Fresh Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Fresh Bistro on Fourth Street

Life is similar to a bus ride.
The journey begins when we board the bus.
We meet people along our way of which some are strangers, some friends and some strangers yet to be friends.”
~Chirag Tulsiani

Perhaps no mobile conveyance in the Land of Enchantment has ferried as many interesting people on as many colorful journeys as the “Road Hog,” the psychedelic bus which shuttled its passengers from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock to Llano Largo, New Mexico. The Road Hog’s 1969 arrival in Llano Largo heralded the start of the “summer of the hippie invasion” as The Taos News called it. There unwashed masses settled into a Utopian agrarian commune they called the Hog Farm. The Road Hog with its familiar duck hood ornament and Grateful Dead-style tie-dyed design became a common sight in Peñasco, my childhood home. Sadly, for want of a part nowhere to be found, the Road Hog is slowly rusting away at its home in Llano Largo.

If the Road Hog represented the counter culture and anti-American bourgeois of the 60s, the KOB TV mobile News bus represented the staid establishment. For years, the classic Fageol Twin Coach (circa 1955), emblazoned with the station’s call letters proudly reminded viewers that KOB TV was the first station across the Land of Enchantment to broadcast in color. Ultimately, more sleek and maneuverable motorized conveyances came along and the KOB TV bus became obsolete. It wound up a rusty, hollowed-out scrap heap in La Hoya, New Mexico where the time-weathered bus seemed fated to fade into oblivion. Unlike the Road Hog, however, the former News bus didn’t remain in the “island of misfit buses.”

Fresh Mobile Bistro, Forty Feet of Fine Dining Excellence

Where others saw an unused, unloved, unwashed motorized mess, Corrales Chef Jon Young and his radiant bride Melissa, saw their opportunity to become a part of the food truck revolution sweeping across the fruited plain. In 2014, they purchased the vintage bus and began the painstaking process of transforming it into a mobile food kitchen where Jon could ply his passion for creative fine dining. The renovation process required the patience of Job. Obsolete parts had to be retooled by hand. In fact, the entire refurbishment process was arduous and manual.  With Jon and Melissa working assiduously, the ugly duckling slowly began blossoming into a graceful swan. Timeworn seats gave way to swanky booths more comfortable and spacious than first class airline seats. A small, but fully functional kitchen was installed at the back of the bus. Kitchen utensils such as a spatula and spoon were converted into door handles.

Alas, sometimes bad things happen to good people. During the restoration project, Melissa was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer and had to undergo chemotherapy. Healing became their focus and priority with the conversion project taking a back-burner for a while. Their dream was postponed for about a year. Today, the reservations-only luxury bus themed after the famous Orient Express is home to creative fine dining that comes from the heart of a very determined, very talented chef with a high likeability quotient. Spend just a few minutes with Jon and Melissa and you’ll find yourself rooting for them to succeed in a very tough business.

The Interior of Fresh Mobile Bistro

At an early age, the precocious chef knew he was destined to become a chef. While watching Julia Child prepare omelets on television, he complained to his mom that the revolutionary chef had stolen his idea. By age fourteen, he was slinging pizza dough in his hometown’s beloved Village Pizza. Later on, he took a job as a dishwasher at what was then New Mexico’s finest restaurant, the Casa Vieja, also in Corrales. Renowned chef Jean-Pierre Gozard started Jon at the very bottom—washing dishes. When a busboy left, Jon moved up and continued a steady ascent up the kitchen ranks. Like a sponge, he absorbed as much as he could from the fiery Gozard, acquiring classic French culinary techniques without having to attend a credentialed culinary school.

If Jon has a high likeability quotient, Melissa’s is off the charts. She is a buoyant bundle of energy with smiling eyes. Gracious and kind, she’s the restaurant’s hostess, operations manager and ambassador. A native New Mexican like Jon, Melissa has an entrepreneurial background. She keeps things moving efficiently and steadily with an attention to detail which ensures a smooth operation.  Moreover, she’s got a smile and a kind word for every guest.  Her sweet sister Jahqwah, also an ebullient whirling dervish and perpetually smiling beauty, was our server during our first two visits.  She took very good care of us.

Chef Jon Young

Fresh Bistro, not to be confused with its mobile sibling Fresh Mobile Bistro, is located on Fourth Street in the converted home which previously housed Desert Grows.  Several small and smartly appointed dining rooms evoke a homey feeling.  Modern impressionist portraits festoon the walls while fresh flowers adorn the tables.  Towering deciduous trees and yawning umbrellas shield guests from New Mexico’s dazzling (Hi Deanell) sun in a capacious patio where our dachshund The Dude (he abides) enjoyed the rapt attention of other guests.  A lone troubadour regaled us with easy listing and folk tunes.

Fresh Bistro, the brick-and-mortar restaurant, is actually a spin-off of Fresh Mobile Bistro, the bus, which is parked behind the restaurant.  The full-service restaurant actually spawned because of the popularity of the mobile kitchen.  It was only natural that Chef Young would need a more expansive canvas for his edible art.  Before launching their traditional sit-down restaurant, the Youngs operated much as other mobile food kitchens, albeit one in which diners were embraced by quiet luxury evocative of a small Parisian cafe.  Ironically the mobile Bistro parked often at La Casa Vieja where the chef learned to master French culinary techniques.

Melissa Young and her jaunty sister Jahqwah with our debonair (and uncharacteristically camera-shy) dachshund Dude

Whether you dine in the restaurant, on the patio or on the bus, you can be assured of a meal prepared from scratch by a very passionate chef who thrives on creating memorable meals that are as much a delight to the eye as they are to taste.  Reservations are required to dine on the bus where you’ll be transported to a timeless and rare elegance and indulgence with seasonal menus that will take you on a gastro-tour of taste.  Jon lovingly prepares each dish to order, imparting sage tidbits along the way.  Chef Young describes very clearly and accurately just where your taste buds will discern various elements of your meal.    The mobile bistro offers six-  and ten-course dinners, all served at an old-world pace to allow guests to fully appreciate each course.

Fresh isn’t solely the name on the marquee.  It’s an operational model and a philosophy.  The Youngs source as many ingredients from local growers so that most of what their guests enjoy is local, in season and, of course, fresh.  Structurally, the menu is similar to the menus at other bistros with appetizers, salads, soups, pastas, entrees and desserts.  Where you’ll notice the differences is in reading the vivid descriptions of each item–tantalizing descriptions punctuated with cooking techniques and premium ingredients.  It’s practically an invitation to drool.

Lavender French Toast

Coincidentally, our inaugural visit (on a Saturday when brunch is featured fare until two o’clock ) was on the day the village of Los Ranchos was celebrating its annual lavender festival. Lavender is a rarity among flowering plants in that it goes as well with savory dishes as it does decadent desserts. It has a penetrating floral and spicy aroma with a flavor profile similar to rosemary and thyme. It’s got a residual bitterness that’s overridden by its flavor and aromatic bouquet. To some, it tastes like soap (the same thing is often said about cilantro). To others, lavender can do no wrong. We were determined to enjoy this versatile, fresh, floral, clean flower in as many dishes as we could find.

16 July 2017: French toast are described on the menu as “sourdough bread topped with sweetened mascarpone cheese topped with your choice of fruit and powdered sugar” with fruit choices being bananas, peaches and strawberries. When our savvy server suggested lavender, we jumped at the opportunity. Syrup need not apply for a place on these four golden slices of eggy bread flecked with lavender. Sweetened mascarpone made them sweet enough with the lavender often making its presence felt in tempering any residual sweetness. In the spectrum of sweet that runs from mild to cloying, these French toast were…just right.

Monte Cristo Sandwich with Salad

16 July 2017: Similar to French toast, the bistro’s Monte Cristo is lightly dipped in egg batter then grilled. This beauteous sandwich is constructed on sourdough bread and filled with ham and Gruyere cheese. It’s topped with a cherry-brandy reduction. More commonly, a Monte Cristo is topped with a small amount of powdered sugar and traditionally served with a ramekin of raspberry or strawberry jam you can apply yourself. There’s nothing common about this sandwich. The cherry-brandy reduction is a superb complement to the savory elements of the sandwich, working with them instead of overpowering them with sweet notes. Both the rich, nutty Gruyere and the salty ham worked well, too.

