MARY & TITO’S CAFE – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mary & Tito's may serve the very best red chile in Albuquerque

Mary & Tito’s, THE very best New Mexican restaurant in the world!

Old-timers whose opinions I respect consistently rate Mary & Tito’s as Albuquerque’s best restaurant for New Mexican food, a restaurant that has been pleasing the most savvy and unindoctrinated palates alike since 1963.  It takes a lot to impress some of those old-timers, none of whom see much substance in the flash and panache of the nouveau restaurants and their pristine veneer and effusive, over-the-top flamboyance.  These guys and gals are impressed only by New Mexican food the way their abuelitas prepared it–unadorned, authentic and absolutely wonderful.  If you want to evoke their ire, take them to one of the chains.  Worse, try sneaking some cumin into their chile.

Just how good is Mary & Tito’s?  In an October, 2009 span of two days, three people whose opinion on food I value weighed in, prompting me to ponder that question and not just take for granted that it’s “one of” the very best restaurants in New Mexico. World-travelers Randy and Bonnie Lake experienced an epiphany during their most recent visit, marveling at just how much better Mary & Tito’s legendary red is than other red chile they’ve ever had.  Bill Resnik who’s authored a cookbook on New Mexican cuisine was more to-the-point, asking why it hasn’t been accorded a “30” rating–the epitome of perfection in my rating system and a rating I have not bestowed upon any restaurant anywhere.

Mary Ann Gonzales for whom the restaurant is named passed away on Tuesday, September 17, 2013. She was a great and wonderful lady! Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

A dining experience at such an ideal would have to be absolutely flawless with uncompromising standards and an obvious commitment on the restaurant’s part to providing a dining experience I would want to repeat over and over again.  Obviously the food would have to be more than good; it would have to tantalize, titillate, enrapt my taste buds with every morsel.  Every facet of the meal would have to be like a well synchronized and beautiful ballet in which each course is a prelude to the next and leaves me absolutely lusting for the next bite.

There have been times (many, in fact) in which a magical endorphin high from Mary & Tito’s red chile made my taste buds so unbelievably, deliriously happy that I’ve sworn nothing quite as good has ever crossed my lips.  Immediately after each meal at Mary & Tito’s, I want to repeat it, usually right then and there.  It is simply my very favorite restaurant in New Mexico, my highest rated restaurant of any genre in the Land of Enchantment and one of the highest rated across the fruited plain.

Mary & Tito’s legendary carne adovada. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

I’m not the only patron this loyal to Mary & Tito’s.  In truth, the restaurant’s walls could probably be covered with framed certificates and accolades feting it as the “best” in one category or another. Instead, you’ll find family photo montages along with photos of some of their loyal customers. For ambiance, this homey restaurant might not win any awards, but for outstanding New Mexican cuisine, it has secured a place in the hearts and appetites of their many guests.

Although the legendary Tito passed away in 1990 and his devoted wife Mary Ann Gonzales left us in 2013, their effervescent daughter Antoinette and sons Jordan and Travis continue to provide the hospitality for which Mary & Tito’s is renowned. Better yet, they oversee an operation that serves what is arguably the best New Mexican food in New Mexico (ergo the entire universe)–and unequivocally the very best red chile anywhere.  Interestingly, Mary & Tito’s continues to win over lifelong New Mexicans who never heard of the restaurant until it was featured on the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods Dining Destinations program.

Mary & Tito's green chile burrito stuffed with guacamole and rice--one of the very best burritos in the universe!

A rare sight–green chile on a burrito at Mary & Tito’s where red is best!

The red chile has culled a legendary reputation among aficionados. Slathered generously on your entrees, it is a rich red color. At first impression it tastes great, but the more you eat more of it, the more the piquant heat builds up. Oh, the wonderful burn!  Beads of perspiration glistened on my dearly departed friend Ruben Hendrickson’s forehead with every bite, but he persevered through that endorphin generating heat with what can only be described as a lusty fervor.  Even when the particular crop of chile isn’t particularly piquant, Mary & Tito’s red chile is always wonderful, so good some frequent guests have no idea what the green chile tastes like.  It’s been so long since I’ve had the green chile that I no longer remember what it’s like.  The red chile is available meatless for diners of the vegetarian persuasion.

Ask the vivacious Antoinette what makes Mary & Tito’s red chile so uniquely wonderful and she’ll tell you that the chile starts off like the chile at most New Mexican restaurants. The difference is in what is done with it.  Mary & Tito’s chile has been purchased from one Hatch grower for years and it’s ground from pods, not made from powder. Beyond that, the restaurant doesn’t adulterate the chile with other than salt and garlic (absolutely no cumin–contrary to what the Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern once reported on Bizarre Foods: Dining Destinations). There is magic in this purity.  There’s also purity in its almost mesmerizing red-orange color and if you look at the edges of your plate, you won’t see the tell-tale signs of the excessive use of a thickening agent such as corn starch.  There’s none of that in this red chile!

A guacamole, beans and rice burrito with red chile. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

The green chile (as I remember it) isn’t quite as piquant, but it is very tasty and generously applied to your entrees. For the best of both, ask for your entree to be served “Christmas” style so you can taste both the chile rojo (red) and chile verde (green). Vegetarians can also ask for it without meat.  My friend Lesley King, the wonderful writer whose monthly “King of the Road” column used to grace New Mexico Magazine, visited Mary & Tito’s for the first time in May, 2010 and recognized immediately that at this legendary restaurant, it’s all about the chile, finding both red and green as good as could possibly be made.

My dear friend Ruben Hendrickson, who for more than a year was engaged in a Holy Grail type quest to find the best carne adovada in the Albuquerque area, was absolutely besotted with Mary & Tito’s rendition. It’s carne adovada the way it’s supposed to be with tender tendrils of moist, delicious pork ameliorated with the best red chile in the metropolitan area.  Cheryl Jamison, the scintillating four-time James Beard Award-winning author, calls the carne adovada “absolutely spectacular.”   The Santa Fe Travelers Billie Frank and Steve Collins called it “the best carne adovada we’ve ever had.”  As with most entrees, it’s served with beans and rice, both of which are quite good.

A large combination plate: taco, tamale, cheese enchilada, beans and rice

In New Mexico Magazine‘s “Best Eats” issue for 2011, Mary & Tito’s was recognized as having the best carne adovada in the Land of Enchantment.  As one of the seven culinary experts who selected and wrote about New Mexico’s best, it was the choice with which I most agreed.  Though every other honoree is worthy of “best eats” selection, Mary & Tito’s carne adovada stood out, the best of the best!

The enchiladas are certainly among the best in town and I appreciate the fact that you can have them rolled or stacked (my preference with three corn tortillas), the way they’re served throughout Northern New Mexico. Natives and newcomers alike ask for a fried egg on top of the enchiladas, a flavor-enhancer that improves on a New Mexican entree that doesn’t really need any improvement. An “extra beef” option means enchiladas with even more fantastically well seasoned beef.  With red chile, they will make your taste buds ecstatic.

Two Tacos

Burritos are nearly a foot long and served overstuffed. One of the very best burritos anywhere features guacamole, beans and rice along with the aforementioned red or green chile. It is more than half a pound of New Mexican food greatness, especially when the guacamole practically erupts when you press your fork into the burrito.  It’s become the only dish capable of prying me away from the carne adovada–except when I have the combination plate, stuffed sopaipilla, chiles rellenos… I love it all!

With chips, that guacamole is simplicity itself (avocados in their prime, garlic, lime juice, salt), but it is some of the best guacamole in town. The freshness of guacamole made daily from the best avocados is evident.

Chile relleno covered in red.

Chile relleno covered in red.

The chile rellenos are also among the best I’ve ever had, far superior to their world-famous brethren served at Mesilla’s fabled La Posta restaurant. A thin, crispy batter envelops a piquant pepper stuffed with a sharp Cheddar cheese. Each bite produces an endorphin rush and taste explosion.  The rellenos are available on the combination platter as well as a la carte.  As with other entrees at Mary & Tito’s, they’re best smothered with that miraculous red chile.

My friend Sr. Plata had the privilege of first-time visits to both Chope’s and Mary & Tito’s within two weeks of each other.  In his estimation, the chile relleno at Mary & Tito’s is far superior to Chope’s version (which is often considered THE standard-bearer for the genre in the Land of Enchantment).  New Mexicans from the southern half of the state, in particular, might consider it sacrilege, but Sr. Plata reasons that Mary & Tito’s superior red chile is the difference-maker.  He’s calls it the essence of purity and deliciousness.

A huskless tamale smothered in red chile

You won’t find sopaipillas with honey at Mary & Tito’s, but you will find a “Mexican turnover‘ resembling an overgrown empanada or Italian calzone. It’s made from sopaipilla dough stuffed with meat, beans, rice and chile then deep fried. It’s Mary & Tito’s version of stuffed sopaipillas and it’s (not surprisingly) among the very best in the city.  The Mexican turnover is the most popular item at the restaurant, surpassing even the nonpareil carne adovada.

Entrees include some of the best refried beans anywhere…and I mean anywhere in the country. They have that “prepared with lard” taste all good refrieds have. Spanish rice also comes with every entree as does a tomato and lettuce garnish. Garnish is one of those plate decorations many people discard. With Mary & Tito’s fabulous red chile, it’s just something else with which to sop up every bit of that chile rojo.

Enchiladas with a fried egg and red chile

Enchiladas with a fried egg and red chile

Your first bowl of salsa is complimentary and it’s so good you’ll certainly finish it off quickly and order another. The chips, like the salsa, are lightly salted and crisp, the perfect size and texture to complement the tomato rich salsa.  The salsa has a nice piquancy but other than tomatoes and chile, there are no discernible additives such as garlic and onion.

Only the con queso gets a less than outstanding mark at Mary & Tito’s. The cheese has that “melted Velveeta” feel and taste and is somewhat gloppy.  Authenticity and utter deliciousness,however, aren’t spared on the chicharrones which compete with those at Cecilia’s Cafe for best in the city.  Chicharrones are Pieces of pork crackling cooked until crunchy and most of the fat is rendered out.  A plateful of chicharrones and a bowl of that legendary red are a great way to start any meal.

Carne Adovada Omelet

Carne Adovada Omelet

Another excellent entree unique to Mary & Tito’s is a carne adovada omelet.  Yes, you did read that correctly.  It’s a multi-egg omelet folded over that outstanding carne adovada then covered in the red chile of my dreams.  There’s no need for any of the usual omelet ingredients when you’ve got carne adovada.

Compliment Antoinette on an outstanding meal and she’ll invariably credit “the guys in the kitchen.” Those guys, the Arguello brothers–Patricio and Louis–are following Tito’s recipes and keeping his culinary legacy alive.  They’ve been working at Mary & Tito’s since they were but teenagers, schooled under the watchful eye of Tito himself.  They’re well versed at their craft. Antoinette will, however, take credit for the terrific dessert (that’s singular, but when you serve a dessert as wonderful as the New Mexican wedding cake, who needs anything else) available at Mary & Tito’s.

Salsa and Chips

18 August 2017: It took me 45 visits to sample everything on the menu at Mary & Tito’s, the very last item being a Mexican Pizza.  Described on the menu as “fry bread, refried beans and cheese,” it’s so much more than that.  It’ll remind you most of the fry bread tacos served at Indian Pow Wows and on reservations.  The canvas for this unique pizza is a deep-fried sopaipilla similar to the one used on the Mexican turnover.  The sopaipilla is topped with lots of refried beans, red chile, sprinkled with cheese and lined with lettuce and tomato.  Unlike Indian-style fry bread tacos, the fry bread at Mary & Tito’s is crisp and crunchy, not soft and pliable.  It doesn’t make the top ten list of items I’ve had at Mary & Tito’s, but you could put that red chile on a leather boot and it would be delicious.

7 December 2017: A deeper perusal of the menu (which by now I should have memorized considering the number of times visited) revealed one other heretofore untried item. That would be the flautas de carne adovada with beans and guacamole.  Mary & Tito’s might be the only restaurant in New Mexico to stuff flautas with carne adovada.  Surprisingly despite the deep-frying, the adovada retains its moistness and tenderness.  Use the flautas to scoop up some of the rich, creamy guacamole for a wonderful combination of flavors.

Chicharones, Mary & Tito’s style. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

For dessert, an absolute “must have” is Mary & Tito’s take on traditional New Mexican wedding cake, a yellow cake made with walnuts and pineapple and topped with a cream cheese frosting is spectacular.  Antoinette has been making this cake for better than 30 years (though she doesn’t look much older than 30 herself) and says she’s made it thousands of times.  You won’t find any better in New Mexico.  You won’t find anything close.  My friend Bill Resnik calls it “one of the ten best things I’ve ever put in my mouth.”  In its February, 2013 edition  Albuquerque The Magazine  celebrated the Duke City’s best desserts. The fabulous Mexican wedding cake was recognized as the “to die for dessert to remember.”  I’m not too sure what that means, but if it means the Mexican wedding cake is unforgettable, the honor is certainly well deserved.  It’s certainly one of the very best desserts in New Mexico

While writing an article entitled “Ode to the Chile Pepper” for the September, 2011 edition of New Mexico Magazine, I had the privilege, pleasure and honor to interview the owner of the Hatch chile farm which supplies Mary & Tito’s with their fabulous chile. Leticia Carrasco is justifiably proud of the Sandia chile her farm provisions to a James Beard award-winning restaurant. She could not have been nicer–a great person supplying great chile to a great family. How fitting is that?

