McGrath’s – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

At the turn of the 19th century, “Sex and the City” in Albuquerque may have meant a trip to the area near the bustling train station in which nearby “hospitality houses” catered to rail-riding clientele. The heart of the Duke City’s red light district was the area around Third and Copper where ladies of the evening entertained their guests in red light cottages, the most famous (and infamous) of which was Lizzie McGrath’s Vine Cottage.

Today the heart of the burgeoning area which once housed Albuquerque’s red light district is the posh Hyatt Regency hotel, a 21-story high rise with two distinctive pyramidal roofs that help make it the city’s second tallest building. The Hyatt’s signature restaurant, McGrath’s is named for the most famous madam in the city’s long-gone red light district.

Set in a contemporary atmosphere, McGrath’s is one of the city’s fine dining treasures even though it appears to be frequented more by visiting guests than locals (most of us don’t want to wait for a parking spot to become available and don’t want to pay to park). The lunch and dinner menus offer a wide assortment of seafood and USDA prime entrees as well as delectable desserts. For years, the restaurant earned accolades for the very best Sunday brunch in town.

The all-you-can-consume Sunday brunch featured “action stations” which offered up extensive selections of culinary treasures: fruits, muffins, breads, cheeses, salmon, gigantic shrimp, meats, waffles, and desserts to name a few. The brunch included the best omelets and blintzes in town (particularly the decadent chocolate blintz) for just over $22 per person (but well worth it).

The comestible smorgasbord also included your choice of two entrees (generally wonderful). Fresh squeezed orange juice (or at least it tasted like it) accompanied every brunch. In five visits, our sole point of contention with McGrath’s was the pitifully mild horse radish (a nit) served with the unfailingly spectacular steamship round.

You may have noticed the two previous paragraphs were written in the past tense. That’s because McGrath’s no longer offers its popular Sunday brunch. Instead, an all-you-can-eat breakfast is what famished guests and visitors wake up to. While the breakfast is one of the city’s best, it pales in comparison to the brunch.

The breakfast buffet includes scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, muffins, pancakes, French toast and more. Everything is perfectly prepared and seasoned well. The service is first-rate, among the very best in the city. The wait staff gets a kick out of serving “locals” who actually know what green chile is and don’t ask what a “kay saw dill yeah” is.

I must confess that we haven’t been to McGrath’s for dinner although we’re well acquainted with its innovative menu offerings. We hope someday the best brunch in town will return. That would be reason enough to bide our time and patience trying to find a parking spot in close proximity to the restaurant.

330 Tijeras, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 30 April 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sunday Breakfast

Tony Roma’s – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

With more than 260 locations worldwide, Tony Roma’s can be found from Aruba to Venezuela and 25 countries in between. As of August 30th, 2005, one of the most famous barbecue chains in the world can also be found in Albuquerque where truly great barbecue is more scarce than precious, life-giving water. Alas, while the addition of Tony Roma’s may give the Duke City one more barbecue restaurant, it still does not have a great barbecue restaurant.

Tony Roma’s claim to fame is its baby back ribs for which it helped make America go hog wild. This self-proclaimed “Famous for ribs” restaurant launched in 1972 in North Miami, Florida. We first experienced it in London, England in 1984 and last visited in Portland, Oregon in 1997. Underwhelmed might be a good summation of those visits and applies similarly to our inaugural visit to the Albuquerque franchise. We drove less than a mile from our home to Tony Roma’s and wish instead we had driven 35 miles or so further to Jake & Andre’s Rib House in Belen which offers a superior dining experience (emphasis on dining, not ambience) all the way around.

The saccharine service provided by a transparently exuberant wait staff might be the only thing matching Tony Roma’s cloying signature sauces. The Carolina Honeys and Blue Ridge Smokies sauces are sweet, sticky and messy, nearly overwhelming the ribs (which were not as tender or juicy as described on Tony Roma’s Web site). The “Red Hots” sauce offers a slightly tangy respite, but falls short of New Mexico chile enhanced ribs served in several local restaurants.