16 July 2017: It’s a rarity in Albuquerque to find a brunch menu without any number of dishes showcasing the Land of Enchantment’s addictive red or green chile. On Fresh’s brunch menu there are only two. One is eggs Benedict served with carne adovada. The other is a dish created by the inventive chef. It’s called a Frenchilada and it’s a sort of New Mexico meets France featuring layers of crepes filled with chicken breast, green chile, mushrooms and roasted garlic cream sauce with an egg on top. This is a magnificent dish! Chef Young doesn’t shy away from piquant chile and he doesn’t use it sparingly. The foil to the chile’s heat is the mushroom’s earthiness. You’ll want to lick your plate to ensure you don’t leave behind any of the roasted garlic cream sauce.

Green Chile Chicken Frenchiladas

16 July 2017: Perhaps the piece de resistance of our inaugural meal at Fresh was Chef Young’s lavender bread pudding. It may not be on Larry McGoldrick’s Bread Pudding Hall of Fame, but that’s only because the professor with the perspicacious palate hasn’t yet had it. This is a superb bread pudding, the antithesis of so many cloying versions of a dish whose genesis has been traced back to 13th century England. Sure it’s sweet, but not nearly overly so. It’s light, delicate and spongy, topped with whipped cream and surrounded by a pool of sweet, creamy sauce. The lavender has its desired effect of introducing the elements of flowery freshness to a bread pudding which would have been wonderful without it, but becomes transformative with it. 

Lavender Bread Pudding

26 August 2017:  Mycologist and author Paul Stamets who founded Fungi Perfecti to educate the world on the benefits of using mushrooms to improve the health of the planet and its people, once said “never underestimate the cleverness of mushrooms to find new food!”  Nor should you ever underestimate the talents of a great chef to use mushrooms in truly delicious ways.  Chef Young’s stuffed mushrooms are a must-have starter–four large mushrooms caps stuffed to overfilling with crab, ricotta cheese and fresh herbs in an addictive red wine reduction.  The crab, ricotta and herb mix is almost mousse-like in its consistency and ethereally light in its mouth feel.  The fleshy fungi are earthy and fresh.  Though we polished off the red wine reduction with our spoons, a few slices of bread would have been welcomed to sop up the soupy sumptuousness.

Stuffed Mushrooms

26 August 2017:  As has oft been chronicled on this blog, your humble blogger loves risotto–almost as much as one of George Costanza’s girlfriends did during one memorable Seinfeld episode.  So much so that I ordered the seared shrimp with chile and pineapple mostly to partake of the risotto.  Predictably, Chef Young understands the challenges and nuances of preparing a great risotto.  It’s rich and creamy with individual grains prepared at just past al dente–exactly as they should be.  Oh, and the seared shrimp were pretty good, too.  It’s not every chef who’s intrepid enough to embolden the sweet flavor of shrimp with a pleasantly piquant red chile and make the results pay big dividends.  Perhaps more chefs should take the risk.  The sweet, juicy pineapple, grilled to a light caramelization, are a terrific foil for the heat of the chile.  Then there’s the accompanying vegetables, best of which are asparagus spears.  They’re prepared as well as vegetables possibly can be and are crisp, fresh and delicious.

Seared Shrimp with Chile and Pineapple

26 August 2017:  During our inaugural visit to Fresh, Chef Young gave us a sample of  his housemade red chile barbecue sauce.  Just as he predicted, his barbecue sauce–emboldened with Chimayo chile–imparts a nice heat about four seconds after you’ve tasted it.  First, your taste buds will discern a smoky sweetness that will trigger a wanton desire for more.  Then the endorphin-generating heat kicks in and that wanton desire becomes unbridled lust.  It’s an outstanding barbecue sauce.  Now, we’ve seen red chile barbecue sauce before, but no other has the combination of heat and flavor this one does. 

My Kim ordered the red chile barbecue pulled pork sandwich so she could enjoy the nuances of the sauce even more.  This sandwich is engorged with a generous amount of pulled pork with nary any fat or sinew.  The sauce is counterbalanced by melted Cheddar cheese of medium sharpness on a canvas of fresh, soft bread.  How much did we enjoy this sandwich?  It made it to my list of list of highest rated sandwiches.  If on the menu, the perfect accompaniment is Chef Young’s French onion soup, an exemplar of this paragon of deliciousness.  The wondrous combination of sweet, caramelized onions and blistered, molten, cheesy blanket make this a favorite.

Housemade Red Chile Barbecue Pulled Pork

26 August 2017:  Just as it doesn’t have to be the Christmas season to enjoy crooner Andy Williams singing Christmas carols, it doesn’t have to be Christmas season to enjoy Buche de Noel, a traditional French dessert normally served at Christmas celebrations.  Chef Young offered it on an August day when the thermometer approached ninety-degrees.  It’s a wonderful early Christmas gift.  Often referred to as yule log or holiday log, this glorious cake is shaped and decorated to look like a tree log, albeit a chocolate log.  This deliciously light and moist chocolate sponge cake is filled with chocolate whipped cream, rolled into a cylinder, then frosted with chocolate ganache.  Sure it’s a chocolate overdose, but what a great way to go.

It Doesn’t Have to be Christmas Season to Enjoy Buche Noel

Howie “The Duke of Duke City” Kaibel, the charismatic Albuquerque Community Manager for Yelp describes his inaugural experience at Fresh (The Mobile Bistro) as “probably my favorite find in Albuquerque over the last year.” Larry McGoldrick tells us on his Yelp review that “Jon is a wizard in the kitchen. He has a passion for good, fresh, excellently prepared food, and that’s precisely what you’ll get here.” If you need further proof that the Fresh Bistro and its mobile sibling are a not-to-be-missed dining destination, read the Yelp reviews. Yelp critics tend to be a tougher crowd than I am and they give Fresh Bistro four-and-a-half stars. It’s a perfect ten in my book.

Fresh Bistro and its mobile sibling may be the culmination of the dreams of a very talented chef and his beautiful bride, but it’s a good bet you may find yourself dreaming about your next meal there.

Fresh Bistro
7319 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 26 August 2017
1st VISIT: 16 July 2017
COST: $$
BEST BET: Lavender Bread Pudding, Lavender French Toast, Monte Cristo, Green Chile Chicken Frenchiladas, Stuffed Mushrooms, Buche Noel, Red Chile Barbecue Pulled Pork, Seared Shrimp with Chile and Pineapple

Fresh Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Casanova Restaurant – Carmel, California

Casanova Restaurant, the most romantic restaurant in Carmel, California

For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left inside
On that starry, starry night
You took your life as lovers often do
But I could have told you, Vincent
This world was never meant
For one as beautiful as you
~Don McLean

When Vincent van Gogh painted “The Starry Night” depicting the view of a swirling night sky from the window of his room at the sanatorium Rémy-de-Provence, there’s no way he could possibly have known that its fame would be spread by the heart-rending lyrics of a song.  In 1970, his painting was immortalized in pop culture on the refrain to Don McLean’s 1970 poignant Vincent.  Throughout his 37 year life, van Gogh’s “suffering for his sanity” was exacerbated by the fact that his work and lifestyle were more widely criticized than they were recognized.

van Gogh spent the last seventy days of his life as a tenant at the Auberge Ravoux, a country inn in a small village some  22 miles northwest of Paris.  The Auberge Ravoux was a favorite among Dutch and American painters and still attracts art enthusiasts from throughout the world.  It also continues to offer traditional food, the type of which van Gogh himself would have enjoyed nearly a century and a quarter ago.  In 2001, the  book  Van Gogh’s Table at the Auberge Ravoux was published as a tribute to the painter’s life and the many cafes and restaurants he enjoyed.  

Al fresco dining amidst flowers at Casanova

van Gogh’s table, the one on which he enjoyed so many meals, now has a home in a private dining room at Casanova Restaurant in Carmel, California.  The table’s presence at Casanova marks a cultural exchange between two artistic communities and two world famous restaurants.  It’s one of the most romantic aspects of a restaurant long  considered the most romantic restaurant in Carmel-by-the-sea, a city world renowned for its European charm and architecture.

Perhaps there may be nothing intrinsically romantic about a simple wooden table, but when you consider that the great painter probably sat there and lamented the many failed romantic pursuits of his life, there’s a Shakespearean quality romantic tragedy in there somewhere.  Most of us can relate to unrequited love, if not to the utter devastation of a bad break-up.  Sometimes not even a great meal at a high quality restaurant can quell the ardor of love gone wrong.

A basket of bread and sun-dried tomato tapenade

Without a doubt Carmel-by-the-sea is one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in the Golden State. How else can you explain why the legendary Hollywood transplant Clint Eastwood, the most macho of macho movie stars, both directed and took the lead role in the torrid romance Bridges of Madison County?  He was undoubtedly inspired by living in (and once having served as mayor of) Carmel. Eastwood’s Carmel restaurant, the Hog’s Head Inn, by the way, is a veritable shrine to the old west and his spaghetti westerns.

