Mediterranean Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

In ancient times, the Mediterranean Sea was a “superhighway” of transportation, facilitating cultural exchange and trade between the region that fashioned Western civilization as we recognize it today. As the sapphire heart that gives life to the countries surrounding her, the Mediterranean was the seat of empires for millennia.

The countries bordering the Mediterranean share more than history. They also share culinary traditions which are celebrated in the Mediterranean Cafe, a diminutive restaurant specializing in the foods of North Africa and the Middle East with popular foods of Greece added because of popular demand.

Proprietor Ridha Bouajila, a Tunisian by birth, previously owned the now defunct Marrakech restaurant near the University of New Mexico and after a three-year hiatus launched his second restaurant venture, aptly named the Mediterranean Cafe. Tunisian style accoutrements and soothing sitar music in the background lend to the charm of the small restaurant with limited seating.

On Fridays and Saturdays at dinner a belly dancer performs tableside. While prudish Americans hold belly dancers in the same regard as ecdysiasts writhing around a pole, we found it strangely mesmerizing–although I must admit it was a challenge to keep my eyes focused solely on the dancer’s undulating movements which are both sensual and artistic.

A two-page menu includes several familiar items along with a list of chef’s specialties we hadn’t seen anywhere else in Albuquerque. A good way to start is with one familiar and one new appetizer. The dolmates, five grape leaves stuffed with rice and fresh herbs, is a good choice for the former while the Tunisian brika, a limpia dough turnover stuffed with potato mousse, herbs and parsley is a nice introduction to something new.

Rather than trying the standard Grecian entrees with which you might be quite familiar, visit the restaurant with a dining companion and order entrees with contrasting tastes. The tagine (a Moroccan stew named after the traditional earthenware dish in which it is cooked) of lemon chicken is one of my recommendations. A quarter chicken is marinated in herbs and olive oil then cooked with green and black olives, saffron and lemons that have been preserved for four months in an environment of vinegar, coriander, cumin, salt and other spices. It’s not nearly as tart as say, lemon chicken as served at Chinese restaurants and as such, invigorates the chicken without dominating it.

Another wonderful alternative is the tagine of lamb with honey which is a dish of lamb marinated in herbs and olive oil then cooked with prunes, apricots, almonds and honey. It’s not dessert sweet but sweet enough to defeat any gaminess inherent in lamb and it’s absolutely delicious.

The Mediterranean Cafe prepares its own pita bread only when business is slow. Otherwise they obtain their bread from Chicago where Greek food is incomparable. This is a fabulous restaurant that deserves heavy patronage!

Mediterranean Cafe
513 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 30 April 2005
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Tagine of Lamb with Honey; Tagine of Lemon Chicken; Tunisian Brika

Gruet Steakhouse – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Gruet Steakhouse at the old Monte Vista Fire Station

Gruet Steakhouse at the old Monte Vista Fire Station

Is there anything finer than a sizzling, flame kissed slab of prime beef overfilling your plate at a fine high-end chop house? Steak used to define fine dining and wealth provided the delineation between the type of steak each patron could afford–select, choice or prime, a classification based on marbling (the more the marbling, the more tender the steak).

The proliferation of inexpensive steak restaurants in the 1960s made steak readily available to the common man while the advent of technology has made it available over the Internet and even in mall stores throughout America. The tragic reality is that while ordinary steaks have become ubiquitous, truly memorable steaks are a rarity.

March, 2005 saw the launch of the Gruet Steakhouse in the downstairs portion of the Monte Vista Fire Station, a national historic registry property. Expectations were high that its steaks would be comparable in quality to the highly regarded wines proffered at the local Gruet winery, an award-winning winery with worldwide acclaim.

Understandably Gruet wines are indeed prominent on the restaurant’s wine menu with some by-the-glass selections costing what it might cost for a steak at mediocre chain steak restaurants such as the Outback Steakhouse.

Sophisticated (albeit very masculine) styling resonates class with subtle earth tones, granite counters and comfortable seating. The Gruet family coat of arms and crest is omnipresent. It’s etched on windows and watermarked on the two-page menu which features many intriguing options at premium prices.

Among the artfully described appetizers is “The Wedge and Maytag Blue Cheese,” a pristine lettuce wedge garnished with applewood smoked bacon, tomato, blue cheese crumbles and chives. Maytag blue cheese, creation of the Maytag appliance scion, is among the very best blue cheeses you can find. It’s not overly sharp but brings out the very best in any salad.

The 16-ounce New York steak is tender, well-seasoned and very flavorful. It certainly doesn’t need the optional accompanying sauces–at least one of which detracted from the beef’s inherent flavor. The Herbs De Provence Scented Mustard, my choice, was so acidic and dominating, I had to scrape it off the steak. Each steak is also accompanied by garlic whipped potatoes which aren’t nearly as good as you might expect from a high-end steak restaurant.

The Gruet Steakhouse is comparable in quality to long-time Albuquerque standard, the Rancher’s Club. My overall assessment is one I’m tired of giving–“it’s pretty good for Albuquerque.” The day will hopefully come in which Duke City steak restaurants will set the standard by which restaurants at other cities will be compared.

The Gruet Steakhouse closed in December, 2009.

Gruet Steakhouse
3201 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 21 April 2005
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: The Wedge, New York Steak

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