Japanese Kitchen – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Japanese Kitchen in Albuquerque's Uptown area

For generations, traditional New Mexican food as it had been served for generations by Hispanic families in Northern New Mexico was surprisingly rare in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment.  Many restaurants throughout the state served “Mexican” style food similar to what our neighbors in Arizona and Texas offered.  That meant insipid chile lacking the flavor and piquancy which has become a hallmark of New Mexican cuisine.  Once restaurants such as Rancho de Chimayo began serving traditional New Mexican food, the genre immediately made tremendous inroads, quickly usurping the popularity of the interlopers.

Though tradition has certainly not gone by the wayside, New Mexican food has both grown and evolved over the years largely through the influence of “Santa Fe style” whose genesis may be rooted in the confluence of Pueblo adobe style and Spanish territorial architecture, but whose influences have branched to other aspects of the city’s laid-back culture of joie de vivre and self-expression.  Mark Miller, the high priest of Southwestern cuisine and other inventive chefs recognized the potential for chile, the centerpiece of New Mexican cooking, to be used in ways heretofore unexplored.  They have revolutionized the use of New Mexico’s official state “vegetable” and in the process expanded the diversity and popularity of New Mexican food.

The interior of the Japanese Kitchen

As far as I know, there has been no popular backlash against the adulteration and metamorphosis of New Mexican cuisine.  Nor have a phalanx of abuelitas steeped in the traditional ways protested vehemently against perceived injustices done to New Mexican food. New Mexicans, renown for our “live and let live” attitude, have acceded to the new genre with the recognition that traditional New Mexican food continues to exist and thrive on its own.  We recognize that there’s a place for the traditional and the unorthodox.  Credit it to our characteristic tolerance and laissez faire, but don’t underestimate our pride in tradition.

When it comes to pride and haughtiness in culinary traditions, the Japanese may be unrivaled.  They do not take lightly the effrontery being heaped upon their culinary culture and traditions.  The Japanese consider their cuisine  a time-honored and highly-developed art involving all the senses–from the aesthetic to the olfactory.  Their passion for authenticity is reflected in the use of timeless ingredients prepared by chefs who undergo rigorous training regimens.  To see Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai restaurants offer “Japanese” cuisine or to see supermarkets proffer inferior sushi is an insult to this prideful culture.

"Green Earth:" Inside--green chile tempura, avocado, cucumber, asparagus, spinach, shrimp; Outside--wrapped soy paper, creamy green chile sauce

According to the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, there are more than 24,000 Japanese restaurants outside Japan and they account for $22 billion in revenue a year.  The number of Japanese restaurants in the United States  alone doubled in the decade of the nineties to more than 9,000 with no surcease to their popularity.  Unfortunately, the global demand for highly trained Japanese chefs  can’t be met by the tiny nation.  That accounts, in part, for cooks from other Asian nations being brought in to prepare “Japanese” food.  Heck, in an episode of “No Reservations,” host Tony Bourdain profiled a Mexican sushi chef in Laredo, Texas.

The use of chefs who are not properly trained and steeped in the culture behind the cuisine has rankled the ire of Japanese chefs, prompting the creation of advocacy groups, even within the United States, aimed at protecting their highly traditional and exquisitely artistic form of cooking.  They’ve got their work cut out for them.  Most people outside of Japan wouldn’t recognize traditional Japanese food, particularly sushi.  In fact, much of what Americans consider traditional sushi, was actually developed because Americans were so wary of “raw” fish.

Albacore Tuna Green Chile Roll (top); Crunch Roll (bottom left); Unagi (bottom right)

When we peruse a sushi menu offering California rolls, spider rolls, salmon sushi and rolls engorged with Philadelphia cream cheese, most of us don’t stop to consider whether or not they’re traditional (they’re not).  We only know how much we appreciate the melding of flavors and the pleasure they bring. Maybe that’s what it’s all about.  While purists may lament the burgeoning onslaught of Pan-Asian and fusion restaurants serving sushi, they can’t ignore the popularity and imagination which goes into the creation of the faux sushi enjoyed by so many.

The Japanese Kitchen, one of Albuquerque’s most venerable sushi restaurants, actually offers the very best of both worlds.  In addition to offering Omakase prepared by Japanese trained sushi chefs, the Kitchen also serves the whimsical sushi Americans love so much.  Omakase means the chef decides the menu and prepares it according to strict and elaborate rules, presenting a series of plates beginning with lighter far and proceeding to heavier, richer dishes.  At the Japanese Kitchen, you can trust the chefs.

Baja California: Inside--Real crab leg, tempura, cucumber, avocado; Outside--Sliced mango, tuna, strawberry with mango sauce, sweet and sour sauce

The Japanese Kitchen is actually comprised of two separate and distinct restaurants separated by the Park Square courtyard in Albuquerque’s uptown area.  The main Japanese Kitchen restaurant is the elder sibling, a pioneer of Teppan grilling  in Albuquerque, while the Japanese Kitchen Sushi Bar, a free-standing restaurant opened in 2001.  Owners Jeff and Keiko Bunts expanded the restaurant in 2006, adding a Robata Bar.  Robata, which translates from Japanese as “fireside” honors yet another centuries-old form of Japanese cooking.  Robata is served as small appetizers, allowing diners to pick and choose as many combinations as they wish.

