Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico's Sesquipedalian Sybarite. 843 Restaurant Reviews, More Than 6600 Visitor Comments…And Counting!

Bravo! Cucina Italiana – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Bravo! Cucina Italiana in Albuquerque's Uptown Area

Perhaps the most memorable slogan to surface during the politics “dirtier than usual” Presidential campaign of 2008 was the frequently used American idiom “you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” That expression is intended to mean something akin to putting a fresh coat of paint on a piece of junk and selling it for full price. In other words, it aptly describes most political campaigns which tend to be exhaustingly negative repeats of previous campaigns.

I promised myself not to ever let my blog slink and slither into the unappetizing muck and mire of politics and with the exception of the previous paragraph, I won’t. The expression “you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig” ties in nicely with my inaugural visit to Bravo! Cucina Italiana. “How so,” you ask.

It’s been my experience that you can adorn Italian themed chain restaurants with a pristine veneer and over-the-top flamboyance, but they’re still chains in all their homogeneous fungibility. For the most part, that’s come to mean a stereotypically Italian (Tuscan is a current favorite) ambiance complete with faux artifacts and cheesy murals designed to appear priceless and genuine. So that the common paisan don’t feel left out, there’s also usually a lot of brickwork.

It means saccharine service in which the nattily attired chummy wait staff invades your personal space to the point at which you rush your order. Invariably this means you order something covered in an Alfredo or Marinara sauce that’s almost interchangeable between restaurants, but increasingly it also means grilled “Northern Italian” specialties. Mostly it means predictable, pretty as a picture cuisine with the characteristic ability to lull your taste buds to sleep,

Foccacia bread

The truth is most people know exactly what they’re getting when they visit Italian chain restaurants and the predictability and consistency of experience is something with which they’re comfortable. There’s justs something reassuring about it all. I myself will admit to an odd and uninvited Olive Garden craving every three or four years. If you like predictability, you will love Bravo! Cucina Italiana.

Bravo! is a Midwestern based chain that has made significant inroads throughout the fruited plains. Thanks to an aggressive but well-managed expansion track, you can now find Bravo! in New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Texas and since 2007, in New Mexico where it is situated in the chic ABQ Uptown shopping Mecca. The Land of Enchantment’s rendition is the furthest west of any of the franchise’s restaurants.

In terms of concept, Bravo! might be called a “tweener”–somewhere between casual and fine-dining. It’s slightly more upscale than the Olive Garden, Carraba’s and the nearby Macaroni Grill. It’s a large restaurant, in line with the restaurant’s template of about 6,800 feet with accommodations for 200 guests. Bravo!’s Web site purports to emphasize “food that is fresh, made-to-order and made using authentic Italian cooking methods.” All food preparation is done in an exhibition kitchen visible from throughout the restaurant.

Crispy Mozzarella Ravioli

The concept also specializes in “Northern” Italian cuisine which in America has come to mean emphasizing wood-grilled meats and fish instead of pasta and tomato sauce. Pasta and tomato sauce are on the menu; they’re just the only options as at some old-style Italian restaurants. At Bravo!, pasta shares space on the menu with dishes made with cheesy cream sauces, rice dishes, salads, pizza and flat breads and grilled entrees.

While you’re perusing the menu, a member of the chummy wait staff will deliver a basket of warm, fresh, herb-infused focaccia bread to your table. The focaccia appears more “torn asunder” than it does sliced, a nice touch in my book considering most restaurant bread is under-sliced and you have to tear through that last bit of bread clinging to its doughy neighbor. It’s a buttery-tasting bread in which the herb infusion is redolent of basil and oregano.

The bread is served with the de rigueur bowl of olive oil spiced with, among other things, a bit of fiery red pepper. If that doesn’t do the trick for you, add Balsamic vinegar to the mix. Contrary to the tired adage about oil and vinegar not mixing, they’re often complementary.

Pesto Tortelloni

The appetizers section of the menu is relatively sparse and includes a mix of predictable standards (such as calamari) and some unique offerings. A Saint Louis, Missouri standard not that common in the Land of Enchantment is among that latter. That would be crispy mozzarella ravioli , fried ravioli stuffed with cheese and served with two sauces, a basic herb-laden marinara and a creamy horseradish dressing. The horseradish dressing is somewhat on the sweet side with barely a horseradish kick, but it’s a good complement to the ravioli. We love the fact that sprigs of Italian basil are laid atop the ravioli. Few things in this world are as refreshing as basil.