Carne Adovada Flautas

29 April 2013: In January, 2013 Food & Wine Magazine compiled a list of the nation’s “best taco spots.”  The only New Mexico taco spot recognized was Mary & Tito’s Cafe”for which Food & Wine acknowledged the “famed secret weapon of this mother-daughter-run operation is its fiery red chile sauce–killer with succulent braised pork in the New Mexico classic carne adovada, or drizzled over beef tacos in crispy corn tortilla shells.”  New Mexico’s best tacos at Mary & Tito’s?  Why not?  They’re fantastic!

The cast and crew of This Old House, a Boston-based home-improvement and remodeling television show spent two days at Mary & Tito’s in April, 2013.  While filming a segment in Hatch, purveyors of New Mexico’s best chile told the crew that the very best example of chile is served at Mary & Tito’s.  The cast and crew proceeded to enjoy every item on the menu.  More converts! 

Mary & Tito’s fabulous New Mexican Wedding Cake. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

“The inside of Mary and Tito’s Restaurant on Albuquerque’s 4th Street doesn’t look like much: vinyl tablecloths, walls plastered with family photos. But the kitchen produces some of New Mexico’s best chile—not the meaty stew, spelled chili, served across the border in Texas, but the pepper-based sauce that holds pride of place in New Mexican cuisine.” That’s how the Wall Street Journal began its feature “Why Doubling Down on the Chile is the Way to Go.” The feature boasted “New Mexico’s red and green chile sauces are so good, why not opt for both at once?” Red and green chile are precisely why the Land of Enchantment celebrates Christmas all year long. No one does it better than Mary & Tito’s.

In January, 2010, Mary & Tito’s was announced as the 2010 recipient of the James Beard Award’s “America’s Classic” honor. A James Beard Award signifies the pinnacle of achievement in the culinary world, the country’s most coveted and prestigious culinary award while the “Americas Classic Award” 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.” Mary & Tito’s is the true, timeless American classic–beloved in the community with the highest quality food reflecting the character of New Mexico.

The James Beard Award of Excellence. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

Mary and Antoinette received the award at a ceremonial dinner on May 3, 2010 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.  Governor Bill Richardson celebrated the honor by proclaiming May 12th “Mary & Tito’s Day” in New Mexico, a well-deserved honor for an exemplary restaurant.

Mary & Tito’s is one of those restaurants that elicits a craving only it can sate. It is the essence of red chile Nirvana.

2711 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Mary & Tito’s Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 13 December 2017
COST: $$
: Enchiladas, Chile Relleno, Taco, Natillas, Guacamole Burrito, Carne Adovada Burrito, Chicharrones,  Mexican Wedding Cake, Carne Adovada Omelet, Carne Adovada, Combination Plate, Mexican Pizza, Mexican Turnover, Salsa & Chips, Carne Adovada Flautas

Mary & Tito's Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato



Epazote, one of the most unique and special dining experiences in New Mexico

Epazote.  That’s a word that can make an intrepid chef’s toque blanche resemble the white flag of surrender.  If you’re a culinary savant and haven’t heard of epazote, it’s probably because the chefs at restaurants you frequent might just be afraid to use it.  Would you want to use an ingredient also known as “skunkweed” and “wormseed”…a word derived from a Nahuatl term for an animal with a rank odor…an ingredient perhaps best known for reducing the after-effects of eating beans?

When Chef Fernando Olea chose to name his fabulous new world restaurant Epazote, it signaled a bold  departure from the stereotype too many diners have of Mexican restaurants.  In the Chef’s inimitably gentle manner, he was declaring his passion for the cuisine of the pre-Columbian peoples of Mexico, signaling his embrace of historically authentic ingredients and preparation styles.  At Epazote, he marries Mexico’s indigenous culinary traditions with those of New Mexico, especially its agricultural bounty.  Oh, and he’s daring and talented enough to incorporate epazote into several recipes.


The very unique interior housing Epazote

Originally from Mexico City, Chef Olea has been enthralling savvy diners in Santa Fe since 1991 with his sophisticated interpretations of contemporary Mexican cuisine.  In nearly a quarter-century, the Chef has become a veritable institution in the city, perhaps a larger institution than Bert’s Burger Bowl, the popular 50-year plus old drive-up eatery he purchased in the early 90s.  Perpetually sporting his familiar cowboy hat, Chef Olea modestly deflects well-deserved compliments, especially the word “genius.”  He will, however, and only if you insist, acquiesce to being called an artist.

Just as every artist must work in a venue which actualizes creativity, a Chef should work in a milieu which galvanizes his or her vision.  For Chef Olea, the perfect backdrop for executing the concepts of inspired new world cuisine is Hillside, a uniquely whimsical and organic environment which showcases eclectic treasures created by Santa Fe artisans.  Epazote occupies Hillside’s greenhouse which is bathed by natural light and surrounded by locally created art.  The ambiance is like no other in Santa Fe, creating an experience you will long remember. 

Chef Fernando Olea (right) and his very talented Sous Chef Leroy Alvarado (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll).

Because there’s so very much to see at every turn, making your way to the restaurant can be a slow go.   Make sure to allocate plenty of time on the way out to peruse every nook and cranny of this most unique art space.  There’s no surcease to artisinal inspiration when you step into the awe-inspiring greenhouse turned restaurant.   To your immediate left as you step in is an exposed kitchen, the cynosure of which is a flaming horno for baking bread.  The ambiance, which includes bi-level seating, is zen-like, transporting you instantly to a better, more tranquil self.  From an experiential standpoint, the restaurant seems more Asian than Mexican. Oh, and one of the most attractive sights at Hillside is owner Tisha Sjosfrand whose warm smile and buoyant personality greet you as you enter the restaurant.

Epazote is a wonder of zen and flair with a menu worthy of the dining room’s whimsical elegance. Fittingly, the restaurant opened its doors on Valentine’s Day 2014.  Billie Frank, the wonderful freelance travel and food writer whose work graces the Santa Fe Travelers blog, was there on opening week.  She calls Epazote “a love letter to food.”  That is about as accurate a description for Chef Olea’s masterful menu as you’ll find anywhere.


Jars of Dried Chiles

A love letter to food composed by Chef Olea would certainly express his deeply personal feelings toward mole, perhaps the one dish which has most cemented Chef Olea’s legacy over the years.  The Chef considers mole the most evocative of fine Mexican cuisine in terms of mystery, history and tradition.  An array of delightfully aromatic, richly complex and absolutely mouthwatering moles graces the menu at Epazote where they’re paired with everything from rack of lamb to duck breast to halibut.  Chef Olea emphasizes that contrary to misconceptions, the paramount ingredient on mole is not the chocolate, but chiles.  His approach to using chile is emphasize its other qualities, not just its piquancy.

In 2009 Chef Olea committed to creating a special mole to commemorate Santa Fe’s 400-year anniversary.  The resulting New Mexico mole is the result of skill and serendipity.  The skill part is obvious.  Chef Olea is one of the most accomplished mole chefs in the world.  The serendipity–luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things–flowed as the deadline was closing in.  While traveling throughout the state about a week before the deadline, the discovery of pecans grown in Socorro started a deluge of inspiration for the inventive chef.  At an Indian Pueblo, he espied apricots and decided they would be the next ingredient for the mole.


A painting of the ingredients used to create Chef Fernando Olea’s New Mexican Mole

Determined to create a mole crafted showcasing uniquely New Mexican ingredients, it made sense to Chef Olea to include New Mexican roasted piñons and, of course, the one ingredient which most says New Mexico: red chile from Chimayo.  He contemplated using green chile, but quickly dismissed the notion because green chile doesn’t pair as well with other foods (the green chile cheeseburgers at Bert’s Burger Bowl are an exception, he reminded us).  Other ingredients include white chocolate, Mexican cinnamon, sesame seeds, cumin seeds and more.  The ingredients used to construct the New Mexico mole are highlighted on a large bright painting hanging on the north wall.

The most aptly descriptive part of Epazote’s “inspired new world cuisine” approach is definitely inspiration, but visionary, innovative and spectacular would also fit.  At first browse the menu appears small, but when you consider the diversity of flavor profiles and potential combinations, there are options a plenty.  To the greatest extent possible, Chef Olea utilizes fresh and local ingredients and lets those ingredients speak for themselves.  When you’ve got great ingredients, he explains, a little bit of salt and pepper is all you need.


Ensalada De Queso Azul

The menu is divided into five distinctive sections: Botanas (Appetizers), Especialidades (Specialties), Ensalada (Salads), Sopas (Soups) and Platos Fuerte (Main Courses).  Unlike the bygone ordering convention at Chinese restaurants where you picked “one from column A and one from column B,” you’re free to order any item on the menu in any order you desire.  You can also order as you go; the wait staff won’t rush you.  Service is attentive and professional.  Shortly after you’re seated, your server will bring you small samples of the aguas frescas del dia (the horchata is terrific).  Make sure to ask for samples of the wonderful moles of the day.

16 March 2014: The Ensalada section of the menu lists three salads, all of which you’ll welcome on your table.  These aren’t  slapped-together composed salads, the type of which will lull your taste buds to sleep.  These are exciting salads constructed from the freshest, most creative and high quality ingredients available.  The Ensalada De Queso Azul translates literally to blue cheese salad, but it’s so much more.  The blue cheese has characteristic blue veins running throughout each crumbly morsel, indicative of its pungency and sharpness.  There’s just enough blue cheese to serve as a foil for the other ingredients: craisins (dried cranberries), caramelized spicy pecans and mixed greens surrounded by a thin moat of chocolate vinaigrette.  When is the last time you had a chocolate vinaigrette?  It’s fantastic!


Horno Baked Bread and Corn Tortillas

16 March 2014: New Mexicans, both the scions of Cortez and indigenous peoples, have been baking on hornos for centuries.  A beehive-shaped oven typically made of mud, an horno seems to infuse bread with preternatural deliciousness.  If you’ve ever had horno-baked bread at a Pueblo, you know of which I speak.  The inside of an horno has a stone base to retain heat, as high as 600-degrees.  It’s the perfect vessel for baking bread, a dense yet yeasty individual-sized roll great on its own or slathered with butter.  The wood-fired horno-baked bread at Epazote is as good as has been made for generations in New Mexico.

Although botanas translate from Spanish to snack or appetizer, the menu describes them as “heart’s delight,” essentially synonymous with Chinese dim sum or “touch the heart.”    The Botanas section of the menu lists some six proteins: carne (angus beef tenderloin), cordero (rack of lamb), lechon (marinated pork loin), pato (Muscovy duck breast, camaron (Meridian shrimp) and wild Pacific salmon.  The proteins you select arrive raw. In a participatory experience reminiscent of some Japanese restaurants, you are your own chef, preparing the botanas on a polished river rock which has been heated on the horno.


Cordero (rack of lamb) and Lechon (Marinated Pork Loin)

16 March 2014: The proteins are served with small corn tortillas and four housemade infused aiolis with flavor profiles ranging from attention-grabbing piquancy (a guacamole aioli) to a more mellow chimichurri.  A bit less than two minutes per side on the rock and your proteins are done.  Cooking them is a unique and fun experience not to be missed.  The quality of the two proteins we enjoyed immensely–cordero (rack of lamb) and lechon (marinated pork loin)–is better than prime.  The lamb is nicely marbled and tender, as good a rack of lamb as can be had in Santa Fe.

Our server recommended one-and-a-half to two botanas per person.  That, along with one (or four) bread rolls and splitting a salad, should leave enough room for a plato fuerte (main course).  You definitely want to save room for one of the four available options: Mole, the chef’s signature dish; Popocatepetl, a black pepper-encrusted Angus beef tenderloin; Atun, seared yellow fin tuna; or Calabasitas, sauteed zucchini.


Lamb chops and New Mexico Mole with Mashed Sweet Potatoes

16 March 2014: Being an unabashedly proud New Mexican (and especially after having sampled the three moles of the day), it was a no-brainer as to what my plato fuerte would be.  Chef Olea’s New Mexico Mole is quite simply one of the very best moles to ever cross my lips…and while the recipe can actually be found on the Chicago Tribune Web site, it would be foolhardy of me to believe I could hope to duplicate the Chef’s artistry and magic touch. As with all classically prepared moles, the New Mexico Mole is more than the sum of all its ingredients.  It incorporates the heart and soul of the chef who created it.  

