There are some spaces downtown that just have so much charm no matter the quality of the food: the Padre, T.L. Maxwell’s and the bar at Bill Lee’s, beckoning all those mai tai lovers.

The Tower Craft Bar & Grill has reopened in what is indeed one of downtown’s special spaces, formerly The Bell Tower Club then The Ivy Mediterranean Tapas, which closed last year when the owner fell ill. In new hands, they’ve done some interesting things with the space that started as a church, and the early returns on the menu indicate to us that this place is going to evolve into a worthy date night location for many who love dining downtown.

There is, of course, the courtyard, which was almost full on a Saturday night when we visited, the spring temperatures being perfect for al fresco dining, but we wanted to go inside and I had a hard time putting my finger on why the space seemed more inviting now. Lighting? More space between tables? I wasn’t sure, but it is indeed an elegant ambiance worthy of fine cuisine.

Though the food we sampled was exceptional, I suspect that much of this will be a work in progress for months. For example, our waitress said there was no dessert menu “yet.” The wine list shows some thought with a wide variety of price points including California wines at $21 a bottle. Heck, in L.A. I got charged $16 for a glass of house chardonnay. But the list of appetizers right now, called “Amuse,” is limited to six choices, and there are also only a half-dozen entrees.

From this we chose to be amused by the house salad ($6) and the tomato bisque ($6), and for entrees the grilled salmon ($30) and the bistro-style tenderloin ($34).

Everything was great. How often can you say that on a first visit to a new restaurant? My biggest gripe was with the grilled cheese toast points served with the bisque. The bread was thin like a cracker, the cheese thick like it was straight out of Wisconsin and part of a government work project to keep dairy farmers afloat. I almost never complain about too much cheese on anything, but this was startling. The bisque itself was thick and dark, proving itself complicated and more intriguing with every taste. My companion’s salad was supposed to have spring mix lettuce, peaches, candied walnuts and Stilton cheese with a champagne vinaigrette. The peaches were replaced by blueberries — I’m guessing a seasonal availability issue — but the lettuce was really fresh and the dressing had interesting mustardy/wasabi notes. The cheese is interesting because it’s a British classic that comes in both white and blue versions and is really a neglected classic in most kitchens. Here it showed up on the salad and as the chief component of the sauce on my steak.

The steak was perfect, really, and a value at the price. It was resting on pan-roasted potatoes with three fresh asparagus stalks on the side. The menu promised me an “heirloom tomato salad,” and all I saw on the plate was a tiny half of what appeared to be a cherry tomato as a crown on the steak above the sauce. I thought originally it was a spoof of some sort. The steak was thick, high, juicy and perfect with this very creamy, rich sauce. It was impossible not to savor every morsel.

My companion’s salmon was a grilled filet, about three inches wide and quite high resting on three asparagus stalks with a “citrus sauce” that was, like the Stilton sauce on my steak, an exceptionally compatible pairing. Someone in the kitchen is a good matchmaker. No starch here, just a “summer vegetable blend,” which was broccoli, zucchini and squash.

Other entrees include roast duck with a cherry-brandy reduction, herb-crusted rack of lamb and “island style seafood” made with scallops, shrimp and calamari with coconut sauce and basmati rice. Considering how the kitchen delivered on our first choices, I’m sure they’ll be worth sampling in the future.

I would bet that this restaurant will continue to evolve under Chef Robert Alimirzaie. It’s already moving in an impressive direction.

Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at pftittl@yahoo.com.

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