Carmel-by-the-sea has also earned a reputation as the “pet friendliest” town in America,” thanks in no small part to America’s sweetheart Doris Day, a Carmel resident who left Hollywood to dedicate her life to the protection of four-legged children. For my good friend and culinary kindred spirit Sandy Driscoll, the combination of  pet friendliness (she’s the best dog trainer in Los Angeles), a romantic ambiance and outstanding food make Casanova a must-stop during her visits to Central California.  She and her handsome doberman Gunner have dined at Casanova on many occasions.

Gnocchi Casanova: light spinach dumplings, parmesan, ‘au gratin’

Almost anywhere else in America, Casanova would seem out-of-place, perhaps as an architectural anomaly.   It’s almost antithetical to any restaurant in another renowned romantic city, Santa Fe, whose architectural standards and city ordinances mandate such uniformity as to make the “City Different” a model of adobe-hued homogeneity.  Instead, Casanova fits in precisely because it is different, but then so are so many other “storybook cottages” throughout the city.  Architectural styles range from California Mission Revival to Tudor, Gothic and Spanish.  Viva la difference!

Casanova is a converted home made to resemble the restaurant owner’s family’s old farm-house in Belgium.  The restaurant both resembles and pays tribute to the great cafes throughout Europe with meticulous attention to detail at every turn.  Both its architectural style and decor are widely imitated and have influenced numerous other restaurants and private homes in Carmel and beyond.  If you’ve ever traveled the European countryside, your first glance will transport you across the Atlantic where quaint cottages often double as cafes and meals are slowly paced to allow for great conversation to couple with great food and coffee.

Selection of House-Made Charcuterie: pickled vegetables & Roman mustard

Casanova Restaurant wasn’t solely a trend-setter architecturally.  Several facets of the dining experience we all take for granted today had their genesis at Casanova. If you enjoy flavored dipping oil for bread, you can thank  Casanova for having introduced that now de rigueur concept in the 1980s.  Appreciate fresh pasta?  Casanova was one of the first restaurants to make their own pasta, transforming a spaghetti and macaroni favoring public to one which appreciated fettuccine and linguini, too.  Casanova pioneered serving cafe au lait and lattes in large French country bowls.

Because of its cool Mediterranean climate, there may be no better milieu for al fresco dining  than Casanova, especially if you like to dine with your canine children.  The outdoor patio abounds in green plants and colorful flowers and is well shaded by assiduous trees.  A basket with bundles of fragrant lavender sits on a wooden bench on the walkway to the restaurant.  Old-fashioned oil cloth tablecloths festoon the tables.  Menus can be plucked out of the basket on the handlebars of a vintage bicycle.

Roasted Lamb Chops: Umbrian ceci bean ragout & marinated favas

The dinner menu is an homage to ingredients sourced locally from small farms and producers, the essence of “California cuisine.”  For someone who’s spent too much time and effort eating (and cursing) the flavors of “homemade” foods sourced from Sysco or Shamrock and served in restaurants throughout New Mexico, dining on garden-fresh vegetables and fruits is a little piece of heaven–even without green chile.  The menu is relatively small, graced by only eight Hors D’Oeuvres, six small plate fruits de mer (seafood starters), eight entrees and two Plats Pour Deux (plates for two).  The menu showcases seafood, Italian, French cuisine prepared in the California style which emphasizes freshness and quality.

It’s only fitting that the restaurant which pioneered flavored dipping oil for bread would excel at both.  The dipping oil during our inaugural visit was a summery sun-dried tomato tapenade redolent with pungent California olives.  It’s an excellent tapenade, the type of which you immerse as much as your bread as will fit in the bowl so you can sop up as much tapenade as possible.  The staff of life served with the tapenade included a hard-crusted baguette, an egg-washed Gruyere cheese bread and several hard-crusted breadsticks.  It’s a terrific triumvirate.

Linguini alla Scapesce: lobster, clams, mussels & shrimp with white wine, Meyer lemon, chervil & crème fraîche

I’ve often lamented the fact that appetizers at some restaurants outshine all their entrees.  That’s almost the case at Casanova where we could not possibly have conceived of an introduction nearly as superb as the Gnocchi Casanova, light spinach dumplings baked with a topping of rich parmesan.  At almost any other restaurant, this appetizer would have been the best dish on the entire menu (and it nearly was at Casanova).  Each gnocchi is roughly the size of a marshmallow.  Bite into the light, delicate exterior and you’re rewarded with a sensual eruption of flavor punctuated by the rich sharpness of unctuous cheese.  There is little of the astringency often found in spinach, because the soft and pillowy deliciousness is so well complemented by the creaminess of the cheese.

The restaurant’s selection of housemade Charcuterie, pickled vegetables and Roman mustard is another superb starter.  It wasn’t so much the haute cuisine of France’s grand, elegant restaurants which won my heart during frequent visits to France in the 1980s, but the more simple family fare–bread, cheeses and meats.  In France, as in much of Europe, the ancient culinary art of charcuterie is still highly revered and well-practiced.  Charcuterie refers to the products made and sold in a delicatessen-style shop, also called a charcuterie.  The operative word here is “made” as in butchering, cutting, salting, curing, slicing, storing and preparing such meat products such as bacon, sausage, ham, pates, and more.  Casanova’s charcuterie plate showcases spek (a smoked and salted bacon), wild boar sausage, bresaola (air-dried, salted beef), pickled vegetables, edible flowers, grainy Roman mustard and cornichons.

Three scoops of housemade ice cream: lavender-vanilla, chocolate and Armagnac with blueberries, strawberries and blackberries

Casanova lets your senses feast on mouth-watering entrees and sumptuous dining experiences you can only have replicated in a past life. Perhaps not since Burford, England have I had lamb chops quite as good as the roasted lamb chops at Casanova.  Lamb chops are the specialty of the house and it’s easy to see why.  These aren’t the desiccated and waifishly thin “lollipop” lamb chops served at most restaurants.  Casanova’s chops are thick and meaty with a profusion of juices at medium rare (the level of doneness recommended by the chef).  Nor is the flavor of these lamb chops obfuscated by sauces.  These lamb chops are  seasoned so that there’s a nice “crust” on their exterior, but they’re not overly salted.  They’re also not gamey as some lamb entrees tend to be.  They’re simply some of the very best lamb chops I’ve had in three continents.  The lamb chops are served with Umbrian ceci bean ragout & marinated favas, neither of which would ordinarily have been my choices.  These are no ordinary vegetables, however.  They’re fresh and crisp with the flavor of freshness.

The Linguini alla Scapesce (lobster, clams, mussels and shrimp with white wine, Meyer lemon, chervil & crème fraiche) is nearly the equal of the lamb chops.  The seafood ingredients have the flavor and freshness of just having been extricated from a net and prepared within minutes.  The linguini is perfectly al dente.  Gloriously long noodles only propriety will prevent you from slurping will remind you they’re made on the premises and not sourced off some store shelf or delivery truck.  The chervil (a mild herb related to parsley) and creme fraiche sauce is applied parsimoniously as it’s done in Italy where the appreciation of a great pasta is akin to a religious experience.

Tarte aux Bananes: Banana tartlet, graham cracker crust, vanilla custard, caramelized bananas, vanilla whipped cream & caramel sauce

If dessert is a sweet prelude to romance, Casanova has several sweet treats designed to get you in the mood–to lick the plates so that you don’t miss a morsel.  One option is three scoops of housemade ice cream in flavors you might not find elsewhere such as lavender-vanilla, chocolate and Armagnac with blueberries, strawberries and blackberries.  The ice cream is rich, creamy and sinfully decadent with each flavor bursting out as a paragon of the named ingredient.  The lavender-vanilla exudes the essential oil flavor profile of memory evoking sweetness.  The Armagnac (a French brandy) is studded with figs and is oh, so delicious.  The chocolate is simply outstanding, a not-too-sweet, adult chocolate.

One dessert you might not want to share even with a loved one is the tarte aux bananes, a banana tartlet crafted on a graham cracker crust atop of which lie vanilla custard, caramelized bananas and vanilla whipped cream with a caramel sauce drizzled throughout the plate.  The caramelized bananas are sliced dime-thin and will remind you of the caramelized sugars on the top layer of a crème brulee. This is a simple dessert with complex flavor combinations that resonate on your taste buds.

