Altitudes Restaurant & Wine Bar – Red River, New Mexico (CLOSED)

No place is so dear to my childhood,
As the little brown church in the vale.

Altitudes Wine Bar & Restaurant in Red River, New Mexico

Step out of Altitudes Restaurant & Wine Bar on a dark moonlit night and the first thing you see is a large, illuminated alabaster cross atop a wooden church steeple. Directly beneath the cross is a colorful stained glass window depicting Christ, the Good Sheppard. It’s no wonder the popular gospel standard “The Church In The Wildwoods” is on our mind after each and every wonderful meal at what has long been the site of one of Red River’s dining treasures.

Before the blue, two-story edifice housed Altitudes Restaurant & Wine Bar, it was the site for years of Brett’s Homestead, one of our favorite dining destinations in the alpine tourist community of Red River. Retained from the Brett’s days is a duck pond in which feathered fowl congregate and entertain diners simply by being themselves.

Altitudes actually retained much of the charm that drew us to Brett’s Homestead. Those charms include the dulcet musical stylings of crooner Philip John Brooks singing old standards to the accompaniment of a 12-string guitar. Muted walls and subdued lighting inspires hushed tones and couples gazing lovingly into each others’ eyes. From what we could tell, every table in each of the restaurant’s several dining rooms was occupied by couples, all of which seemed inspired by the ambience to be more appreciative of their partners.

There really is a tranquil solemnity to dining at Altitudes. That might be because diners can’t help but ponder the framed placard on a wall proclaiming for all to see that “Christ is the head of this home, an unseen guest in every room.” With that realization, diners are on their best behavior, practicing social amenities rarely seen any more.

An upscale menu features poultry, beef, seafood and pasta, but couples seem preternaturally drawn to the restaurant’s “Grand Platters for Two.” Obviously intended for couples in love, the grand platters’ subtitle reads “Romance has no bounds! A lavish presentation on a heated silver platter. All served with your choice of shrimp cocktail or sautéed mushrooms.” Obviously the chef realizes that good food is a precursor to romance.

We definitely hoped the sautéed mushrooms were a precursor to a wonderful meal because these fleshy fungi swimming in a hearty, rich broth were absolutely fabulous. The broth was a masterpiece that showcased a sublime blending of wine, butter, peppercorn, minced garlic and parmesan cheese. Hard-crusted bread is provided so you can sop up every drop of this deliciousness.

There are three grand platters for two on the menu: Spring Roasted Rack of (New Zealand) Lamb, Chateau Briand served with a sweet red Vermouth sauce and laced with shitake mushrooms and a Seafood Platter that includes two lobster tails, three king crab legs and a skewer of eight jumbo shrimp all piled high on an oak plank. Even though Red River, New Mexico is no Nantucket when it comes to just-caught fresh seafood, we opted for the seafood platter and weren’t disappointed.

The "Church in the Wildwoods" you see from the front porch at Altitudes

A perfunctory soup or salad choice heightened our anticipation. Like the sautéed mushrooms, the soup and salad turned out to be fabulous. The soup was a small cup of French onion soup with a small slice of French bread, caramelized onions and a rich white cheese swimming in a hearty beef broth. The salad featured spinach and other greens drizzled with an inspired house raspberry vinaigrette.

Accompanying starches were rosemary rice pilaf for Kim and green chile mashed potatoes for me. While they were both quite good, our focus was on the seafood bounty covering our table.

The Alaskan King Crab was more fresh than it had a right to be considering our land-locked location. Each crab claw resembled Popeye’s right arm after a spinach fix. Our prize for cracking each claw was a treasure trove of sweet crab meat to be dipped into steaming butter.

The Lobster Tail was probably a good eight ounces of sweet and savory lobster flesh, the kind that melts in your mouth after a dip in a hot butter bath. In all honesty, the lobster was just slightly rubbery, but we’re 2300 miles from the water in which it was caught, for gosh sakes.

The eight giant shrimp on a skewer had a prominent smoky taste that brought out the garlic and peppercorn seasoning in which they were prepared. Like the lobster, they were only slightly more chewy than they should have been, but probably not even enough for me to whine about it.

Altitudes is a restaurant at which you’re inspired to say grace before your meal then give thanks after having finished it. After all, the church in the wildwoods is only a few steps away.

