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Jhett’s Restaurant – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

The Rio Rancho Country Club, home to Jhett’s Restaurant

In its halcyon days, the Chamisa Hills golf course and country club in Rio Rancho was considered one of the city’s crown jewels.  Its undulating 18-hole championship course with strategically placed deciduous trees and challenging water hazards once hosted the Charley Pride Golf Fiesta, one of the most prestigious tournaments in the state.  Built in 1970, the 212-acre development was flanked by upscale gated communities and boasted of magnificent panoramic views showcasing the reddish hues of the Sandias at sunset and the twinkling city lights of Albuquerque at night. 

Alas, over time escalating water rates made operating the course economically onerous.  Soon denuded fairways and eroded bunkers replaced the once verdant grounds.  In 2013, the Chamisa Hills golf course and country club was auctioned off to be purchased nearly a year later by visionary entrepreneurs Bob Gallagher and Jhett Browne who immediately began putting into action their plans for restoring the operation to prominence and profitability.  The two negotiated significant water rate reduction rates and plan for reduced turf areas to conserve water.  At fruition, they hope to revivify the facility into one of the area’s best event centers, not just golf clubs.

View to the East from the dining room patio

Rebranded as Club Rio Rancho, the sprawling complex includes two nine-hole golf courses, six resurfaced and lighted tennis courts, a remodeled swimming pool, a members-only restaurant and lounge with an outdoor cigar bar, a three-level bar and grill with televisions and outdoor patio seating and a remodeled indoor restaurant with a patio facing the Sandias.  While some of the facilities and amenities remain available only to club members, the priceless “billion-dollar views” are available to the general public as is what promises to be an exciting fine-dining venture.

From its sprawling patio, the eponymous Jhett’s Restaurant may just have the very best views of any restaurant in the metropolitan area with the possible exception of Sandiago’s Mexican Grill.  There’s a view for all seasons and times of day from the east-facing large picture windows, too.  Jhett’s offers live music and dancing every Friday and Saturday starting at 8PM and a bountiful Sunday brunch, the type of which have seemingly become an anachronism.

The dining room in which Sunday brunch is served from 11AM to 2PM

The dinner menu bespeaks fine-dining belied by a price-point that’s surprisingly competitive with fine-dining establishments in far less ostentatious digs.  Whether your choice emanates from the land (such as the Bleu Cheese Crusted Angus Filet, Ribeye Steak or Lamb T-Bone) or sea (Stuffed Filet of Sole, Honey Ginger Shrimp or Lobster tail), you’ll find it on the menu.  Soups and salads as well as “nothing but noodles” entrees (such as Baked Lasagna Bolonaise and Spinach Ravioli) are also available. 

The all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch is quickly becoming a Rio Rancho Sunday tradition.  Available from 11AM through 2PM, the buffet-style brunch is the antithesis of the grab, gobble and go fare one associates with the terms “all-you-can-eat” and “buffet.”  A fusillade of well-laid out tables with silver heating trays offer dish after dish of beautifully edible creations arranged aesthetically.  An omelet station with eight different fillings is at the ready as is a carving station where a deft server cleaves generous slices from a large roast beef prepared at medium rare.  Desserts aplenty and a beverage table round out the cavalcade of deliciousness.

Some of the magnificent brunch offerings

4 January 2015: Rightfully so, the hand-carved roast beef is the primary draw.  The roast beef has a deep brown, crisp, crackly, unctuous crust around the edges.  The medium-rare interior is moist and tender, signs of optimum temperature control and cooking time.  You can have your roast beef with au jus or with a creamy horseradish that’ll water your eyes.  There are a number of other proteins on the buffet trays: bacon, sausage, fish and more.  The macaroni and cheese is some of the best we’ve had in a while while the Eggs Benedict dish is delightfully creative.  Instead of an English muffin, the poached egg and Hollandaise sauce rest inside a hollowed-out tomato.

