Cafe Bien – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Cafe Bien in Albuquerque’s Downtown Area

My friend Hannah, a brilliant linguist who’s become rather expert in the etymology and evolution of languages, speech patterns and morphology would find it dismaying should she hear someone attribute the term “Romance language” to the seductive sweet nothings spoken by such onscreen Lotharios as Ricardo Montalban.  With the mere utterance of “Corinthian leather,” Montalban could make women (and some men) swoon, but while his smooth intonations and thick, sophisticated accent may sound “romantic,” “Romance languages have nothing to do with love and romance. 

Romance languages (the R is always capitalized) are languages that developed out of the Latin used in the Roman Empire between the sixth and ninth centuries A.D..  By the beginning of the 21st century nearly one billion people claimed a Romance language as their mother tongue, 300 million people as a second language. The five most widely spoken Romance languages are Spanish (410 million), Portuguese (216 million), French (75 million), Italian (60 million), and Romanian (25 million).     Romance languages still share several commonalities and a surprisingly high proportion of basic vocabulary.

The dining room at Cafe Bien

Though more a polyglot (if knowing cuss words in multiple languages qualifies me as such) than a linguist, my first inclination at hearing about Cafe Bien was to wonder if “Bien” was indicative of the restaurant’s cuisine.    Depending on how it’s used (in combination with other words), “bien” can translate to “very well” or “very good” in both Spanish (muy bien) and French (tres bien).  Though just slightly different in Italian (abbastanza bene ) and Portuguese (muito bem), there’s no mistaking that these four terms have their genesis in a Romance language.  There are dozens of “common” phrases in use today. 

Subscripted directly below the name “Cafe Bien” is the term “a fine creation,” confirmation of what the term “bien” means without attributing it to the cuisine of any country.  Fine cuisine is fine cuisine, apparently…and that’s not necessarily synonymous with fine dining.  Peruse the menu and you’ll find delightfully eclectic offerings that are just a little different from those served at most “American” eateries throughout the city.  It’s got burgers, sandwiches, entrees and other “fine” dishes that have been bringing in breakfast and lunch crowds since Cafe Bien first launched in the autumn of 2013.

Brioche Toast and Croissant

Cafe Bien’s first home was on the bottom floor of the Simms Building on Gold Avenue, a block south of Central Avenue.  Not quite two years later, the restaurant relocated to Route 66, within easy walking distance of its first home.  Comfortably ensconced in the former home of Nick’s Crossroads Café, Cafe Bien is sure to benefit from increased traffic and the visibility of being on the corner of a very busy intersection (Fourth and Central).  East-facing windows let the sun shine in while the walls on the western wall are festooned with several televisions tuned to the Food Network (as if imbibing the intoxicating aromas emanating from the kitchen isn’t incentive enough). 

Ever since The Spot shuttered its doors in Corrales, we’ve been craving biscuits and gravy.  Cafe Bien’s rendition (chive biscuits with white gravy, green chile sausage, eggs sunny-side-up, house fries) sounds as inviting as a warm smile.  Alas, by the unholy hour of eleven o’clock on the Saturday morning of our inaugural visit, the restaurant had run out.  Not bien!  Housemade brioche toast and a croissant are poor substitutes when you’ve got a craving for biscuits.  It’ll take some doing for any restaurant’s biscuits to be nearly as good as The Spot’s, but on paper alone, Cafe Bien’s just might do the trick.

Bacon & Eggs

As she consoled us for having run out of biscuits, our server promised a breakfast entree sure to cheer our disconsolate hearts.  Telling us the “bacon and eggs” was one of Cafe Bien’s most popular dishes seemed as empty as a campaign promise during the primaries.   As she described it, the entree sounded more and more like “deconstructed Eggs Benedict” until she got to the “bacon” part of the entree: two half-inch thick slabs of caramelized pork belly.  That’s right.  Pork candy!   Though she had us at caramelized pork belly, the deal was sealed with the mention of green chile potato pancake. Everything else–toasted brioche, poached eggs and Hollandaise–was more of the “been there, done that” variety.  The caramelized pork belly lives up to expectations as a fatty, meaty, sweet, smoky, seductive bacon on steroids.  Similarly the green chile potato pancakes are par excellence with a pleasant piquancy enlivening what is often a boring, bland item. 