Altitudes Restaurant & Wine Bar
102 High Cost Trail
Red River, NM
LATEST VISIT: 30 September 2006
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Grand Platters for Two

Matilda’s Restaurant – Espanola, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Flowers pale in comparison to Matilda Guillen

Flowers pale in comparison to Matilda Guillen

In Asi Es Nuevo Mexico, the official state song of New Mexico, former Lieutenant Governor Roberto Mondragon extols in a rich timbre, the incomparably beauteous flowers of The Land of Enchantment–its women. When the verse “lindas mujeras que no tiene igual” (beautiful women without equal) was written, the composer must certainly have had Matilda Guillen in mind.

At 81 years young, there is no surcease to Matilda’s boundless energy. She has owned and operated her eponymous restaurant for fifty years and has no plans to retire. On Sunday, September 24th, 2006, throngs of friends, family and admirers gathered together to celebrate her 81st birthday. Surrounded by hundreds of people who know and love her, she was practically showered in flowers, all of which paled in comparison to her inner and outer beauty.

Although we had known about her and her restaurant for years, we met Matilda just five days after she had been feted by her family and friends. She was still aglow in happiness and basking in the presence of the flowers and family which remained behind. Though we had never met her before, she treated us the way she treats all her customers–like old friends. She is obviously very well rooted with nary a sense of worry or fret.

Matilda spoke to us of the past when she charged five cents for a cup of coffee and twenty-five cents for a big bowl of chile, but mostly she talked of the promise of the future. An eternal optimist, she hopes and plans to continue greeting and serving her customers for a long time to come. She also spoke lovingly of her family which includes long-time Democrat power-broker Ben Lujan.

You can't miss Matilda's thanks to this sign that points the way.

You can't miss Matilda's thanks to this sign that points the way.

There’s no way the cavalcade of cars that daily traverse the state highway which bisects Espanola can miss Matilda’s Restaurant which is just off the beaten path on a dirt alley. A large well-lit sign points the way to what is a humble, homey restaurant everyone in Northern New Mexico knows about. In many ways, her restaurant resembles the former family home it once was. Catholic icons and family pictures decorate every wall while the porch leading to the restaurant’s entrance is decorated with potted geraniums and other perennials.

The menu, on which the faces of a Native American and a Conquistador are depicted, is replete with native Northern New Mexican foods. With the exception of the tacos platter, all dinners are served with your choice of red or green chile and sopaipillas. The green chile is reputed to be among the very best in the state while the posole most assuredly is.

A steaming bowl of posole, ameliorated with chunks of tender pork, with green chile is a must have. Posole is a New Mexico comfort food standard traditionally served at Christmas time (but wonderful year round) and there is none better than Matilda’s version. As hearty and heart-warming as can be, it is made even better with fluffy, golden-brown sopaipillas which Matilda herself replenishes faithfully. Oh, and you can also have those sopaipillas with a locally produced honey which is far superior to the store-bought kind other restaurants serve.

The famous Matilda's Restaurant in Espanola, New Mexico

The famous Matilda's Restaurant in Espanola, New Mexico

Matilda’s salsa is a rich red blend and in texture resembles a thickened tomato paste, but it packs a piquant punch that sneaks up on you. A bowlful before your meal is a must though you might want to save some for your entree. The salsa is served with a basket of crisp, low-salt chips.

Enchiladas have become the quintessential New Mexican entree and Matilda’s are among the best of their genre. Served either rolled or flat (my preference) and with the requisite fried egg on top, there may be nothing that tastes more like New Mexico. Cheese and onion may embellish the enchilada, but there’s no doubting that these enchiladas are about the chile–the way it should be–even though Matilda’s green chile could be a tad more piquant. The pinto beans are served whole, not refried and mashed, also the way it should be.

Also as they should be are Matilda’s tacos which are loaded with perfectly seasoned beef and shredded cheese and served in the un-Taco Bell manner on uneven shells dipped in boiling grease. If some of that grease gets on your hands as you eat your tacos, that’s the way it should be.

Matilda’s has been going strong for fifty years. That, too, is the way it should be!

Matilda’s Restaurant
424 Corlett Road
Espanola, NM
(505) 753-3200
LATEST VISIT: 29 September 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Posole with Green Chile, Tacos, Sopaipillas, Salsa and Chips, Green Chile Enchiladas

Matilda's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Dave’s Not Here – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Front view of Dave's Not Here.