Aside from the aforementioned sauces, you can also opt for Original, Honey Chipotle and Dixie sauces. Neither the baby back ribs or the St. Louis style ribs are particularly substantive and they certainly didn’t fall off the bone as some truly outstanding ribs are apt to do. The ribs are served with a lackluster coleslaw.

Starters include grilled sesame wings described on the menu as “jumbo chicken wings grilled over an open flame then tossed in Thai chili sauce and coated with black and white sesame seeds.” The most appropriate adjectives for this appetizer are left off the description: sweet, sticky and messy (sounds like a theme here). Despite the mess it makes, the Thai chili sauce is better than the barbecue sauces.

With one exception, the side items are as boring as the ribs are disappointing. The bone dry corn fritter casserole pales in comparison to the one served at Garduno’s. The loaded mashed potatoes were similarly desiccated and uninteresting. The only saving grace seems to be the green beans which are flash-fried, garlicky and delicious.

Despite its shortcomings, Tony Roma’s will be hugely successful in Albuquerque where chain gangs will queue around the building salivating like Pavlov’s dogs at the promise of yet another Lone Star caliber nationally known restaurant.

Tony Roma’s
10015 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 22 April 2006
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Grilled Sesame Wings, Green Beans

Boba Tea Company – Albuquerque, New Mexico

On June 7, 2005, the launch of Albuquerque’s first Boba Tea Company made “you suck” acceptable in polite vernacular. Long a pop culture term of mock derision, “suck” refers, in this case, to the drawing in of liquid refreshment by creating a vacuum in the mouth. More specifically, it refers to the act of sucking through an oversized straw, the tea, milk tea, hot tea, slush and smoothie beverages at the Boba Tea Company.

The Boba Tea Company is the brainchild of Vi and Hoa Luong, the enterprising duo which made Cafe O one of the city’s best restaurant launches (and lunches) in 2004. Wanting to create a “Starbucks for the younger generation” the Luongs have revolutionized tea drinking with a quantum departure from high tea tradition made fashionable in England. Boba tea certainly does that.

Tracing its roots back to Taiwan in the early 1980s, boba tea is derived from the starch of the cassava root, a type of sweet potato. The bottom of each boba tea cup (plastic, not china) is lined with gooey, gelatinous globules that seem to inherit the flavor of the drink. If you’re not a connoisseur of exotic teas, you can partake of boba slushes, as refreshing and intensely fruity beverage as you’ll find anywhere.

My early favorites are the raspberry and cantaloupe slushes, both of which taste like the pulpy area of the fruits from which their flavors are derived. Slurprisingly good is the chocolate milk slush which tastes like a liquefied fudgecicle. A chocolate/orange combination brought to mind the gourmet chocolates often sold around Valentine’s Day. The menu includes many unique flavors such as lychee, mung bean and more that will keep me busy trying to find a new favorite.

Situated next to Cafe O, the Boba Tea Company is designed as a fun for all ages (with an emphasis on youth) store staffed by a young, energetic staff. When completed, the Web site promises to be almost as fun to visit as the store where in addition to boba tea and slush, you can purchase tee shirts, hoodies, hats and camis inviting you to “join the Bobalution.” We’ve joined!

Boba Tea Company
4401-a Wyoming, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 21 April 2006
BEST BET: Boba Slush

Gruet Grille – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

In an inordinate number of the thousands of newspaper restaurant reviews I’ve read over the years, the savvy, sophisticated restaurant critic is typically accompanied to the week’s anointed dining destination by a nameless and faceless “dining companion.” In some cases, the sole purpose of the dining companion seems to be serving as a “foil” for the sage critic. Where the critic will order the most mellifluous sounding, multi-syllabic mélange on the menu, the bumpkinly dining companion usually orders something so uncultured it horrifies the critic. Naturally, this makes for a “balanced” review in which accolades are lavished on the critic’s astute choice of cuisine while the dining companion’s slovenly selections are treated sympathetically.