The New Mexico Mole is richly complex, a crowning achievement of sheer genius (even though Chef Olea doesn’t like the term used on him) with remarkable depth of unique flavors coalescing into saucy perfection.  It’s a sumptuously simmered sauce perfumed with spices, nuts, chocolates and Chimayo chile.  It’s the stuff of legend and it has besotted me.  As if the mole isn’t enough, Chef Olea serves it with three lollipop lamb chops (or another protein should you desire) prepared at medium-rare and seasoned solely with salt and pepper.  The lamb chops are exquisite, some of the very best we’ve had.


Popocatepetl (Black Pepper Crusted Angus Beef Tenderloin) with a cabbage and snow pea slaw

16 March 2014: My passion for the New Mexico mole was matched by my Kim’s infectious ardor for the Popocatepetl, a twelve-ounce black pepper-crusted Angus beef tenderloin served with a cabbage and snow pea slaw.  Popocatepetl, by the way, is the name of an active volcano south of Mexico City.  It’s a fitting name for one of the most delicious steaks we’ve had.  The black pepper is finely crushed, much moreso than the loosely cracked pepper corns used on steak au poivre, a French dish.  It is no less flavorful.  More surprising than its flavor was the nearly fork tenderness of the tenderloin cut.  Prepared at a perfect medium, it’s a premium steak with prime flavor.  The Popocatepetl is served with a cabbage and snow pea slaw which sounds simple, but possesses surprising complexity and flavor.

16 March 2014: Alan Koehler, author of the Madison Avenue Cook Book, posited “dessert should close the meal gently and not in a pyrotechnic blaze of glory.”  Chef Olea’s desserts, such as the trio of flan, are a perfect example.  The flans aren’t an assemblage of flamboyant ingredients presented spectacularly to evoke a loud, celebratory utterance.  Instead, they’re crafted from a few basic ingredients presented beautifully to elicit an almost reverent murmur.  The trio of flan–vanilla topped with shaved almonds, chocolate topped with a single raspberry and golden tomato topped with piñon–is memorable, a symphony of quiet concordance like a symphony for your taste buds.  When Chef Olea conceived of the golden tomato flan his adoring wife and chief taster was skeptical until she tasted it.  Now she loves it as you will.


Flan Trio

Chef’s Tasting Menu: 20 March 2014

A restaurant as great as Epazote presided over by a chef as talented as Chef Olea is an invitation to degustation, a culinary term meaning “a careful, appreciative tasting of various foods.”  Degustation focuses on four aspects of dining: the gustatory system, the sensual experience, the artistry of the chef and of course, great company.  Epazote offers a chef’s tasting menu which introduces diners to sample small portions of the great chef’s signature creations in one sitting.

The great company component of my inaugural chef’s tasting menu was in the delightful form of three culinarily adventurous friends: Franzi, the beauteous barrister who won’t let me photograph her; the exotic and vivacious Nikko; and Beckett, a fellow bon-vivant.  The well-traveled Beckett isn’t prone to hyperbole, so when he uttered the superlative “fabulous” after nearly every course, it signaled a very successful chef’s tasting menu.  Chef Olea personally delivered every course to our table, engaging us with his witty repartee and charm.  By meal’s end at least three people at our table wanted to propose marriage to him.


Top Left: Huitlacoche Taco; Top Right: Chapulines Taco; Bottom: Bone Marrow

Before our first course, our palates were teased by a fabulous amuse-bouche, a tiny tidbit  not part of the multi-course menu and which is presented by the chef himself.  Amuse-bouche are intended to keep you happy while you await your first course.   Mission accomplished!  Our amuse-bouche was a salmon pate on a single chip.  Punctuated by barely discernible tinges of lemon and dill, this pate focused on the freshness of the salmon in a surprisingly ethereal form similar to a mousse.

When proposing a dining adventure at Epazote, there were two items I wanted to introduce my friends to: chapulines and huitlacoche.  Franzi is an absolutely fearless epicurean, once joining me in what was literally the snout to tail consumption of a whole hog: eyes, tail, cheeks and more.  Chapulines and huitlacoche are something else.  Both have been known to scare away all but the most intrepid of diners while simultaneously being considered delicacies among other cultures.



Chapulines–the leaf-eating grasshoppers responsible for ravaging vast farmlands–are not only the bane of farmers everywhere, they have a high “yuck” factor as food or otherwise.  They’re also a delicacy and dietary staple for the people of Oaxaca in Mexico.  High in protein and low in fat, they can be delicious if prepared by a master chef.  At Epazote, the smallish chapulines are sauteed then tucked into soft corn tortillas topped with guacamole and Mole Negro de Oaxaca.  The chapulines themselves  have a nutty, crunch flavor which pairs well with the pleasant piquancy of the Mole and the richness of the guacamole.  Only one person at our table declined to partake (which meant one more for me).

If chapulines have a high “yuck” factor, huitlacoche has the disadvantage of being a fungus and it’s called “smut.”  More specifically, it’s accurately called corn smut.  Worse, its name translates from Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs, to raven shi…er, excrement.  Despite all it has going against it, huitlacoche has a flavor profile unlike any other, a unique musty earthiness somehow reminiscent, but wholly different than the flavors of truffles or mushrooms.  One of the ways in which Chef Olea uses huitlacoche is on some of the most sublime tacos you’ll ever have.  The third in a triumvirate of high “yuck” factor foods was roasted, rich, buttery and delicious bone marrow with a depth of flavor few items achieve. It inherits a beef-broth flavor from its host animal and has a  gelatinous texture some may find a bit off-putting.  That just means there’s more for those of us who love it.  Everyone at our table loved it!  

Poblano Soup (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

A once-endangered, greatly over-fished mollusk now carefully farmed and harvested, abalone has been described as having a flavor “like an oyster crossed with a scallop with a twist of snail.”  Texturally, it’s been likened to an eraser.  Requiring quite a bit of tenderizing to make it palatable, abalone is a challenge for many chefs.  At the hands of Chef Olea, abalone becomes one of those transformative dishes you might remember for a long time.  Sliced diagonally to about an eighth of an inch, it’s served with a light chipotle  sauce tinged with juices from the abalone itself.  Somewhat reminiscent of sashimi (at least in appearance), it’s light, mild and delicate in flavor.  It’s what ambrosia might taste like.

It’s rare to find a dish that moves you to near tears of joy.  The poblano soup at Epazote had that effect on all of us.  It is quite simply one of the very best soups I’ve ever had anywhere, a rarefied elixir so perfect it’s impossible to conceive of anything better.  Submerged beneath an amaretto foam dusted with cocoa and cinnamon are tiny pieces of shrimp–not shrimp cut in half or even quarters, but torn into unevenly sized (perfectly sized) tiny pieces.  The piquancy of the poblano was a surprise, providing a back-of-the-throat warmth courtesy of a capsaicin-rich pepper.  There is so much going on with this soup that we stopped contemplating it and focused on eyes closed, moan uttering enjoyment.  Thankfully the soup is served with a small spoon for slow sipping or we might have dug in face-first.


Mole Poblano with Muscovy Duck

The most complex mole Chef Olea prepares is the Mole Poblano, constructed from some thirty-four ingredients.  Mole Poblano is Mexico’s national dish, a mole steeped in legend and beloved by the masses.  It’s a very rich, very thick, very sweet chocolate-tinged sauce with just a hint of heat. It pairs with almost everything.  At Epazote, the Mole Poblano is served with sliced Muscovy duck breast and a sweet potato mash.  The tender duck is served medium-rare and laced with a crisp fat (synonymous with flavor) layer. The duck is seasoned solely with salt and pepper, but you’ll probably be using it to dredge up the mole.  The sweet potato mash is sweeter even than the mole.  The plate on which this dish is served is circumnavigated by a thin line of sweet, tangy guava.

Perhaps the biggest compliment one chef can pay another is to pick up a plate, excuse himself (or herself) and lick the plate clean.  This unconventional feat was accomplished by none other than restaurant impresario Paul Fleming (the PF from PF Chang’s) when he finished one of the most amazing desserts on the planet.  When Chef Olea brought Sweet Symphony to our table, he described in alchemical terms, very clearly and accurately, just where the elements of the dessert would hit us–from the tongue to the back of the throat and even to the spine.  He also challenged us to identify (visually before we tasted the dessert) all the ingredients in this glorious dessert.  While we fared well in that exercise, we could not have described its effects on us nearly as accurately as Chef Olea did.  This dessert of magical properties starts with an avocado ice cream on a lagoon of ginger paired with a beet foam and piñon.  These were the visible elements.  The jalapeño which paired with the ginger to create back-of-the-throat pleasures is hidden somewhere.  Quite simply, it’s one of the most amazing desserts I’ve ever had.  It’s a marvel of ingenious deliciousness.

Sweet Symphony: Avocado ice cream tinged with jalapeño, beet foam, ginger, piñon (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Chef’s Tasting Menu: 15 November 2014

In Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin’s manifesto on the joys of sharing food and entertaining, she wrote “One of the delights of life is eating with friends, second to that is talking about eating.  And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.”  My conversation about food with my friend Sandy Driscoll began in October, 2007 when she discovered my blog shortly before visiting New Mexico.  We’ve been talking about food (and virtually everything else) ever since and have broken bread (and sopaipillas) together in New Mexico and California. 

During a recent conversation about food, we discussed our mutual admiration for Spanish chef Jose Andres, a restaurant impresario and celebrity chef.  In a fit of bravado and New Mexico pride, I posited that Chef Olea is “right up there with Andres” as a chef (frankly I think Chef Olea is a superior chef, but he’s a very modest man and wouldn’t want me bragging on his behalf).  Because the proof is in the huitlacoche, we introduced Sandy to Chef Olea’s fabulous chef’s tasting menu where can be found at least two items on my theoretical “last meal” wish list.

Porcini Mushrooms and Bean Thread Noodles with an Asian Sauce and Sprigs of Mint (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

During our perfectly paced three-hour meal, Sandy, who’s not nearly as prone to hyperbole as yours truly, used the term “fabulous” to describe virtually every item (in between other utterances of delight).  Afterwards she described her meal as “one of my best ever culinary experiences!!” and “the best meal I’ve ever had in Santa Fe.”   Considering she’s dined at several Michelin starred restaurants throughout the country, that’s high praise indeed.  

Epazote has been in a lot of conversations lately.  In October, 2014, USA Today’s 10 Best named Epazote the very best option for lunch in Santa Fe.  Billie Frank, who’s pretty fabulous in her own right, was effusive in her praise for Chef Olea’s loving culinary preparations.  Lest you think “it’s just lunch,” Hillside owner Tisha Sjosfrand assured me that Epazote will enter the dinner restaurant fray on receipt of its beer and wine license.  The question then will be whether or not Epazote is the best dinner destination in Santa Fe, too.

Chef Fernando Olea and our very capable server bring Poblano Soup to our table (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Chef Olea’s coat is emblazoned with the term “Inspired New World Cuisine.”  It’s an apt description for his masterful execution of cuisine which defies pigeonholing.  He laments that when Santa Fe concierge recommend Epazote for its Mexican cuisine, some diners are disheartened and leave when they don’t find tacos and enchiladas on the menu.  What a shame!  Perhaps if they had stuck around, they would have experienced an Asian inspired work of art with which our tasting menu experience began.  This starter showcased porcini mushrooms and bean thread noodles with the chef’s own Tabuca sauce and sprigs of mint.  The woodsy  earthiness of the mushrooms, the Thai chili pepper heat of the Tabuca sauce and the evergreen freshness of the mint coalesced into a balanced flavor profile in which all elements are deliciously discernible on your palate. 

Our second course was the sublime Poblano soup about which I wax poetic in my review of my previous tasting menu experience.  Served in a martini glass, this soul-warming elixir was not, however, a repeat of the Poblano soup I had previously experienced (though that would have been joyously welcomed).  Chef Olea changed things up subtly yet with great effect.  Instead of the magnificent shrimp from my first visit, a sole “crouton” created from seared wild Pacific salmon luxuriated in the broth.  The brininess of the salmon and the alchemical interplay of other ingredients reenforced why this is my highest rated soup in New Mexico.  It’s on the very top of my proverbial “last meal” list.

Rolled Chapulines (Baby Grasshoppers) Tacos, Sun Gold Tomatoes with a jalapeño sauce (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Our third course–one neither my Kim nor the worldly Sandy had imagined they would ever experience–was two rolled tacos engorged with chapulines (baby grasshoppers) encircled by a jalapeño sauce and served with three Sun Gold tomatoes.  It’s only the thought of eating the “icky” insect that’s repulsive.  Get past that revulsion and you might, like everyone to whom I’ve introduced this tasty treat, enjoy (or at the very least, be able to brag about) the experience.  If you can’t get past the chapulines alone, the jalapeño sauce adds flavor and heat elements that may make them less off-putting to you.  Then there are the Sun Gold tomatoes, the reddish-orange beauties with an explosively sweet, fruity flavor.  They’re addictive (and so are the chapulines). 