13 September 2015: On Sundays in which the roast beef isn’t featured fare, you’ll find a large hand-carved ham served with a cranberry-pineapple glaze.  The ham is hardly a consolation prize.  It’s pulchritudinously pink with a salty-smoky deliciousness that complements the glaze so well.  Few things go as well with ham as au gratin potatoes and Jhett’s version is seconds-worthy.  We honestly couldn’t remember the last time we had a second portion of au gratin potatoes.  That’s how good these are.


The dessert table doesn’t have tremendous variety, but what it lacks in quantity, it made up for in deliciousness. Alternatively you can sate your sweet tooth with the various fruits. The cantaloupe, honeydew melon and pineapple have an in-season freshness and flavor. Throughout our meal we were well taken care of by an attentive server staff who replenished our beverages and made savvy recommendations. All this and million dollar views of the Sandias.

Jhett’s Restaurant is a welcome addition to the Rio Rancho fine-dining scene. An excellent brunch is just the prelude to future fine-dining ventures in what is once again becoming one of Rio Rancho’s crown jewels.

Jhett’s Restaurant
500 Country Club Drive, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 896-5000
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 September 2015
1st VISIT: 4 January 2015
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sunday Brunch

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Santacafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santacafe, a Santa Fe Institution Since 1983

Is there anything as pure and simple as the innocence of a child, especially during the most magical time of the year? When my then six-year-old niece penned a heartfelt letter to Santa Claus, there was no doubt in her mind that her letter would be delivered and her wish would be granted. After all, she had been extra good all year long and what she wanted for Christmas was so reasonable. My niece’s fondest Christmas wish was that her family dine at Santacafe—not because of its reputation for inspired cuisine, but because she was sure she would meet jolly old Saint Nick at his restaurant “Santa Café.”

It’s entirely possible my niece may have been the only person ever to have suffered a crushing disappointment at Santacafe, an elegant edifice which has been fulfilling wishes of discerning diners ever since it launched in 1983. In its three decades plus of pleasing the refined and pedantic palates of Santa Fe’s residents and visitors, Santacafe has been consistently regarded as one of the City Different’s very best, an institution the New York Times called “a restaurant to love, offering perhaps the best combination of inspired food and attractive surroundings in the city.”

Georgia O’Keefe Inspired Dining Room Complete with Elk Antlers Over Fireplace

As you approach from Washington Avenue, those attractive surroundings won’t jump out at you nor will Santacafe’s rather austere signage. In fact, the restaurant’s frontage is rather homogeneous, albeit a lighter adobe hued than most. Step into the boulder-strewn courtyard with its canopies of towering shade-providing trees and you’ll be magically transported (at least for a little while) to another place, an even better Santa Fe. When the air cools, you can retreat to one of the four small dining rooms where kiva style fireplaces form the cynosure for otherwise minimalistic and immaculately white surroundings in which the color of the tablecloths matches the color of the walls. Close proximity seating has the advantage of being able to see the culinary classics being delivered to your neighbors’ tables.

Long before it was a restaurant, the adobe abode was the home of Jose Manuel Gallegos, an ordained Roman Catholic priest who eventually dedicated himself entirely to politics, even serving two stints on the United States Congress. In the novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, author Willa Cather depicted Padre Gallegos as a hedonistic glutton and gambler. These contentions were disputed and disproved by noted historian Fray Angelico Chavez who ultimately established that racist writers and historians had unjustly besmirched New Mexico and its Hispanic citizenry whom they painted as dissolute and indolent.


Over the years, Santacafe has attracted its share of the glitterati—both to the “front” and the “back of the house.” From 1997 through 1997, Ming Tsai served as executive chef, earning “best chef in Santa Fe” honors and garnering a “27” out of “30” in the 1996 Zagat Guide. Tsai’s “East meets Southwest Cuisine” concept drew the interest of the Food Network where a year after leaving Santacafe, he began hosting an Emmy award-winning show called “East Meets West.” Giada De Laurentiis, another Food Network luminary never worked Santacafe’s hallowed kitchen, but she did visit the restaurant in 1997 for her “Giada’s Weekend Getaway” show.