When Carrie Seidman, the Albuquerque Tribune’s brilliant restaurant critic, asked me to review a restaurant with her, I didn’t quite know what to think. Despite my nom de plume of “thriller,” perhaps only my four-legged children would describe me as a thrilling guy. I wasn’t sure I was up for witty repartee with the iridescent and gifted Ms. Seidman–and worse, I feared she’d uncover me as an amateurish restaurant critic wannabe.

In her refreshingly droll and wonderfully anecdotal reviews, Carrie imputes intriguing personas to her dining companions–the arrogant rogue and charming man of honor who dined with her at the Gruet Steakhouse, for example. To whom would she ascribe my alter-ego, I wondered–the monotonous Ben Stein, the ultimate straight-man Bud Abbot, or someone even more mundane.

I need not have worried too much about impressing Carrie who turned out to be one of the warmest, most genuinely down-to-earth people I’ve met in years, a real joy to finally meet after having been a fan of hers for a long time. Perhaps out of deference for my chosen Web sobriquet, she did call me “thriller” on her review, but caveated that it is a bit of a misnomer.

One of the great things about dining with a respected restaurant critic is immediate validation of your opinions when it comes to the restaurant’s cuisine, decor and service. When the conversation did focus on our meal, we expressed similar sentiment about the Gruet Grille, a much anticipated bistro-style restaurant launched in October, 2005 at the site of the defunct Cafe Bodega. Much of that sentiment was in the form of disappointment laced with nostalgic pining for the Bodega, a classy establishment lovingly tended by the late Matthew Brewer.

Brewer had somehow managed to transmute a building that had once been an International House of Pancakes restaurant into a fine dining establishment renown for its soothing ambience, impeccable service and mostly, the captivating flavors of inventive cuisine prepared exceptionally well. The Gruet Grille has regressed that ambience to a weird, somber masculine theme without the rich, dark woods; leather appointments and rustic brick of a fine gentleman’s club or chophouse. Instead, the Gruet Grille has an impersonal industrial feel to it. Where Brewer’s open kitchen once resonated with sonorous peals of bustling activity, the Grille’s kitchen seemed business-like in comparison. Worse, the intoxicating aromas that defined the Bodega were clearly absent.

Although expected to be a more casual restaurant than the Gruet Steakhouse, its high-end, fine-dining sibling, the Gruet Grille’s menu is replete with high-end comfort foods and seafood at greater prices than you’d expect to pay at a conventional bistro. The house specialty, a Cioppino, for example goes for nearly $25, a price that’s bumped up by $5 if you want the version in which Gruet’s signature Pinot Noir (Cio-Pinot) is added to what is essentially a fisherman’s stew. The Gruet Shellfish platter, which serves two to four people and includes a selection of fresh seafood and shellfish, goes for $34.50.

When sticker shock hits you at a restaurant about which you’ve got reservations (pun only slightly intended), it’s often a good tactic to order something relatively inexpensive–a menu item that will hopefully provide a representative sampling of the quality of the restaurant’s cuisine. In theory, if it’s good, you can always come back and try something more pricey next time. After finishing my chile rubbed tuna sandwich with chipotle aioli, I thought it might be a while before there’s a next time.

The sandwich evoked memories of Clara Peller’s immortal utterance, “where’s the beef?” from the legendary 1980s commercial for Wendy’s restaurants…only in this case my question was “where’s the fish?” A meager portion of tuna (maybe it was really dwarf fish) went into a black hole that was the sandwich’s bun, never to be seen again. The combination of a red chile rub and a dollop of aioli made for a messy sandwich, the ablutions of which were transferred to a napkin that by meal’s end was ready for industrial strength detergent (Tide sounds appropriate).

My dining companion (I’ve always wanted to say that) had a catfish po’boy which bore little resemblance to one you’d order in Louisiana. The term po’boy originally referred to striking streetcar conductors then eventually to the austere sandwiches they ate while on strike. Carrie’s lettuce, tomato and dill pickle dominated po’boy was austere only in the paltry pieces of catfish housed on a thick baguette. Tartar sauce did nothing to improve the sandwich.