Should you treat yourself to the Chef’s Tasting Menu at Epazote, make it a point to request bread before any course is brought to your table.  You’ll don’t want to lose a single drop of any of the fabulous sauces which ameliorate each course.  Not only is the bread utilitarian for sopping up those precious sauces, Chef Olea’s baking skills are on display with such creative and delicious breads as a dense grain bread punctuated with apricot and walnuts.  It’s a fabulous bread, the type of which you’ll want an entire loaf. 

Bread infused with walnuts and apricots (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Not every chef is intrepid enough to pair bold, assertive flavors with delicate flavors and not every chef knows that seemingly disparate flavors can actually be complementary.  Chef Olea’s flavor and ingredient pairings are legendary.  Perfectly tender, rich and rosy rare Muscovy duck with a light, succulent ring of fat is one of those light, delicate flavors not often paired with assertive and bold flavors.  Chef Olea dared pair the magnificent Muscovy duck with an incendiary (courtesy of jalapeños) Oaxacan mole verde which isn’t quite as sweet as some moles tend to be .  A smear of the equally piquant Tebuca sauce decorated the plate.  Other delicate elements on the dish were crispy spinach and crispy bean threads. The ethereally light and flaky spinach is a real treat.  The seemingly disparate pairing actually worked very well with flavors playing off each other in harmony.  I’m convinced Chef Olea can pair an Army chukka boot with a Bruno Magli loafer and make a fashion statement haute fashionistas would drool over. 

Over the years, lamb has obtained (perhaps earned) a reputation for being gamey (resembling the flavor and odor of wild hunted game) and having a strong flavor not all carnivores enjoy.  The strength of “gaminess” actually ranges among different breeds of sheep.  Northern New Mexican sheep, the type of which Epazote procures, has a rich and robust flavor without being off-putting and overly gamey.  Chef Olea paired two thick, lollipop lamb chops with a sweet potato puree and Poblano mole, both of which have sweet notes that complement the lamb very well.  With their built-in “handles,” the lamb chops are made to be picked up (etiquette be damned) and used to scoop up some of the puree and mole.  Three purplish dots on the plate are courtesy of a red cabbage reduction which just might reduce you to tears of ecstasy.

Muscovy Duck, Oaxacan Mole Verde, Bean Threads, Crispy Spinach and a Tabuca Sauce (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

Our dessert was the fabulous Sweet Symphony, the second Epazote offering on my proverbial last meal.  Words can’t adequately describe just how wonderful this sublime sweet course really is, but you can read my feeble efforts at such above Sandy’s photo of the dessert.  Having previously had Sweet Symphony, it made me tremendously happy to see my wife and dear friend first try to discern the ingredients of this masterful concoction, then watching them swoon with each treasured bite.  Two days after having partaken of this greatness, Sandy is still raving about it.

Although our initial seating was by the tranquil waterfall on the restaurant’s bottom level, we asked to be moved on account of the sunlight.  Our accommodating server gave us the other best seat in the house–right under the portrait of the New Mexico mole ingredients on the second level.  The culmination of our meal was a conversation with the great gentleman chef whom Sandy looks forward to seeing again when he serves as guest chef at the Los Angeles restaurant where his daughter works. There’s no doubt this won’t be Sandy’s sole visit to Epazote.

Northern New Mexico Raised Lamb Chops, Mole Poblano, Sweet Potato Puree, Red Cabbage Reduction (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)


From both an experiential perspective as well as for outstanding cuisine, Epazote is far and away one of the best restaurants I have ever experienced. Chef Olea is not only a chef of nonpareil talent, he is the consummate host, a true gentleman with the emphasis on the word “gentle.” Epazote on the Hillside must be experienced to comprehend true greatness–a greatness that isn’t shouted loudly, but in a manner as gentle as a burbling stream or soft breeze.

86 Old Las Vegas Highway
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 November 2014
1st VISIT: 16 March 2014
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Flan Trio, New Mexican Mole, Lamb Chops, Popocatepetl, Rack of Lamb, Lechon, Ensalada de Queso Azul, Horno Baked Bread, Huitloacoche Taco, Chapulines Taco, Bone Marrow, Abalone, Mole Poblano with Muscovy Duck, Poblano Soup, Symphony

Epazote on Urbanspoon

David Burke’s Primehouse – Chicago, Illinois

David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago

By day, my friend James Sorenham was an architect of his business group’s data warehouse and business intelligence strategies.  By night and on weekends, James was a gentleman farmer tending to a small herd at his Broke Again ranch outside Portland, Oregon.  James took immense pride in raising prized beef cattle and kept his colleagues apprised of their progress through his weekly status reports.  Alas, his writing skills weren’t in the same zip code as his data management skills so when he reported that he had “personally inseminated sixteen cows,” he got teased mercilessly about his deviant bestial activities.

The fact that David Burke is the first chef to own his own bull means “personal insemination” of beef cattle can best be left to the bovine persuasion.  That leaves Chef Burke to follow his passions as one of America’s most pioneering chefs and self-proclaimed chef, artist, entrepreneur and inventor.  The New York-based Burke is a practitioner of culinology, a revolutionary approach to food that blends technology and the culinary arts.  By experimenting with interesting ingredients and cooking techniques, he has developed such culinary innovations as an edible bacon candle which can be lit, smelled and eaten.  His innovative style translates well to the arena of prime grade beef.

My friends Bill Resnik and Paul Fleissner about to take their seats in one of the capacious dining rooms at David Burke’s Primehouse

Founded in 2006, David Burke’s Primehouse has redefined the modern American steakhouse with its out-of-the-box approach to culinary creativity.  Located in the James Chicago Hotel on the corner of Rush and Ontario just west of the Magnificent Mile, the restaurant remains one of Chicago’s few remaining practitioners of dry-aging its beef.  The Primehouse dry-ages its beef in a Himalayan salt-tiled aging room on the premises.  While USDA prime grade, hand-selected beef is the restaurant’s raison d’etre, the menu also showcases Chef Burke’s signature whimsical and imaginative dishes such as the Lollipop Tree, cheesecakes on lollipop sticks.

The Primehouse has two full-time butchers who butcher meats and fish on a daily basis Monday through Friday.  The back wall of the aging room is lined with Himalayan pink salt which performs two functions.  It purifies the air and slowly seasons the beef by extracting all the moisture out of the beef.  The Himalayan Salt Room (henceforth known as the aging room) is maintained at a constant state of between 34 and 40 degrees with sixty-percent humidity (a normal refrigerator is at about ninety-percent humidity).  All the beef is tagged with the date it was placed into the aging room and its weight at the time.

Cheese bread

Because of the room’s climatic conditions, the beef begins to break down very slowly, but doesn’t dehydrate all the way through.  Instead it becomes more tender.   While in the drying room, however, the beef’s exterior is desiccated and the cut of beef is firm and hard as might be expected from beef stored in a cold-temperature.  Ideally, the beef experiences about a twenty-percent loss of volume after 28 days and another fifteen-percent when it’s trimmed later.  At 75 days, the beef experiences a loss in volume of about 55 percent.  The Primehouse dry-ages ribeyes, sirloins, short-loins and chuck as well as prosciutto, kidneys, veal breads and brisket.

With “wet-aging,” the process used by many of Chicago’s best steak and chop houses, the beef is placed into a plastic bag and is then cryo-vacuumed (air is sucked out of it).  The beef basically “sits” there and flavor isn’t developed.  When you cut a wet-aged slab of beef into individual steaks, a puddle of blood ensues  With the dry-aging process used at the Primehouse, flavor is actually developed because of the catalytic intensification.  When a dry-aged cut of beef is prepared, what’s being cooked is the beauteous marbling and fat which breaks down the beef, making it tender and imparting a sweet, meaty flavor some have likened to an exotic foie gras like quality.

Bacon Sticks: black pepper, maple syrup

The beef at David Burke’s Primehouse is brought in once a week from Kentucky.  The aforementioned 2,500-pound bull, who just might have the best job in the world, performs his “service” three times a day six days a week.  The cows are high quality Black Angus prime.  The aging room can accommodate more approximately 12,000 pounds of beef valued as much as some homes.  Because of the restaurant’s bustling business, the aging room retains a month and a half of inventory at all times.  The minimum dry-aging period is 28 days and the maximum is 75 though one ribeye has remained in the aging room since April 4, 2006 when the restaurant first opened.  It’s starting weight was 10.10 pounds, but today, it’s a mere shadow of its former self.

When the beef is trimmed down, all the aged beef trim and fat is rendered down and tossed with roasted garlic, mustard powder and spices before being brushed on each steak as it goes out.  The staff calls it “beef love.”  It’s no wonder so many consider the Primehouse the very best steakhouse not only in Chicago, but in the entire country.   Prime dry-aged beef is only one of many things the restaurant does exceedingly well. Chicago Magazine named the Primehouse “Burker” one of the top ten burgers in Chicago.  Not surprisingly, the ten ounces of beef which form the beef patty are also dry aged.

Ahi Tuna: spicy chili bean sauce

The Primehouse has a relatively understated ambiance.  It’s contemporary and relaxing.  The cynosure at one wall is shelf work from which small blocks of Himalayan salt dangle.  Lighting is subdued, but sufficient for the visual appreciation of your meal.  The ambassador-like staff will take excellent care of you, explaining every detail of the aging process to the extent you want.  We asked a lot of questions and were amazed at our server’s encyclopedic knowledge. Our server happened to be from Santa Fe and took very good care of us.  Frankly, the only aspect of our meal that wasn’t absolutely first-rate was the soundtrack which seemed overly loud and disjointed for an otherwise classy milieu.

As you contemplate the menu,a cheesy Parmesan bread “popover” on a tin-can-like pan will be delivered to your table.  It’s a delicious difference from the de rigueur, ho-hum bread served at many steak restaurants.  The exterior of the Parmesan popover is crusty while the interior is light and chewy.  Best of all, it’s served with soft butter.  You’ll luxuriate in the popover’s wispy softness as you contemplate the “sticks and stones” on the menu.  Sticks are essentially items such as bacon, octopus and Kobe corn dogs served on a lollipop type stick.  Stones are hot Himalayan salt stones atop which you cook such starters as ahi tuna, steak and lamb loin. 

A “Caesarista” prepares to create a Caesar salad tableside.

One experience not to be missed is the tableside creation of a Caesar salad.  It’s one of the unique and personal experiences that once set apart the very best prime steak restaurants of a bygone era  A specially trained “Caesar barista” or “Caesarista” whisks the Parmesan-rich dressing by hand with egg yolks then tosses it with fresh Romaine lettuce.  Other classic ingredients include garlic, freshly squeezed lemon juice, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper and of course, Parmesan.   Your Caesarista will ask whether or not you want anchovies on your salad.  Frankly, it’s the only way a Caesar salad should ever be made.

From among the “sticks,” the one which called loudest to me is the bacon, five sticks of thick pork-belly bacon.  This is a perfect marriage of savory and sweet, pairing a smoky, salty bacon laced with black pepper and a lacquer-like maple syrup coating.   This fun carnival-stick-food-like starter is further proof that bacon goes well with everything.  From the “stones” section of the menu, we had the Ahi tuna with a spicy chili bean sauce.  For what more could you ask: five pieces of uncooked tuna per order plus the treat of preparing it yourself on a thick Himalayan salt stone.  If you like your sashimi slightly seared, you’d better pay close attention to the cooking process.  Even at just slightly more than seared, the tuna is quite good.  The spicy chili bean sauce adds punch and saltiness.

Himalayan Salt Dry-Aged Reserve Ribeye Steak Aged 75 Days

On an October 8, 2011 episode of the Food Network’s “Meat & Potatoes,” host Rahm Fama called the Primehouse’s 75-day dry-aged rib-eye “the best steak I’ve had in my 35 years!”  An endorsement from a highly respected chef and fellow carnivore (especially one from New Mexico like Fama) certainly carries a lot of weight with me.  While the 75-day dry aged rib-eye may be perpetually listed on the menu, it isn’t always available.  On the date of our visit, only one 75-day aged steak remained.  My friends Bill Resnik and Paul Fleissner insisted I have the privilege of consuming it.  Bill would order the 55-day aged ribeye and Paul the 40-day aged ribeye.

I must admit there’s more than a little bit of trepidation in ordering a steak the menu describes as having “intense beef flavor.” That sounds just a bit intimidating.  Just what is intense beef flavor and why haven’t I had it before?  Our server recommended the steak be prepared at medium-rare.  Two bottles of David Burke’s 207L (the designation for Burke’s prize bull) Prime Steak Sauce were brought to our table, but none of us could conceive of desecrating our steaks.  No sauce could possibly have improved on perfection.  The 75-day aged rib-eye was indeed sinfully rich, decadent and utterly beefy. The rib-eye was richly marbled and just as our server explained, the marbling intensified the aged flavor.  So did the “beef love.”  The steak was tender and moist with a pinkish hue, but not the bloody flavor of wet-aged beef.

