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Hominy Grill – Charleston, South Carolina

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The world-famous Hominy Grill

In May, 2011, Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine invited some of the most prolific culinary bloggers across the country (including yours truly) to a culinary “throw-down” of sorts. We were asked to provide a fun and humorous argument as to why our particular regional cuisine reigns supreme. Why, for example, is New Mexican food better than Cajun food in the Louisiana Bayou, barbecue in Texas or Pittsburgh’s old world cuisine? We were asked to put on our best used car salesperson hat and sell our region hard. 

It certainly wasn’t difficult to sell the incomparable cuisine of my beloved Land of Enchantment.  In fact–and this won’t surprise any of my readers–the biggest challenge was the magazine’s imposed limit of 500 words.  For me that’s sometimes just an intro.  At the risk of immodesty, my feature on New Mexico’s “chile country” provided the most persuasive arguments  though that may not have been the case had a blogger representing Lowcountry cuisine been invited to the throw-down. 

Two minutes after this picture was taken, every seat in this dining room was occupied

Two minutes after this picture was taken, every seat in this dining room was occupied

Far be it for me to back down from a challenge so just what is it about Lowcountry cuisine that leads me to believe it might have an advantage–maybe even several advantages–over New Mexican cuisine.  For one, no other cuisine has the depth and breadth of influences found in Lowcountry cuisine.  While New Mexican cuisine is the synthesis of Spanish and Native American culinary traditions, Lowcountry cooking combines strong African (slaves and their descendents) and Caribbean influences. Lowcountry cuisine is rich in seafood diversity–crabs, shrimp, fish, and oysters–and of course, barbecue. 

From its onset, Lowcountry cooking has practiced farm-to-table principles, relying  on fresh, high-quality, local ingredients: seafood caught in briny waters, livestock raised in its verdant pastures and produce grown in the area’s distinctively fecund soil.  For generations of cooks and chefs in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, farm-to-table isn’t just a slogan or aspirational movement, it’s how cooking has always been done.   Moreover, Lowcountry cooking is done by hand with a meticulous attention to detail. New Mexican cuisine, we must admit, was once rooted in true farm-to-table traditions, but has moved away from them over the years.

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Steaming cup of coffee and cup of she crab soup

From 2009 through 2010, Lowcountry chefs in Charleston garnered the James Beard “Best Chef of the Southeast” award for three consecutive years, a feat only one other culinary region (New York) has accomplished.  Among restaurants featuring New Mexican cuisine, only Mary & Tito’s Cafe and The Shed have earned James Beard awards, both selected for the “Americas Classic Award” which honors “restaurants with timeless appeal, beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community, and that have carved out a special place in the American culinary landscape.”  No chef plying his or her art exclusively with New Mexican cuisine has ever won.

Robert Stehling, owner-chef of the Hominy Grill was the first of the three contemporary high priests of Lowcountry cuisine to earn the James Beard award.  Remarkably, he did so by serving classic Lowcountry cooking–including breakfast–in a very modest restaurant setting.  There is nothing pretentious, avant-garde, or high-end in Chef Stehling’s approach.  If anything, his approach to Lowcountry cuisine is very down-to-earth, simple and straight-forward.  His exceptionalism is in just slightly upscaling the way Lowcountry moms and chefs have cooked for generations.

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Charleston Nasty Biscuit with fried chicken breast, cheddar cheese & sausage gravy

Far from being housed in a stately Southern manor, the Hominy Grill is located in a circa 1800s edifice that formerly operated as a barbershop.  It’s reputedly one of the toughest tables in town to snag and not just because of the James Beard notoriety.  The Hominy Grill has been featured on a Food Network special hosted by Alton Brown honoring “America’s ten best regional classics.”  Rachael Ray came calling for her $40 A Day series.  So did Adam Richman for a taping of the Travel Channel’s Man Vs. Food program.  Anthony Bourdain stopped by when taping No Reservations for the Travel Channel.  You get the point.  Celebrity anointed restaurants tend to attract teeming and hungry masses.

