bar patrons favor craft brews. The leaders are Stone Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard Ale, North Coast Brewing’s Pranqster Ale and Big Sky Brewing’s Moose Drool Ale, all by the bottle. The two best-selling draft beers are Amstel Light and Lost Coast Brewery Great White Ale.
Creativity and appreciation of fresh, flavorful Latin ingredients also shines on the alcohol-free side, where Licuado del Dia ($3.50) stands out as a refreshing Mexican-style fruit drink blended from a fresh fruit like strawberry, papaya, mango or lime and water. Although not a big seller, it adds another layer of authenticity to the concept. Notes Wilder, “Those who know it, really like it.”
He also introduces patrons to the Michelada ($6), a Mexican beer cooler that’s little known north of the border. J Bar’s lively version has Corona Extra, Clamato juice, lime, Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce, served on the rocks in a salted-rim glass.
Throughout his career, Wilder has supported sustainable agriculture and the preservation of indigenous foods, going so far as to set up a network of produce gardeners in his area.
“It’s very important to me to use local products on the culinary side and at the bar, and to create flavor profiles that speak to the region,” he declares. One of his sidelines is consulting with Kai, a fine dining restaurant at a Phoenix resort that interprets traditional Native American foods and cooking practices in a creative cuisine. He also finds time to teach cooking classes and participate in frequent charitable events around town.
“I’d like to think we’ve been a model of how a restaurant and a community can work together,” says Tucson’s celebrated chef, noting that the collaboration extends to the ingredients used at the bar.”I think we’ve stayed true to our vision and done very little compromising.”
James Scarpa is Chicago-based writer who specializes in food, beverages, technology and the business of restaurants.