There’s a European joke that uses stereotypes to deride British cooking, one of the most maligned cuisines in the world culinary stage.
As the joke goes, in the European conception of heaven, the French are the chefs, the British are the police and the Germans are the engineers while in the European conception of hell, the Germans are the police, the French are the engineers and the British are the chefs.
When it comes to the culinary arts, England is the Rodney Dangerfield of Europe; its cuisine receives absolutely no respect. English food is regarded as bland and unimaginative, especially when compared with the haute (and haughty) cuisine of France.
Having spent three years in England and having partaken of wonderful food throughout the Isles, I rise to the defense of this nation’s maligned food. We found English food to be inventive and delicious.
We left England about four years before the term “gastropub” was coined, but the concept had actually already started to be practiced and proliferated. A gastropub is a British term for a public house (pub) which specializes in high-end, high-quality food. The term gastropub, a combination of pub and gastronomy, is intended to define food which is a step above the more basic “pub grub,” but in actuality, it can be several degrees of magnitude better.
Gastropubs not only emphasize the quality of food served, they provide a relaxed milieu in which dining patrons can obtain cuisine (as opposed to grub) comparable to what they might receive at the very best restaurants–and ostensibly, at reasonable prices.
The menu, of course, has to complement an assortment of wines and beers, the latter being a staple of pub life in England.
Cambridge, England born Rebecca Carter and her husband purchased the venerable Casa Vieja restaurant in 2005, but only three years later did they change the restaurant’s name and concept. The name “Casa Vieja” has actually been retained, but it has been subordinated under its English translation.
Visitors are quickly discovering that the gastropub concept really fits the Corrales pace and lifestyle. So why the change?
Just like English food, stereotypes were attached to the name “Casa Vieja.” Both tourists and locals assumed that, because of the restaurant’s Spanish name, everything on the menu would include chile. As a result, tourists avoided the restaurant while locals expecting New Mexican food may have left disappointed.
The “Old House” dates back to the early 1700s and is one of the oldest buildings in Corrales, contemporaneous with the founding of Albuquerque. The original walls are constructed not of adobes, but of of thick slabs of earth called terrones. Some walls are 30-inches thick.
At its largest, the building has been described as a 20-room, E-shaped hacienda. A chapel was said to be located at the west end of the 55-foot long room of the house. Although original vigas still support the roof, many of the latillas in the ceiling have been replaced.
During its early years, the Casa reportedly served at various times as a stop on a stagecoach route, a military headquarters for the Spanish, a courthouse, the headquarters for a cavalry unit, a tuberculosis clinic and even a nudist colony.
Until several years ago, it still had gun turrets high on one wall of the chapel, the edifice’s oldest room. When the Casa served as a courthouse, defendants would be tried then marched down Corrales Road with bystanders throwing food and rocks at them. When they reached what is now the Rancho de Corrales restaurant, justice would be meted out on the famous hanging tree.
From 1999 until July, 2005, the Casa Vieja was home to chef Jim White who became somewhat of a local celebrity by hosting short cooking segments on two Duke City television news programs.
The departure of chef White began a new era for Casa Vieja. In place of the peripatetic and effervescent chef were new owners from England of all places.
Rebecca Carter is the heart and soul of the Old House Gastropub. An indefatigable whirling dervish, she has crafted an imaginative and very ambitious menu unlike that of any restaurant in the Duke City area. It is, in fact, one of the best menus in the state!
That wide-ranging menu includes sandwiches and salads as well as steaks and burgers with an assortment of desserts and pastries. The menu is seasonal, reflecting the “fantastic diversity that the full culinary year has to offer” and it is affordable.
Perhaps not since Noah’s menagerie of beast and fowl has there been such an eclectic range of meats as what is offered at the Old House Gastropub. In terms of variety, these meats may be unsurpassed in the Land of Enchantment. They include yak, wild boar, buffalo, kangaroo, ostrich, quail, pork and Kobe beef.