Casanova is a restaurant which lives up to its name. The cuisine is outstanding, well-seasoned and beautifully presented. Service is impeccable. Your four-legged children will love it, too.

Fifth Avenue between San Carlos & Mission
Carmel, California
(831) 625-6731
Web Site

: 15 July 2012
: 1
: 26
: $$$ – $$$$
: Gnocchi Casanova, Tarte aux Bananes, Selection of House-Made Charcuterie, Linguini alla Scapesce, Roasted Lamb Chops, Housemade Ice Cream

Casanova Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Gutiz – El Prado, New Mexico

Gutiz Restaurant for Latin and French Fusion Cuisine in El Prado

I recently joked with my friend Lesley King that she is the true New Mexico Gastronome. Lesley, the wonderful author who enthralls readers with her monthly “King of the Road” columns for New Mexico Magazine, likes to say–jokingly–that she “eats and sleeps around,” because her writing assignments require that she sample so many restaurants and accommodations.  She has literally traveled every friendly highway and byway in the Land of Enchantment, dining in as many–or perhaps even more–restaurants than I have while somehow managing to remain svelte and elegant.

I had the great privilege of collaborating with Lesley and Chef Rocky Durham in celebrating the Land of Enchantment’s cuisine in a feature for New Mexico Magazine. The June, 2010 edition of America’s oldest and best official state magazine introduced readers to “New Mexico’s Best Eats,” eight of the very best dishes served in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment: Huevos Rancheros, Green Chile Cheeseburgers, Green Chile Stew, Comfort Food, Deli Sandwich, Tacos, Local Seasonal Ingredients and Desserts.  Two versions of each dish–a downhome version and an uptown version–were showcased in lyrical prose.

The wait staff's prep station at Gutiz

The three of us, all New Mexico natives and peripatetic diners, deliberated spiritedly as to what restaurants would fill each category.  Rocky and I, both the type of men who would actually stop and ask for directions, were wise enough to defer to Lesley’s vast knowledge and much broader travel experiences when we were at a loss.  Such was the case in deciding where New Mexico’s best upscale huevos rancheros were served.  While Rocky and I both drew blanks, Lesley buoyantly made a case for a unique interpretation of huevos rancheros masterfully prepared at a small, somewhat off-the-eaten-path diner in El Prado.

Demurely, Lesley admitted that she sometimes wakes up in Santa Fe and wants to drive to El Prado just to eat this “reconstructed” interpretation of huevos rancheros.  All the essential elements used in the construction of huevos rancheros–pinto beans, onions, tomatoes, eggs, cheese, red and green chile and a tortilla–can be found in the dish with which Lesley became so enamored.  The dish–called the Taoseño and served only at  Gutiz in El Prado,–also includes kidney and garbanzo beans, rice and potatoes, all baked and served in a terra-cotta bowl.

Mint Lemonade

Lesley’s enthusiasm for this dish had me wondering if she would channel John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech with a New Mexico twist, “Soy un Taoseño.”  Though she had us at hello, we didn’t interrupt her alacritous delivery which almost literally had us drooling.  On that basis alone, the Taoseño, while not a conventional rendition of the dish, certainly convinced us it warranted recognition as New Mexico’s best uptown huevos rancheros.  Today, a framed plaque on a wall at Gutiz commemorates the Taoseño’s inclusion among New Mexico’s best eats.

Frankly, the term “among New Mexico’s best” could certainly apply to Gutiz as well.  Founding owner and chef Eduardo Gutiz hit upon a masterstroke when he created the inspired menu, a fusion of French and Spanish cuisine made extraordinarily well.  Lesley explained that chef Gutiz was born in Spain, raised in France and has traveled extensively through Peru and Bolivia.  Foodies recognize that Spain, France and Peru (yes, Perus) are some of the most highly regarded culinary hotbeds in the world.  That wasn’t lost on chef Gutiz who incorporated elements of those three nations on his menu.

New Zealand Green Lip Mussels in a garlic, white wine, tomato, Bolivian aji panca cream sauce served over Gutiz potatoes.

Gutiz (the restaurant, not the chef) is housed in an adobe abode the color of earthen stucco (which in New Mexico can be any of several shades).  Window sills and the picket fence enclosing the patio are a sublime shade of Taos blue.  On an upper level wall on the restaurant’s west side is what appears to be a shuttered balcony on which a metallic rooster perches as if to greet the day.  Oval signage indicates you are at Gutiz, the restaurant’s name framed by the words “Latin French Fusion.”

The interior is very small, but very homey.  The front counter does double duty as the wait staff’s prep station and bar complete with bar stools.  Positioned atop a brick facade is a basket of breads baked in-house and fresh that day, their aroma still wafting throughout the restaurant if you get there for breakfast.  A small glass pastry case on one side of the bar showcases artisan cakes and tarts while a beverage cooler keeps the restaurant’s popular mint lemonade in abeyance until you order it.  The walls are festooned with colorful photographs, the type of which glean appreciation from most diners.  In the summer, particularly during monsoon season, the restaurant’s cooling system struggles to keep temperatures comfortable in the sole dining room.

Outstanding, fresh white bread to sop up the wonderful broth in the bowl of mussels

The menu indicates breakfast and lunch are served all day, Tuesday through Sunday from 8AM to 3PM. The breakfast menu is unique and innovative, a true fusion of complementary ingredients from French and Latin culinary disciplines, including some northern New Mexican inspired dishes.  Tapas, small dishes which can be eaten as an appetizer or eaten as a meal are predominantly seafood oriented.  The specialties section of the menu features Paella Valenciana made the traditional Spanish way.  Salad selections meld the flavors of greens, vegetables, fruits and cheeses.  A sumptuous bounty of sandwiches are served on the restaurant’s homemade French bread. French bread, croissants and pastries are baked fresh every morning.

The menu is a refreshing departure from the mundane, a carte du jour worthy of the Bohemian free-wheeling style of Taos.  It’s adventure eating in the most pleasurable sense, a different menu than you’ll find anywhere in New Mexico.  Though chai teas, fresh ground coffee, espresso and cappuccino are available, start your adventure with a frothy, cold glass of mint lemonade.  Its a uniquely flavored elixir which might remind you of a thin mint Girl Scout cookie dipped in a lemonade with equal pronouncements of sweet and sour.  You’ll ask for at least one refill.

The Taoseño, one of New Mexico's "best eats"

Here’s a challenge for my readers.  Name one person who says they don’t like bread and who can back it up.  It’s easy to find people who don’t like vegetables or meat, but I don’t recall ever meeting anyone who dislikes bread…and even if you could find one, they’d be converted at first bite of Gutiz’s fresh baked bread.  It’s because of this legendary bread that we ordered a tapas appetizer of steamed mussels, a large order (about 20 New Zealand green-lipped mussels) of beautiful bivalve mollusks swimming in a luxurious broth of garlic, white wine, tomato, Bolivian aji panca cream sauce served over Gutiz potatoes.

The mussels are good.  That’s to be expected.  The broth is superb, a concordant melding of flavors that go exceptionally well together.  It’s a broth made to be sopped up with the restaurant’s delicious yeasty bread.  The staff of life at Gutiz has just enough outer crust to form a rim.  The rest is pure spongy deliciousness capable of sopping up its weight in broth.  It’s almost a guarantee that you’ll pay a pittance for additional slices to ensure you don’t miss a glorious drop.

Scottish Sausage: two eggs, grilled Scottish sausage and chipotle sauce served with a mixed green salad and Gutiz potatoes.

As for the Taoseño, my friend Lesley may have understated just how good this “best eats” eat is.  No one ingredient dominates the flavor profile; it truly is a marriage of compatibility.  Everything works well together!  The textures, the flavors, the aesthetics of the dish–it’s a dish deserving of accolades as New Mexico’s very best uptown huevos rancheros.  Not even the old school traditionalists would argue that honor after but just one bite.

The best part of waking up might also be another Gutiz breakfast entree, the Scottish sausage plate.  Having had Scottish sausage at a pub just off Princess Street in Edinburgh, I expected a square sausage patty about a half-inch thick and the perfect size for a sandwich.  Instead, Gutiz’ rendition of Scottish sausage is two diagonally sliced links about five inches in length drizzled in a chipotle sauce.  This is a taste bud awakening grilled sausage with a pleasantly piquant bite.  The sausage is served with two eggs any style and Gutiz potatoes, cubed tubers seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary, paprika and tumeric.  No mater what you order, you’ve got to have a side of these wonderful potatoes.