Arriving half an hour early on a calm Sunday morning made me first in line on a queue that would eventually stretch along the sidewalk.  Despite two dining rooms and a patio for delightful al fresco dining, the Hominy Grill isn’t especially commodious, but it is extremely well-staffed and efficient.  Orders are taken and delivered quickly.  You won’t even finish your first mug of coffee before your food starts to arrive.  The coffee, a special Hominy Grill blend, is amazing–so much so that I’m borrowing from Coffee Review: “Remarkable aromatic balance and big, suavely sweet acidity make this a remarkable blend despite its relatively light body and short finish. Dark chocolate, aromatic wood, tart, cherryish fruit carry from aroma through cup with poised authority.”  It’s truly one of the best cups of coffee I’ve ever enjoyed.

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Chocolate Pudding

The Hominy Grill blend coffee is served steaming hot unlike the tepid blends New Mexican restaurants tend to serve.  It’s a perfect accompaniment to a steaming bowl of she crab soup.  Yes, she crab soup.  Since you might be curious as to how one can tell “he” from “she” crabs, the telltale sign is the eggs from the female crab which give it a unique flavor.  Considered one of Charleston’s signature dishes, she crab soup is a wonderfully light yet creamy elixir flavored with sherry complemented by chives and brimming with crab.  When my Kim accuses me of being crabby, I’ll forever think of this magnificent soup.

One of the Hominy Grill’s most famous dishes goes by the head-scratching name “Charleston Nasty,” a misnomer if there ever was one.  This sinfully rich, traditionally made and absolutely delicious entree should be called “The Charleston Awesome.”  The Charleston Nasty showcases the seasoned pork sausage Chef Stehling makes from scratch every morning.  The sausage is crumbled onto a pan then sauteed with onion and bell pepper.  A little flour and chicken stock finished with a smidgeon of heavy cream and you’ve got the gravy which is slathered on a mile-high biscuit bisected by a Southern-fried (in a skillet) chicken breast topped with shredded Cheddar cheese.  This is a breakfast sandwich for the ages!

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Sunflower Toast and Raspberry Jam

Invariably, on the rare occasions in which we visit Chinese restaurant buffets, my very favorite item is the  chocolate pudding.  That’s an indictment on how bad Chinese buffets tend to be because the chocolate pudding (forgive me Bill Cosby) is extremely pedestrian.  When Food Network glitterati Alton Brown mentioned on “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” that his favorite chocolate dessert was the chocolate pudding at the Hominy Grill, I knew this was not the chocolate pudding of Chinese buffets.  Brown called it “the cashmere of chocolate pudding,” as apt a description if there ever was one.  Made with Callebaut dark chocolate and vanilla bean-soaked Bourbon then topped with homemade whipped cream, it’s a very adult chocolate pudding.  It’s dense with an intensely dark chocolate addictive flavor.  Chinese buffet chocolate pudding just won’t do any more. 

Seeing raspberry jam within easy reach among the condiments at my table meant toast was a must-have.  The challenge was in selecting the bread canvas for the raspberry jam: white, wheat, rye or sunflower.  Sunflower, not often found in the Land of Enchantment, was a no-brainer.  It was also a great choice, a terrific landing place for the homemade raspberry jam.  The jam was very much reminiscent of Heidi’s, a New Mexico institution.  That means it was great!

Admittedly, Lowcountry cuisine has a lot going for it with exemplary restaurants such as the Hominy Grill garnering legions of fans. It would have been easy to make a case for Lowcountry cuisine reigning supreme among all regional cuisines, but my heart and appetite will forever remain loyal to the incomparable cuisine of the Land of Enchantment.