The Old House Gastropub is open continuously for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Brunch is served on weekends starting at 10AM. There are few milieus as inviting and relaxing as the patio where centuries old trees provide cooling shade from the heat of the day (not to mention the ubiquitous winds).
The restaurant’s philosophy is simple–”to delight you with exceptionally delicious and well-prepared meals that are also created with conscience.” After two meals in two days, I’m ready to proclaim “mission accomplished.”
Our inaugural visit to the Old House Gastropub elicited the type of epiphany-like response we rarely have any more. Not only were we thrilled to find an exceptional menu, but its execution was flawless. If anything, there is such tremendous variety in the menu that it was a challenge to pare down to a select few. There’s no doubt frequent visits are in order.
The “Casa Favorites” section of the menu includes thirteen items, some of which can be classified as appetizers and others as entrees. They include traditional English fish and chips offered, unfortunately, with American type fries. Rebecca jokes that English fries can be tossed against a wall where they would stick. Despite their flaccidity and “stick-to-itiveness” we love English chips and the way malt vinegar complements them. American chips just don’t cut it with malt vinegar.
The Casa Favorites section also includes a blue crab claw meat queso served with tortilla chips that puts to shame most con queso in the Duke City area.
The queso is flecked with genuine New Mexico green chile, courtesy of Rebecca’s chef from Socorro. The green chile has a nice roasted-on-a-comal flavor and just a hint of piquancy. The queso is creamy and rich.
The blue crab claw meat is sweet and delicious though parsimoniously meted out. Any more might have altered the flavors of this excellent con queso.
The tortilla chips are made from flour tortillas cut into triangles then deep-fried. They are reminiscent of the tortillas served at El Bruno, one of the state’s best New Mexican restaurants.
The standard queso, by the way is terrific as we found out during our second visit. It’s not gloppy or gooey as we’ve found in several New Mexican restaurants which serve queso with chips.
The salsa is chunky and made with great ingredients–white onion, jalapeno and rich, red tomatoes. It’s the type of salsa locals will appreciate for its high quality and tourists will appreciate because it won’t excoriate their taste buds with piquancy.
Appetizers include garlic shrimp and chorizo served with focaccia bread. This appetizer packs a real punch with more piquancy than the queso or salsa.
A broth flecked with smoky and spicy chorizo is seasoned with the refreshing herb combination of rosemary and oregano. A relative of the mint family, rosemary imbues foods with a “woodsy” fragrance, but in quantity, can overwhelm the food it is meant to complement.
The optimum amount of rosemary and seasonings are used in this memorable broth into which several plump garlic shrimp are added. You’ll dispense of those shrimp quickly then will dredge up every bit of the savory broth with the focaccia.
If soup is more to your liking, the menu includes three standard offerings plus a soup of the day. One of the daily standards is green chile, the official soup of the state of New Mexico.
Try the garlic soup for something refreshingly different. This is tempered garlic which won’t be emitted through your pores. It is smoky and just a tad sweet. The soup is somewhere between a thin broth and a thick soup. It is comfort food embodied.
The entrees section of the menu is where many of the exotic meat offerings can be found. Heading this section is a wet-aged, grain-fed Kansas bone-in prime rib-eye steak served with a Jim Beam reduction which can be had for $50. It is the most expensive item on the menu though other prime cuts of beef are upwards of $30.
If the tenderloin of wild boar served with a pear and golden sultana chutney is any indication, the Old House Gastropub’s preparation of meats is top-tier.
Three medallions of wild boar served at medium are as tender a cut of meat as you’ll find anywhere. Boar is a lean meat with only a very slightly discernable gaminess. It is also surprisingly light, not dense and fatty like some game meats tend to be.
The pear and golden sultana chutney reminded me that one of the things we’ve missed most about English cuisine is all the wonderful chutneys. France can have all their sauces. I’ll take chutneys any time.
The tenderloin is served with the chef’s vegetables of the day which will hopefully be the garden-fresh medley pictured above. A choice of starch is also available, including mashed Yukon gold and red potatoes with chives sans gravy.
