The Cellar – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Cellar Spanish Cuisine: Tapas, Beer and Wine

While touring Granada, Spain during a 2013 episode of CNN’s Parts Unknown, Emmy award-winning celebrity host Anthony Bourdain bemoaned that “we will never have tapas culture in America.” Then, to emphasize his contention even further (and perhaps to rankle the ire of American foodies who frequent “tapas” restaurants across the fruited plain), he challenged viewers: “You may think you know what a tapa is, like if you’ve had small bites at some fusion hipster bar where they do a whole bunch of little plates. Yeah, that ain’t a tapa.”

Bourdain, a best-selling author, world traveler, renowned chef and “poet of the common man” doesn’t just vociferate controversial statements because it’s good television. Agree with him or not, he knows what he’s talking about. When he says we will never have tapas culture in America, the operative word is “culture” as in the social practices associated with tapas. In Spain, tapas isn’t a formulaic approach in which a restaurant (or more likely, a drinking establishment) serves “small plates.” It’s so much more than that.

Dining Room at The Cellar

In modern day Spain, tapas are not only a gastronomic custom, they are a deeply rooted social and communal event described by Travel and Leisure as “walking, talking, drinking and nibbling.” Taverns are indeed clustered in close proximity to one another, making it easy for patrons to hop from bar to bar sampling the specialty of the house at each. It’s been that way since the reign of Castilian King Alfonso the Wise who decreed that no wine was to be served in any inn throughout Castile unless accompanied by something to eat. This precaution was to counteract the adverse effects of alcohol on an empty stomach.

Observing that glasses of wine or sherry served to patrons attracted fruit flies, bartenders began covering the top of the glass with a piece of bread to prevent the pesky insects from doing the breaststroke in the wine. In time, each tavern concocted its own signature toppings for the bread. For the most part, the covers or “tapas” were relatively simple–ham or anchovies, for example, but eventually, those simple glass covers evolved into such creative and sophisticated dishes that what is essentially Spanish bar food now rivals any of the world’s most celebrated cuisines.

Exhibition Kitchen

Bourdain reminded viewers of another reason America will never have a tapas culture: in Spain, tapas are free. As long as you drink, the tapas keep coming. You’ll only be charged for beer or wine and for caviar (which is consumed by the spoonful). “When,” he declares “complimentary plates include such mussels steamed in olive oil and fried eggplant and honey, does it matter?”  Besides, the salty caviar will only make you thirstier so you’ll drink more and eat fewer tapas. Tavern-keepers know what they’re doing.

There’s an inverse relationship here between “free” and quality. Free tapas in Spain are the complete antithesis of what free tapas might be like in America.  Picture if you will, choking down “all-you-can-eat apps” at TGI Fridays then noshing on mozzarella sticks at Applebee’s followed by fried pickles at Chili’s as you travel from one to the other to imbibe your favorite adult beverage. Tapas in Spain are far superior in quality and deliciousness to appetizers for which we pay at the aforementioned chains (and for which you’d be overcharged if they were free). Tapas are meticulously assembled, eye-catching and absolutely mouth-watering delicious epicurean delights.

Left: Green Chile Olive Oil; Right: Black Mission Fig Olive Oil

So, in the eyes of the bombastic Bordain, America will never have a tapas culture. So what! Culturally and socially, we’re not Spain. Our drinking establishments aren’t clustered in close proximity to one another and they’ll probably never offer gourmet quality tapas for free. Does this all mean we can’t appreciate our own interpretation of tapas for what it is? Absolutely not! Especially if the tapas bar looks and feels as if it could be right at home in Barcelona, Madrid, San Sebastian, Seville, Andalusia or Granada.

Such is the case when you first set foot in The Cellar on Lomas Boulevard just east of the downtown district. It truly does feel like “an oasis of casual elegance where delicious wines and sophisticated tapas cuisine will transport you to Old Spain.” This Iberian-themed restaurant is the brainchild of first-time restaurateur Gabriel Holguin. Where others saw a shuttered video store available to be rented, he visualized a tapas bar patterned after tapas bars in the aforementioned Spanish cities. Exemplifying a hands-on approach, he completely gutted and rebuilt the edifice, hand-carving all the tables, installing the pressed tin-work enclosing the kitchen and bar, setting up light fixtures and more. You name it, he had a hand in it.