Hominy Grill
207 Rutledge Avenue
Charleston, South Carolina
(843) 937.0930
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 13 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 25
COST: $$
BEST BET: She Crab Soup, Charleston Nasty Biscuit, Chocolate Pudding, Sunflower Seed Toast and Raspberry Jam

Hominy Grill on Urbanspoon

Nob Hill Bar & Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Nob Hill Bar & Grill on Central Avenue

The Nob Hill Bar & Grill

There’s talk on the street,
it’s there to remind you,

it doesn’t really matter which side you’re on
You’re walking away and they’re talking behind you
They will never forget you ’til somebody new comes along
- New Kid In Town: The Eagles

As an independent observer of the New Mexico culinary experience, it’s always intrigued me just how fleeting and short-lived the popularity of new restaurants can be.   Perhaps indicative of our human need for constant new sources of stimulation and gratification, diners (and restaurant critics) flock to new restaurants like moths to a flame.   In our minds, new seems to translate to fresh and exciting.  We seem drawn to the spit, polish and promise of new restaurants in our constant quest for new and different.

The phenomenon of newness isn’t solely applicable to restaurants.  On the liner notes of “The Very Best of the Eagles,” Don Henley explained the meaning behind their number one song “New Kid in Town:” We’re basically saying, ‘Look, we know we’re red hot right now but we also know that somebody’s going to come along and replace us–both in music and in love.’  The fleeting, fickle nature of our fascination with newness is so strong that some restaurants actually peak in popularity within a few months after opening, particularly after their first glowing reviews.

The interior of the Nob Hill Bar & Grill

A decidedly masculine ambiance

In the National Football League (NFL), general managers and coaches recognize that the effectiveness of a draft (the signing of new players coming out of college) isn’t realized for three years.  New restaurants generally don’t have three years to prove themselves.  Many of them don’t make it past their first year.  Successful restaurants aren’t just another pretty face in the crowd.  They’re generally restaurants with substance, not just flash and panache–eateries which provide reasonable portions of good food in a pleasant ambiance served by an attentive staff.  Many of them are constantly reinventing themselves with new and exciting seasonal menu offerings.

In April, 2008, one of the pretty new faces gracing the Duke City dining scene was the Nob Hill Bar & Grill on Central Avenue.  The mere fact that it’s survived six years (as of this writing) is indicative that it’s doing things right.  The fact that there doesn’t appear to be any surcease in its popularity despite the onslaught of newer and arguably prettier competition says the Nob Hill Bar & Grill formula is working very well indeed.

Applewood Smoked Chicken Wings Tossed in Mango Habanero, served with apple slaw and choice of blue cheese or ranch.

Perhaps one of the reasons the restaurant continues to thrive is the combination of staying true to its original vision while constantly introducing elements of newness the Albuquerque dining public craves.  The Nob Hill Bar & Grill’s  vision is to be a place in which everyone feels welcome to come as they are, but with the expectations that they’ll find top-notch food, service and interesting twists on the standards they might find at a neighborhood bar, pub or steakhouse. Think time-honored bar and comfort foods with an upscale gourmet interpretation.  Think gastropub done very well!

Situated in an east-facing adobe-hued stucco exterior and a beckoning red brick frontage facing Central Avenue, the Nob Hill Bar & Grill is a beacon for patrons in pursuit of delicious victuals and creative cocktails. The east-facing wall opens up to an exterior patio which nearly doubles the restaurant’s seating capacity.  The patio provides an excellent people-watching venue.  The restaurant’s interior is decidedly contemporary and masculine with its exposed brick walls, high-backed booths with black leather seating, dark wood floors and an exposed ceiling.  An exhibition kitchen is the restaurant’s cynosure, a hectic, but not harried hub of activity. The menu, however, has more than enough variety to please both masculine and feminine palates.

St eamed Clams Little neck clams with roasted fennel, roma tomatoes and pork lardons in a white wine butter sauce topped with gremolata

Steamed Clams

The Nob Hill Bar & Grill’s innovative menu changes with the seasons.  To the greatest extent possible, the restaurant sources its beef and produce locally.  Hamburgers are crafted from premium-cut steak raised in Roswell (no UFO jokes, please).  This is no ordinary beef.  It’s a full carcass blend made from premium cuts–New York, tenderloin, ribeye– not scrap meat.   You’ll be able to taste the difference. 