As if to prove cobbler isn’t just for barbecue restaurants, Cafe Bien offers a number of cobbler dishes, none of which will have you craving ribs lacquered with a sweet-sticky sauce.  The mixed berry (raspberry, blueberry, blackberry) cobbler a la mode is a winner courtesy of tart-sweet berries and a glorious sweet crust.  By serving the ice cream in a separate dish, you’re allowed to introduce the element of cold to the hot berries as you see fit.  Vanilla ice cream is a perfect foil for tart berries, its sweet creaminess providing a nice contrast to the lip-pursing berries.  Whipped cream is provided on the side, but it’s wholly unnecessary.

Mixed Berry Cobbler A La Mode

Cafe Bien is one of the reasons “todo esta bien” (all is well) in the downtown area.  Now if they could only manage not to sell out of biscuits before we get there…

Cafe Bien
400 Central Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 14 November 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Bacon & Eggs, Mixed Berry Cobbler A La Mode
Cafe Bien Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Loving Vegan – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Loving Vegan Closed Its Doors on Friday, November 13th, Two Days After My Inaugural and Only Visit

My adovada adoring amigo Ruben likened the irony to an episode of Seinfeld.  Two weeks into his experiment with an ostensibly healthier vegan diet, he was craving sushi and needed his sushi-specific pangs of hunger sated.  No sooner had we finished a very satisfying sushi soiree at Albuquerque’s only vegan sushi restaurant than our waitress apprised us the restaurant would be closing for good two days later.  “Serenity now,” we cried, mimicking Frank Costanza when faced with a stressful situation.  It just didn’t seem fair that we would make such a delicious discovery only to have plans for future meals dashed. 

Loving Vegan gave it the “old college try,” initially launching in June, 2012 on Coors Blvd before relocating in November, 2013 to a much more heavily trafficked Nob Hill location.  In its relatively short life, Loving Vegan garnered a loyal following and a very prestigious honor.  Within a year of opening, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) named Loving Vegan the “top restaurant for vegan sushi” in the United States and Canada.  The citation from PETA read: “Loving Vegan earned our top prize because it truly proves that any food can be made deliciously and healthfully without animal products. Cheers and congratulations to Loving Vegan — this number-one award is well deserved!”

Interior of Loving Vegan

Despite being a relative newcomer competing against vegan restaurants in such population centers as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Ontario (Canada) and Baltimore, to veteran observers of the Duke City dining scene, it  came as no surprise that Loving Vegan would be accorded such an honor. After all, it was founded by Kathy Punya, one of Albuquerque’s most active restaurant impresarios.  Among Kathy’s other eateries are a number of Sushi King restaurants throughout the Duke City as well as one in Rio Rancho.  Kathy Punya knows sushi! 

Kathy also knows restaurants.  After all vestiges of Loving Vegan have been cleared out, one of her other restaurants, Soul and Vine, a downtown fine-dining gem will be moving in.  Parking in Nob Hill is probably only slightly better than in the downtown district, but Nob Hill may be more heavily trafficked in the evening hours than is the downtown area, especially by the dining demographic.

In 2013 PETA named Loving Vegan the best Vegan Sushi Restaurant in America

Ruben and I were pleasantly surprised at the diversity and depth of the Loving Vegan menu.  Not only did the menu list a tremendous variety of sushi (nigiri, sashimi, rolls, hand rolls and chef’s specials) options, a separate  menu showcased Bento boxes, rice dishes, pan-fried noodles, noodle soups, Chinese stir-fried dishes and chef specials.  The chef specials included Pad Thai and three curry dishes including a vegan duck curry dish that beckoned me to try it.  Loving Vegan’s menu was as ambitious and inviting as any menu in any of Albuquerque’s many Asian restaurants. 