An impressive array of sandwiches is available for budget-conscious diners who like to venture into the realm of the creative sandwich world. Sandwiches are served with your choice of a small dinner salad, cup of soup, French fries or potato salad.
The sliced sirloin steak sandwich with baby spinach, red onion and Stilton blue cheese on a toasted hoagie roll is a winner thanks to premium quality ingredients. The sirloin steak is tender and of prime steak quality with a surfeit of flavor and juiciness at about medium done.
Stilton is an intensely-flavored blue cheese with veins of pure pleasure. It can overwhelm or greatly improve anything to which it is added. Coupled with the light, sweet flavor of red onion and the slightly acerbic flavor of the baby spinach, this sandwich couples items which go together very well to form composite greatness.
Ascribe greatness to the sandwich crafted from thick rashers of applewood smoked bacon, sliced hard-boiled egg, tomato and mayo on a toasted Telera bun. Telera, a Mexican flat bread is flat and crusty, a perfect canvass for a sandwich. This sandwich, in particular, is fashioned from moist ingredients (tomato and mayo) complementing dry ingredients (bacon and hard-boiled egg) to form a marriage made in sandwich heaven. It is an early favorite.
Burger aficionados will fawn all over the gourmet burger offerings. Each burger is crafted on a toasted Telera bun with lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion on the side along with your choice of a small dinner salad, soup, French fries or potato salad.
Your biggest challenge will be in deciding whether to have ostrich, Kobe beef, Colorado yak, wild Alaskan sockeye, buffalo, wild boar or a Portobello mushroom burger stuffed with mozzarella and sage.
You can get around that delicious dilemma by ordering the mini gourmet burger assortment which includes one of each yak, buffalo, Kobe and ostrich mini burgers served with cheeses on mini-rolls.
The yak burger is grilled rare to medium-rare and is topped with Gjetost cheese, a uniquely flavored cheese that is both strong and sweet with notes of caramel and goat’s milk. At rare to medium-rare, the yak is richly flavored and delicate with a flavor reminiscent of beef, but with one-sixth the fat and 40 percent more protein than beef.
The ostrich burger is also grilled rare to medium-rare and is topped with a French brie cheese. Like the yak, ostrich meat tastes similar to lean beef and it is low in fat and cholesterol as well as high in protein, iron and calcium. Uncooked, it is a darker than beef, so at rare to medium-rare, that color is readily apparent.
It’s been my experience that it’s not the flavor of rare to medium-rare beef that will turn off proponents of charred meats. It’s usually the texture that will get to them. At rare, the beef is seared on the outside and red and cool on the inside and loose to the touch.
The Kobe burger is also grilled rare to medium-rare and is topped with Gruyere cheese. I’ve long contended that to put Kobe beef on a burger is to desecrate one of the most unctuous, delicious and rich meats there is. The Old House Gastropub’s rendition did little to change my mind.
The most enjoyable burger among the quadrumvirate may well be the buffalo burger grilled at about medium and topped with a mature Cheddar cheese. Buffalo meat is very high in essential fatty acids that can aid in the reduction of cholesterol levels. It is also rich and delicious.
Desserts include English sticky pudding, a lush muffin-like mound of bread pudding topped with a rich caramel. It’s a high-calorie indulgence rich in flavor and deliciousness, one of our favorite desserts from the old country. Rebecca’s version is as good as we remembered ever having in the Cotswolds.
For a few hours each visit, the Old House Gastropub takes us back to the England we knew and loved–the England in which outstanding food can be enjoyed. Best of all, you can enjoy the best of England under a canopy of New Mexico’s blue skies.
The Old House Gastropub
4541 Corrales Road
LATEST VISIT: 8 June 2008
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Blue Crab Claw Meat Queso, Garlic Shrimp & Chorizo, Sliced Sirloin Steak Sandwich, Tenderloin of Wild Boar