One of the more intriguing options on the menu is christened with the oh-so-Italian name of “Mama’s Lasagna Bolognese,” made with creamy Alfredo sauce and the restaurant’s classic meat sauce. According to our waitress, it is a huge portion easily big enough to share.

If you’re not inclined toward prolific portions of pasta, a less prodigious option is the pasta torteloni, fresh cheese and spinach stuffed pasta tossed in a housemade basil-pine nut pesto sauce topped with sun-dried tomatoes, red onions and pine nuts.

If you’re tired of tomato and bored with Bechamel, this a nice, taste-bud pleasing departure. The torteloni are generously stuffed and prepared to just above al dente. What makes this entree a hit is the creamy basil-pine nut pesto sauce and the complementary toppings. This is a dish of complementary yet contrasting ingredients that come together very well.

Sicilian Pizza

Pizza and flat bread offerings range from the traditional Margherita and Napoli style pizzas to a Sicilian pizza layered with sweet Italian sausage, pepperoni, meatballs, mushrooms, banana peppers, mozzarella and provolone. Pizzas are in the “personal pan” size range of about ten-inches. They’re closer to thin-crust than to the conventional New York style crust. The crust isn’t nearly as pliable as New York style crust, but it’s crispy and has a nice char on the edges.

The Pizza Napoli is offered with Mozzarella di Bufala, the fresh water buffalo cheese which is more creamy, rich and delicious than standard mozzarella. For a mere pittance, you can ask for any other pizza to be “upgraded” to include this cheese. The sauce is applied lightly so that it complements other taste components. The sweet Italian sausage has just a hint of fennel, not nearly as much as we like, but it’s good nonetheless.

Bravo! Cucina Italiana, for all its predictability, does have some nice surprises here and there, but some aspects of dining at a chain Italian restaurant are missing. For example, the restaurant doesn’t capture you when you walk in with the irresistible aromas of well-seasoned sauces. That could be due, in part, to its high ceilings and yawning spaces. Service was somewhat transparent and rehearsed, wholly unlike the dynamic interaction you might be treated to at a family owned Italian restaurant. Still, Bravo! has its place and its loyal clientèle. Just don’t count me among them.

Bravo! Cucina Italiana
2220 Louisiana Blvd NE
Albuquerque, NM 87110
(505) 888-1111
LATEST VISIT: 27 September 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Focaccia Bread, Pesto Tortelini, Sicilian Pizza

Bravo Cucina Italiana on Urbanspoon

Aqua Santa – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Aqua Santa, one of Santa Fe’s very best restaurants of any genre

But the moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend. There was a certain magnificence in the high-up day, a certain eagle-like royalty, so different from the equally pure, equally pristine and lovely morning of Australia, which is so soft, so utterly pure in its softness, and betrayed by green parrot flying. But in the lovely morning of Australia one went into a dream. In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to a new.”

In a 1928 essay called “New Mexico,” prolific writer D.H. Lawrence wrote that “New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had.”  Lawrence believed New Mexico liberated him from the present era of civilization.  In a sense, the Land of Enchantment healed his spirit.

There is so much about New Mexico that is salubrious to the health of mind. body and spirit.  What spirit wouldn’t be buoyed by our cobalt skies with their endless depth of  graduating color intensity as they are frequented by fluffy white clouds, the type from which fairy tale castles are built?

A very busy open kitchen at Aqua Santa

Not only are New Mexico’s skies and clean, fresh air blessed with healing qualities, Mother Earth issues from her core, a seemingly endless supply of steamy, bubbling hot mineral water known for centuries to contain medicinal properties.  Both the indigenous Native Americans and Spanish Conquistadors considered those mineral springs sacred ground,  This “agua santa” or holy water was thought by some to be the source of the fabled and elusive Fountain of Youth.

I suspect New Mexico’s soothing waters may have been the inspiration for chef Brian Knox naming his restaurant Aqua Santa.  Certainly his menu pays tribute to the spirit of those qualities which make New Mexico a healthful haven and respite for the ill of health and the weary.

Knox is a proponent of farm-to-table meals, frequenting the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market for the freshest in seasonal organic produce.  Frequent guests have come to realize that the menu at Aqua Santa changes frequently, major portions of it, in fact, changing daily.  Knox literally reinvents his menu to correspond with the best and freshest ingredients available that day at the farmer’s market and what is otherwise organic and seasonal.  His propensity for changing the menu daily was recognized in an October, 2007 article  on Gourmet magazine highlighting America’s best farm-to-table restaurants.

Considered one of Santa Fe’s most staunch advocates of the “slow food” movement, Knox actively promotes the preservation and use of local and traditional food products.  His slow food practices are the antithesis of fast food in that they are healthful and flavorful.