Dave’s not here. You really can’t blame him. After all, a Santa Fe district court judge issued (and later rescinded) a temporary restraining order alleging Dave (Letterman) had been tormenting a city resident for more than ten years by using coded words and signals to woo her on his television program.

A better theory than mine is posited by David “Whochacha” Pederson, who points out that the line “Dave’s not year” is used repeatedly in a hilarious Cheech and Chong routine you’ve got to listen to.

Wrong Daves? Maybe or maybe not. No one really seems to know for sure whom this quaint restaurant is named for. Theories abound, most speculating that the uniquely named neighborhood diner is whimsically named for an erstwhile proprietor who left town in a hurry.

Deadbeat dad? Ran afoul of the law? Someone must know, but not even the staff is saying.

The east-facing wall at Dave's Not Here.

What diners are saying is that Dave’s serves one of the very best green chile cheeseburgers in the Land of Enchantment, second in the City Different perhaps only to the Bobcat Bite burger (recognized by GQ magazine as one of the 20 best burgers in America).

Dave’s serves, in my humble opinion, one of the five best green chile cheeseburgers in the entire universe (not that I’ve tried them all).

Dave’s famous burger comes in two sizes–a regular 4.5-ounce burger and a large 9-ounce burger, either of which you can have prepared to your exacting specifications. The burger comes garnished with lettuce, tomato, onion and lettuce then it’s up to you to get creative.

Each table includes the standard condiments of mustard and ketchup, but also feature a gourmet mustard and several picante sauces.

Optional toppings (75 cents each) include a piquant green chile (served on the side), jalapenos, grilled onions (lightly grilled so that the thick onions taste like really good onion rings sans coating) or mushrooms, fresh guacamole and an alabaster colored white cheese.

The west-facing wall at Dave's Not Here.

The beef comes from Kaunes Market, a highly regarded local retailer. The beef is shaped into a ball then held in a plastic bucket until an order is placed. It is then shaped into a not quite round, not quite square patty that extends beyond the Frisbee-sized buns on which it is served. It takes a catcher’s mitt or two hands to hold the nine-ounce burger which is as juicy and flavorful as any burger in northern New Mexico.

Appetizers include one relleno with chile, nachos, fresh guacamole and chips and salsa and chips, but what you really want with your burger is a pile of Dave’s French fries. These hand-cut beauties are somewhat darker than your usual pasty-white fries and are lightly salted–perfect with or without ketchup.

An array of delectable desserts is available, too. These include carrot cake, apple pie, empanadas and a chocolate cake you’d walk across the desert for. A slab of chocolate cake would easily serve two, but it’s so good, you might not want to share it. Despite a quarter-inch thick frosting, the chocolate cake is not annoyingly cloying like one of those store-bought, tooth-decaying monstrosities.

The menu also includes several New Mexican favorites–green chile stew, burritos, chimichangas, huevos rancheros and more, but most people seem to order the green chile cheeseburger.

Dave’s Not Here is delightfully, quintessentially Santa Fe, embodying the “City Different” attitude. The ambience is Hog Farm hippies meet the Santa Fe Art society. Two walls are dedicated to an exhibit of pensive photographs from Cuba and while the menu doesn’t include any Cuban entrees, salsa with a vibrant beat resounds from the restaurant’s speakers.

A center support column includes a placard sponsored by the “Santa Fe Society For the Prevention of Visual Cruelty to Humans” denouncing Santa Fe’s stereotypical “pink coyote” art.

Dave’s isn’t necessarily easy to get to if you don’t know Santa Fe well. It’s off-the-beaten-path in a residential neighborhood, but once you’re on the right street headed in the right direction, you can’t miss it. The exterior walls are tagger graffiti meets art deco.

Dave’s Not Here
11151 Hickox Street
Santa Fe, NM
LATEST VISIT: 22 September 2006
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, French Fries, Chocolate Cake

Capo’s Bottega Ristorante Italiano – Bernalillo, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Capo's in Bernalillo

Capo's in Bernalillo

Fifty years ago when Frank Venaglia opened the first of his family of Capo’s restaurants in Albuquerque, the Italian term “capo” didn’thave quite the notoriety it does today thanks to countless Mafia movies and the Sopranos television series. In the Mafia, capo is a shortened term for “caporegime” or “capodecina” which essentially translate to a high-ranking family member of a crime family who is in charge of a crew of soldiers–a captain so to speak.