Tabla de Tres Quesos

The results are visually stunning! This is a captivating milieu interspersing contemporary industrial duct-work with the baronial splendor of Old Spain. The color spectrum ranges from gleaming metallic silver to masculine dark wood floors and tables. Accommodating some forty patrons in relatively close spacing, the space is both functional and attractive. A very utilitarian semi-exhibition kitchen appears part pantry, part cookery. Everything from utensils to cutting boards to vegetables and condiments is within easy reach of the chef and staff. The dulcet tones of flamenco guitars play in the background.

The menu offers both lunch and dinner with the latter offering more options. If it’s tapas you came for, you’ll find a phalanx of choices. There are tapas frias (cold tapas) such as ceviche, table de tres quesos (three cheese plate) and atun y salmon crudo (raw tuna and salmon). The tapas calientes (warm tapas) menu includes such delights as patatas bravas (fried potatoes), aguacate frito (fried avocado) and calamari frito (fried squid). The menu also includes sopas y ensaladas (soups and salads), almuerzo (lunch) and entrees. It’s a tempting array of mouth-watering choices wholly unlike the “small bites at a hipster bar” Bourdain derides.

Risotto with Ten-Inch Ribeye

As you peruse the menu (all the while trying to allay involuntary salivation), your server will ferry over to your table a slate board with olive oil and rustic bread. This is no ordinary olive oil. It’s olive oil infused with flavor-boosting ingredients such as chipotle, green chile and black mission figs and it’s procured locally from the ABQ Olive Oil Company. Both the chipotle and green chile infused olive oils have a pronounced piquancy. The black mission fig infused olive oil is a vast improvement over the de rigueur olive oil and Balsamic vinegar combination. If you’re not careful, however, you can fill up quickly on the bread and olive oils.  There’s too much else to enjoy to fill up too soon.

Turophiles will love the tabla de tres quesos (three cheese plate), a Spanish cheese plate with imported Manchego, Cabrales and Mahon quesos, grilled peppers, Spanish olives, dries apples and crostini. A good cheese plate provides diverse flavor profiles—from mild and sweet to pungent and sharp. This is a good cheese plate. Mahon cheese has a flavor not dissimilar to a fruity olive oil. The Manchego has a sweet, caramel-like, nutty flavor somewhat resembling Monterey Jack. If you like a strong, penetrating aroma and sharp, acidic flavor, the Cabrales will delight you. The dried apples are an excellent foil in between cheeses.

Langosta y Mantequilla (Lobster and Butter)

Entrees include items both sea-farers and landlubbers will love. The first item on the menu is paella, a classic Spanish dish. If, like me, you can’t resist trying risotto no matter how often this most trying of dishes to prepare, can be, you’ll appreciate the creamy, stock-rich, well-attended risotto offered at The Cellar. It’s a winner. For a pittance you can add a six- or ten-ounce grilled ribeye steak to your risotto. The demi-glace (teriyaki, chile flakes) really gives the steak a nice sweet-savory flavor profile—maybe too much of it because we found ourselves eating the gristly, fatty portions of the meat, too, all because we enjoyed the demi-glace so much. Sauteed mushrooms, asparagus spears and grilled peppers, all prepared very well, complete this entrée.

What initially prompted our visit to The Cellar was my Kim’s declaration that she was craving lobster. Since it’s my mission in life to spoil her, The Cellar’s langosta y mantequilla (lobster and butter) was a no-brainer. This entrée, one more likely to be found in Barcelona than in Maine, featured a baked lobster tail with drawn butter and aioli served with saffron rice, Spanish vegetables and grilled Poblano chile. The lobster proved as sweet as my bride though she would have liked three- or ten-ounces more of the delicate decapod.

While America may not have a tapas culture in the way Anthony Boudain defines it, New Mexico has several tapas restaurants that hold true to the traditions of Old Spain (save for the “free” part). The Cellar belongs in any discussion of the Land of Enchantment’s best for a tapas experience New Mexican-style. 