55-Day Rib-eye

There was a discernible difference in flavor profile between the 75-day rib-eye and the 55-day aged rib-eye described on the menu as “deep, concentrated beef flavor.”  This was another absolutely outstanding steak, one named “best dry aged steak” by Chicago Magazine in 2008.  The 55-day aged rib eye had a nice fat and marbling content and indeed, a bold and concentrated flavor.  The 40-day aged ribeye, described as having “rich beef flavor” was similarly distinctive.  We were amazed at what a difference a few days makes!  Why all prime beef and chop houses don’t dry age their steaks for as long as David Burke’s Primehouse is a mystery.

There are seven side dishes available to have with your steak.  All are available for seven dollars a piece or three for nineteen dollars (as of September, 2012).  The Mac N’ Cheese Carbonara Style will never be mistaken for Kraft dinner.  It’s a grown-up mac n’ cheese made with a rigatoni noodle, heavy cream, fresh peas and rich cheeses.  Another superb side is the creamy spinach tinged with garlic.  Both the mac n’ cheese and the creamy spinach were very rich, perhaps too rich after having had such an indulgent steak.

Mac N’ Cheese Carbonara style

David Burke has lamented that the steakhouse experience often leaves guests so full, they don’t have room for desserts.  That’s one of the reasons so many of his dishes are intended to be shared.  You have got to save room for one of Burke’s fun and inventive desserts.  The Primehouse desserts, cheeses and coffee menu is unlike that of any restaurant not owned by David Burke.  As fun as it is to peruse, have your server explain the dessert in which you’re interested.  Desserts are not always as they appear.  The “carrot cake” which my friend Bill ordered was essentially a “deconstructed” and reinvented carrot cake.  The components–gingerbread dream rooibos cake, pineapple golden raisin jam, orange cheesecake, black walnut ice cream and candied carrots–aren’t what your mom’s carrot cake recipe calls for, but they make for an outstanding dessert.

The banana split sundae is also unlike any other banana split-sundae hybrid you’ve ever had.  It’s layers of flavor complexity and absolute decadent deliciousness, one of the very best desserts I’ve ever had.  Each component–salted caramel chocolate ice cream, caramelized banana, brandied cherries, spiced pecans and roasted pineapple slices–would have made a wonderful dessert on its own, but the compilation was mouth-watering.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to call this the next best thing on the menu to one of the fabulous dry-aged steaks.

Banana Split Sundae: salted caramel chocolate ice cream, caramelized banana, brandied cherries, spiced pecans, roasted pineapple

David Burke’s Primehouse is a pioneering steakhouse in a city long renowned for its prime steakhouses.  It’s  a beef emporium for the new millennium with dry-aged prime beef unlike any other anywhere.

616 North Rush at Ontario
The James Hotel Chicago
Chicago, Illinois
(312) 660-6000
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 5 September 2012
COST: $$$$ – $$$$$
BEST BET: 75-Day Aged Ribeye, 55-Day Aged Ribeye, 35-Day Kansas City Strip, Banana Split Sundae, Carrot Cake, Mac N’ Cheese Carbonara Style

David Burke's Primehouse on Urbanspoon

The Purple Pig – Chicago, Illinois

The Purple Pig on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. Dining al fresco is a terrific option on a cool autumn evening

Poet Carl Sandburg bestowed the nickname “hog butcher for the world” upon the great city of Chicago at a time when the city was the epicenter for meatpacking in the United States. Companies such as Oscar Mayer, Swift and Armour operated large plants in the city, employing hundreds of residents. Unfortunately, Chicago’s streets became frequently overcrowded with pigs and cattle being herded through the streets to the plants. Ultimately the largest companies banded together in 1865 to build the Union Stock Yards next to the railroad tracks. Henceforth animals were ferried to the plants by train instead of through city streets.

The 1970 closure of the Union Stockyards brought an end to the time when Chicago was nicknamed the “hog butcher for the world.” Perhaps if Sandburg were alive today, he might be inspired to write about the rebirth of the presence of the pig in Chicago. More specifically, he might write about one particular Purple Pig, a restaurant recognized by Bon Appetit as one of America’s top ten best new restaurants in 2010. In his inimitable fashion, Sandburg could explain the genesis of the restaurant’s name being from a legend that if a pig drinks red wine, it will turn purple.

The very crowded dining room

When waxing poetic about the Purple Pig, Sandburg would have to exclude another sobriquet he penned for Chicago. “City of big shoulders” isn’t sufficient enough to describe the Purple Pig’s holistic use of the pig in its menu. The restaurant literally serves the entire pig—from snout to tail. A quick perusal of the menu bears this out. There you’ll find house-cured lardo, pork neck bone, pig’s ear, Balsamic braised pig’s tails, morcilla (Spanish blood sausage), pork jowls, pork sweetbreads, pork blade steak and a variety of cured pork meats. It’s a pulchritudinous pigfest. It’s porcine perfection.

The Purple Pig is located in Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, the downtown neighborhood which houses more than three-million square feet of restaurants, hotels, retail stores and museums. On the intersection of North Michigan and Illinois Avenues, the Purple Pig is a boisterous, high-energy milieu with a decidedly youthful customer demographic. The restaurant is perpetually crowded. Much of the seating is in communal tables where you’ll get to know your neighbors. An L-shaped bar with extensive (but accessible) wine and beer offerings is among the choice seating because of its unobstructed view of a capacious open kitchen, but if the weather allows, you can’t beat al fresco dining on the patio.

Braised Baby Artichokes, Fingerling Potatoes, Asiago Cheese and Salami Toscana

The Purple Pig doesn’t currently entertain reservations and waits can be half an hour or longer. It’s worth the wait, especially if you wish to be seated on the patio. When you’re seated–likely in a communal table–you’ll quickly learn there are no strangers at the Purple Pig. There’s just friends who haven’t yet met. You’ll find your tableside neighbors are more than willing to recommend their favorites. The wait staff is encyclopedic in its knowledge of the menu to the point they can tell you about each ingredient used to create the fabulous feast on which you’re about to indulge.

You can summarize the restaurant’s menu in four words: “Cheese, Swine and Wine.” Most, but not all, of the featured fare will be comprised, at least in part, of pig parts complemented by a fromage fanatic’s fantasy of cheeses. The Purple Pig is a bona fide Charcuterie (a term referring to the products made and sold in a delicatessen-style shop, also called a charcuterie) with many of the cured meats offered being proudly made in-house. The menu is inspired. It also calls for a certain level of audacity among non-gastronomes. We were surprised at how “daring” other guests were in ordering foods many would consider “yucky” and strange.

Burrata Pugliese with Arugula, Marcona Almonds, Sour Cherries, Popcorn & Maraschino

Similar to Spanish-style tapas restaurants, the concept behind the Purple Pig is for diners to share small plates with dining companions, ergo more variety. While most of our neighbors ordered two plates per person, our table of three–Bill Resnik, Paul Fleissner and me–shared nearly twenty plates in two visits. For every item we ordered, there were several we wanted to try. The biggest surprise wasn’t our capacity to eat so much, but the fact that none of us were bankrupted by the bill of fare. In fact, we were surprised at how reasonable costs were.

The menu is segmented into nine sections: Antipasti, Smears (spreadable items served with toasted bread), Fried Items, Panini, Cured Meats, Cheese, Salad, A La Plancha, Etc. and Dolci. Each section of the menu lists a number of dishes. The A La Plancha, Etc. tended to be the highest priced and the ones which most closely resemble full entrees instead of small dishes. The menu isn’t exclusively pork-based. You’ll also find mussels, chicken, turkey, rabbit, sardines and more.

Eggplant Parmesan Balls

From the Antipasti menu, one of our favorites is the Salt-Roasted Beets with Whipped Goat Cheese & Pistachio Vinaigrette. This is roasted beets living up to their potential. This is roasted beets combined with ingredients which complement each other very well. The salt, a large crystalline variety, bring out the sweetness of the beets without overwhelming them. The beets are tender while the pistachios were wonderfully buttery and crunchy. The goat cheese is rich, thick and creamy while the vinaigrette added the acidity that balanced other flavors while keeping the salad fresh and vibrant.

Also from the Antipasti menu are Braised Baby Artichokes, Fingerling Potatoes, Asiago & Salami Toscana, an ingredient combination which probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. The “binding” which puts it all together deliciously is the sharp, but semi-sweet Asiago cheese which proves to be an excellent counterpoint for the “summery” flavor of the artichokes, the robust flavor of the Salami Toscana and the savory-sweet flavor of the fingerling potatoes. The biggest surprise to me was the freshness of the braised baby artichokes which were as good, if not better, than the artichokes I’ve had recently in California.

White Sardines with capers

Several years ago my friend and fellow gastronome Sandy Driscoll introduced me to burrata, a rich, creamy ball-shaped cheese with an interior akin to soft, stringy curd and fresh cream. It’s been an addiction ever since so an Antipasti dish of Burrata Pugliese with Arugula, Marcona Almonds, Sour Cherries, Popcorn and Maraschino is a no-brainer. The burrata shines, but so do the sour cherries and maraschino which prove a perfect foil for the peppery flavor of the arugula. This is a plate-licking good dish.

From the Fried Items section of the menu, comes the Eggplant Parmesan Balls, six bite-sized balls of gooey, cheesy meets crunchy deliciousness. While they might resemble the de rigueur fried mozzarella served at many Italian restaurants, these are several orders of magnitude better. The cheese is melted, but not molten so you probably won’t burn the roof of your mouth. Nor is the cheese so stringy that you can stretch it around the block. The parmesan balls are served in a thin tomato sauce.

Panini: Slow-roasted ham, Scamorza Cheese, Pickled Portobello and Sun-dried Tomatoes

One Fried Items dish which probably qualifies as an acquired taste is White Sardines with Capers. Sardines have a pronounced “fishy” taste (think anchovies, only stronger). Perhaps because sardines, even the more sublime white sardines, are so fishy tasting, the Purple Pig prepares them with plenty of capers. The capers lend a sharp, tangy and slightly salty taste. If you like sardines on their own, you’ll be very happy with these fried three-inch beauties. Just make sure to masticate them vigorously because the sardine, spine and all, is fried intact.

The Panini menu lists only three sandwiches, but if the one we had is any indication, the Purple Pig would be an outstanding restaurant if it focused solely on sandwiches. Our panini was engorged with slow-roasted ham, Camorza cheese, pickled portobello and sun-dried tomatoes. Scamorza is a cow’s milk spun cheese, belonging to the same family as mozzarella and provolone. It’s perfectly melted on this panini par excellence and it complements the slow-roasted ham very well. The pickled portobello and sun-dried tomatoes are a nice foil with acidity and tanginess.

Pig Platter, an assortment of cured meats that includes Prosciutto Di San Daniele, Lingua Agrodolce, Catalonian Fuet, Sopressata, Chorizo, Prosciutto Di Parma, Jamon Serrano, Cacciatorini, Coppa, Loma and Tartufo

The Cured Meats section of the menu is a veritable smorgasbord of cured meats from throughout the pig. Though you can order meats individually, your best bet is the Pig Platter, an assortment of cured meats, some of which are made in-house. All eyes on the table will train on the platter on which the meats arrive. It’s a pinkish-reddish treasure trove of thinly sliced pork and an exemplar as to why I will never become a vegan. There are some stand-outs on the Pig Platter and no one meat grades any less than excellent. Some, such as the Prosciutto Di San Daniele are prepared with such high and exacting standards that no prosciutto meeting those standards can legally call itself Di San Daniele.

The Lingua Agrodolce, literally sweet and sour tongue, is one of the stand-outs. Resembling a smaller cut of Spam (in appearance only), it will delight you with its rich flavors and the interplay of how they contrast on your taste buds. The Catalonian Fuet (a word which means “whip”), from the Catalan region of Spain, is whisper thin, dry cured pork meat sausage with a salty, dry flavor. The thinly cut Serrano ham is wonderfully marbled dry-cured ham with a salty flavor. The Cacciatorini is a well-seasoned pork with a great depth of flavors; it’s among the most addictive of all dry-cured sausages. The Coppa is a flavorful combination of meat and fat, heady from the aromatic spices and herbs in which is it cured. Salami Loma is literally “head salami,” a pungent, spicy salami cut into thin slices. Tartufo is a thin-sliced salami with a delicate, earthy aroma. I’ve only explained what they are; you’ll have to experience them for yourselves to taste how wonderful they are.

House Cured Lardo Iberico on Toasted Bread

The Smears section of the menu proved to be our favorite, not for the sheer numbers of plates listed, but for the visceral flavors provided. This is the section of the menu which separates the professionals from the amateurs. It’s where you might test your own mettle. Smears are served with toasted bread which they are meant to be spread onto or top. There are eleven smears on the menu. Among the ones we forwent were one made with foie gras and membrillo and another crafted with Taramasolata, the poor-man’s caviar.