Grilled Goat Cheese Quesadilla

The sandwich menu might pry your eyes away from breakfast and tapas entrees, especially since most sandwiches are served on the restaurant’s fantastic French bread.  A better canvas for a sandwich there might not be in all of Taos county.  There’s actually only one sandwich not made on the divine staff of life.  That’s the grilled goat cheese quesadilla which is made on a flour tortilla stuffed with goat cheese, a touch of Cheddar and Jack cheese.  It’s grilled and topped with diced tomatoes and basil pesto and served with a side of cucumber and roasted red pepper salad.

This is not a common quesadilla! Unlike the oh-so oily, blase and boring tortilla sandwiches crafted from (could-it-be-Kraft) processed cheeses and their de rigueur toppings of sour cream and guacamole, this quesadilla shows imagination and flair.   The basil pesto is a nice touch and much more exciting than guacamole.  The roasted red peppers find a perfect foil in the cucumbers.  These are nice adds all, but the real star is the quesadilla itself.  The goat cheese is  unctuous with an earthy richness we enjoyed immensely.  After devouring each wedge-shaped slice of this pinto pony color speckled tortilla engorged with goat cheese, you might never again settle for lesser stuff.

Pollo Borachon (Drunken Chicken)

The “Specialties” section of the menu is as “special” as you might infer.  Though the wait staff are consummate sales people with ambassadorial qualities, I’ve only heard them use the term “great choice” one time on the items we’ve ordered.  The item which prompted the effusive exudation was the Pollo Borachon (drunken chicken), a stew of chicken, onions, carrots, green peas, pinto beans, mushrooms and bacon marinated in red wine and baked in a casserole dish with a thin bread shell that envelops the casserole dish similar to a pot pie dish.

If that sounds like a Latin-French fusion interpretation of Coq au Vin, the fabulous French chicken stew, it’ll take only one swoon-inducing whiff for you to appreciate the liberties taken by the chef.    If your mouth is as agape as mine was when yours is delivered to your table, perhaps one of the helpful wait staff will volunteer to play “mommy” and cut it open for you as they did for me.  The surgical precision cut at the top of the golden bread bowl releases the steamy fragrance of the dish, exposing nearly an entire chicken, bone and all.  The chicken, purplish in color from the red wine, falls off the bone into the blessed broth which is just tailor-made for sopping up with the bread cover. The vegetables are perfectly prepared, a healthful and delicious mix.  This is a fabulous entree!

Flourless Chocolate Cake

During both my near noon visits to Gutiz, the pulchritudinous pastries I so lusted after were gone (darn those locals who get there early or call in and “reserve” their favorite desserts as you should), but you can hardly call chocolate croissant (pain au chocolat) a consolation prize.  This light, delicate and flaky French-style croissant is engorged with delicious adult (dark) chocolate, but not so much that it oozes out.  Each bite rewards you with the butteriness of the croissant and the incomparably addictive sweet bitterness of dark chocolate.

If you love “adult” chocolate, the semi-sweet variety with a high cocoa composition, you’ll fall for the flourless chocolate cake which is drizzled with confectioner’s sugar and accompanied by whipped cream dusted with cocoa.  It’s gluten-free greatness in every rich, moist, delicious bite.  During a January, 2011 visit, there were three desserts on the table to be split among four of us.  Our 96-year-old friend Patty Sahd enjoyed the flourless chocolate cake so much, we let her have most of it.  She said she’d never had anything like it.

Banana cake

In the summer of 2010, Eduardo Gutiz sold his eponymous restaurant.  We were assured nothing on the menu has changed.  We were glad to discover that the friendliness for which Gutiz has long been known remains a constant in this extremely popular restaurant truly serving some of New Mexico’s very best eats.

Gutiz Restaurant
812B Paseo del Pueblo Norte
Taos, New Mexico

(575) 758-1226
Web Site
: 16 January 2011
: 3
: $$
: The Taoseño, Scottish Sausage, Steamed Mussels, Goat Cheese Quesadilla, Pollo Borachon Chocolate Croissant, Flourless Chocolate Cake, Banana Cake

Gutiz on Urbanspoon

Bacchus Nibbles – Kildeer, Illinois

Bacchus Nibbles in Kildeer

In Roman mythology, Bacchus was known as the god of wine and ecstasy. A youthful and handsome god with flowing tresses usually depicted wearing wine leaves or ivy on his head, he represented both the intoxicating and the beneficial influences of wine. Bacchanalian festivals, typified by riotous drunken merrymaking and sometimes orgiastic festivity are still celebrated in institutions of higher learning throughout America (who can forget the hilarious movie Animal House and the antics of the Delta House fraternity?).

At Bacchus Nibbles Restaurant & Wine Shop, in Kildeer, a northwest Chicago suburb, wine can be appreciated in a “wine cave-like” atmosphere of civility and quaint refinement that  an aspiring sommelier might welcome. An impressive assemblage of wine, along with sundry liqueurs and liquors is on display in well organized racks throughout the restaurant.  The stacked wine bottles separate the dining areas.  The cozy restaurant belies its somewhat ramshackle, timeworn exterior which frankly doesn’t have the curbside appeal nearly the equal of its menu.

The interior at Bacchus Nibbles

The menu is a compendium of diverse indulgences not only from the Mediterranean, but from throughout the world.  Appetizers and specials of the day may include such succulent surprises as egg rolls, Norwegian smoked salmon, Thai style crispy duck and even potstickers.  An even bigger surprise is how reasonably priced and wonderfully executed each indulgence is.  You’ll be challenged to find any entree priced at greater than twenty dollars and, in fact, might do a double-take at some menu items priced at around the ten dollar price point.

Deciding what to order is an exercise in painstaking deliberation; the options are plentiful and all so tempting.  A seafood soiree is a possibility with boatloads of options such as bay scallops, half-roasted duck, salmon, coconut shrimp, grouper and more.  If grilled meats are more your style, kabobs, steaks, cheeseburgers and even venison are available.  For the gourmand around town, osso bucco and coq au vin are among the palate-pleasing options.  Best of all, this is  all first-rate continental cuisine at pauper prices, particularly for lunch.

Goat cheese phyllo

Coq au Vin, for example, is available for under fifteen dollars. Featuring white and dark chicken cooked in red wine with mushrooms, pearl onions  and served with roasted potatoes, carrots and garden fresh snap peas, it is among the best “French chicken stews” I’ve ever had. While the origin of Coq au Vin is in dispute (founding claimants include Julius Caesar’s chef), it’s one of the best French dishes when prepared well as Bacchus Nibbles does. A prolific portion size is a pleasant surprise; you can easily share your Coq au Vin with someone you love. The chicken falls off the bone into a wine blessed broth that is perfect for sopping up with the restaurant’s warm signature bread.

That bread is a classic French bread, a small loaf or two sitting on a wooden cutting block.  It’s pre-sliced  and served warm for your convenience and offered with a whipped butter as velvety smooth and soft as possible.  Why so many restaurants bring out frozen butter on a plate is beyond me; all frozen butter does is rip the bread apart as you try in vain to spread it.  Alas, the only problem with bread this good is that it’s easy to eat too much of it and ruin your appetite for the terrific starters, entrees and desserts on the menu.

Extraordinnairy Escargot

You’ll want that bread replenished frequently because you’ll use it to savor each and every drop of the white wine sauce accompanying the goat cheese phyllo appetizer featuring a sharp, sweet Vermont goat cheese and red peppers wrapped in phyllo. Puncture the layers of delicate phyllo with your fork and you’ll be rewarded with light oozing from one of the smoothest goat cheeses ever, a medley of sweet and sharp flavors complementing each other.  The red peppers are a subtle addition, used in moderation so as not to overwhelm the other ingredients.

Another artful appetizer choice is Bacchus famous escargots in garlic butter and sun-dried tomatoes. These escargots are reputed to be among the very best in the Chicago area and we can attest to never having had better (though the escargot served at the long defunct Marmiton may have been the equal of these).  As at Le Marmiton, these escargot are removed from their shells and served in very small cups with even tinier forks with which to extricate the luxurious snails.  Served three to an order, these snails are rich and buttery–so good you will want a dozen or so.

Bread and whipped butter

My Chicago born and bred better half of more than 25 years rarely visits a restaurant in which she doesn’t order pork chops when they’re on the menu.  In the Chicago area, this typically means Flintstonian-sized bone-in chops at least an inch thick.  She considers the waifishly thin pork chops served at most Albuquerque restaurants to be a heretical shame, but surprisingly ordered Bacchus Nibbles’ petite pork chops marinated in garlic and herbs. These chops may be petite in size, but they’re prolific in taste. Best of all, they’re moist and tender, almost fork-tender.