The influence of Ming Tsai is still very much in evidence on the menu (including the shiitake-and-cactus spring rolls with Southwestern ponzu dipping sauce), but Giada’s influence may be even more prevalent in the form of diners attempting to mimic her dining experience. Like the toothsome beauty, they ogle the covered 40-foot well by the bar which dates back to 1857. They pick up the crayons provided on each table and draw on the white paper atop the even whiter table cloths. They order what Giada ordered. That would be the swoon-inducing crispy calamari and the vegetarian chile relleno. Both are excellent choices!

Mexican Braised Beef & Chorizo Quesadilla

The menu is replete with excellent choices. It’s a frequently changing digest of deliciousness, with items in red denoting changes through the month as fresh, seasonal produce becomes available. It’s the type of menu about which you’re likely to ask your servers a few clarifying questions (is the lobster roll made with mayo, for example). It’s the type of menu you’ll peruse at length because there are so many options that sound equally appealing.

Fortunately while you’re perusing the menu, your servers will deliver a basket of yeasty, crusty bread and crispy flatbread impregnated with red chile. Whipped butter from a small ramekin spreads easily over the bread, but you won’t want anything touching the flatbread which has a discernible bite (the type of which traumatizes tourists, but delights locals). You’re likely to polish off the basket before appetizers arrive, but servers will happily oblige (and likely expect) requests for bread replenishment.

Grilled Angus Petite Filet

The aforementioned crispy calamari that so besotted Giada spearheads the triumvirate of appetizer “classics” which also include the aforesaid cactus spring rolls as well as shrimp and spinach dumplings with tahini sauce. Chimayo red chile onion rings with Judy’s catsup (more on this later) are another popular choice. You might also opt for the Mexican braised beef and chorizo quesadilla with Asadero cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo and crema fresca. The tortilla, with prominent striations from a grill, can’t hold in all the ingredients or their flavor.  It’s a winner and so are accompanying condiments, especially the dill-infused crema fresca.

One of the reasons I suggested earlier that you ask questions about menu items in which you’re interested is  because you want to ensure what you order is precisely what is delivered to your table and not necessarily an interpretation of an item you ordered.  In ordering the grilled Angus petite filet with pommes frites, we expected traditional French fried potatoes–not necessarily thickly cut but certainly not elongated, thinly-cut shoestring potatoes.  Ordinarily shoestring potatoes are fine, but they are absolutely wasted on some of the best restaurant ketchup we’ve had in years.  “Judy’s Catsup,” named for co-owner Judith. Ebbinghaus, is so good we picked up a bottle when we left.

Baby Arugula Salad

As for the grilled Angus petite filet, there’s accuracy and truth in the menu.  It’s most definitely petite, probably no more than five or six ounces.  It’s also swimming in a pool of thyme demiglace.  Thyme, with its light bouquet, probably gained more notoriety from Scarborough Fair, the Simon & Garfunkel song, than it has from any items with which it’s prepared.  Because thyme has a faintly lemony flavor and light bouquet, it’s not an overpowering culinary herb.  Had it been rendered from just about any other herb, the demiglace would have obfuscated the flavor of the filet entirely.

Salads, some of the most creative and delicious in town, are always a good bet at Santacafe.  The Baby Arugula Salad is our favorite, a large plate splayed with a mound of baby arugula crowned with a single Spanish goat cheese croquette, pears, Chimayo red chile candied pecans and pomegranate seeds drizzled with a pomegranate vinaigrette.  The distinctive peppery flavors of adult arugula are diminished somewhat on baby arugula, but you’ll likely be focusing on the harmony of the many complementary ingredients on this salad.

Award-Winning Chocolate Mousse

For some reason, the highlight of our visits to Santacafe tends to be the restaurant’s decadent and delightful desserts.  A half dozen tempting treats are available for your postprandial pleasure.  Make sure the one you order if you’re only having one is the award-winning chocolate mousse, an “adult” chocolate mold stuffed with a thick mousse on a plate decorated with a blood orange-caramelized pineapple glaze and Grand Marnier whipped cream topped with red chile candied pecans.  It’s one of my very favorite desserts in New Mexico, a dessert worth doing several hundred extra sit-ups for (and I hate sit-ups).