As we discovered, diners didn’t need to be of the vegan or vegetarian persuasion to enjoy a meal at Loving Vegan.  If we hadn’t known better, in fact, we would have sworn there was little discernible difference between some of the vegan sushi we enjoyed and sushi at traditional “fishy” sushi restaurants throughout the Duke City and that’s not just the horseradish-heavy wasabi talking.  Before finding out about the restaurant’s impending closure, it pleased Ruben to no end that despite his new healthful dietetic lifestyle, he’d be able to continue enjoying sushi.

Miso soup

By no stretch of the imagination is miso soup veganThe basis for this traditional Japanese favorite is dashi, a fish-based (fermented bonito or skipjack tuna fish shavings) broth and a salty fermented soybean paste.  A vegan-friendly version can be made fairly easily by substituting vegetable stock for the dashi.  Loving Vegan’s rendition has the pungent, salty qualities of traditional miso soup and had it been served hot instead of lukewarm, it would have been even more enjoyable. 

We initially wondered if the sheer number of ingredients on each sushi roll was a deliberate attempt at “masking” the flavor of the vegan ingredients, but it dawned on us that most American sushi rolls also tend to constructed from a preponderance of ingredients.  The vegan spicy tuna crunch roll was an exception in that the sole listed ingredients were vegan spicy tuna and cucumber inside with tempura flakes and sweet sauce on top.  Frankly, we didn’t spend much time trying to discern the nuanced differences between vegan tuna and its “regular” sushi counterpart.  That’s more indicative of our genuine appreciation for its deliciousness than any perceived lack of scientific curiosity.  This was a very good roll.

Left: Loving Vegan Roll; Right: Vegan Spicy Tuna Crunch Roll

We also disposed of the Loving Vegan Roll (green chili tempura, avocado, cucumber, vegan lobster inside; deep fried with spicy mayo, sriracha, and sweet sauce on top) rather quickly.  It wasn’t until we had wiped it out that we asked ourselves about the flavor of the vegan lobster.  Neither of us discerned, either texturally or flavor-wise, any lobster-like flavor.  We did, however, note that the “green chili” wasn’t especially reminiscent of New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile.  Any heat we gleaned from this roll had its genesis in the wasabi and sriracha.  Still in all, we enjoyed the Loving Vegan Roll very much. 

Framed and captioned photographs on the walls proved very enticing–true food porn, none more alluring than the grilled portobello (SIC) roll (a unagi roll with cucumber, salmon and sweet sauce on top).  “Mock” unagi was nearly as good as its eel-based counterpart thanks largely to a generous application of the sweet “eel sauce.”   If the rapidity with which we dispensed of this roll is any indication, we enjoyed it thoroughly…and as with our previous vegan sushi conquests, we didn’t spend much time trying to determine its composition though I now surmise roasted eggplant may have been the basis for mock unagi.

Grilled Portobello Mushroom Roll

Albuquerque apparently didn’t love Loving Vegan enough to keep it operating, but Ruben and I certainly wish it would have survived the test of time.  With sushi this good, a vegan lifestyle might be even be more than palatable. It just might be delicious.

Loving Vegan
3409 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 November 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Miso Soup, Grilled Portobello Mushroom Roll, Loving Sushi Roll, Vegan Spicy Tuna Roll

Gravy – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Gravy for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner on Central Avenue in the East Downtown (EDO) District

“Gravy is the simplest, tastiest, most memory-laden dish I know how to make:
a little flour, salt and pepper, crispy bits of whatever meat anchored the meal,
a couple of cups of water or milk and slow stirring to break up lumps.”
~Dorothy Allison, American writer

Some would say that the discovery (invention?) of gravy is one of mankind’s crowning achievements.  Others would deride it as the work of the devil, likening gravy to a beguiling temptress which bends the will to its bidding.  Dolly Parton acknowledges that “every single diet I ever fell off of was because of potatoes and gravy of some sort.”   It’s no surprise that similar to many of the world’s best tasting foods, gravy is generally fattening.  Most commonly, it’s the byproduct of pan drippings and juices derived from cooking meat.