During our second visit she surprised me even more by ordering a Thai inspired crispy duck floating atop a peanut sauce along with julienned vegetables (green beans, carrots, zucchini and red pepper).  The crispy duck is moist and delicious, each of several breaded fingers redolent with flavor.  The peanut sauce has a slightly sweet, ever so lightly piquant flavor that makes the duck sing.  The vegetables are perfectly prepared.  The carrots are in the French style, buttery with more than a hint of ripe sweetness.

Coq Au Vin, food of the gods

Some entrees are served with roasted in their skin potatoes seasoned in a Greek style with a hint of lemon and other spices.  The potatoes are perfectly roasted and served in smile-sized wedges.  Potatoes seem to be a Bacchus Nibbles specialty if the Hachis Parmentier (Shepherd’s Pie) is any indication.  Layers of mashed potato, ground beef and mushrooms and carrots topped with mozzarella may not hold completely true to how this dish was created and is still served in England, but as you’re swooning in between bites, it’s unlikely you’ll be thinking about tradition.

Crispy duck with peanut sauce and julienned vegetables

The dessert menu is a seven item line-up of rich deliciousness. So confident is ownership in just how good the creme brulee is that a gauntlet is thrown down.  The menu brags that the creme brulee is of “no comparison to any creme brulee you’ve ever had.  If you don’t like it, Matt is buying.”  The creme brulee is indeed special.  It’s thicker than most and better than just about any I’ve ever had, so good we were tempted to lick the plate.

The tiramisu (espresso and rum-soaked lady fingers, mascarpone and cocoa powder topped with whipped cream and berries) is also just a bit different.  In parenthesis behind its name is the warning “lift me gently” and indeed, the tiramisu is light and delicate; a fork can send it tumbling if you’re not careful.  This cake sits like an island in a sea of fruity frothiness, a sort of liquid fruit cocktail that, while different than you’ll find with other tiramisu, is surprisingly complementary.

Tiramisu (Espresso and rum-soaked lady fingers, mascarpone and cocoa powder

The “Nibbles” portion of the restaurant’s name may be the reason this wonderful restaurant doesn’t get the respect its menu warrants and based on portion size, is certainly a misnomer.  It’s a wonderful restaurant with a creative menu of delicious indulgences, a restaurant for which we eschew visits to other area restaurants.

Bacchus Nibbles
20817 N. Quentin Road
Kildeer, IL
(847) 43-3212
Web Site

LAST VISIT: 12 October 2010
1st VISIT: 6 July 2005
COST: $$
BEST BETS: Goat Cheese Phyllo; Escargot; Coq au Vin; Petite Pork Chops, Crispy Duck, Tiramisu

Bacchus Nibbles on Urbanspoon

Barry’s Oasis – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The irascible Barry Schuster

Barry Schuster, Albuquerque’s famous “grumpy chef.”

I don’t know if there’s any veracity to the adage “don’t trust a skinny chef,” but one thing is for certain. Albuquerque has been trusting a very grumpy chef to prepare excellent meals for more than a quarter century. That grumpy chef is the irascible Barry Schuster, serving great cuisine in Albuquerque since 1979.

One of the first things you see when you walk into the restaurant is a caricature of a somewhat younger Barry. Scrawled below his countenance are the words “grumpy chef.” Barry cultivates the image of a surly curmudgeon, but underneath that gruff exterior lies a heart of gold, a hospitality professional who wanders from the kitchen to check in on his guests and engage them in discourse.  He continues to come to work day-after-day instead of enjoying a well-deserved retirement.


Richard, one of the best waiters in Albuquerque and a mainstay at Barry's

Richard, one of the best waiters in Albuquerque and a mainstay at Barry’s

Okay, maybe he’s not exactly an avuncular fellow, but he really does care that his patrons enjoy their dining experiences at his eponymous restaurant. He’s got a great sense of humor and his witty repartee will enhance your experience. The banter between Barry and his nearly as churlish waiter Richard Lopez is particularly entertaining.  Richard has been with Barry for more than a decade.  The two of them are the heart and soul of the restaurant.

Originally from New York (where he once cooked for a Chinese restaurant), Barry can cook anything and, in fact, honed his craft in advanced courses at the prestigious Cordon Bleu, a culinary school of worldwide repute. His staff brags about his prowess with New Mexican food and his restaurant’s menu features the cuisine of the Mediterranean region–Spain, France, Italy, Greece and for good measure, some Middle East countries such as Lebanon and Jordan.

Barry's Oasis on the intersection of I25 and Osuna.

Barry’s Oasis on the intersection of I25 and Osuna.

Barry moved to Albuquerque in 1978 so he could play golf year round. He launched the “Sizzling Oasis” a year later in an edifice which previously house an A&W Root Beer restaurant.  Barry dropped the “Sizzling” in 1982 (so as not to be mistaken for a middling quality chain steak restaurant) and changed the restaurant’s name to “Barry’s Oasis” when he moved to a San Mateo location in which his restaurant would stay for the next 20 years.

In October, 2002, the restaurant moved to its current location on Osuna at the intersection of I-25 and Osuna (Exit 230).  Barry owns both the property in which the restaurant is situated and the steel building in which it is housed.  You can’t miss Barry’s Oasis. For one thing, it’s one of the few buildings on the northwest corner of the intersection. Secondly, two painted palm trees on the restaurant’s east-facing wall seem so out-of-place in an overkill adobe facade city.  Look closely at the bluish-gray stucco and you’ll see it was applied in a seashell-shaped pattern.

Barry's Oasis is awash in color.

Appetizer Combination at Barry’s Oasis

The tropical theme (or at least the palm trees) continues inside the restaurant. The high-ceilinged dining room is awash in color, particularly of the Mediterranean.  Greek style balconies, one of which features a rooster looking downward, are replete with potted plants. Large canvas umbrellas are suspended over tables on the restaurant’s north side in a fashion similar to Parisian outdoor cafes.

Still other canvas umbrellas are suspended upside down from the high ceiling. While decorative, these umbrellas are also utilitarian, functioning to mute the lighting. Cafe lights are also strung from the ceiling and are turned down low at night to provide the illusion of out-of-doors nighttime in a Cosmopolitan European city. Seagulls flying overhead continue the seaside theme.

Hummus and pita

Hummus and pita

The restaurant’s menu includes a glossary of sorts, defining and describing the various cuisines of the Mediterranean region. The glossary also explains that though meals had long been served in taverns, coffee houses and cook shops, the first place designated a “restaurant” was the Champ d’ Oiseau which opened in Paris in 1765.

At the entrance to the first restaurant in Paris was inscribed the Latin motto “Venite ad me, omne qui stomacho laboratis, et ego restaurabor vos” which translates to “Come to me, anybody whose stomach growls, and I will sustain you,” a creative derivative of Matthew 11:28-30 (Come to me all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.”)

Green Chile Gyros

Green Chile Gyros

That motto (not the one from Matthew) could well apply to Barry’s Oasis. Because the portions are reasonably sized (as opposed to the gargantuan portions you find in nearly every other restaurant in town) you’ll leave Barry’s with a contented…and yes, fully sustained (but not bloated) and happy stomach.

There are more than 30 items on the menu in addition to international beers and wines. Barry’s dessert offerings are also not to be missed as you traverse through the tastes of the Mediterranean. For the culinarily unadventurous, a section of American entrees is also sure to please.

Gyros Plate

Gyros Plate

While the menu certainly resonates “fine dining,” the atmosphere is casual. Barry wants his patrons to dress comfortably so they can enjoy their repast.

That enjoyment might start with the Oasis Appetizer Plate, an assemblage of various starters from Greece and the Middle East. This platter can be ordered for two or for three diners and while big enough to share, isn’t quite substantial enough to make a meal for one.

The sampler includes spanakopita (a spinach pie with a baked phyllo dough crust) dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), falafel (deep-fried balls of ground, spicy chickpeas), garlicky homous spread on pita bread with feta cheese and Greek olives for good measure.  Alternatively you can have an appetizer of garlic and lemon kissed homous with pita.

Greek steak with twice baked potatoes

Greek steak with twice baked potatoes

The humous is fabulous, especially if you like garlic. Still, this portion of the appetizer could be improved if it were only spread even thicker on the room-temperature pita. The spanakopita is light, flaky and absolutely delicious. There’s also no doubt that the falafel is the best seasoned, best tasting falafel in town with a taste that sings.