The meal’s saving grace was breaking bread (and as you’ve read, there was a lot of it) with a great restaurant critic who turned out to be an even better person.

During my second visit to Gruet Grill, I was accompanied by my other favorite restaurant critic, my lovely bride of more than 20 years. For months she had been urging me to give the restaurant a second chance, positing that my first experience may have been an anomaly. I hadn’t thought it possible, but our cuisine choices during my second visit made the sandwich I so disdained seem like exquisite haute cuisine.

Reasoning that the restaurant’s starters might be better than the entrees, we ordered three appetizers, the best of which was barely mediocre at best. The parade of middling appetizers led off with an order of “sizzling black mussels” served with a broth of white wine, lemon, butter and herbs. Our waiter squeezed a whole lemon onto the mussels, an action it turned out akin to adding gasoline to a fire. The acidity and bitterness of the wine-infused broth made it difficult to taste any of the naturally briny flavor of the mussels. The broth was vaguely reminiscent of Greek lemon soup but not nearly as good.

Worse (if possible) were the Manila clams in a spicy chorizo broth. Similar to the mussels, the clams were swimming in a bitter, vinegary broth that totally subsumed the native flavors of both the chorizo and the clams. For someone who spent two years practically subsisting on New England clam bakes, the tragedy of this appetizer was nearly on the scale of a virus on my computer.

The most palatable (albeit still mediocre) appetizer were the deviled eggs served with “a little surprise.” The surprise turned out to be a half piece of shrimp atop the eggs, but we weren’t surprised at all because our waitress had told us what to expect. You might think that the deviled eggs might have a bit of a tangy, mustardy taste, but there was very little tang at all.

On the recommendation of the Albuquerque Journal’s luminous critic Andrea Lin, my entree was the Gruet Burger, a bacon-bleu burger on a sweet onion bun with garlic aioli. The burger was perfectly broiled to my specifications (medium) with a beef patty that had to be at least eight ounces. My only complaint was that the bottom bun could barely contain the moistness and size of the ingredients and the burger turned out to be a messy thing to eat.

Kim had the 12-ounce Rib-Eye Steak, which the menu described as having “the most marbling.” This slab of beef actually crossed the line beyond marbling into fattiness. We took more of the steak home to my mom’s dogs than my Kim actually ate. Her assessment of the steak, “It’s the kind of steak you might expect at Shoney’s.” Not wordy, but certainly accurate.

It doesn’t take a professional restaurant critic to conclude that the Gruel Grill falls very, very short of expectations. Two strike’s and this restaurant is out! We don’t plan any return visits.

Gruet Grille
4243 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 20 April 2006
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: The Gruet Burger

Starky’s – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Sometimes a new restaurant makes such a tremendous first impression that you’re torn between wanting to shout from the rooftops about your new find and wanting to keep your new find to yourself so that the new gem remains your carefully guarded little secret. Wanting to ensure the restaurant has a prosperous future, you’ll naturally take the former course and tell all your friends and neighbors about your newfound treasure–all the while keeping your fingers crossed that the incursion of “less deserving patrons” doesn’t change those things that made such a great first impression on you.

Starky’s is such a restaurant. Situated on the site of the old Assets Grill restaurant (once hailed as one of the city’s very best restaurants), Starky’s is named in honor of a Portland, Oregon restaurant on Stark Street owned and operated by its proprietors for 25 years. Those proprietors, Doug and Archie (along with their friend Karl) relocated to Albuquerque where the weather is more agreeable.

The triumvirate of Doug, Archie and Karl are a big reason savvy diners have been enjoying Starky’s. Not only have they brought a cosmopolitan panache and sophisticated menu to their new restaurant, but they’ve invigorated what used to be a dreary and stuffy restaurant edifice and added fun to the dining experience. Cosmetic changes include coloring over the large window which once provided a view of the Assets Grill brewery (now called the Isotopes Brewery and not affiliated with Starky’s), banning smoking in the bar and eliminating most of the bar’s televisions which unintentionally gave the large wooden bar area a sports bar feel.