We didn’t know what to expect when ordering the house-cured Lardo Iberico. Made from 100% acorn-fed pork back fat in Spain, we frankly expected something akin to pork belly. Instead, we were treated to four slices of toasted bread topped with a sheer, almost transparent “sheet” of lardo. It resembles “melted” fat but with a flavor rivaling that of duck fat. Despite the waifishly thin sheet, the flavor is very pronounced. It’s salty and fatty with a melt-in-your mouth quality. The toasted bread had black edges and was toasted to a greater extent than any of the other smears we sampled.

Roasted Bone Marrow with Herbs

The one Smear we all agreed was most transformative was the roasted bone marrow with herbs. It’s a life-altering dish, the only item we had during both our visits to the Purple Pig. Bone marrow is one of Anthony Bourdain’s very favorite things to eat in the entire world. Now it’s mine, too…and it shouldn’t come as a surprise. My favorite Vietnamese phos are replete with floating marrow. Henceforth, I’ll forever think twice when considering how to dispose of a marrow-filled bone.

The roast bone marrow is meant to be scooped out with tiny spoons and slathered onto toasted bread then sprinkled with sea salt. I couldn’t bring myself to adding capers (which I love) or any of the complementary herbs. Bone marrow is rich, buttery and delicious with a depth of flavor few items achieve. It inherits a beef-broth flavor from its host animal. Its gelatinous texture may be a bit off-putting to some people, but true gastronomes haven’t lived until they’ve had roasted bone marrow (and sweet breads, but that’s another story).

Pork Neck Bone Gravy with Ricotta

The third, but just slightly less wonderful Smear, we enjoyed thoroughly was pork neck bone gravy with ricotta. My mental picture was of a traditional brown gravy redolent with natural pork drippings. Instead, we got a thick red sauce (almost marinara-like) with shreds of pork neck braised for hours swimming therein. The light, fluffy ricotta resembles an island surrounded by the red sauce which has notes of heat and herbaceousness. It could be argued that the red sauce subtracted from the flavor of the braised neck bones, but that’s a nit.

Unlike the Pig Platter in which most of the meats on the menu are featured, there is no cheese platter. Instead, you order as many cheeses as you’d like to have. We opted for five and allowed our server to select four of them with a request that we receive a balance of flavors and textures. We hit a home run. The sharpest and most pungent of the cheeses was a Piquant Gorgonzola replete with blue veins signifying a long aging period. It’s a breath-wrecking cheese to say the least. Another sharp, pungent cheese is the Blu Di Bufala, a rare aged buffalo blue cheese. This is a flavor which lingers on your taste buds and on your memories.

Cheeses: Big Ed’s, Podda, Delice de Bourgogne, Blu Di Bufala and Piquant Gorgonzola with a grape chutney and toasted bread

The Big Ed’s cheese, made from raw cow’s milk ripened for 120-days, has a buttery texture and is mild, but full-flavored. It’s a connoisseur’s cheese, one any fromage fanatic would be proud to serve. It will win over your heart and your appetite. The Podda has a hard rind and a dry, slightly crumbly texture and a sweet-nutty flavor resultant from having been aged for nearly an entire year. It’s a pasteurized cheese made from a combination of sheep and cow milk. My favorite of the five may well be the Delice de Bourgogne, a rich, creamy cheese with a whipped buttery texture and a pungent fragrance. Eating this cheese is said to “triple your pleasure” because cream or creme fraiche is added during the manufacturing process. The cheese is served with lightly toasted bread and a grape chutney which proves a sensational counterpoint to the savory, salty, creamy, utterly (would that be “udderly”) delicious cheeses.

The only item we ordered from the A La Planca, Etc. section of the menu was the Pork Secreto Romano Beans, Marinated Red Bell Pepper & Pickled Watermelon Rind. Pork Secreto, we were told, is thus named because not even many butchers know how to extricate it from a pig. Pork Secreto is a tender strip of pork hidden beneath a thick layer of belly fat. Secret though it may be, it doesn’t taste like the mystery meat you find at some restaurants. Some connoisseurs consider it the best part of the pig, a “poor man’s tenderloin.” The Purple Pig serves it with marinated red peppers and pickled watermelon rinds, neither of which detract from the flavor of the secreto. It’s a very tender, pinkish hued piece of heaven that’s as good as pork belly.

Pork Secreto with Romano Beans, Marinated Red Bell Pepper and Pickled Watermelon Rind

There’s only one way to top a meal at the Purple Pig and that’s with something from the Dolci section of the menu. That’s where the restaurant’s post-prandial sweets can be found. Our server recommended a Sicilian Iris, a round fried brioche filled with ricotta and chocolate chips and sprinkled with confectioners sugar. She earned a generous tip based on this suggestion alone. Bite into the golden disc of fried dough and you’re rewarded with rich, creamy ricotta and adult chocolate chips. It’s a sweet piece of heaven on earth.

Cheese, wine and swine. The Purple Pig excels at all three. The same year it was named one of America’s top ten new restaurants, it received the Bib Gourmand award, a Michelin Guide distinction awarded to restaurants judged to offer very good food at a very good value. For Michelin’s purposes, a “very good value” means an appetizer and entree, plus a glass of wine, will cost $40 or less. It remains consistently one of the most popular restaurants in Chicago according to Urbanspoon and has earned a “27” rating on Zagat.

Sicilian Iris {Ricotta & Chocolate Chip filled Fried Brioche}

“Seeing pink elephants” is a euphemism for drunken hallucinations. Savvy diners would much rather see one famous Purple Pig in a section of Chicago not too far from the “hog butcher for the world.”

500 North Michigan Avenue
Chicago, Illinois
(312) 464-1744
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 5 September 2012
1st VISIT: 4 September 2012
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Sicilian Iris,

The Purple Pig on Urbanspoon

Lotus of Siam – Las Vegas, Nevada

Lotus of Siam, perhaps the very best Thai restaurant in America

In the August, 2000 issue of Gourmet Magazine, multiple-time Pulitzer Prize award-winning writer Jonathan Gold called the Lotus of Siam restaurant in Las Vegas, Nevada “the single best Thai restaurant in North America.”  Not a disparaging word was heard or a dissenting opinion offered among the cognoscenti save for those who argued that the word “Thai” should be removed from from Gold’s audacious proclamation.  Lotus of Siam is THAT good!

In the decade plus since Gold’s assertion, every reputable critic from every credible publication has jumped on the bandwagon, essentially echoing or adding to to the validation of the greatness that is the Lotus of Siam.  The superlatives are similar on every review you’ll read of this vaunted restaurant; only the names of the scribes change.  In a media culture which delights in the “time to tear down” portion of Ecclesiastes 3:3, the absence of true criticism for Lotus of Siam speaks volumes.   Lotus of Siam is THAT good!

The best new addition to Lotus of Siam--an expanded dining room with a huge wine cave

First-time visitors approach the Lotus of Siam with high expectations, return visitors with the type of reverence usually accorded only to shrines or holy places.  A visit is akin to a religious pilgrimage, albeit not one of great distance or difficulty to reach (it’s only minutes away from the Las Vegas strip) though the restaurant is situated in a strip mall that’s probably 25 years beyond its time, a strip mall Zagat called “the ugliest strip mall in America.”  Few ever give it a second thought that the peerless purveyor of the best Penang on the planet is located in one of the city’s most unsavory areas.  Lotus of Siam is THAT good! 

In recent years, Las Vegas has earned a reputation as one of the world’s premier dining destinations, much of that apotheosis attributable to many of the world’s culinary glitterati launching a satellite restaurant operation in Sin City.  You no longer have to go to San Francisco, Chicago, New York City or even Paris to experience some of the best restaurants in the world; they’ve all come to Las Vegas.  Lotus of Siam, on the other hand, was in such demand from New York City visitors to Las Vegas, that in 2010, a second instantiation of the Vegas institution was launched in Metropolis.  Lotus of Siam is THAT good!

Tod Mun Plar: deep fried fish-cake mixed with curry paste, served with cucumber salad with chopped peanut.

So, just what is it that makes Lotus of Siam THAT good?  Most agree it’s all starts with incomparable chef-owner Saipin Chutima who in 2010 was finally accorded with “Best Chef: Southwest” honors by the James Beard Foundation after  “Miss Congeniality” finishes in 2008 and 2010.   Her specialty is Issan-style Thai food, its genesis being the northeastern region of the country where the chef was raised, a region in which cuisine is more highly spiced than those of the other regions of Thailand. The 150-item menu notes that some of the dishes are influenced by the cultures of Laos and Cambodia and while that menu is also replete with traditional Thai favorites common at other restaurants, they’re prepared better (and spicier) than anywhere else. 

Despite being ensconced for most of its 25 years in an unassuming Lilliputian space,  the universally beloved restaurant with huge flavors has earned Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence” every year since 2005.  In 2010, Lotus of Siam expanded, much to the delight of oenophiles and diners alike.  The expansion makes it easier to obtain a reservation and showcases one of the most impressive wine caves in a city which prides itself on its wine lists.

Fried Chicken Dumplings: Deep fried wontons skin stuffed with ground chicken, and vegetables, served with homemade sweet and sour sauce

The wait staff at Lotus of Siam is unfailingly attentive and polite. Even better, they’re on the spot to refill your empty glasses of ice water–and you will empty them if you endeavor to consume the lip-numbing, tongue-tingling “Thai hot” dishes. Even if weaned on New Mexico chile as I was, Lotus of Siam has several dishes that might make many blubber “no mas.” A degree of heat at level eight (out of ten) is piquant enough for most asbestos tongued New Mexicans. That’s not to say all the dishes are incendiary. There are many entrees who will captivate you with the subtle blending of pungently sweet spices.

The 150-item menu includes several “must try” appetizers including nam kao tod, a highly spicy stir fry of minced Issan-style sour sausage seasoned with ginger, fresh chilies and scallions and served with crispy rice. It’s one of the Las Vegas restaurant favorites listed on an unofficial “essential restaurant guide” published yearly.  An appetizer popular in trendy Bangkok, tod mun plar is prepared exceptionally well at Lotus. This deep-fried fish-cake mixed with curry paste is served with a sweet-tangy-piquant cucumber salad with chopped peanuts. With a fragrant bouquet and light texture, these fish cakes will win over even the fish haters among you.

Crispy Duck on Drunken Noodle: Crispy duck topped with homemade fresh chili and Thai basil. Serve on the top of pan fried flat rice noodle. –

The appetizer roster also includes several items sure to please poultry lovers who can spice up the precursory part of their meal with garlic black pepper chicken wings. Several meaty chicken wings are deep-fried until crispy then sautéed with potent black pepper and a wealth of garlic. If you don’t want to wreck your breath (while loving every morsel in doing so), the stuffed chicken wings are a wonderful option. Two pterodactyl sized chicken wings are stuffed with ground pork then deep fried and served with a tangy sweet and sour sauce.  Then there’s the fried chicken dumplings, deep-fried wontons skin stuffed with ground chicken and vegetables.  Better dumplings cannot be found!

Lotus of Siam’s soup offerings are fabulous and offered in cup size as well as in a swimming pool sized bowl. At a level eight degree of heat, the Tom Yum Kai, a spicy and sour soup with chicken, lemon grass, lime juice and straw mushrooms, is as baby bear might say “just right.” It’s also one of the heartiest, most savory soups imaginable–a soup so good you’ll mourn the last spoonful.

Roasted Duck Curry: The combination of roasted duck, pineapple, bell pepper and tomato in red curry base with a touch of coconut milk make this dish very tasty and unique.

Among the entrees, the roasted duck curry (replete with cherry tomatoes, small grapes, pineapple and coconut milk) is the very best curry dish I’ve ever had.  It’s an entree I’ve had during three of my five visits to Lotus of Siam so if the restaurant has a better curry dish, I’ve yet to try it. The concordance of ingredients and the resultant melding of flavors will leave your taste buds delirious with joy.  The first time you bite into a plump cherry tomato which has been swimming in curry is like your first kiss.  The sensation of a curry saturated grape bursting in your mouth may make your eyes roll with carnal pleasure.  If a food item can make love to your mouth, it would resemble feasting on this curry dish. 

Duck is the showpiece ingredient in another favorite entree, one of four crispy duck entrees on the chef’s choice menu.  The crispy duck on drunken noodle, pan-fried rice noodles topped with fresh, homemade chili and Thai basil.  This is one of those rare dishes about which absolute perfection can be ascribed.  Everything about it is perfectly prepared.  The duck is mouth-watering–tender, succulent, eyes shut wide with pleasure delicious with a crispy fried skin that may leave you swooning.  The pan-seared basil would have made a wonderful entree on its own while the drunken noodles inherited the saucy flavors of the other components of one of the two best duck dishes I’ve ever had (the other being the roasted duck curry, of course).