The staff of life at Aqua Santa

During the 2008 filming of Rachael Ray’s Tasty Travels show, Knox explained, “when you eat here, we want you to experience a flavor explosion and something different than you’ve either eaten at home or at another restaurant in any part of the world.  What we want is a really fresh, clean, simple presentation and taste.”  By most standards, he succeeds, meeting his self-imposed challenge with a refined, inventive and sophisticated menu featuring distinctive ingredients at the height of freshness.

Knox launched Aqua Santa in 2004, nearly eight years after closing Escalera, one of the most popular restaurants in Santa Fe.  A homey, dimly-lit one-room restaurant in which the exhibition kitchen seems spotlighted like the focal point it is, Aqua Santa invites comparisons to  rural European restaurants.  An oval antique table in front of the exhibition kitchen is set with a basket brimming with large loaves of artisanal country bread, a crystal vase of flowers and several bottles of wine.  Aqua Santa is reputed to have one of the most sophisticated wine lists in Santa Fe.

The wait staff is courteous and attentive, reflecting the geniality of Chef Knox who flits from table to table greeting guests and ensuring their comfort.  He is the consummate host and his wait staff his disciples of dining decorum.

Baby artichokes topped with Burrata, a fabulous cheese

Even the “non-adult” beverage selection at Aqua Santa shows refinement.  Hot and cold teas are sweetened with your choice of natural sugar or honey, no artificial sweetener here.  Nor will you find Coke or Pepsi products offered.  If you want a carbonated beverage, it’s either San Pellegrino Limonada or Orangina, both of which are quite good.

As you peruse the menu in awe-struck amazement at the seemingly preternatural melding of ingredients, a half-loaf of sliced bread and pads of butter are brought to your table.  We were lucky enough to have been served an unsalted white bread as delicious as any bread we’ve had.  A hard-crusted exterior belies a pillowy soft interior on which butter spreads easily.

As often as he can get it shipped fresh, chef Knox includes an appetizer featuring burrata, a fresh Italian cheese made from cream and mozzarella.  Its outer shell is solid mozzarella while the inside contains both mozzarella and cream, rendering it unnaturally soft. My friend and fellow gourmand Sandy Driscoll  (the very best dog trainer in Los Angeles, by the way) introduced me to burrata last year and absolutely loves it.  She’s fortunate enough to live very close to where this cheese is made and incorporates it in many of her own recipes.

pan-fried black pepper oysters

For the rest of us fromage fanatics, Aqua Santa is one of a select few restaurants in New Mexico to offer burrata.  Chef Knox displays his passion for ingredients and his inventiveness by offering burrata in combination with the fresh vegetables of the day, be they porcini mushrooms, mustard greens or crisp baby artichokes.  Baby artichoke is somewhat of a misnomer because these are fully mature versions of the traditional artichoke, only smaller than most of us are used to.

The baby artichokes are roasted to a delicious crispiness then blanketed with a large “dollop” of burrata.  The combination is an adventure in textural appreciation–from the coarse yet delicate artichokes to the unique textures (exterior and interior) of the creamy burrata.  This is a fabulous appetizer you have to experience to truly appreciate.

Another fabulous appetizer are the pan-fried black pepper oysters with aioli and watercress.  The oysters have just a whisper of breading, just enough to hold in all the plump oyster meat, allowing the slightly briny, slightly sweet flavors to shine.

Shepherd’s Lamb

From among the entrees, there are several “must have” options, but since most us of have neither an unlimited budget or appetite, one I recommend highly is the Shepherd’s Lamb, a certified grass-fed organic lamb, which is braised ’round the clock’ with fennel and rapini greens. Chef Knox may not be able to tell you who the lamb’s parents were, but he can certainly tell you where it was raised and its diet.  He certainly will share his appreciation for the heritage breed.

My experience with entrees made with fennel is that it’s either not discernible in the least or the flavor absolutely dominates the entree, in some cases imparting an almost licorice strong flavor.  Under Chef Knox’s skillful hands, the fennel is a terrific contributor and complement to several other flavor combinations.  The hint of fennel melds wonderfully with the delicate simplicity of the lamb which lacks all of the characteristic gaminess for which the species is sometimes known.

The other indication this is no ordinary dish is the sheer tenderness of the lamb.  I’m talking fork-tender, falling apart meat partially submerged in a flavorful ragu.  The rapini greens have a slightly pungent, maybe even a bit of an acidic taste, but they are very complementary in combination with the other ingredients.