The Cellar
1025 Lomas Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242-3117
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 2 April 2016
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Langosta y Mantequilla, Risotto with Ten-Inch Ribeye, Tabla de Tres Quesos, Tabla de Tres Quesos

The Cellar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cosmo Tapas – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Cosmo Tapas, a Nob Hill gem

Some of the world’s most elegant and refined cuisine has its genesis in very humble circumstances.  Today, Spanish tapas are widely regarded as sophisticated and exotic, but they didn’t start off that way.  In fact, Spanish tapas are an excellent embodiment of the axiom that when life hands you lemons, you should make lemonade.  The words “tapa” (singular) or “tapas” (plural) are derived from the Spanish word “tapar,” which means “to cover.”  In Spanish, a tapa is also the literal term for a “lid.”  How the word “tapas” became the term used to describe a popular epicurean craze is an interesting tale.

It’s well established that in Spain, it’s traditional for many people to take an afternoon respite from the rigors of their daily lives and jobs to visit the local tavern or inn for snacks and refreshment.  In Old Spain, snacks and refreshment are inseparable, a tradition dating back to the Castilian king Alfonso the Wise who decreed that no wine was to be served in any inn throughout Castile unless accompanied by something to eat.  This precaution was to counteract the adverse effects of alcohol on an empty stomach.

Dining Room at Cosmo Tapas

Observing that glasses of wine or sherry served to patrons attracted fruit flies, bartenders began covering the top of the glass with a piece of bread to prevent the pesky insects from doing the breaststroke in the wine.  In time, each tavern concocted its own signature toppings for the bread.  For the most part, the covers or “tapas” were relatively simple–ham or anchovies, for example, but eventually, those simple glass covers evolved into such creative and sophisticated dishes that what is essentially Spanish bar food now rivals any of the world’s most renowned cuisines. 

In modern day Spain, tapas are not only a gastronomic custom, they are a social or communal event.  Taverns are clustered in close proximity to one another, making it easy for patrons to hop from bar to bar sampling the specialty of the house at each.  In America, tapas have become popular as a meal option–eating a number of appetizer-sized plates to constitute an entire meal.  As in Spain, American tapas restaurants and bars attract groups who, by sharing dishes, can sample a wide variety of foods for a relative pittance.

Spanish Charcuterie Plate: Spicy chorizo,  Serrano ham, lomo embuchado, olives, pickled onions and baguette

The concept of tapas made its way to the United States several decades ago to some (mostly local) acclaim.  In some American cities, an announcement of the launch of a new tapas bar was often mistaken as yet another “topless bar” opening up.   Ultimately it took the culinary and marketing genius of Jose Andres to launch the country’s first widely heralded and highly successful tapas restaurant, Jaleo in Washington, D.C.  Since Jaleo’s opening in 1993, tapas bars and restaurants have taken off throughout the fruited plain.

In the Land of Enchantment, Santa Fe, which has long embraced its Spanish heritage, has long been home to two restaurants which offer tapas–the venerable El Farol and relative newcomer (fifteen years) El Meson.  That dynamic duo became a terrific triumvirate in 2006 with the launch of La Boca.  The Duke City’s first notable entry into the tapas arena was probably Gecko’s Bar & Tapas under the auspices of chef Jay Wulf.  Since then a number of restaurants have offered, sometimes rather loosely, an interpretation of tapas.

Baked Beef Empanada: Chilean empanada packed with beef, onions, hard boiled eggs, raisins and olives

July, 2009 saw the introduction of Cosmo Tapas, fittingly making its home in what many consider to be the Duke City’s cultural and social hub, the Nob Hill District.  Situated in the venue that previously housed the Martini Grille, Cosmo Tapas is, as its name implies, a cosmopolitan and hip urban experience–ironically with a storefront facing the historical mother road, Route 66. Its launch was greeted excitedly by critics and diners alike, many hailing it as a much needed change of pace for the city.  When she told me about her first visit to Cosmo shortly after it opened, Melissa Watrin gushed, “you have GOT to go to Cosmo Tapas.  The best meal I’ve had in a really long time.” Despite her effusive praise, it would be a while before my inaugural visit.