For my Kim, sweltering summer days are the best excuse for her favorite dessert of all–ice cream or any of its relatives.  In Santacafe’s sorbet trio, she may have found her very favorite.  That terrific trio showcases the fruity deliciousness of mango, lemon and raspberry, all made on the premises and each idealizing the native flavors of the fruits from which they are made.  She enjoys the sorbet trio so much, she gives me the three accompanying old-fashioned cookies so the cookies don’t interrupt her enjoyment of the sorbet.

Sorbet Trio

My niece long ago came to the realization that Santa Cafe isn’t Santa’s Cafe.  She’s also come to the realization that Santacafe is a gift that keeps on giving and has been doing so for more than three decades.

231 Washington Avenue
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 984-1788
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 20 June 2015
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Chocolate Mousse, Sorbet Trio, Mexican Braised Beef & Chorizo Quesadilla, Grilled Angus Petite Filet, Baby Arugula Salad, Bread

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Elaine’s – Albuquerque, New Mexico


Elaine’s on Central Avenue in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill District

“They were all impressed with your Halston dress and the people that you knew at Elaine’s”.
~Big Shot by Billy Joel

For nearly five decades–from 1963 through 2011–“the place to be” in Manhattan’s trendy Upper East Side was Elaine’s, perhaps the city’s most celebrated and revered A-lister’s hangout.  Everyone who was anyone frequented Elaine’s, an eponymous establishment in which luminaries came to see and be seen.  Celebrity habitues included glitterati from stage, screen, television, literature and politics such as Woody Allen, Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood, Mick Jagger, Jacqueline Kennedy, Jack Nicholson, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Andy Warhol and Raquel Welch.  Elaine Kaufman was the peripatetic presence around whom the celebrities flocked, the geocentric personality whose gravitational pull drew them all in.

Every chic and cosmopolitan city has its own “place to be,” a vibrant cultural, retail and entertainment hub with its own distinctive sights, sounds and flavors. In Albuquerque, that cultural hub is Nob Hill, a fusion of trendy shops, eclectic galleries and swank dining options. The history of Nob Hill is interlaced with that of Route 66, the fabled “Mother Road” which once traversed the fruited plain from Chicago to Los Angeles. Remnants of Route 66 in its halcyon days festoon Nob Hill in the form of vibrant neon signage that cuts a luminous swath through Central Avenue where Route 66 once ran. The nocturnal spectacle of glowing neon is akin to a siren’s call, drawing visitors to the area like moths to a flame.

The interior of Elaine’s

In October, 2013, a new fine-dining restaurant patterned after chic Manhattan eateries launched in the Nob Hill district. Fittingly, the restaurant’s name is Elaine’s which translates from Greek to “ray of light,” a term which not only describes the resplendent nighttime glow of Route 66, but  the lovely lady for whom the restaurant was named. That would be Elaine Blanco, long-time general manager of Scalo, a Duke City dining institution situated directly across the street.

It remains to be seen whether Elaine’s of Albuquerque ever achieves–at least at a local level–the eminence and prominence of its fabled Manhattan namesake or even whether or not it becomes “the place to be” in the Duke City. In less than two years (as of this writing), however, Elaine’s has already been recognized by one source with a worldwide presence as one of “Albuquerque’s ten best restaurants.”  The Albuquerque Journal touted Elaine’s for bringing a “New York vibe to Nob Hill.”  In that respect, Elaine’s actualizes the vision conceptualized by founders Elaine Blanco and restaurant impresario Steve Paternoster.


An amazing amuse bouche: sopaipillas with honey butter sprinkled with shaved prosciutto

Elaine’s is elegant yet unpretentious with an energetic vibe hinting at targeting a young professional demographic. Seating for 52 guests is in personal space proximity with banquettes hugging the walls and tables in the center adorned in white linen tablecloths and fine silverware. The cynosure of the dining room is a well appointed bar. Evocative art hangs on the walls while eclectic music plays in the background.