Appetizers

19 August 2011: As down-to-earth as celebrity foodie Ryan Scott is, he is admittedly a barbecue snob. Years of trial and some error have made him a true smoke master and undoubtedly imbued him with the patience all barbecue purists must have.  Dine with him and you’re practically assured your meal will include smoked chicken wings if they’re on the menu.  The Nob Hill Bar & Grill’s wings are smoked in applewood, a “light” wood which imparts a fragrant smokiness without overwhelming the meats.  You can have the wings tossed in your choice of buffalo sauce or mango-habanero and served with your choice of blue cheese or ranch.  The mango-habanero is slightly tangy and only mildly piquant, allowing the applewood smoke to shine.  Shine it does.  These wings are so good Ryan eschewed dessert and opted for a second order of wings.

Jicama Duck Tacos: Shedded duck confit on fresh jicama t ortillas with an or ange cr anberry salsa and queso fresc

Jicama Duck Tacos: Shedded duck confit on fresh jicama tortillas with an orange
cranberry salsa and queso fresc

15 March 2014: In responding to my “Best of the Best for 2013” feature, my friends Hannah and Edward compiled their own list of the most memorable dishes they had in 2013.  Their list included a number of intriguing dishes I hadn’t tried.  Among the most compelling, a dish on which they both agreed, was the steamed clams at the Nob Hill Bar & Grill.  Since in my mind Hannah and Edward can do no wrong, the clams were the first item on which my eyes trained during a subsequent visit. 

These steamed clams are indeed well worthy of adulation.  At seven to ten clams per pound, little neck clams are the smallest of American cold water quahogs, but they’re among the most delicious–especially when served in a white wine butter sauce topped with gremolata (chopped herb condiment usually made of lemon zest, garlic, and parsley),  roasted fennel, Roma tomatoes and pork lardons. It’s as good a sauce as we’ve found for clams, a sauce which would make an award-winning soup and for which you would want a half dozen slices of lightly toasted bread to dredge up every drop.  

Huevos Rancheros

15 March 2014: From its onset, the Nob Hill Bar & Grill has been one of the city’s very best eateries in showcasing the versatility and deliciousness of duck.  One of the more inventive ways in which it’s offered is in the form of Jicama Duck Tacos.  You’re probably thinking “what’s so inventive about julienne jicama on a taco” and you’d be right.  What makes this taco so innovative is that the fresh tortillas are made not from corn or flour, but from jicama, a versatile sweet root vegetable.  Four tacos per order are engorged with shredded duck confit with an orange-cranberry salsa and queso fresco.  These are some of the most moist and delicious tacos in town.  The shredded duck is rich, moist and infused with flavors complemented by a tangy-sweet salsa and a mild queso.  

In its annual Food and Wine issue for 2013, Albuquerque The Magazine‘s staff sampled “every dish of nachos in the city” and selected the Nob Hill Bar & Grill’s nachos as the sixth best in the city.  The magazine described these nachos as “Albuquerque meets Texas with this plate of nachos, which is filled with chili–you know, the Texas kind.”

Brunch

Sunday brunch is a special event at several Nob Hill restaurants. It’s the thing to do on lazy Sunday mornings and restaurants such as Zinc are the place to be. Look for the Nob Hill Bar & Grill to attract even more people to the cultural heart of the city.  When the Nob Hill Bar & Grill first opened, it offered a bountiful brunch buffet.  Bidding bonjour to that  brunch buffet is a blow softened by a memorable, weekly changing brunch menu.  Sure, you won’t engorge yourself with multiple trips to the buffet, but you’ll be treated to prepared to order entrees that don’t suffer the ignominious fate of sitting under a heat lamp (which will diminish the flavor of even the best entrees).