Look overhead as you enter and you’ll espy one of the most unique “chandeliers” you’ll ever see.  Instead of crystalline composition, the chandelier is crafted from silverware–spoons, forks and knives dangling above you.  The dining room’s walls are festooned with still-life, near photo-quality paintings depicting decanters of oil and vinegar and other restaurant necessities.  Undulating mesh fabric drapes from the ceiling.  Linen tablecloth drapes over each table with folded napkins nattily in place.  The best seat in the house on a cold winter day is the table nearest the fireplace and with a view of Central Avenue.

Grilled Choke: Grilled marinated artichoke with goat cheese and orange zest

Add the term “family-friendly” to the restaurant’s family owned and family operated modus vivendi.  That’s family-friendly both from the sense that diners of all ages will all feel welcome at the restaurant and that the family which owns the restaurant is as friendly as any restaurateurs in the Duke City.   As Melissa told me they would, both Guillermo Loubriel and his wife-partner Cecilia Kido visited our table to ensure our dining experience was as good as it could be.  Their son Leo was even more attentive, personally delivering every item we ordered. 

When they conceived the idea of Cosmo Tapas, Guillermo and Cecilia determined to showcase a menu which would reflect their  veritable melting pot of cultures and not necessarily subscribe to a true Spanish tapas template.  Guillermo is Puerto Rican while Cecilia, a native Chilean is half-Japanese and part Spanish and French.  The menu, a magnificent mishmash of culturally diverse dishes, succeeds wildly.  Moreover, the shared dining experience succeeds wildly.  Diners have embraced the concept of ordering a number of dishes and sharing them.

Stuffed Dates: Medjool dates stuffed with feta cheese and wrapped in bacon

The tapas menu actually begins with three Spanish sampler platters–a Spanish cheese platter, a Spanish charcuterie plate and a Jamon Iberico plate.  The latter is one of those every-once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime indulgences to which you should treat yourself just because you’re worth it.  Jamon Iberico, often considered the gold standard of gourmet ham, is to ham what Kobe beef is to steak. The pigs from which Jamon Iberico is culled are a very exclusive breed, ergo the pampering they receive.  The highest quality Jamon Iberico comes from pigs whose diet is limited to acorns once their slaughtering time approaches.  Hams from the slaughtered pigs are cured for anywhere from twelve months to 48 months.  The word “platter” may be a bit of a misnomer because the portion size you receive is only about two-ounces, but the memorable melt-in-your-mouth quality of the ham makes this a worthwhile indulgence.

It would be hard to consider the Spanish Charcuterie Plate a “consolation prize because it’s quite excellent, but oh that Jamon Iberico.  If you can’t order the Jamon Iberico, the Charcuterie Plate is a very good alternative.  Charcuterie is a French term which refers to the products made and sold in a delicatessen-style shop, also called a charcuterie.  The operative word here is “made” as in butchering, cutting, salting, curing, slicing, storing and preparing such meat products such as bacon, sausage, ham, pates, and more.  Cosmos Tapas’ charcuterie plate features spicy chorizo, Serrano ham, lomo embuchado, olives, pickled onions and baguettes.

Lollipop Lamb Chops: Served with olive/feta tapenade, sauteed spinach, garlic aioli and flatbread

The thinly cut Serrano ham is wonderfully marbled dry-cured ham with a salty flavor.  It’s fairly standard in American tapas bars, but is always welcome for its fine flavor.  The spicy chorizo, made from coarsely chopped pork and pork fat, is also a fairly common tapas menu offering.  The chorizo is seasoned with smoked and piquant Spanish paprika and salt.  The lomo embuchado, sometimes considered the “prince of dry cured sausages in Spain,” inherits the flavors of sea salt, smoked paprika and garlic from its 90-day curing process.  One of the biggest surprises in the Charcuterie Plate actually has nothing to do with meats.  It’s the pickled onions which are brined in a solution that includes jalapeños, imbuing them with a pleasantly piquant taste.

A couple of decades ago, Cecilia Kido owned and operated the long defunct Empanadas House which offered some thirty types of empanadas.  Considered the national dish of Chile, empanadas are a natural fit for the Cosmo Tapas menu where at least three are available. If the baked beef empanada packed with beef, onions, hard-boiled eggs, raisins and olives is any indication, empanadas are an absolute must-have.  The melange of flavors makes for a very exciting treat which challenges you to discern the individual components.  The crust enveloping the ingredients is light and flaky, but formidable enough to keep them all in.  This empanada is served with pebre, a Chilean “salsa” with a piquant, refreshing bite.