Some among us who consider gravy one of mankind’s most glorious achievements (even as it flows through our veins) may salivate involuntarily when turning onto Central Avenue and espying a large sign reading simply “Gravy” subtitled with the three events with which gravy goes so well: “breakfast, lunch, dinner.”  One of the most eagerly anticipated restaurant launches in recent memory, Gravy is the brainchild of the partnership which in 2011 opened Holy Cow, one of the city’s  most celebrated purveyors of burgers.

Chocolate-Cherry Shake

Gravy is located at the site of the former site of Milton’s, a long-time East Downtown institution.  Despite nearly two years and more than half a million spent in renovating the edifice,  architectural constraints make it nearly impossible not to hearken back to the days in which the facade housed a Denny’s Restaurant.  That’s not to say the renovation was like “putting lipstick on a pig.”  It’s just that there’s only so much you can do with a building originally constructed in 1964. 

What you can do, however, is place a premium on providing an attractive venue for guests.  It’s a venue which pays homage to previous tenants in a retro-modern diner fashion without a thematic regression to the 60s.  The exterior (which had probably been neglected for years) has a pristine appearance; even the river rock facade now has a polished look.  The interior received similar attention though the sound system’s bassy speakers have a one-note (boom, boom) cacophony that makes discourse at conversational tones a challenge.

Steak Frites

Where Gravy will shine most is with a diner menu that bespeaks of inventive and traditional diner foods, many prepared with a New Mexico twist while others offer a contemporary interpretation of classic dishes.  Diner foods generally translate to comfort foods such as meatloaf, chicken fried steak, fried chicken and beef stroganoff, all staples of Gravy. Salads range from the classic chopped salad to the lobster-avocado salad.  You can start your morning off with such eye-opening favorites as biscuits and gravy or opt instead for a breakfast pot pie.  Nine types of pancakes grace the breakfast menu.

13 December 2014: In the tradition of diners everywhere, milkshakes are prepared to order for kids of all ages.  These aren’t the milkshake machine variety shakes proffered at chain restaurants.  The chocolate-cherry shake, for example, is made with real ice cream, chunks of adult (dark) chocolate and a multitude of maraschino cherries, not some artificial cherry-flavored sweetener.  It’s served cold the way shakes used to be and should always be made.

Spinach, Artichoke and Feta Triangle with Cucumber-Mint Yogurt and Tomato-Olive Salsa

13 December 2014: One of the more contemporary menu items offered at some diners is steak frites. While some might decry steak frites as just a fancy name for steak and French fries, in France there are restaurants whose entire menu is comprised solely of this sacrosanct dish.  Gravy’s rendition is a marinated top sirloin topped with a maitre d’ butter served with hand-cut fries.  At medium-rare, the steak oozes beautiful pink juices.  The maitre d’ butter, a compound butter with parsley, adds a complex layer of flavors and a rich unctuous quality that enlivens the meat.  The fries are just a bit on the flaccid side and are prepared at just past the stage at which they’re golden hued. 

13 December 2014: Another entree unlikely to be found in an old-fashioned diner of yore is a spinach, artichoke and feta triangle served with a cool cucumber-mint yogurt and a tomato-olive salsa.  Not entirely unlike Greek spanokopita, this filo dough pastry is a winner, so good you can enjoy it on its own or with the delightful cucumber-mint yogurt and (or) tomato-olive salsa.  Luckily there’s enough of the cucumber-mint yogurt that you can use it in lieu of ketchup for the fries.  The tomato-olive salsa has a discernible bite whose genesis we weren’t able to determine. 