14 December 2008: Huevos Rancheros are just a little bit different, maybe just a bit better than huevos rancheros at most New Mexican restaurants.  Instead of piling ingredients atop a corn tortilla, these beauties start with two rolled duck meat enchiladas topped with both green chile stew and red chile sauce and a fried egg.  The green chile stew is fantastic–piquant and flavorful, albeit parsimoniously portioned.  The red chile has a beautiful purity with no discernible thickening agents.  It is earthy and delicious, but alas, there’s just not enough of it.  Not everybody wants a veritable lagoon of fluorescent red chile (a description shared with me by long-time friend of this blog Bruce Balto), but when it’s this good, you want more than to be teased.  The huevos are accompanied by old-fashioned refried beans which, honestly, would have benefited from some of that fabulous green chile stew.

Chips & Salsa Three Ways

Until a few years ago, you couldn’t find an imaginative pancake in all of Albuquerque. Sure you could find pancakes topped with every conceivable fruit you can find, but in terms of griddle greatness, buttermilk was about as good as it got. It took chefs like Dennis Apodaca at Sophia’s Place and the Nob Hill Bar & Grill’s Culinary Institute of America trained Matt Ludeman to elevate pancakes to a new level.

14 December 2008: Ludeman’s contribution includes oatmeal Guinness pancakes topped with a Balsamic orange butter and whiskey syrup. Roughly the circumference of a coffee cup, these flavorful orbs are dense and thick instead of light and fluffy, but they’re good enough to eat sans syrup and butter, not that you’d ever want to considering the whiskey syrup is sensational. Accompanying the pancakes are two strips of candied pepper bacon and two eggs sunny-side-up. The candied pepper bacon will compete with the honey-chile glazed bacon at the Gold Street Caffe as the best bacon in town. It’s a flaccid bacon as opposed to the jerky textured bacon some restaurants serve. 

The Aptly Named Dirty Burger

14 December 2008: The “brunchies” portion of the menu includes several nice starters such as chips and salsa three ways.  Sweet, smoky and tart is one way in the form of smoked mango salsa composed of mangoes, tomatoes, cilantro and green peppers.  Another way is with creamy avocado sparsely dotted with corn niblets and replete with flavor.  It’s not a conventional guacamole per se, but if you like just the whisper of citrus influenced tartness with the buttery richness of avocado, you’ll love this one.  The third way is pico de gallo, a composite of tomato, green pepper, red onion and cilantro.  There’s not much pico in this rooster’s bite, but it’s delicious.  The red, white and blue corn tortillas are crisp and low in salt.

Lunch

19 August 2011: My friend Ryan Scott, the dynamic host of Albuquerque’s best YouTube channel program Break the Chain, (yeah, I’m a shill) and I shared a “Dirty Burger” which our waitress touted as one of the very best burgers in New Mexico. A better name might be “Messy Burger” in the best tradition of four napkin burgers whose ingredients run down your hands and face. The burger is constructed with your choice of Nob Hill’s ultimate blend steak or Snake River Kobe beef topped with chili (sic) con queso, frizzled onions, bacon fried egg and “beeronnaize” served with sea salt fries and chipotle ketchup. Because the chili con queso is made with the foul demon spice cumin, I deprived Scott of the experience of trying the Kobe crafted chili.

This Ain’t Yo Mama’s Meatloaf Local New Mexico all natural beef stuffed with applewood smoked bacon and smoked mozzarella cheese, served with garlic mashed potatoes, fresh vegetables and shallot gravy

This Ain’t Yo Mama’s Meatloaf

Sans chili, this is a terrific burger!  Lightly toasted brioche buns are hardly formidable enough to contain all the juiciness and flavor so you might have to eat this burger with a knife and fork.  The beef is most assuredly the star of this four-star burger.  It has the flavor of premium steak.  Cut into the over-easy fried egg and let its yoke cover the beef for a taste sensation savvy restaurants have caught onto.  The beeronnaize (not Bearnaise) has an interesting flavor–a somewhat salty, beer imbued mayo concoction applied generously.  Only the frizzled onions are truly extraneous, a wholly unnecessary additive. 