Garlic Sausage Stuffed Quail

Another fabulous entree is Aqua Santa’s Garlic Sausage Stuffed Quail with arugala crostini and an onion raisin sauce.  We were amazed at just how much garlic sausage can be stuffed into the cavity of a quail, not an especially sizeable bird.  As with many of Chef Knox’s inventive creations, there is a lot going on with this entree in terms of flavor discernment.  The sausage has just enough garlic to let you know it’s there.  The onion raisin sauce offers just enough sweetness to provide a flavor contrast in the most complementary manner.

A testament to the chef’s propensity for risk-taking was demonstrated in the amuse bouche with which we were presented even before ordering.  An amuse bouche is a bite-size morsel traditionally served before the first course of a meal.  It is not something you order.  Consider it a “gift from the chef.”  Anyway, our amuse bouche was two  grilled quail legs covered with a tangy tamarind sauce.  Rather than dissuade us from ordering something else featuring quail, it may have inspired us to have more.

Panna cotta

 

Desserts, all created in-house, are equal to the entrees.  The buttermilk panna cota with bittersweet chocolate sauce and raspberries came highly recommended by our waitress.  Panna cotta is not unlike flan in that both are light, silky egg custards often flavored with caramel.   Aqua Santa just does it better thanks to the infusion of rich buttermilk and the complementary sweet, tangy and bittersweet flavors of chocolate and raspberries.

Angel food cake

Perhaps even better is an angel food cake with a raspberry and strawberry compote and housemade whipped cream with edible flowers.  The angel food cake is moist, soft and creamy with just a bit of characteristic sponginess.  It’s the best angel food cake I’ve ever had, a dessert that earns its name.

Aqua Santa is everything superlative said about it and so much more.  It is one of the best restaurants in Santa Fe, a unique gem under the helm of an equally unique chef and owner.  Put it near or at the top of your “must visit” list.

AQUA SANTA
451 W Alameda St
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 20 September 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 25
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Black Pepper Oysters, Baby Artichokes and Burrata, Garlic Sausage Stuffed Quail, Shepherd’s Lamb, Buttermilk Panna Cotta, Angel Food Cake

Guadalupe Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Guadalupe Cafe on Old Santa Fe Trail

1974, Mexico’s Nobel laureate Octavio Paz wrote that “the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.” Though perhaps not to the same degree of reverence as people of Mexican descent have for Our Lady of Guadalupe, many diners literally make pilgrimages to Santa Fe’s Guadalupe Cafe. You might say they trek to this beloved institution with a type of fervor which could be considered almost spiritual.

The Guadalupe Cafe, long removed from Santa Fe’s Guadalupe District and Guadalupe Street, does indeed inspire a fierce devotion. It is one of the most popular restaurants in Santa Fe, a venue often included in discussions about the best New Mexican restaurants in Northern New Mexico. It’s not uncommon to find yourself seated next to families who drove from Albuquerque or Taos (as has been our experience) just for breakfast at this institution. It’s not uncommon for tourists to make this the first restaurant they visit when they return to Santa Fe (and the City Different always inspires return visits).

During a return visit to Santa Fe for her Tasty Travels show, the effervescent kitchen diva Rachael Ray touted the Guadalupe Cafe as “no more affordable way to wake up your taste buds Santa Fe style.” A New York Times travel writer who’s obviously spent quite a bit of time in Santa Fe writes, “when I want New Mexican food, I go to this restaurant, and like many Santa Feans, I go there often.” Gayot.com, the self-styled “guide to the good life” proclaims the Guadalupe Cafe “one of Santa Fe’s most beloved restaurants.”

Within easy walking distance of the “Roundhouse,” the New Mexico state capital building, the Guadalupe Cafe is frequented by the state’s power brokers (especially when the legislature is in session), some of whom might be seen rubbing elbows with part-time Santa Fe residents who ply their thespianic trades in Hollywood.

One of the Guadalupe Cafe's dining rooms

It’s well established that the Guadalupe Cafe is loved by both locals, politicians, tourists, stars and food writers, but what makes it so special? Without a doubt, it’s a time-tested and proven formula that hasn’t changed in more than three decades. When Isabelle Koomoa launched her iconic restaurant, her dream was a “from scratch” restaurant in which everything humanly possible is made from scratch on the premises. She’s been faithful to that recipe for success and it’s paid off. It’s probably just as important that the recipes used in the kitchen are inspired (gourmet New Mexican at its finest) and that service is attentive and friendly.

