While touring Granada, Spain during a 2013 episode of CNN’s Parts Unknown, Emmy award-winning celebrity host Anthony Bourdain bemoaned that “we will never have tapas culture in America.” Then, to emphasize his contention even further (and perhaps to rankle the ire of American foodies who frequent “tapas” restaurants across the fruited plain), he challenged viewers: “You may think you know what a tapa is, like if you’ve had small bites at some fusion hipster bar where they do a whole bunch of little plates. Yeah, that ain’t a tapa.”
Bourdain, a best-selling author, world traveler, renowned chef and “poet of the common man” doesn’t just vociferate controversial statements because it’s good television. Agree with him or not, he knows what he’s talking about. When he says we will never have tapas culture in America, the operative word is “culture” as in the social practices associated with tapas. In Spain, tapas isn’t a formulaic approach in which a restaurant (or more likely, a drinking establishment) serves “small plates.” It’s so much more than that.
In modern day Spain, tapas are not only a gastronomic custom, they are a deeply rooted social and communal event described by Travel and Leisure as “walking, talking, drinking and nibbling.” Taverns are indeed clustered in close proximity to one another, making it easy for patrons to hop from bar to bar sampling the specialty of the house at each. It’s been that way since the reign of Castilian King Alfonso the Wise who decreed that no wine was to be served in any inn throughout Castile unless accompanied by something to eat. This precaution was to counteract the adverse effects of alcohol on an empty stomach.
Observing that glasses of wine or sherry served to patrons attracted fruit flies, bartenders began covering the top of the glass with a piece of bread to prevent the pesky insects from doing the breaststroke in the wine. In time, each tavern concocted its own signature toppings for the bread. For the most part, the covers or “tapas” were relatively simple–ham or anchovies, for example, but eventually, those simple glass covers evolved into such creative and sophisticated dishes that what is essentially Spanish bar food now rivals any of the world’s most celebrated cuisines.
Bourdain reminded viewers of another reason America will never have a tapas culture: in Spain, tapas are free. As long as you drink, the tapas keep coming. You’ll only be charged for beer or wine and for caviar (which is consumed by the spoonful). “When,” he declares “complimentary plates include such mussels steamed in olive oil and fried eggplant and honey, does it matter?” Besides, the salty caviar will only make you thirstier so you’ll drink more and eat fewer tapas. Tavern-keepers know what they’re doing.
There’s an inverse relationship here between “free” and quality. Free tapas in Spain are the complete antithesis of what free tapas might be like in America. Picture if you will, choking down “all-you-can-eat apps” at TGI Fridays then noshing on mozzarella sticks at Applebee’s followed by fried pickles at Chili’s as you travel from one to the other to imbibe your favorite adult beverage. Tapas in Spain are far superior in quality and deliciousness to appetizers for which we pay at the aforementioned chains (and for which you’d be overcharged if they were free). Tapas are meticulously assembled, eye-catching and absolutely mouth-watering delicious epicurean delights.
So, in the eyes of the bombastic Bordain, America will never have a tapas culture. So what! Culturally and socially, we’re not Spain. Our drinking establishments aren’t clustered in close proximity to one another and they’ll probably never offer gourmet quality tapas for free. Does this all mean we can’t appreciate our own interpretation of tapas for what it is? Absolutely not! Especially if the tapas bar looks and feels as if it could be right at home in Barcelona, Madrid, San Sebastian, Seville, Andalusia or Granada.
Such is the case when you first set foot in The Cellar on Lomas Boulevard just east of the downtown district. It truly does feel like “an oasis of casual elegance where delicious wines and sophisticated tapas cuisine will transport you to Old Spain.” This Iberian-themed restaurant is the brainchild of first-time restaurateur Gabriel Holguin. Where others saw a shuttered video store available to be rented, he visualized a tapas bar patterned after tapas bars in the aforementioned Spanish cities. Exemplifying a hands-on approach, he completely gutted and rebuilt the edifice, hand-carving all the tables, installing the pressed tin-work enclosing the kitchen and bar, setting up light fixtures and more. You name it, he had a hand in it.