Today the Venaglia family owns and operates a family of four Italian restaurants-Capo’s Piazza (722 Lomas, N.E.) and Villa Di Capo (722 central, S.W.) in Albuquerque, Capo’s Corner (110 Pioneer Road) in Red River and the latest addition, Capo’s Bottega in Bernalillo. Another family venture, Capo’s Hideaway, also in Albuquerque, closed several years ago. The name “Capo’s” certainly does not imply any affiliation with the Mafia. Think of it more as implying “a captain among New Mexico’s Italian restaurants.”

The Bernalillo restaurant is in an idyllic setting despite its proximity to the garish Santa Ana Casino. Situated on the site of the former Milagro restaurant and microbrewery, it’s humdrum facade belies a beautiful exterior. Wood accents are prevalent throughout the restaurant. Climbing the wooden stairs to restaurant level, you’re immediately struck by the sheer size of several massive, knotted viga columns (at least six feet in circumference) throughout the restaurant. Wooden planked ceilings are supported by smaller beams off of which shelves serve as repositories for hundreds of beer bottles from all over the world.

A capacious east-facing patio provides a panoramic view of the magnificent Sandias and of Bernalillo’s Rio Grande lush bosque. On a crisp, clear day (and when the mosquitoes and gnats aren’t mercilessly harassing you) it’s a inspiringly romantic setting on which–weather permitting–musical accompaniment to your dining experience is provided on occasion. The ambiance certainly inspires reflection on la dolce vida (the good life), but ambience is only a small part of the dining experience.

Capo’s Bottega shares the same menu as its sister restaurants–a menu which offers a wide variety of tried and true Italian favorites showcasing sauces prepared daily in the kitchen. After several disappointing meals at the defunct Capo’s Hideaway, we knew what to expect. To quote from the review of Villa Di Capo by bloggers extraordinaire Eckleburg and Grumblecake of I8Route66 “the potential to be great, but slow service and so-so food make this place more tired than classic.”

In truth, Capo’s Bottega is much better than Capo’s Hideaway which was infamous for poor execution (friends tell me the chef should have been executed) in almost all facets of its operation. Still, savvy patrons who lament the dearth of truly outstanding Italian restaurants will lump this one among the other middling Italian dining establishments in which nothing is too bad, but nothing is too good either.

Dinner salads include the same old tired ingredients I imagine were available when Villa Di Capo opened in the 50s–iceberg lettuce, croutons, cucumbers and red onion. The salad dressings seemed watered down, a cardinal sin when “as much blue cheese as you can carry” is requested. There are few things as offensive as eating your salad with a spoon in order to sop up some of the dressing.

Lured by the promise of spiced sausage, we ordered the stuffed mushroom caps which the menu indicated were stuffed with spice sausage and topped with melted mozzarella cheese. Stuffed is the right word…or rather, stuffing is. The mushroom caps were stuffed with a breaded stuffing and nary a hint of spicy sausage.

The menu describes the Fettuccini Carbonara as “a perfect blend of ham, bacon and peas covered with Capo’s Alfredo sauce.” Great carbonara is almost sinfully rich and replete with freshly milled black pepper and pancetta (much more than just Italian bacon). Capo’s is not great carbonara. It is adequate and nothing more, lacking not only the pancetta and pepper savvy diners crave, but the creaminess that defines the sauce.

The saving grace may be Capo’s pizza, a medium-crust pie which you can have with your choice of ingredients. Call us gullible, but we were lured in again by the promise of “hot Italian sausage.” In this case, there was no false advertising. Capo’s uses some pretty spicy sausage on its pizza and the chile is even more piquant. To date, the pizza is the best entree we’ve ever enjoyed at a Capo’s restaurant.

We would have enjoyed the cannoli more had the ricotta not been so tooth-decaying sweet.

A visit to Capo’s Bottega delivers spectacular vistas and a pleasant ambience. It may not deliver all that you crave in an Italian meal, but few restaurants in New Mexico do that.

Capo’s Bottega
1016 W. Highway 44
Bernalillo, NM
LATEST VISIT: 15 September 2006
COST: $$

Ambrozia – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

theophany: an encounter with a visible manifestation of a deity.