15 March 2014: It’s not every mama who serves meatloaf constructed from local New Mexico all-natural beef stuffed with applewood smoked bacon and smoked mozzarella cheese stacked atop a forest mushroom risotto then serves it with fresh vegetables (haricot vert and asparagus).  That makes this entree’s name–This Ain’t Yo Mama’s Meatloaf–so appropriate.  The pairing of applewood smoked bacon and smoked mozzarella makes smokiness the most prominent in a flavor profile.  It’s most definitely an adult meatloaf.  The forest mushroom risotto isn’t the usual accompaniment for the meatloaf, but a very accommodating server (Josh) aimed to please.  It’s a good risotto though its flavor was somewhat obfuscated by the shallot gravy intended for the meatloaf.

Fish and Chips Local Marble Brown Ale battered Cod, sea salt waffle fries, apple slaw and malt vinegar ar

Fish and Chips
Local Marble Brown Ale battered Cod, sea salt waffle fries, apple slaw and malt vinegar

15 March 2014: Not only is the meatloaf not constructed as your mama might make it, the fish and chips aren’t quite what we enjoyed by the netful in England.  Instead of flaccid fries which easily absorb the malt vinegar, the Nob Hill Bar & Grill serves sea salt waffle fries which seem to have a deflector shield preventing the absorption of malt vinegar.  The fish–two pieces of fresh cod–are delicious: flaky and delicate on the inside with a crispy Marble Brown Ale batter on the outside.  A small ramekin of apple slaw completes the entree.

Desserts

Dessert options include an Editor’s Pick in Albuquerque The Magazine’s 2008 Best of the City edition.  That would be the Cafe Con leche, a coffee lover’s lascivious dream.  It’s Thai coffee mousse with a white chocolate, coffee sponge cake and a crumbly trail of decaf coffee crumbles leading to sweetened condensed milk ice cream made in-house.  Wow!  It’s one of the most unique and intensely flavored desserts in town, a dessert you might not want to share no matter how much you might love your dining companion. 

Cafe con Leche

15 March 2014: Anthony Bourdain believes Guinness to be one of the best adult beverages in the world and as if to prove it downs several frothy pints with every meal of which he partakes in Ireland (that is when he’s not sipping on Irish whiskey).  It’s unlikely he’s had Irish libations in the manner they’re presented at the Nob Hill Bar & Grill in a dessert called the Guinness Fritter Bomb.   Three crispy fritters are served in a large bowl with Guinness ice cream, Bailey’s whipped cream and a Jameson’s caramel sauce.  Surprisingly the most memorable of the lot is the Bailey’s whipped cream.  The Jameson’s caramel sauce is actually sugar spun into twill patterns.

Guinness Fritter Bomb: Crispy Fritters, Guinness Ice Cream, Bailey's Whipped Cream topped with Jameson's Caramel Sauce

Guinness Fritter Bomb: Crispy Fritters, Guinness Ice Cream, Bailey’s Whipped Cream topped with Jameson’s Caramel Sauce

In 2008, the Nob Hill Bar & Grill was selected by readers as Albuquerque’s best new restaurant in the Alibi’s annual “Best of Burque Restaurants” poll.  It earned the same accolade in Albuquerque The Magazine‘s annual “Best of the City” honors.   In subsequent years, this restaurant has continued to rack up honors and accolades, surely indicative that this is no flash-in-the pan.  The Nob Hill Bar & Grill is here to stay.

Nob Hill Bar & Grill
3128 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, NM

(505) 266-4455
Web Site

1ST VISIT
: 27 April 2008
LATEST VISIT: 
15 March 2014
# OF VISITS
: 4
RATING
: 22
COST
: $$
BEST BET
: Oatmeal Guinness Pancakes, Huevos Rancheros. Chips & Salsa Three Ways, Cafe con Leche, The Dirty Burger, Applewood Smoked Wings, This Ain’t Yo Mama’s Meatloaf, Fish and Chips, Steamed Clams, Jicama Duck Tacos


View Nob Hill Bar & Grill on LetsDineLocal.com »