Doug and Archie did retain the original Assets chef and a few Assets’ standards including the sesame-battered calamari, albeit with an uninspiring aioli instead of the Thai sweet and sour sauce which made the calamari one of the city’s best appetizers. Also retained is Assets’ green chile stew which, while not particularly piquant, is flavorful and delicious with large chunks of tender pork. Delicious bread from Fano Bakery (an Albuquerque treasure) is brought to your table and replenished faithfully.

The dinner menu includes an upscale selection of pastas and salads, the star attraction of which is a wilted spinach salad with hot bacon dressing prepared tableside by Doug. The bacon dressing is crafted from raw bacon, brandy, brown sugar and other rich ingredients. Hard-boiled eggs can be added to the salad if you like. At $7.50 per person (minimum of two orders), this salad is reputed to be sinfully rich and absolutely delicious.

Also prepared tableside is Steak Diane, a rich steak entree which has evolved over the years and rarely graces the menu at Albuquerque dining establishments. Typically Steak Diane is made from individual beef steaks pounded flat then quickly cooked in butter, flamed with Cognac and finished with sherry, butter and chives. We didn’t sample Starky’s version, but based on what we did order, will do so at a future date.

The suggestion of ordering an entree of Pork Loin Medallions might elicit a blasé reaction or even involuntary yawning because pork medallions have been served ad nauseum (and ad infinitum). Pork medallions are typically an inexpensive entree you might order if you’re uncertain of the quality of a restaurant’s food and don’t want to blow a week’s salary on a more expensive entree you might not like. Such was the case when we ordered this “Rodney Dangerfield” (no respect) entree.

We found out pork loin medallions don’t have to be boring. At Starky’s, they’re invigorated with a rich Mascarpone Marsala cream sauce complemented by thinly sliced Granny Smith apples. The pork loins were as tender as a bird’s heart, perfectly seasoned and absolutely delicious–well worthy of the beguiling sauce. They’re served with oven-roasted Yukon Gold potatoes which we used to dredge up that wonderfully rich sauce.

An ultra-rich Raspberry Jack Daniels sauce emboldens the restaurant’s Flat Iron Steak entree without detracting from the native flavor of the perfectly grilled ten-ounce steak which is sliced into thin medallions. Unlike the cloying Jack Daniels sauce served at TGI Friday’s, a subtle flavor concentration seems to have equal parts savoriness and sweetness. This wonderful entree is served with mashed potatoes.

The lunch menu features some excellent sandwiches including a unique Monte Cristo made with bread that doesn’t resemble flaccid French toast. It is instead made with a thick egg-coated bread that made a perfect host for ham, turkey and cheese. Each sandwich comes with your choice of soup or salad. The Caesar salad is an excellent choice with a strong garlicky flavor that enlivens fresh, crisp greens.

A decadent dessert menu would tempt Job and introduced us to the element of fun Starky’s proprietors bring to the dining experience. As we were pondering the tempting offerings, Doug told us to make sure we insisted that our Oriental waiter Kwan ensure our brownie sundae included the fresh brownies made that day. The joke was lost on Kwan, but everyone else enjoyed it–but not nearly as much as we enjoyed the sundae. The brownie (alas no longer on the menu) was made with luscious cream cheese, giving it a cheesecake-like texture and making it even more wonderful.

Starky’s is the type of restaurant in which the peripatetic owners are not only approachable, they’re an essential part of the ambience. The service is absolutely impeccable while the portions are bountiful and delicious. It’s the type of restaurant that will continue to grow in popularity by word of mouth alone. You get the feeling that’s the way Doug and Archie want it.

6910 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 1 April 2006
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Pork Loin Medallions, Flat Iron Steak, Chocolate Brownie Sundae