Proof of Barry’s genius with New Mexican food is evident in one of the most popular lunch entrees, green chile gyros.  These are wholly unlike the gyros you find at some Greek restaurants in town, some of which use pre-roasted, pre-cut, thinly-sliced meat so dry that only the saturation of tzatziki sauce can moisten it.  Barry shaves the lean blend of beef and lamb amalgam in thick slices from the gyros spit in his kitchen–much more thickly than any other gyros meat we’ve ever had.  He also seasons that beef amalgam very well.  The thick, juicy, well-seasoned meat is sensational on its own, but it doesn’t stop there at Barry’s.

Also unlike other gyros, Barry doesn’t stuff the meat into a pita pocket.  Instead, he tops “Olympic bread” (a pita without a pocket) with the thickly sliced meat, lettuce, tomatoes and some of the best green chile you’ll find anywhere.  It’s got a nice bite and a terrific flavor, the type of which leave a tangy, happy sensation on your taste buds.  You might never go back to the sandwich type gyro again.

Seafood crepes in a bubbly cheese.

Seafood crepes in a bubbly cheese.

Not even the Gyros plate is served sandwich style.  Instead, a generous amount of Barry’s lean blend of lamb and beef seasoned to flavorful perfection with savory Mediterranean spices is spit-roasted then sliced thickly and piled atop moist, flavorful rice pilaf and served with two slices of Olympic bread and tzatziki sauce.  The meat is thoroughly delicious and moist, probably the best gyros meat in town.

Among the most popular entrees at Barry’s Oasis is the Seafood Crepes, a wonderfully unctuous French dish rich in flavor. This dish features two crepes filled with a medley of seafood (scallops, shrimp, crab) in a creamy cheese filling topped with melted Muenster cheese. Did I mention this dish is cheesy? It is served with a side of savory rice pilaf. The recipe for this dish was requested by the editors of Gourmet magazine no less.  Barry turned them down which means only Duke City diners can partake of its unique deliciousness.

One of the highlights of the Greek portion of the menu is the Greek Shrimp entree, shrimp sautéed in ouzo (a clear, anise-flavored liqueur from Greece) then covered in a savory/sweet tomato sauce, topped with feta cheese and baked until golden brown. The shrimp are redolent with the briny sweetness of freshly caught shrimp while the tomato sauce is better than any marinara sauce we can think of. This is a winner.

Baklava Fingers at Barry's Oasis

Baklava Fingers at Barry’s Oasis

When offered as a nightly special, the Greek steak does indeed earn the special designation. This steak can be cut with the standard table knife and is as delicious and moist as it is tender.  It is served with twice-baked (to perfection) potato

One of the best selections on the Italian portion of the menu is lamb and feta lasagna, a unique twist to a popular favorite done in Barry’s inimitable style. Barry layers ground lamb and feta cheese in between flat pasta then covers it in his incomparable marinara sauce.  The marinara sauce is applied lightly so that it complements the other ingredients.

Desserts include baklava (both in traditional form and as baklava fingers) and a phalanx of other decadent treats Barry himself concocts. The French inspired Banana Crepes are an excellent option. A single crepe, served warm, is stuffed with mashed bananas in the prime of their flavorful best and served with a heaping heart-shaped portion of coffee ice cream.

Barry's fabulous bread pudding with a scoop of heart-shaped vanilla ice cream

Barry’s fabulous bread pudding with a scoop of heart-shaped vanilla ice cream

Close your eyes when you slide your first spoonful of Barry’s chocolate bread pudding into your mouth and let the flavors take over. It’s like eating what a smooth tune by Lou Rawls might taste like–rich, comforting and oh so good. Made with Bailey’s Irish cream and topped with a heart-shaped slab of vanilla ice cream, it is some of the best bread pudding you’ll have anywhere.  My friend Larry McGoldrick calls it a slice of heaven.

True to its name, Barry’s Oasis is a culinary oasis in a relatively isolated area of the desert. Don’t fear the chef because of his grumpy disposition. We should all be so cantankerous.

Barry’s Oasis
4451 Osuna, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 10 March 2010
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Greek Shrimp, Seafood Crepes, Oasis Appetizer Plate, Chateaubriand, Banana Crepe, Green Chile Gyros, Bread Pudding, Baklava Fingers

Barry's Oasis on Urbanspoon

The Trading Post Cafe – Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico

The Trading Post Cafe in Ranchos de Taos

The Trading Post Cafe in Ranchos de Taos

There’s an old Lebanese proverb that says, “some men build a wine cellar after only finding one grape.” That proverb aptly describes the many rags to riches success stories among Lebanese immigrants to the Land of Enchantment, primarily to our state’s northern villages. Some of the state’s most prominent names in business–Maloof, Bellamah, Hanosh and Sahd–embody the spirit of that proverb.

The progenitors of many of New Mexico’s Lebanese immigrants left Lebanon during the repressive Ottoman Empire, the main exodus occurring in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Escaping persecution and poverty, some arrived with nothing but aspirations, dreams and hopes. The frontier territory of New Mexico was replete with opportunity (and the prospect of freedom) for them.

Like their Phoenician forefathers had done, many of them began as door-to-door peddlers, many eventually launching trading posts or general stores in the small villages in which they settled. The “Arabes” as they are sometimes still called by Hispanics were hard workers, shrewd businessmen, community-minded and family-oriented. They fit right in with the tight-knit Hispanic communities which shared similar values.

Abdo Sahd, the family patriarch for one of Taos county‘s most prominent families, arrived in Las Vegas from Lebanon in 1889. His sons would go on to establish general stores in Taos, Ranchos de Taos and Penasco. One of them, George Sahd, at the precocious age of only 16, established the Ranchos Trading Post just north of the world famous Saint Francis de Assisi Church in Ranchos de Taos. He operated the Trading Post until his retirement in 1981. It was the largest general store in the county until Wal-Mart opened.

The front dining room at the Trading Post Cafe

The front dining room at the Trading Post Cafe

The Ranchos Trading Post was the heart of the community, an active social and business center where every local resident came for their staples and some of life’s little indulgences. The Trading Post was comprised of a soda and lunch fountain, clothing and drug store, canned and fresh foods area, butcher shop, building supplies and liquor store.

Today, a portion of the Ranchos Trading Post survives as the “Trading Post Cafe.” Vestiges of the past are still very much in evidence. The distressed oak floors of the cafe show the timeworn impact of commerce being conducted for several decades. Three spacious dining rooms showcase different local artists and art styles.

The front room, which you enter through a screen door in summer, includes only a few tables, but a long counter where you can sit and watch the chef at his craft in his open air kitchen. That’s where many people sit, an indication that the feeling of community once experienced at the Ranchos Trading Post is still desired. This dining room has a unique kiva style fireplace.

Seating is on surprisingly comfortable wrought iron furniture. The seats are cushioned for comfort. Before your server even begins describing the daily specials, a wrought iron basket with warm, crusty bread is delivered to your table. Each table includes decanters of olive oil and Balsamic vinegar you can mix on a bowl for dipping the bread.

The menu is truly eclectic: seafood, salads, steaks and pork chops, pasta dishes, poultry and soup. There is no distinction on the menu between appetizers and entrees, perhaps because the portion sizes of what would be appetizers at other restaurants are entree sized at the Trading Post Cafe.

Antipasto Freddi

Antipasto Freddi

One example is the Antipasto Freddi, a swimming pool sized bowl in which grilled vegetables are surrounded by mixed greens. The vegetables are stacked in layers as if meticulously prepared on timbale, a mold that is higher than it is wide and has sloping sides. Vegetables featured include zucchini, tomatoes, green and red pepper, mushrooms and julienned carrots, but surprisingly no grilled onions.

The other surprising aspect of this dish is that it is served cold, not room-temperature cool, but slightly cold. The vegetables aren’t grilled long enough to imbue them with the smokiness we appreciate from grilling. They’re also very, very lightly seasoned (barely a hint of salt, pepper and garlic) and just lightly drizzled with olive oil. The vegetables are fresh, crisp and delicious, but won’t exactly “wow” you with flavor. In fact, you might even describe this as a dull entree.

The most “lively” vegetable on the plate was roasted corn on the cob, also served cold. Each of two pieces of the corn was about an inch and a half long so just at about the time you’re starting to really enjoy it, it’s gone. No “wow” factor here either.