Nob Hill Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Hartford Square – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Hartford Square, a delightful cafe on Broadway just north of Central

The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a star.”
~ Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Dante Alighieri’s 14th century poem Divine Comedy postulated the existence of nine circles of Hell, each circle appropriate to the sins of the damned.  The fourth circle, for example, is reserved for hoarders and wasters whose punishment is to spend eternal life rolling giant boulders at one another.  While gastronomy is a virtue and not a sin, were there to have been a circle in Hell for gastronomes, there’s no doubt it would have been to spend eternity eating in chain restaurants where we would be subjected to the tedium and monotony of forevermore eating homogeneous foods.  It would certainly make prophetic my words “I’ll be damned if I ever eat at Chili’s or Applebee’s.”

Gastronomes need the spice of life that is variety.  Unlike gluttons who eat and drink excessively or voraciously, (and therefore spend eternal life in the fourth circle of Hell where they wallow in muck and mire) gastronomes need not consume food in large quantities.  Instead, we (and I’m including the faithful readers of this blog here) need the diversity that comes from foods with varying food profiles.  We need restaurants like Hartford Square.

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The very active exhibition kitchen at Hartford Square

Fittingly Hartford Square’s motto is “variety is the spice of life” and it’s not a motto that graces the menu and its Web site solely for the sake of pandering to an adventurous demographic.  It’s the restaurant’s modus operandi.  Hartford Square changes its menu every week, based on what is abundant and available.  For gastronomes whose favorite dish is the next new adventure in deliciousness, it’s a formula that works.  We like being surprised and rather than fretting the absence of a favorite dish, we celebrate the new dish which took its place. Visiting Hartford Square is almost like visiting a new restaurant every week.

The menu is simple and short.  It’s the antithesis of the compendium menus which promise all things to all diners and fall woefully short.  The only aspect of the menu that’s even remotely formulaic is that you’ll always find outstanding pastries, soups, salads and main course dishes.  Hartford Square embraces farm-to-table concepts; most of its food is local (often organic), seasonal and healthy.  Local sources–Kyzer Farms, Michael Thomas Coffee, Chispas Farms, Old Windmill Dairy and more–are exemplars of quality, freshness and social consciousness.

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Pumpkin Donut and Michael Thomas Coffee

Hartford Square is ensconced in a 1,200 square-foot ground-floor storefront at the Belvedere Urban Courtyard condos to the immediate north of the old Albuquerque High.  The restaurant is wider than it is deep with the exhibition kitchen occupying more than half of the space.  To maximize seating, a bar-like counter with stools provides the best views in the house, allowing guests to watch the assiduous staff preparing various dishes in small batches throughout the day.  If great fortune is smiling on you, that might mean warm scones just out-of-the-oven.

Hartford Square is named for founder-owner Sarah Hartford, a New Mexico resident for two decades but with roots in New England.  On any given visit, you might see East Coast influences throughout her menu.  You will see a distinctive menu unlike that of any other restaurant in Albuquerque.  That might even mean no red or green chile on any dish–even on burritos.  This is a vive la difference approach gastronomes, much as we love our red and green, have embraced.

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Boston Baked Beans with Piccalilli Relish and Macaroni & Cheese

The first thing your eyes will probably fixate upon when you walk into Hartford Square is a glass case showcasing pastries and main dishes.  Then if your eyes need confirmation as to what they’re ogling, menus are scrawled overhead, describing each dish.  Atop the gleaming steel counter where you order as well as on top of the pastry case, you’ll espy covered pastry plates so tempting they may evoke wanton lust (and if you don’t curb that lust, maybe a future trip to the second circle of Dante’s Hell).  Pastry chef Acacia Prechtel is the talented creator of the restaurant’s artisinal pastries, all so good you might be prompted to propose marriage to her if not to one of those pumpkin donuts. 