Initially serving only dinner, Elaine’s culinary philosophy is ambitious but simple: “We combine fresh, seasonal ingredients sourced from local farmers and purveyors with the best products from around the world. We strive to bring a new approach to food and dining in Albuquerque with the latest cooking techniques and exciting flavor profiles.”  The menu features rotating seasonal dishes at price points that won’t break the bank. That is unless Elaine’s is offering Osetra caviar from Russia, (as they were during the night of our inaugural visit) one of the premium caviars in the world. We were tempted, but an ounce would have set us back a princely sum.


Blue Crab & Cauliflower Soup

1 November 2013: More to the liking of my wallet is an amuse bouche of tiny sopaipillas served with a honey butter laced with shaved bits of prosciutto. The sopaipillas are served just out-of-the-fryer-hot, with wisps of fragrant steam escaping when you bite into them. They’re so addictive, we asked for another order.  Don’t spare the butter even if it means a couple hours longer on the treadmill.  The melding of salty prosciutto and luscious honey is sheer genius.

The “small plates” section of the menu features an array of tempting starters showcasing creatively prepared vegetables and salads as well as proteins from the land and sea.  Albuquerque the Magazine bestowed its highest culinary award, a “Hot Plate” to one of those small plates–the miso ramen.  The award signifies appetizers, dishes, desserts, drinks and restaurants “that we can’t live without.”   The starters menu is replete with sophisticated options that speak volumes about the chef’s creativity.  That chef would be Andrew Gorski, a highly credentialed sage who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America before studying under world-renowned chefs and working at some of the most celebrated restaurants in Las Vegas, Nevada.


Lamb Chops

The “large” menu is a descriptor for the more costly and sizable dinner entrees.  In numerical terms, it’s certainly not a large menu, listing only six entrees.  The spring, 2015 menu lists a burger (brioche, foie gras, aioli, kale, onion, cheese), half chicken, pork rib chop, halibut, filet mignon and Maine Lobster.  Don’t get too used to any of these entrees because the menu does rotate with the seasons.  On one hand, not seeing your favorites on the menu every time you visit can be heartbreaking, but on the other, you’re sure to find new favorites.

1 November 2013: Chilled to our bones from winds that buffeted our car mercilessly on the night of our inaugural visit, we opted for a blue crab and cauliflower soup redolent with the fragrance of black truffles and curry oil. The two-step presentation of this soup enhanced our enjoyment. First our server directed our attention to a concave bowl, the bottom of which was brimming with finely chopped blue crab strewn and shaved black truffles. Then he poured the contents of a decanter of cauliflower soup atop the contents.


Potted Black Pig

Superb as the blue crab and black truffles were, it was the curry oil that elevated the soup beyond mere comfort food level to the rarefied air of greatness. The delicate blue crab was allowed to shine in a flavor profile of ingredients which could have easily taken over had they not been so well balanced. This soup was the perfect elixir for a blustery evening, imparting the type of warmth that caresses your joints without singeing your tongue.

1 November 2013: During our inaugural visit, the line-up of luscious proteins features two seafood dishes and three meat entrees. The lamb chops were almost picturesque in their presentation. Nestled in a pool of whipped Yukon mashed potatoes were a trio of lollipop lamb chops, so called because part of the bone is exposed, making them easy to pick up and eat (yes, even at a fine-dining restaurant). Each lamb chop is pert and petite, but packed with flavor and tenderness. The chops are rimmed with a slight layer of fat that adds to the flavor, melding well with a tamarind sauce.


Warmed Carrot Cake

1 November 2013: Pork, the other white meat, was well represented with a spotted black pig entrée in a miso broth served with a single ash ravioli topped with brussel leaves. The spotted black pig was deliciously decadent with a flavorful balance of unctuous fat and rich, tender meat. This was porcine perfection, as delicate and flavorful as any pork dish we’ve had.  It’s easy to see why the miso broth would go on to earn a “Hot Plate” award from Albuquerque The Magazine.   The ash ravioli, engorged with sweet parsnips, was worthy accompaniment.  Parsnips, by the way, are a vastly underutilized root vegetable.