Greek mythology chronicles the adventures of the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus whose primary sustenance was ambrosia, a magical repast which bestowed immortality upon those who consumed it, including humans. The word ambrosia literally means “sweet smelling or delicious,” an appropriate description of the wonderful meals proffered at Ambrozia, an Old Town fine-dining establishment launched in 2003. While dining at Ambrozia probably won’t confer immortality, diners might feel they’ve partaken of divine gastronomy.

The gods certainly conferred many culinary talents on Ambrozia’s proprietor and chef savant Sam Ethridge, one of the most creative, talented and inspired restaurateurs in the Duke City. Etheridge has the rare ability to take any classic dish and transform it into a work of art. His cookbook “Indian Nation,” a celebration of traditional Native American dishes, earned a prestigious James Beard award.

Our inaugural experience at Ambrozia was on a Sunday when a prix-fixe ($20 per person) brunch was featured fare. The four course brunch adventure begins with a selection of breads, croissants, pastries and sweet rolls, all of which are preternaturally wonderful (particularly the chocolate infused beignets). Since Ambrozia’s menu is seasonal, the items we enjoyed may not be available during other visits.

  • A phenomenal second course choice is the crepe-braised duck with cranberries, pears and gorgonzola cream, a perfect melding of distinct yet complementary tastes.

  • Better still might be a third course of Ambrozia Benedict which features wild boar sausage, English muffins, poached eggs and green chile con queso. This would undoubtedly be a favorite of the gods.

  • For a fourth course, a must have is the house-made dulce de leche and brownie chunk ice cream served in a chocolate dipped wonton bowl–the perfect culmination of a near perfect meal.

Nearly perfect would also be a good description of the dinner menu which is replete with imaginative contemporary global cuisine options not available anywhere else in the Duke City–such as the lobster corn dogs, skewered lobster tails in a jalapeno corn batter served with chipotle ketchup, mustard cream and avocado remoulade. Rarely has a sweeter, more succulent and tender decapod graced a table in Albuquerque. Other outstanding antecedents make it difficult to settle on one.

Deciding what to order from the innovative menu can also be a conundrum as each menu item is conferred with heavenly descriptions that will have your mouth watering. Ultimately you have to tell yourself you can order any one of the “runners-up” on your next visit (hopefully they’ll still be on the menu).

  • The duck leg confit (slow-cooked in its own delicious fat) served with a cranberry spring roll, foie gras mash potatoes, asparagus and a cherry chili reduction is an outstanding choice, particularly if you love duck and want to savor various taste sensations.

  • Burger and fries” might sound a bit pedestrian, but remember, chef Ethridge’s gift for transforming the ordinary into the sublime. His version of a burger is a grilled Duck Burger topped with house made duck bacon and melted foie gras. The fries are made of polenta corn and served with ketchup a l’orange. You won’t find anything like this under the Golden Arches. You might not find a better burger anywhere!

  • Only in San Francisco have I had Cioppino quite as wonderful and “just caught” fresh as Etheridge’s version. Cioppino, a fish stew originally concocted by Portuguese and Italian fishermen in San Francisco is comprised of fish and shellfish traditionally cooked with garlic, tomato and white wine. Etheridge gave his Cioppino a local touch by adding the uniquely New Mexican flavor of chile to the mix.

The dessert offerings also warrant deification and will challenge you to select only one.

  • The “coffee and donuts,” a light chocolate mocha mousse served with fresh beignets and raspberry wine jelly will leave you in a state of delicious delirium. The mousse isn’t cloying and frothy as you might find at lesser restaurants. It is ethereal in its delicacy. The beignets are of New Orleans quality. Need I say more.

  • Bakers often combine the complementary tastes of tangy apple pie with savory cheese, but none do it with the flair of Chef Etheridge’s “apple pie,” Granny Smith apple and white cheddar empanadas served with pecan butterscotch cinnamon ice cream. This is an indescribably wonderful dessert!

This Albuquerque Original is one of the very best restaurants in New Mexico, a restaurant in which you might spend $100 or more and wonder how you got away so cheaply! A visit to Ambrozia might not confer immortality, but you might feel you experienced theophany.

108 Rio Grande, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 13 September 2006
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Prix-Fixe Brunch, Lobster Corn Dog, Duck Leg Confit, Coffee and Donuts, Elk Carpaccio, Burger and Fries, Cioppino