The term I’ve most often heard or read to describe the Guadalupe Cafe is “casually elegant.” That fits. Housed in a light adobe hued stucco edifice, the restaurant imparts a sense of hominess as it bids guests welcome with its warm colors and heavily trodden oaken floors. There are several dining rooms whose walls are festooned by Southwestern art, including portraits of John Wayne and other Western glitterati. Nichos include folk art such as ceramic pigs (no lipstick) or Catholic iconography such as San Pascual, the patron saint of kitchens.

The preferred venue for dining, weather permitting, is the outdoor patio from which guests can check out passers-by on Old Santa Fe Trail. In most cases the guests themselves–an eclectic mix of starched-shirt white-collar employees; tatooed, under-dressed Bohemians and nattily attired tourists–make for pretty interesting people watching, too. When wind or cold call for a surcease in outdoor dining, it’s nice to know you can retreat indoors where kiva fireplaces await.

Hot chocolate the way it should be made

The menu is expansive and awash with creative departures from traditional New Mexican recipes. You might say New Mexican entrees are extended beyond the ordinary into the inventive realm. Even traditionalists will quickly forgive those departures because the resultant entrees are just so good (and besides, they don’t involve the use of cumin).

Santa Fe is not only the state capital. It is undoubtedly the breakfast capital of New Mexico, if not the entire Southwest. The Guadalupe Cafe and its eye-opening menu is a great way to start the day. The coffee is salubrious with its steamy fragrance and soul-warming heat, but my preference is for the restaurant’s unique hot chocolate. It’s served in a beverage glass instead of in a mug and the glass is lined with chocolate syrup which melts into the frothy hot chocolate to further sweeten it. It’s an instant cure for cool morning blues.

Casey Enchiladas

Generating even more heat is the chile which has a well-deserved reputation as among the very best in town. It’s a wonderful chile–pleasantly piquant, deeply earthy and perfectly seasoned. Some critics warn that the chile can be hot and the chef won’t put it on the side for you, but it’s a chile most locals should be able to handle easily.

One of the best ways in which to experience that chile is with a breakfast burrito (if it’s not the official state breakfast food, it should be) and the Guadalupe Cafe’s is one of the best in town, but other chile laden items make it worth passing up that great breakfast burrito. One such item are the Casey Enchiladas, two rolled blue corn tortillas with scrambled eggs, sausage and cheese served Christms style (with both red and green chile). This entree is served with home-cut potatoes and your choice of toast (sourdough or cinammon bread) or muffin.

The red chile definitely packs a punch. It is a deep red chile and it’s thick and flavorful. The green chile is more subtle, a neon green colored sauce with plenty of flavor. and fragrance. Both red and green chiles are absolutely delicious, perhaps the inspiration for the state legislature to declare an official state question (red or green?). The home-cut potatoes are sliced thin and seasoned to perfection.

Visitors concerned that chile might scald their tongues or cause gastrointestinal distress can still find an array of delicious offerings on the menu. One popular breakfast entree is the Santa Fe breakfast crepe made with a whole wheat batter and grilled tortilla slathered with low-fat yogurt and topped with fresh fruit and homemade granola. It is very popular among health-conscious diners.

Better still, so they can tell friends and colleagues back home that they partook of an exotic New Mexican treat, visitors should try the blue corn pinon nut bread French toast. The bread is sliced thick and cut in half diagonally. A full-order includes two slices while a half-order is a single slice, but is still big enough to share. Like New Mexico’s famous blue corn atole pinon pancakes, it’s uniquely ours.

Blue Corn Pinon Nut Bread French Toast

If the only sweet thing with which you want to start the day is a good morning kiss but you don’t want overpowering chile, one option are Guadalupe Cafe’s migas. Migas are a traditional Tex-Mex breakfast dish originally crafted as a meatless dish for Lent. The Guadalupe Cafe’s rendition consists of scrambled eggs with torn ribbons of trisp tortilla chips, scallions, cheese and chile throughout. Although the menu indicates the migas include chile, it was barely discernible. Perhaps the chile is in the salsa (which is pretty darn good, by the way). This version of migas would please the most persnickety of Texans.

Migas

I mentioned earlier that many breakfast items come with your choice of toast or muffin. The toast is fabulous. It’s thickly sliced and pillowy soft, toasted ever so slightly and served with melted butter and something that looks like ketchup, but which has the fruity deliciousness of strawberry without cloying additives that sweeten or thicken it artificially. Both the sourdough and cinammon breads make for excellent toast.

Toast with strawberry "jelly"

The Guadalupe Cafe
422 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, NM
(505) 982-9762
LATEST VISIT: 14 September 2008
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Casey Enchiladas, Migas, Blue Corn Nut Bread French Toast, Hot Chocolate, Toast