1 November 2013: Desserts are avant-garde in their interpretation of traditional favorites. The warmed carrot cake, for example, is hardly your mom’s carrot cake. It is, instead, a way to appreciate carrots in three ways: candied, confit and with a cream cheese spume. It’s not sliced into a traditional carrot cake slab, but plated in seeming disarray with cake on the rim of the plate as well as on the cream cheese spume. While it may not win awards for neatness and presentation, it will win over your heart and taste buds.


Elaine’s Candy Bar

1 November 2013: Named for the peripatetic restaurateur, the Elaine’s Candy Bar is a chocoholic’s dream, a rectangular slab of rich dark chocolate served with a single scoop of coconut ice cream and toasted cashews. The effect of capturing both candy bar and coconut ice cream on each spoonful is akin to partaking of the very best Mounds bar you’ve ever had.

31 May 2015:  In New Mexico, there almost seems to be a template for brunch.  Some diners like the comfort of knowing what to expect–huevos rancheros, breakfast burritos, omelets and the like.  Others, however, have been clamoring for something different, something new and exciting.  That’s what Elaine’s is striving to offer with the brunch offering it inaugurated on 31 May 2015.  It’s a brunch heretofore unseen in the Land of Enchantment.  It’s a brunch you’re more likely to see in…well, Manhattan.


31 May 2015: There are only nine items on the menu.  The first two are composed salads.  The remainder are seafood items.  Red and green chile don’t appear anywhere on the menu so if you’re of the ilk who has to enjoy chile with every meal, you’re out of luck.  Others who have lamented the absence of high quality seafood in the landlocked Land of Enchantment will find Elaine’s brunch a welcome difference. It’s the brunch for the seafood lover in you.

31 May 2015:  Many New Mexicans, especially those who frequent Mexican restaurants, have an intimate relationship with ceviche, raw seafood “cooked” in citrus juices.  Often served on a tostada shell, ceviche is a terrific way to start a meal.  The ceviche at Elaine’s is reminiscent of a cross between a campechana and ceviche.  The former is a Mexican seafood cocktail served  with Clamato and lime juices in a goblet and tinged with a hot sauce and diced vegetables.  Served in a bowl, the ceviche at Elaine’s is more liquefied (Clamato or tomato juice spiked with Tabasco sauce) than ceviche served in Duke City Mexican restaurants.  Swimming in that liquid pool are avocados, cucumbers, red onions, garlic and a generous complement of tiger shrimp.  It’s an excellent starter.

Lobster Roll

31 May 2015:  Throughout New England, there’s a contentious debate as to how to prepare a lobster roll.  While no one will debate the sheer deliciousness of luscious lobster nestled in a split top roll, some New Englanders consider it sacrilegious to desecrate a lobster roll with mayo.  Some purists will accept only warm clarified butter as the proper dressing for a lobster roll.  At Elaine’s, the lobster is generously endowed with mayo and it is perfectly fine with us.  Spilling over the sweet, tender split roll is at least half a pound of rich lobster meat, mostly from claws and knuckles.  Lobster love in Albuquerque is alive, well and delicious at Elaine’s.

31 May 2015:  Fittingly, the largest brunch item has been christened the “Grand Plateau,” a platter brimming with a netful of seafood: four king crab legs, six oysters on the half shell and eight tiger shrimp.  Served on an ice bed isn’t my Kim’s preference for crab legs, but she was well sated when our server ferried over a ramekin of hot, clarified butter.  The accompanying sauces–a combustible cocktail sauce and a remoulade–paired well with the other seafood items, but crab legs marry best with butter. The oysters and shrimp are excellent reminders that while chile is incomparable, seafood is sensational, too.

Grand Plateau

The wait staff is ambassadorial in its courtesy and nearly encyclopedic in its knowledge of the menu and wine list. Elaine’s is a relatively new addition to the Nob Hill dining scene, but it has all the memorable qualities needed to become a Duke City fixture like Route 66 and Nob Hill.

3503 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 555-5555
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 31 May 2015
1st VISIT: 1 November 2013
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Blue Crab & Cauliflower Soup, Spotted Black Pig, Lamb Chops, Warmed Carrot Cake, Elaine’s Candy Bar, Ceviche, Grand Plateau, Lobster Roll

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