Ceviche:  fresh barrimundi marinated in citrus juice with onion, cilantro, & jalapeno vinaigrette

Melissa’s favorite tapa, one she described as a beautiful dish with vibrant flavors, is the “Choke,” grilled marinated artichoke with goat cheese and orange zest.  The artichokes are splayed out in an almost floral arrangement with a dewy goat cheese sheen on each petal and the redolence of orange zest.  The Choke is grilled to an absolute perfection and can be consumed in its entirety as you might a piece of nigiri sushi or by the petal if you’re able to show such restraint.  In either case, this is a superb tapa, one of several offerings on the Vegetable Tapas section of the menu.

The most popular tapa on the menu is stuffed dates, a tiny plate brimming with six Medjool dates stuffed with feta cheese and wrapped in applewood smoked bacon.  It’s akin to indulging in sweet, savory and smoky meat and cheese candy.  Each bite rewards you with taste explosions that are best tempered with a palate cleanser (such as taking a bite from another tapa before resuming with the next stuffed date.

Homemade Churros: Berries, Dulce de Leche and Hazelnut Chocolate

Another very popular tapa is the Lollipop Lamb chops, four succulent and meaty chops atop a bed of sauteed spinach with a garlic aioli and an olive-feta tapenade. At medium-rare, the lamb chops are tender and juicy, wholly capable of excelling on their own. The tapenade and aioli elevate the chops to a higher level, imparting complementary flavors which bring out the best qualities of the chops.

From the seafood tapas section of the menu, one sure to be a favorite is the Peruvian-style Ceviche, fresh barrimundi marinated in citrus juice with onion, cilantro and a housemade jalapeño vinaigrette.  The ceviche is unlike the ceviche served in Mexican restaurants throughout New Mexico in that it does not contain a single chopped tomato.  The jalapeño vinaigrette enlivens the barrimundi and complements the citrus with a pleasant piquancy.  Served in a concave glass over ice, this ceviche is comparable to that served in great Peruvian restaurants.

Membrillo & Manchego Cheese: Imported sweet quince paste with fresh Manchego cheese

Dessert tapas are a specialty of the house.  Seven of them are available including churros, the threaded fried dough pastry sometimes referred to as a Spanish doughnut.  The churros are stuffed with an assortment of sweet goodness: hazelnut chocolate, dulce de leche or berries.  You can mix and match the four churros per order.  The dulce de leche is especially good  for my sweet tooth.  You might appreciate another flavor even more. 

In the Tasting NM section of its January, 2012 collectors’ edition celebrating New Mexico’s centennial, New Mexico Magazine showcased quince, a fruit high in pectin with a strong “perfume.”  My friend, the scintillating author Cheryl Alters Jamison, provided a wonderful recipe for quince butter.  Her recipe in mind inspired me to order a dessert tapa called Membrillo and Manchego Cheese, imported quince paste with fresh Manchego cheese.  The Manchego proved a perfect foil for the ultra-sweet quince paste made even better with a leaf of basil. 

The menu at Cosmo Tapas even includes an “Entrees” section listing six full-sized dinners, one of which is Spanish paella (made-to-order with chicken, tiger prawns, clams, mussels, scallops, calamari, crawfish, Spanish chorizo, vegetables and Valenciana saffron rice). It’s easy to imagine a tapa or two for an appetizer followed by paella or another of the entree items.

One of the reasons it took me so long to visit Cosmo Tapas is because every critic and publication in town reviewed it within weeks of its opening. Acclaim was pretty much universal. Now that Cosmo Tapas has been open for almost two and a half years, the time was right for me to visit and see for myself whether or not the acclaim was justified. If anything, some of the high praise may be understated. Tapas is at or near the top of Spanish restaurants I’ve visited. Best of all, each visit will be a new adventure thanks to the wide variety of tapas offered.

Cosmo Tapas
4200 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 23 December 2011
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Spanish Charcuterie Plate, Baked Beef Empanada, Grilled Choke, Stuffed Dates, Lollipop Lamb Chops, Ceviche, Membrillo & Manchego Cheese, Churros

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