Coconut Ice Cream on a bed of Sticky Rice

Despite sizable portions, you’ll want to end your meal with dessert.  The menu lists only  mangoes (in season) with sticky rice, coconut ice cream with sticky rice and fried bananas. These relatively simple desserts are common in street stalls throughout Thailand, but uncommonly good in America–just like this phenomenal restaurant. 

We’ve been visiting Lotus of Siam since the millennium year–within weeks after Jonathan Gold’s anointing of this gem.  It’s on my short list for the proverbial “last meal” and should be on everyone’s “bucket list” of restaurants to visit before all is said and done.  Lotus of Siam is THAT good!

953 E. Sahara Ave.
Las Vegas, NV
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 10 November 2011
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Fishcakes, Duck Curry, Thai b.b.q. chicken, Mangoes on Sticky Rice

Lotus of Siam on Urbanspoon

Il Mulino of New York – Las Vegas, Nevada

Arguably the very best Italian restaurant in New York City is now available in Las Vegas at Caesars Forum Shops

While it may seem that Las Vegas is one perpetual bachelor party with hundreds of drunken frat boys expressing themselves loudly through expletives while leaving a hazy trail of smoke in their wake as they converge upon casino after casino, Sin City does have its pockets of civility.  One such refuge is Il Mulino during the lunch hour when it’s a veritable island of isolation and paragon of propriety despite being mere feet from the maddening throngs.  Perhaps it’s that aspect of propriety that explains the absence of teeming masses during lunch.

Yes, it’s THAT Il Mulino, scion of the famous Italian restaurant held in reverential esteem and cited by the cognoscenti as perhaps the very best Italian restaurant in all of the five boroughs comprising New York City (although Mario Batali might have something to say about that).   The Las Vegas outpost of the fabulous Metropolis Italian restaurant is located at the top level of the Forum Shops at Caesars next door to Tommy Bahama.  The setting is so elegant, the ambiance so splendorous that you’ll quickly forget the proximal partiers.

The interior of Il Mulino

It’s not the crapulous carousers who frequent Il Mulino at night, but a more conservative, nattily attired crowd which appreciates and can afford decorum with their deliciousness.  Unlike at the personal proximity, sardine can tight seating at the New York City institution, there’s plenty of elbow room at the Vegas instantiation.  You’ll need that room to loosen your belt a notch or two, such is the alimentary excess to which you will be treated.  Virtually from the moment you’re seated until you settle the bill of fare, the ingratiating staff will continue to feed you in a manner reminiscent of an Italian grandmother.

As you pass through the double doors into the capacious and swanky milieu, the casino seems to melt away into the background.  To your right is a wine cellar any oenophile will love and at your left flank is a long bar atop of which are several jars of fruits (lemons, pears, strawberries) marinating in grappa, a brandy distilled from the fermented residue of grapes after they have been pressed in wine-making.  Those fruits will marinate for several weeks, after which the resultant liqueur is as smooth and aromatic as the nectar beloved by Roman gods.  Our waiter made sure our meal ended with pear grappa, the perfect ending to a perfect meal.

Our waiter cutting out hunks of parmesan for us

Plush burgundy carpet ensures a comfortable walk to your table, overlaid with white linens and impeccably set with crystal stemware, silver place settings and a single red rose.  Wrought-iron Gothic chandeliers provide overhead illumination while large picture windows let in natural sunlight and provide a view of the strip without letting in the cacophony.  Weather permitting, you can dine on the patio where you’ll have an even better view, but then you’d be foregoing a meal at one of the city’s most luxurious dining rooms. 

As you stride to your table, you can’t help but note–both visually and olfactory–a frying pan sizzling over a cook stove burner and a tuxedo-clad waiter lovingly tending to a tangle of peppery ribbons of zucchini marinated in extra virgin olive oil.  You’ll make a mental note to order this olfactory arousing siren, but you need not.  It’s one of several complementary items the wait staff will bring to your table.  By the time your meal is done, you’ll feel more affection for the genteel wait staff than you will for your many of your relatives.

Zucchini and salami

The lightly fried zucchini is served cold, the fragrant remnants of the frying process undeniable.  The olive oil in which the zucchini is fried and later marinated in is of excellent quality–rich and unctuous with pungent notes.  The zucchini is served with painfully thin slices of richly marbled salami.  The salami is obviously not processed; it’s an indulgent quality salami you might save for a special occasion. 

The increasingly endearing waiter will then approach your table with a quarter wheel of imported Grana Padano, a semi-hard grainy cousin of Parmesan.  He will expertly slice a hunk or three and deposit them carefully onto your plate.  This is the type of cheese turophiliacs (people obsessed with cheese) will sniff, perhaps to discern the grasses consumed by the happy cows who produced this rich, delicately flavored cheese.  Compared to its Italian cousin Parmigiano, it’s not quite as salty, is less “nutty” and is definitely more subtle.

An amuse-bouch: bruschetta and a single mussel

The next thing your benefactor-waiter will bring to your table is an amuse-bouche of bruschetta with tomato and basil along with a single mussel.  Amuse-bouche are typically single, bite-sized “hors d’oeurvres” (though you’d better not use that term around an Italian serving it to you), but this bruschetta is easily a three-bite snack.  It is thoroughly soaked in olive oil, but not enough to render it mushy.  The lightly toasted bruschetta still crunches when you bite into it. 

Not pictured in this review is the basket of breads your waiter (with whom you’ll be in love by this point) will bring you.  The basket includes hard-crusted Italian bread and lightly toasted garlic bread saturated in unctuous olive oil.  Real butter spreads on nicely on the Italian country bread, but you’ll want to save a slice or two to sop up the sauce-laden entrees to follow.  It’s almost sinful to call the second bread “garlic bread” because it’s what all garlic bread should taste like.

Antipasti of Caprese: Fresh buffalo mozzarella, sliced tomato, sprig of basil, fig, roasted red pepper with capers, prosciutto di Parma with aged Balsamico and olive oil

By this point you’re probably contemplating a post-meal nap or might be considering proposing to your waiter who, thus far, has lavished you with more gifts than a lover.  It’s here that the waiter will recite the day’s specials.   Cognitive psychologists have long theorized that retaining  much more than seven chunks of information in memory is a challenge (especially if you’re older than fifty).  The Il Mulino staff has a Jeopardy contestant-like ability to remember much more.  The list of specials reads like some restaurants’ entire menus and each special may include more than seven chunks of information itself.  I still haven’t memorized my cell phone number so the specials recital feat greatly impressed me. 

So did our antipasti choice, a sort of deconstructed Caprese salad consisting of richly marbled prosciutto di Parma sliced so thinly you could almost see through it; fresh buffalo mozzarella; a sprig of fresh, fragrant basil; a large, sweet fig; and roasted red peppers topped with capers.  Opt to have the aged Balsamico and extra virgin olive oil drizzled onto the entire plate for an even more flavorful starter.  A great aged Balsamic (and there is none better than New Mexico’s own Aceto Balsamico). enhances the flavor of virtually everything and Il Mulino uses a great Balsamico.

Tortellini alla Panna: meat tortellini with cream sauce and sweet peas with a touch of black truffle sauce

From among the antipasti, my favorite is probably the buffalo mozzarella which is soft and moist with a pronounced milky flavor. It literally oozes milk and has a musky, slightly grassy and thoroughly unctuous flavor. If you’ve ever had buffalo mozzarella from the Campana region of Italy, the rubbery American versions of mozzarella will never do.  Il Mulino does not compromise on quality.  The antipasti will set you back as much as some entrees at a fine-dining restaurant, but the memories alone are worth the splurge. 

You won’t fine spaghetti or even lasagna on the menu.  Il Mulino’s Northern Italian menu does have its red sauce pasta dishes, but more prominent are rich, creamy white sauces.  You’ll also find refined risottos, the type of which prompt me to forgo pasta every time.  The pesci (seafood), carne (beef and lamb) and pollo (poultry) entrees tend to be more pricy.  Portions are profligate.  Think family-sized portions.  You’ll definitely find yourself taking leftovers home.

Risotto Primavera: seasonal vegetables with prosciutto

If one of your criteria for a life mate is someone who can cook, that’s another quality you’ll love about the wait staff.  The kitchen may compose and conduct the masterpieces, but it’s your waiter who will take them to their crescendo in small cook stove burners at their prep station.  It’s the waiter who will shave black truffles onto your pasta and who will season them to perfection.  It’s your waiter who will toss the al dente pasta and perfectly prepared risotto to ensure they will arrive at your table at their peak of flavor saturation and temperature. 

The tortellini alla Panna, a meat tortellini with a cream sauce and sweet peas and a touch of black truffles is one of those rare dishes that borders on nauseatingly rich–so rich you swear you can’t eat another bite, but so good you can’t stop eating it.  The pasta is perfectly al dente, the truffle scented sauce is absolutely addictive and each tortellini is generously stuffed.  The green peas taste freshly shucked out of a pod.

Tiramisu with zabaglione and berries

Risotto became a part of pop culture when a Seinfeld episode lampooned the post-coital ritual of lighting up a cigarette–only in this case George Costanza’s girlfriend lit up contentedly after a satisfying meal of risotto. The noisy ardor with which she consumed the risotto was something the ego-fragile George couldn’t elicit from her in the bedroom. The risotto at Il Mulino might elicit such a passion.  One criticism friends have levied towards me is my penchant for ordering risotto at fine-dining Italian restaurants then enumerating the number of select few restaurants who have prepared the risotto correctly.  In recent years, my count has climbed from under a handful to a baker’s dozen.  Il Mulino’s is among the very best.

Four risotto options are available: Risotto Frutti di Mare (assorted seafood), Risotto Milanese (saffron with white wine), Risotto Porcini (assorted wild mushrooms) and Risotto Primavera (seasonal vegetables with prosciutto).  It’s the latter I ordered and consumed lustily.  The fresh seasonal vegetables included zucchini, onions, mushrooms and broccoli were perfectly prepared and seasoned.  The risotto was artisinal, each fluffy long-grain of rice inheriting the flavors of the olive oil and stock in which they are prepared.  Risotto bears careful watching and constant stirring so that when done, the rice is cooked through and redolent with a creamy sauce made as the starch leaches out of the rice and melds with the stock.

Tartufo with Zabaglione and berries

Full as you might be after your marathon meal, it’s nearly impossible to resist your waiter’s charms as he describes the dessert menu, paying attention to enunciate the qualities of his particular favorite.  Fortunately our waiter’s favorite dessert is also my favorite–tiramisu.  Il Mulino’s version is enhanced further with a pool of rich zabaglione studded with berries.  The tiramisu is drenched in Kahlua and is as good as any tiramisu I’ve ever had anywhere. 

Another terrific dessert option–particularly if you like ice cream–is the tartufo which translates literally from Italian to “truffle.”  It’s a rich (a word which seems to describe almost everything on the menu) Italian ice cream dessert composed of two flavors of ice cream–an adult dark chocolate and a nutty vanilla covered with a dark chocolate shell.  The two chocolate shells are flanked by pools of zabaglione with berries.  If you weren’t completely full before dessert, you will be afterwards, but it’ll be a good full, one you’ll long remember with a swoon.

Pera Grappa

Il Mulino has expanded beyond New York City to Roslyn, New York; Miami, Florida; Washington, D.C.; Chicago, Ilinois; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Orlando, Florida; and Houston, Texas.  It’s a long-standing restaurant philosophy to use only the best and freshest ingredients possible, to prepare and present every item beautifully and to treat all guests with close personal attention to maximize their dining experience.  Mission accomplished!   Il Mulino gave me one of the very best dining experiences of my life–not just one of the best Italian, but the best of any type.

Il Mulino of New York
Caesars Forum Shops
3570 South Las Vegas Blvd.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 7 November 2011

COST: $$$$ – $$$$$
BEST BET: Capresa, Tortellini alla Panna, Risotto Primavera, Tiramisu, Tartufo, Pera Grappa, Tartufo

Il Mulino of New York (Caesars Forum Shops) on Urbanspoon

The Hamilton Chop House – Durango, Colorado (CLOSED)

The Hamilton Chop House

The Hamilton Chop House

The Land of Enchantment with its 121,356 square miles of deserts, mesas, rivers, mountains, forests, cities and villages is the fifth largest state in the country.  In 2007, Albuquerque’s KOAT television station began a recurring series in which the station treated its viewers to an aerial perspective of many of the communities in its viewing area.  That unique bird’s eye view perspective was captured from Sky 7, the station’s news helicopter.

In 2008, the station expanded its coverage, sending news anchor and New Mexico native Royale Dá skyward once again to show viewers the challenges faced by the communities featured on the series and how they are dealing with those challenges.  Royale was joined by city leaders from throughout the viewing area who boarded Sky 7 to share what makes their communities so special.

One of the few cities visited in 2008 outside of New Mexico’s borders was Durango, Colorado, long a part of KOAT’s viewing area.  During the aerial tour of the city, Durango’s Director of Planning and Community Development Greg Hoch indicated that Durango actually has more restaurants per capita than the city of San Francisco.