Pork Belly and Fried Green Tomatoes

13 December 2014: There’s a reason restaurant critics don’t typically review new restaurants until restaurateurs have had the opportunity to iron things out, a process that sometimes takes several weeks, if not months.   Virtually all restaurants experience “Murphy’s Law-esque” start-up issues that belie the countless hours of planning and preparation for a smooth launch.  We visited Gravy scant days after its opening and suffered through a number of issues that detracted from the enjoyment of our meal, however, the restaurant’s seasoned ownership makes it very likely these issues will be resolved in short order and Gravy will more than live up to the hype it’s received. 

22 August 2015: We waited nine months for a return visit and while the service issues we endured during our inaugural visit were largely resolved, we experienced mixed results with what we ordered, thoroughly enjoying a couple of items and sending two other items back.  There are never any guarantees that every item at every restaurant will appease every diner, but the items we sent back were praised highly on other online forums and frankly, aren’t that difficult to prepare well.

Breakfast Sandwich

22 August 2015: The Air Force sent Kim and I to Mississippi in 1987, the year in which Fannie Flagg’s memorable Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe was published.  Fried green tomatoes are a Southern staple, as part of the culture as good manners.  Before we even read the book or watched the movie, we were  besotted by tangy fried slices of succulent fresh-from-the-garden green tomatoes.  Though restaurants throughout the fruited plain jumped on the fried green tomato bandwagon, only in the deep south have we enjoyed them.  Gravy’s rendition takes a contemporary approach to the sacrosanct fried green tomato, topping each slice with pimento cheese, chopped pork belly and tomato jam, negating the need for sauce of any type.  Though not quite “Southern,” these are very enjoyable.  The tomatoes are indeed green with nary a touch of mushy yellow or worse, red.  They’re fried lightly and pair well with the unique and clever toppings, especially the sweet tomato jam which nicely contrasts with the savory tartness of the green tomatoes.

22 August 2015: In 2014, I spent a week in Charleston, South Carolina, a city widely regarded as one of America’s culinary treasures.  At the James Beard award-winning Hominy Grill, I had the tremendous pleasure of partaking of the Charleston Nasty Biscuit, a beauteous behemoth in which sausage gravy is slathered on a mile-high biscuit bisected by a Southern-fried (in a skillet) chicken breast topped with shredded Cheddar cheese.  It’s one of the very best sandwiches these lips have ever enjoyed.  Gravy’s breakfast sandwich takes the term “nasty” as in awesomely big to another level.  It should come standard with an angioplasty.  Messily nestled within a UFO-sized biscuit are a fried chicken thigh topped with bacon, a fried egg and as much gravy as the Rio Grande has water.  On paper it sounds deliciously decadent, an indulgence not for the faint of heart.  Alas, the gravy lacked personality (a cardinal sin in a restaurant named Gravy) and would have benefited greatly from sausage.  The chicken was tough, rather heavily breaded and lacked seasoning.  We tried our darnedest to enjoy this beast of a biscuit sandwich, but couldn’t get past its shortfalls.

Pineapple Upside Down Pancake

22 August 2015:  The Gravy menu features a number of unique pancake offerings heretofore unseen in these parts.  The triumvirate, called “The Pancake Flight” includes a red velvet pancake, a cinnamon roll pancake and a pineapple upside down pancake.  Each is about the size of a manhole cover and unless you’re a lineman for the UNM Lobos is easily large enough to share.  The pineapple upside down pancake is terrific with tangy pineapple chunks providing a tangy contrast to the pancakes (which would have benefited from real maple syrup).

Gravy is a bit of an anomaly to us. The dishes it does well, it does very well, but shortcomings in other dishes are rather glaring. It’ll take time and a few more visits to find the sweet spot, a complete meal in which our enjoyment crosses several dishes.

Gravy
725 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 August 2015
1st VISIT: 13 December 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 17
COST: $$
BEST BET: Steak Frittes; Chocolate-Cherry Shake; Caramelized Banana Shake; Spinach, Artichoke and Feta Triangle; Pork Belly and Fried Green Tomatoes;

Gravy on Urbanspoon

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