The house coffee is sourced from Michael Thomas Coffee Roasters on Carlisle.  It’s a very highly regarded coffee which author Andrea Feucht lauded in an article for London’s The Guardian.  Not being quite the coffee connoisseur Andrea is, to me the coffee didn’t have the smoothness and richness of my favorite coffees at Cafe Bella.  Ironically, it was a glowing recommendation from Cafe Bella’s affable proprietor Michael Gonzales which prompted my inaugural visit to Hartford Square.  Where the coffee did is job superbly is as a wonderful complement to the best pumpkin donuts we’ve had anywhere.  The coffee and the donuts brought out flavor notes in one another we didn’t discern on their own.

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Stuffed Mushrooms

Having lived for two years in a Boston suburb, it made sense for old-times-sake that I’d try the Boston Baked Beans (simmered all day in molasses, mustard, cider vinegar, bacon and salt pork) and Piccalilli relish which somewhat countermands the sweetness of the beans.  Despite the city’s “Beantown” sobriquet, not all Bostonians like Boston Baked Beans which are often almost as sweet as the candy-coated peanuts which share their name.  Hartford Square’s rendition is among the very best I’ve had anywhere even without the housemade Piccalilli relish made from pickled vegetables and spices.  This is a relish so good it should be bottled and sold. 

When you order Macaroni & Cheese you don’t always know what you’re going to get.  Sometimes the dish is creamy and moist.  At other times, it’s got a good cheesy caramelization and crust.  The latter is how our macaroni & cheese was served.  Frankly it’s the way we like it because it generally means you get a stronger cheese flavor, one not diluted by cream or milk.  If we wanted runny mac & cheese, we’d open up a box of Kraft dinner (because Kraft dinner will never cross my lips, that’s a lie that will land me in the eighth circle of Hell.)

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Chicken Pot Pie

If you’re a fan of fleshy fungi, you’ll love Hartford Square’s stuffed mushrooms, individually priced mushroom caps stuffed generously with locally sourced Italian sausage.  The wonderful contrast between moist, woodsy mushrooms and nicely seasoned, tangy sausage is memorable.  To keep peace in the family you’ll want to order at least two each for every diner at your table.

Without having paused to photograph the chicken pot pie, we might not have noticed the six-petaled flowery display on the pie’s top crust.  That’s how eager we were to confirm that it tasted as good as it smelled and looked.  Puncture that crust with your fork and fragrant steam escapes, a portend to deliciousness.  The chicken pot pie is moist and unctuous, a panoply of smaller than bite sized pieces of tender chicken and fresh vegetables (carrots, potatoes, celery).

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Lemon Poppy seed Scones and Cinnamon-Apple Streusel Coffeecake

We’ve had scones all over England as well as in New England and have uncovered scones in the Land of Enchantment that are competitive with the best.  Hartford Square’s lemon poppy seed scones are right up there with the scones at Sugar Nymph’s in Peñasco and at Albuquerque’s Daily Grind.  That’s rarefied company.  What makes these scones so wonderful is their feather-light texture and the fact that they’re not overly sweet.  Best, we got them right out-of-the-oven when they were warm and delectable. 

A commonality among the pastries (aside from their deliciousness) at Hartford Square is that none are overly sweet.  They’re all imbued with natural flavors.  On the cinnamon-apple streusel coffeecake, it’s a pleasure to see real apples sliced into small cubes and not a surfeit of pectin from a box.  While pectin is a naturally occurring thickener, its gelatinous qualities can be off-putting when pectic is used to excess.  The streusel is moist and delicious, as good as any we’ve had in Albuquerque. 

If Dante Alighieri can posit nine levels of Hell with each circle appropriate to the sins of the damned, surely there are at least nine levels of Heaven. Gastronomes will be in one of them. So will Hartford Square.

Hartford Square
300 Broadway Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 265-4933
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 18 January 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Pumpkin Donuts, Lemon Poppyseed Scones, Cinnamon-Apple Streusel Coffeecake, Boston Baked Beans with Piccalilli Relish; Macaroni & Cheese; Stuffed Mushrooms; Chicken Pot Pie


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