Seafood Psta

Seafood Pasta

That certainly isn’t the case for the Trading Post Cafe’s seafood pasta, one of the best of its genre I’ve had in New Mexico. Where probably seventy percent of the state’s restaurants which serve a seafood pasta embolden it with a spicy Fra Diavolo sauce which detracts from the sweet and briny flavor of the seafood, this Cafe uses a heavenly butter cream sauce with various Italian seasonings.

This is a much lighter cream sauce than Alfredo and infinitely less rich than Carbonara, but it’s equally effective and highly flavorful. It seems to bring out the most flavorful qualities of the seafood. The seafood itself is fresh and crisp. A boatload of mussels, scallops, shrimp and clams were as deliciously sweet as any seafood we’ve had in northern New Mexico.

Crispy Garlic Pork Chop

Crispy Garlic Pork Chop

At the opposite spectrum in terms of flavor is a crispy garlic pork chop. An entire bone-in, inch-thick pork chop is marinated in garlic and prepared to your exacting specifications. Alas, the accompanying garlic mashed potatoes have a much more discernable garlic flavor than the pork chop. The saving grace for this prodigious porcine portion is a fantastic salad of chopped beets and onions that absolutely explode with flavor. Rarely have we had beets with this much flavor. Alas, this is one of the chef’s secret recipes and the wait staff can’t tell you what gives it the uniquely wonderful flavor you’ll appreciate.

The Trading Post Cafe has an impressive array of desserts all made on the premises. If the coconut cream pie is any indication, the desserts are a worthy match for the entrees. In New Mexico, my standard bearer for coconut cream pie had been the Flying Star’s rendition, but the Trading Post’s version is far superior. It tastes like the most delicious chilled macaroon you’ll ever have with just the right amount of sweetness and plenty of flaky coconut.

Coconut Cream Pie

Coconut Cream Pie

On the night of our inaugural visit, the Trading Post Cafe was “hit and miss” on everything we ordered, but when it hit, deliciousness abounded.

The Trading Post Cafe
4179 State Road 68
Ranchos de Taos, NM
(575) 758-5089
LATEST VISIT: 20 August 2008
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Coconut Cream Pie, Seafood Pasta

The Cup – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Cup

The Cup

Buxom silent screen siren Mae West was so renown for her use of double entendre that she once said, “If I asked for a cup of coffee, someone would ask for the double meaning.”

When my wife suggested we have breakfast at The Cup, I wondered what she really had in mind. The Cup, after all, did not impress her in the least during our inaugural visit in January, 2007.

It was even worse for me as The Cup’s emptiness triggered memories of a dark day in the late 70s when I was the recipient of bad news (the “Dear John” kind) at the only restaurant I can remember as empty as The Cup that night–a long defunct Burger Chef.

Considering The Cup was sister restaurant to the popular Gold Street Caffe, the emptiness seemed like something out of the Twilight Zone.

We’re talking the Gold Street Caffe here–one of downtown Duke City’s darling dining destinations, the restaurant with the very best bacon (the thick cut honey chile glazed marvel) in the world.

We’re also talking the Pan American frontage road area within easy walking distance to the Century 24 theater. All the restaurants clustered in this area and their parking lots are typically nearly filled to capacity on Friday nights.

Escalivada Catalana

Escalivada Catalana

The feeling of unease and trepidation followed me as we walked up to The Cup and saw, scrawled on a sign “New Concept, New Menu, Old World Taste, Nothing Over $14.50.”

What the sign left out was “New Ownership.” The Cup is now owned by the quadrumvirate which operates Scalo, one of the Duke City’s best Italian restaurants. The group assumed ownership of The Cup in April, 2008.

Where changes are most evident is in the menu which introduces a revolutionary concept Albuquerque diners will hopefully embrace. The menu includes nine different tapas, an impressive selection of salads and sandwiches and several main course entrees.

The concept of tapas has been tried to varying success in several Albuquerque restaurants, but The Cup extends that concept with an imaginary fusion of small plates, appetizers and entrees with an Old World European flair and flavor.

The logo for the Cup’s new concept bears the flag of four European nations: France, England, Germany and Spain. The menu featured items from throughout Europe, many with a surprising twist.

Consider the Irish Reuben. Most of us are familiar with its components–pretty standard stuff. Restaurants “daring” to deviate from the time-tested, albeit mundane, standard may add pastrami to the mix. Big deal, right? At The Cup, the sandwich is called the Reuben Italiano and it’s crafted with lean corned beef, spicy Italian sausage, and caramelized onions on a crusty Italian bread topped with spicy marinara and melted Provolone cheese. It’s one of the restaurant’s best sellers.

Bacon wrapped Roquefort Filet Mignon

Bacon wrapped Roquefort Filet Mignon

The menu does a better job of cultural amalgamation than the United Nations. On the world stage, France and Germany have never gotten along as well as in the creations on The Cup’s menu. A lot of thought obviously went into the planning of the menu and the multi-nation melding isn’t always intuitively obvious.

The cultural cavalcade isn’t always as obvious as the aforementioned Reuben Italiano. The elemental composition of some entrees may be a favorite dish or ingredient from one nation ameliorated with a sauce, dressing or demi-glaze from another nation. The possibilities are fun.

The tapas menu starts off your Old World tour. Consider the Escalivada Catalana, a traditional Spanish tapa. The word “escalivada” comes from the Catalan verb “escalivar” which is the process of cooking food slowly and very close to the embers of a fire.

Even though The Cup’s rendition may not have been prepared over an open fire, its soul has its genesis in barbecue. The Cup’s Escalivada Catalana features roasted red peppers, eggplant and caramelized sweet onions finished with a Sherry dressing.

Normally this tapa is served on its own or with grilled meat, but at The Cup it’s served over grilled rustic bread in a manner similar to how bruschetta is used. It is a very tasty way to begin your European adventure.

Seafood Risotto

Seafood Risotto

A delicious French detour is an option with the bacon wrapped Roquefort Filet Mignon, a seven-ounce filet wrapped in bacon and char-grilled to your exacting specifications. The filet is served over red bliss mashed potatoes and finished with melted Roquefort cheese and red wine mushroom Bordelaise.

There is a lot going on with this dish. The pungency of the “King of Cheeses, Cheese of Kings” and the red wine mushroom Bordelaise ameliorate the flavor of the steak, a testament to the chef as Roquefort, in particular, can dominate just about anything.

The filet is tender and delicious, as good a cut of meat as can be had at the price ($14.50) anywhere. It will have you wishing the portion size was significantly larger than seven ounces.

The cold coastal waters of the North Atlantic meet Italy in the seafood risotto entree. I must confess that in my entire life, I’ve had outstanding risotto only twice and each case, at a princely price.

The Cup’s version of risotto is the best risotto I’ve ever had approximating its price point ($14.50). It’s better than some I’ve had at twice the price.

You might remember that risotto became a part of pop culture when a Seinfeld episode lampooned the post-coital ritual of lighting up a cigarette–only in this case George Costanza’s girlfriend lit up contentedly after a satisfying meal of risotto. The noisy ardor with which she consumed the risotto was something the ego-fragile George couldn’t elicit from her in the bedroom.

Bread pudding

Bread pudding

The Cup’s seafood risotto didn’t have me behaving like Costanza’s girlfriend, but it did impress me. Shrimp, scallops, mussels and calamari in a roasted shallot lobster risotto finished with Parmesan will do that.

The seafood was delicious and surprisingly fresh. The mussels and scallops were sweet, the shrimp had the snap of freshness and the calamari wasn’t rubbery as it’s apt to be when ill prepared.

An impressive array of desserts will finish your Old World adventures. Try the bread pudding topped with apricots and ice cream for a combination that will tantalize your taste buds. The bread pudding is dense and thick, the apricots tangy and semi-sweet and the ice cream rich and delicious.

Desserts are the specialty of Chef Stephan Maywalt, who was brought in from California to lead the kitchen team. He is a talented and personable chef who will make it big in Albuquerque.

The Cup offers a brunch menu Friday through Sunday, but the entire menu is available at all times. You can decide for yourself if it lives up to the motto on its bills: “5 star food, 2 star prices.”

As to why my Kim chose The Cup for our Sunday morning repast, she had actually learned of the ownership and concept change and wanted to surprise me as I tend to do her with many of our restaurant visits. It’s the type of one-up ploy Mae West would have enjoyed.

The Cup
4959 Pan American Freeway, N.E., Suite A
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 18 May 2008
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Escalivada Catalana, Bacon Wrapped Roquefort Filet Mignon, Seafood Risotto, Bread Pudding