With a population of nearly 750,000 people, the city of San Francisco numbers just about 2,700 restaurants within its boundaries, giving it a per capita density of 279 people per restaurant.  The City by the Bay is a formidable restaurant city indeed.  Sheer numbers, however, do not make a city a good dining destination.  San Francisco has earned its reputation as an epicenter for epicurean excellence not because of its overwhelming number of restaurants, but because many of those restaurants are of exceedingly high quality.

Durango counts some 15,000 residents within its boundaries and is not as well known as a great restaurant city as it is a town in which beer is literally woven into its cultural and social fabric.  The city’s four breweries produce more than 15,000 barrels of beer annually, just over one barrel or 31 gallons per man, woman and child resident.  The city of Durango truly appreciates great craft beer.

In past visits to Durango I left with the impression that the city has a number of “good” to “very good restaurants” and certainly appreciated the fact that there are so many of them from which to choose.  Good to very good restaurants do not, however, make it a great restaurant town.  Neither does the sheer number of restaurants.

The interior of Hamilton's Chop House

The interior of Hamilton's Chop House

During a visit in August, 2008, we confirmed that Durango is indeed a good to very good restaurant town, but it has one outstanding restaurant gem in its midst.  It was a discovery as exciting to this humble gastronome as discovering gold and silver ore in the nearby mountains was to intrepid prospectors more than a century ago.

That restaurant is the extraordinary Hamilton Chop House, a tenant of the Glacier Club at Tamarron Resort’s Sundowner Lodge about twenty miles north of Durango.  The distance separating this fabulous restaurant from dining establishments within the Durango city limits seems symbolic of the distance in quality between the Hamilton Chop House and every other restaurant in the area.  At the risk of hyperbole, it is probably the best steak house in which we’ve dined over the past fifteen years–and we’ve frequented the Chicago Chop House, regarded in many circles as the best independent steak restaurant in America.

The drive to the restaurant is spectacular as is the restaurant’s setting.  Nestled among towering oak, ponderosa and pine trees, the Hamilton Chop House is blessed with panoramic views of the nearby mountains.  It is also adjacent to a 27-hole golf course.  The ebony night skies are blanketed with a canopy of stars while the daytime’s cobalt skies seem to graduate in depth of color as your eyes climb skyward.

Descend a flight of stairs to the restaurant’s large living room and you might just be met at the bottom by the restaurant’s entrepreneurial owner Tom Hamilton, a whirling dervish of perpetual motion who pulls simultaneous duty as greeter, busser, waiter and genial host as well as occasional chef.  Tom is involved in all aspects of his restaurant’s operation, having crafted all the innovative recipes that enrapt diners who frequent his fabulous restaurant.

The Hamilton Chop House is the veteran restauteur’s latest restaurant venture, an evolution over time from his Cafe Cascade, a restaurant named one of Colorado’s three best restaurants in 1990 by a Denver Post restaurant critic.  Two years after closing Cafe Cascade Tom opened The Hamilton Chop House which he moved to its current site in 2005 after the Tamarron Resort made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Five Spice Quail

Five Spice Quail

Chop House is a bit of a misnomer in that the restaurant is so much more than an upscale steak house.  Everything–from the imaginitive sauces to the flavorful stocks and decadent desserts–is made on the premises.  Tom prides himself on purchasing beef and seafood of the very highest quality.  The restaurant’s price point is surprisingly reasonable considering the quality.  We’re talking about hand-selected prime and certified Black Angus steaks and chops properly aged to provide superior quality.  Seafood is flown in twice weekly from a supplier who also provisions the very best restaurants in Vail and Aspen, the resort Meccas of the super-wealthy.

About sixty percent of any given night’s orders come from the nightly specials sheet which features fresh seafood and some of the creative appetizers and entrees from which the restaurant established its reputation.  Tom Hamilton takes food seriously!  His executive chef of six years is New Orleans native Chris Martin who shares Tom’s passion for providing a memorable dining experience with outstanding cuisine.

While not effusively oppulent, the Hamilton Chop House has a decidedly comfortable western and slightly masculine feel to it.  A chandelier crafted from antlers lights up the front dining room which also houses the restaurant’s bar (the restaurant has a reputation for one of the best and most sophisticated wine lists in Colorado.)  Large framed Ansel Adams photographs festoon a stucco wall prefacing the pristinely polished stucco half-wall dividing the front dining room from the main dining room.  An imposing rock fireplace stands ready for those cold Colorado winter nights.

Framed watercolor paintings by the late Lenore Hamilton, Tom’s mother, adorn the main dining room.  The paintings are a mix of beautiful, florid landscapes and vegetables such as mushrooms and red and green vegetables, some of which have unintentionally erotic qualities similar to Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings of flowers.  Of course, men would find erotic qualities in Rorschach’s ink blots.  My Kim didn’t see anything erotic in the restaurant (save for the steak on her plate).

Shrimp wrapped in bacon

Shrimp wrapped in bacon

In addition to prime beef and fresh seafood, the menu boasts an intriguing array of wild game including elk loin, kangaroo medallions, ostrich fillet and a mixed game grill.  Seafood entrees include lobster with drawn butter, fresh scallops and a pound of Alaskan King Crab, all at ridiculously inexpensive rates that will have you doing a double-take.  The restaurant aims to please and will craft a surf-and-turf combination to your liking.

Steaks are prepared to your exacting specifications, using well-practiced techniques of char-broiling or seasoning and pan-searing, your choice.  Steaks, chops and seafood dinners include the Chop House’s homemade, freshly baked bread and your choice of garlic mashed potatoes, French fries, baked potato, rice pilaf or vegetable of the day.

An impressive array of sauces is also available for your dining pleasure, not that the steaks and chops need any amelioration whatsoever.  The four sauces offered are a Bordelaise, Creamy Au Poivre, Mushroom Bordelaise and Four-Peppercorn.  Each ostensibly offers unique flavor combinations that imbue beef with adventures in flavor.

Oysters Rockefeller served on a bed of sea salt

Oysters Rockefeller served on a bed of sea salt

Although the standard menu offers a strikingly inviting assortment of appetizers, be sure to closely study the appetizers on the specials sheet.  This is where Tom Hamilton’s creativity is best on display.  He has a gift for inventiveness, transforming appetizers the type of which we thought we had previously experienced into uniquely flavorful preprandial delights.  These appetizers will whet your appetite and appease all ten-thousand of your taste buds with deep and lively flavors.

If the appetizers from the specials (appropriately) sheet had been the extent of our inaugural meal at the Hamilton Chop House, it would still have been a fabulous meal.  Fortunately, those appetizers were just the start of an adventure in delightful tastes.

Make your first appetizer (you’ll want several) the Five Spice Quail,  six unbelievable tender and meaty quail marinated in sherry with garlic, salt, pepper and five spice.  The Chinese believe five spice embodies each of the five tastes in Chinese cooking–sweet, bitter, sour, salty and savory–but only when used correctly and in proper proportion, a balancing of yin and yang in food.  Tom Hamilton knows his five spice, applying it in just the right proportions to bring out the tastes I would not have imagined from quail.  Most quail tends to be on the desiccated and tough with a gamey blandness that’s hard to explain.

There is nothing foul about the Chop House’s fowl.  Lightly battered and deep fried to a golden consistency, each meaty morsel (and there were s a lot of them for such a relatively small bird) was tender and absolutely delicious in its own right…so good you wouldn’t want to add anything to it.  That is until you taste the absolutely phenomenal sauce provided with this appetizer.  The basis for the sauce is a variety of flavor-rich ingredients such as fresh ginger, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar and chile.  Somehow the sauce seems to appeal to all five senses, too.  The only fair way to determine whether the quail are better by themselves or with the sauce is to request two orders, one sans sauce.

Spinach the way you've never had it

Spinach the way you've never had it

The second in our triumvirate of taste bud tantalizing appetizers was the Chipotle Shrimp, four oxymoronic jumbo shrimp engorged with cream cheese, green onion and chipotle chiles in a sauce of garlic-lime Beurre Blanc, an ultra-rich, buttery sauce.  There is a lot going on in this appetizer and all of it good.  It’s a coalescence of flavors that brings out the best of each component.  The shrimp seem sweeter, the cheese sharper, the chipotles smokier.  Wow!  This is one for the ages.

A trioka of fantastic appetizers wouldn’t be complete without the Chop House’s Oysters Rockefeller, a dish renown for its richness.  Most Oysters Rockefeller I’ve had are reminiscent of Stovetop stuffing on a half-shell in comparison, even those I consumed by the boatload in New Orleans.  Perhaps that’s because the Chop House lets the oysters shine instead of blending them in a mishmash of ingredients (especially Hollandaise sauce) that obfuscates their flavor.  Oysters Rockefeller that taste like oysters, imagine that.  Imagine six oysters on the half shell nestled on a bed of sea salt with two lemon wedges destined for your table.  What you can’t imagine is just how good they are.

Grilled shrimp and mussels with Brussel Sprouts

Grilled shrimp and mussels with Brussel Sprouts

A lighter appetizer, one invented by Tom and which has caught on like wildfire in Durango, is spinach the way you’ve probably never envisioned it.  It’s deep-fried spinach with a light, crinkly texture on top of which is sprinkled Regianno parmesan. The deep-frying eliminates none of the spinach’s acerbic taste, but it somehow seems more palatable, even quite good.

Another aspect of our dining experience we appreciated was the wait staff which is personable and professional, especially adept at pacing your meal for optimum enjoyment.  The serving pace they set allows you to fully enjoy an appetizer before the next course (or second appetizer) is brought to your table.  There’s no competition among flavor contrasts here.  Ask for Sean, as knowledgeable and attentive a waiter as you could ask for.

In my inadequate for the task verbiage, I’ve hopefully conveyed that the Hamilton Chop House is nonpariel when it comes to appetizers.  It also measures up quite well when it comes to spectacular entrees.

Even if your appetizer melange includes shrimp, you might still want to try the grilled shrimp and scallops entree that features three of each oversized shrimp and scallops grilled to perfection.  Both are imbued with a faint smokiness and lay on a rich sauce of Saffron Beurre Blanc.  In taste and texture, both the shrimp and scallops are absolutely flawless.

While it seems that shrimp have become strictly a vehicle for cocktail sauce, these are shrimp you’ll want to linger, make that luxuriate in tasting.  It’s shrimp the way it’s supposed to taste, shrimp that snap when you bite into them the way they’re supposed to when fresh.  The scallops are similarly wonderful with a slight firmness instead of the usual pillowy texture that seems to turn off some people.  In terms of taste, think ethereal–very light and slightly sweet, but with enough flavor to let you know they come from the sea.

New York strip with a Bordelaise Gorgonzola sauce

New York strip with a Bordelaise Gorgonzola sauce

Carnivorous cravings will easily be sated with any one of the steak offerings, but for maximizing flavor discernment, go for the New York strip with a Bordelaise sauce (made with red wine, shallots and veal stock) with gorgonzola gently folded into it.  This is an entree I’ve seen several restaurants attempt to execute correctly, but when all is said and done, it is the chef who should be executed–usually for not being able to meld seemingly disparate tastes into edibility.  Although Bordelaise and especially gorgonzola can overpower a cut of beef, Tom Hamilton has perfected yet another culinary challenge.

Not only are the flavors complementary, but they don’t detract from the “sweetness” of the beef in the least.  It might help that the cut of beef is absolutely flawless–nary a sign of sinew or fat anywhere.  This New York strip is so tender you could cut it with a butter knife.  It is also grilled to perfection, again simply by char-broiling at the right temperature for the right amount of time.  You’d think that little secret would have gotten around by now.

It will probably come as no surprise to you that the Hamilton Chop House has also mastered desserts and in true fashion, they are superb.  They are artistically crafted by Sherrie Martin and are a feast for your eyes as well as for your mouth.  If you somehow manage to save room for it, the desserts are homemade daily and are just beckoning for you to try them.  One such example is the bread pudding which is light, moist and decadent, the three essential elements of outstanding bread pudding. This is one of the best!

Fabulous bread pudding at the Hamilton Chop House

The Hamilton Chop House and its affable and accomplished owner Tom Hamilton managed to make a huge fan out of me after only one visit, but it’s a visit we hope to repeat soon and often.  As a result of that one visit, I “downgraded” other steak restaurants I had thought to be very good–which brings me back to a point I made earlier about restaurant towns, a point that applies to restaurants as well.  That is, there are good to very good steak restaurants, but only a very select few outstanding ones.  The Hamilton Chop House is one of these.

40290 Highway 550
Durango, Colorado
LATEST VISIT: 21 August 2008
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Chipotle Shrimp, Oysters Rockefeller, Five Spice Quail, Grilled Shrimp and Scallops, New York Strip with Bordelaise and Gorgonzola, Bread Pudding

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