The results are visually stunning! This is a captivating milieu interspersing contemporary industrial duct-work with the baronial splendor of Old Spain. The color spectrum ranges from gleaming metallic silver to masculine dark wood floors and tables. Accommodating some forty patrons in relatively close spacing, the space is both functional and attractive. A very utilitarian semi-exhibition kitchen appears part pantry, part cookery. Everything from utensils to cutting boards to vegetables and condiments is within easy reach of the chef and staff. The dulcet tones of flamenco guitars play in the background.
The menu offers both lunch and dinner with the latter offering more options. If it’s tapas you came for, you’ll find a phalanx of choices. There are tapas frias (cold tapas) such as ceviche, table de tres quesos (three cheese plate) and atun y salmon crudo (raw tuna and salmon). The tapas calientes (warm tapas) menu includes such delights as patatas bravas (fried potatoes), aguacate frito (fried avocado) and calamari frito (fried squid). The menu also includes sopas y ensaladas (soups and salads), almuerzo (lunch) and entrees. It’s a tempting array of mouth-watering choices wholly unlike the “small bites at a hipster bar” Bourdain derides.
As you peruse the menu (all the while trying to allay involuntary salivation), your server will ferry over to your table a slate board with olive oil and rustic bread. This is no ordinary olive oil. It’s olive oil infused with flavor-boosting ingredients such as chipotle, green chile and black mission figs and it’s procured locally from the ABQ Olive Oil Company. Both the chipotle and green chile infused olive oils have a pronounced piquancy. The black mission fig infused olive oil is a vast improvement over the de rigueur olive oil and Balsamic vinegar combination. If you’re not careful, however, you can fill up quickly on the bread and olive oils. There’s too much else to enjoy to fill up too soon.
2 April 2016: Turophiles will love the tabla de tres quesos (three cheese plate), a Spanish cheese plate with imported Manchego, Cabrales and Mahon quesos, grilled peppers, Spanish olives, dries apples and crostini. A good cheese plate provides diverse flavor profiles—from mild and sweet to pungent and sharp. This is a good cheese plate. Mahon cheese has a flavor not dissimilar to a fruity olive oil. The Manchego has a sweet, caramel-like, nutty flavor somewhat resembling Monterey Jack. If you like a strong, penetrating aroma and sharp, acidic flavor, the Cabrales will delight you. The dried apples are an excellent foil in between cheeses.
2 April 2016: Entrees include items both sea-farers and landlubbers will love. The first item on the menu is paella, a classic Spanish dish. If, like me, you can’t resist trying risotto no matter how often this most trying of dishes to prepare, can be, you’ll appreciate the creamy, stock-rich, well-attended risotto offered at The Cellar. It’s a winner. For a pittance you can add a six- or ten-ounce grilled ribeye steak to your risotto. The demi-glace (teriyaki, chile flakes) really gives the steak a nice sweet-savory flavor profile—maybe too much of it because we found ourselves eating the gristly, fatty portions of the meat, too, all because we enjoyed the demi-glace so much. Sauteed mushrooms, asparagus spears and grilled peppers, all prepared very well, complete this entrée.
2 April 2016: What initially prompted our visit to The Cellar was my Kim’s declaration that she was craving lobster. Since it’s my mission in life to spoil her, The Cellar’s langosta y mantequilla (lobster and butter) was a no-brainer. This entrée, one more likely to be found in Barcelona than in Maine, featured a baked lobster tail with drawn butter and aioli served with saffron rice, Spanish vegetables and grilled Poblano chile. The lobster proved as sweet as my bride though she would have liked three- or ten-ounces more of the delicate decapod.
Executive chef James Dukes, formerly of the St Clair Winery & Bistro, is a peripatetic presence at The Cellar. During lulls in the action when he’s not tending the high heat of his stove, he visits guests to see if there’s more the staff can do to ensure a great dining experience. After our second meal, we complimented him on his mastery of sauces and demi-glaces, prompting a shy admission that he does pride himself on ameliorating with sauces, seasonings and demi-glaces. Few chefs in Albuquerque do it nearly as well!
11 June 2016: Little Neck, Cherry Stone, Top Neck and Quahog. These words may not mean much in the Land of Enchantment where these mollusks haven’t been seen alive since 2.5 billion years ago when water covered almost the entire planet, even New Mexico. Little necks are the smallest clam at about seven to ten clams per pound. Despite the name, they’re a very utilitarian clam, finding their way in-and-out-of-the-shell into sauces, soups, stews and clams casino (Joe’s Pasta House makes an outstanding version). The Cellar offers little necks (Almejas in Spanish) in a simple but delectable broth (soup-worthy) and serves them with toasted bread which you’ll undoubtedly use to dredge up every bit of that broth. Little neck clams may be small, but they’re satisfying and succulent.
11 June 2016: The pairing of sweet and savory flavors isn’t universally appreciated. Perhaps detractors have never tried the pairing of figs and cheese where a strong, sharp cheese is more than a perfect counterbalance to the near cloying flavor of figs. It’s a pairing we can’t pass up. The Cellar one-ups the figs and cheese duet with a terrific triumvirate of sugar coated roasted figs, seared pancetta and goat cheese drizzled with amber honey. Called “Higo Y Panceta” or figs and pancetta, the threesome is best enjoyed if all three flavors are enjoyed in each bite (though each of the three are wonderful on their own). The goat cheese with its mildly acidic creamy flavor is a nice foil for the figs which are so sweet, some people can’t eat more than one or two. If you’re picturing Italian-style pancetta (usually sliced paper-thin), you’ll be surprised to see what look and taste like New Mexican chicharrones. The pancetta is very rich and deliciously fatty, but those qualities are tamed when combined with the goat cheese.
11 June 2016: Chops connoisseurs generally agree that the optimum degree of “doneness” for lamb chops is always whatever the chef decides as ostensibly the chef should best how to prepare them. Chef Dukes recommends medium-rare for The Cellar’s chops. Take his recommendation to the bank! The lamb chops (Costillas Del Cordero) are spectacular: four lollipop (what lamb rib chops are called when the meat is cut away from the end of a rib or chop, so that part of the bone is exposed)) lamb chops served with what the menu describes merely as a red wine demi-glace (but which is oh, so much more). The lamb chops essentially come with a built-in “handle” which makes them easy to pick up and eat (yes, even at a fine dining restaurant). Each lamb chop is pert and petite, but it’s packed with flavor and is very tender. Then there’s the demi-glace with an attention-grabbing combination of lively flavors, including a piquant punch which offsets the slightly sweet notes of a sauce reminiscent (but much better) than Vietnamese chili sauce.
The lamb chops are served with patata Española (Spanish potato), a grilled potato sliced into half-inch thickness and topped with a tomato relish. Forget French fries. Banish baked potatoes. Move away mashed potatoes. This is a unique and tasty way to enjoy potatoes. Viva la differencia! Also accompanying the lamb chops are an assortment of Spanish vegetables and asparagus spears (a restaurant specialty), all beautifully seasoned and delicious.
11 June 2016: There are four salads on The Cellar’s menu and to say they’re merely salads is to say the Mona Lisa is merely a painting. These are not your “usual suspect” salads with all their predictability and boring sameness. By no means does this mean they’re complex offerings of multitudinous ingredients. The Tomate a la Parrilla con Jamon (Spanish ham and roasted tomato on a bed of Romaine topped with goat cheese and tossed in an olive oil vinaigrette), for example, is constructed of only four ingredients, but the interplay of each one of them makes for a harmony of flavors. The slightly acidic goat cheese and the thin, salty Spanish ham make beautiful music together. The olive oil vinaigrette makes its presence known without detracting from any of the other flavors.
While America may not have a tapas culture in the way Anthony Boudain defines it, New Mexico has several tapas restaurants that hold true to the traditions of Old Spain (save for the “free” part). The Cellar belongs in any discussion of the Land of Enchantment’s best for a tapas experience New Mexican-style.
1025 Lomas Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 11 June 2016
1st VISIT: 2 April 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Langosta y Mantequilla, Risotto with Ten-Inch Ribeye, Tabla de Tres Quesos, Tabla de Tres Quesos, Tomate a la Parrilla con Jamon, Costillas del Cordero, Almejas, Higo Y Panceta