For my gorgeous cousin Andrea, it’s all about sushi and the Japanese Kitchen is her choice.  She’s such a sushi buff that at a recent family gathering, she referred to tortilla pinwheels as “New Mexican sushi.”  She also chided me for the length of time elapsed since my last visit to her favorite sushi restaurant.  Considering she’s the only other person in my family who will eat sushi (unless it’s called something else and looks and tastes like Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks), her opinions carry a lot of weight with me…and she’s of the opinion that tradition is nice, but what matters most is how great the sushi tastes.

With a similar open-mindedness, our sushi order was almost entirely nontraditional–a succession of inventive rolls seemingly crafted as much for their pleasing aesthetic qualities, but for flavor profiles which cleverly meld ingredients for optimal deliciousness.  The “Green Earth” maki roll, for example, is crafted with green chile tempura, avocado, cucumber, asparagus, spinach and shrimp all wrapped in soy paper instead of nori (seaweed) or rice.  The most unique aspect of this roll, however, was the green chile sauce pooled at the center of the plate. This is a roll designed not to be consumed with soy sauce and wasabi.

Jewel: Inside--fried soft-shell crab, green chile tempura, avocado, cucumber. Outside--wrapped soy paper, creamy green chile sauce

Also unique is a surprisingly delightful and wholly whimsical maki roll.  It’s only fitting that it’s named “Baja California” because it was the original California roll that began the Americanization of sushi in the 1970s and which was instrumental in the growth of sushi’s popularity across the country.  While the California rolls take on uniqueness was only slightly more than substituting avocado for toro (fatty tuna), the Baja California expands that permissiveness tenfold.  The inside is fairly traditional–real crab leg, cucumber and avocado, but outside, the roll is topped with sliced mango, tuna, a shaved strawberry and mango sauce.  In the middle of the plate is a sweet and sour sauce.  Consider this a dessert sushi if you will, but don’t write it off until you try it.  It’s surprisingly good.

There are two pieces of sushi which define most of my visits to sushi restaurants. One is the grilled unagi (eel), a nigiri style sushi, which is said to have stamina-giving properties.  Containing 100 times more vitamin A than other fish, unagi is believed to heighten men’s sexual drive.  Japanese wives would prepare unagi for dinner to suggest to their husbands that they want an intimate night.  After waddling out most sushi restaurants, intimacy is the last thing on our minds. The other is any roll in which green chile plays a part. It baffles me that sushi restaurants often use a green chile with a better roasted flavor than you’ll find at some New Mexican restaurants. That’s the case with “Jewel,” a maki roll with fried soft-shell crag, green chile tempura, avocado and cucumber on the inside and a creamy gren chile sauce on top.

Even better is the albacore green chile roll atop of which is delicately placed a small strip of roasted green chile.  There’s something magical about the dual-heat combination of green chile and wasabi.  The Japanese Kitchen’s rendition of the crunch roll is also quite good with its fried tempura batter sheath enveloping other ingredients.  Perhaps no roll is more ideally suited for the wasabi and soy sauce mix than a crunch roll.

Original Tempura Ice Cream: Icy cold inside, sizzling hot outside; rich vanilla ice cream in a crispy coating is deep fried

Perhaps figuring we had already thumbed our noses at tradition, we opted to end our meal with a wholly Americanized Japanese dessert–tempura ice cream, icy cold vanilla ice cream on the inside and a crispy tempura coating on the outside.  Though a nice end to a great sushi meal, perhaps more fitting would have been green tea ice cream or even better, a plum sorbet (alas, not on the menu).

The Japanese Kitchen Sushi Bar adheres to some timeless Japanese traditions while giving Americans the experience they crave.  It’s one of Albuquerque’s most revered and esteemed purveyors of sushi and so much more.

Japanese Kitchen Sushi Bar
6511 America’s Parkway, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 872-1166
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 22 January 2011
# of VISITS: 3
RATING: 21
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Jewel, Green Earth, Baja California, Alcabore Tuna Green Chile, Crunch Roll, Unagi, Tempura Ice Cream

Japanese Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Gutiz – El Prado, New Mexico

Gutiz Restaurant for Latin and French Fusion Cuisine in El Prado

I recently joked with my friend Lesley King that she is the true New Mexico Gastronome. Lesley, the wonderful author who enthralls readers with her monthly “King of the Road” columns for New Mexico Magazine, likes to say–jokingly–that she “eats and sleeps around,” because her writing assignments require that she sample so many restaurants and accommodations.  She has literally traveled every friendly highway and byway in the Land of Enchantment, dining in as many–or perhaps even more–restaurants than I have while somehow managing to remain svelte and elegant.

I had the great privilege of collaborating with Lesley and Chef Rocky Durham in celebrating the Land of Enchantment’s cuisine in a feature for New Mexico Magazine. The June, 2010 edition of America’s oldest and best official state magazine introduced readers to “New Mexico’s Best Eats,” eight of the very best dishes served in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment: Huevos Rancheros, Green Chile Cheeseburgers, Green Chile Stew, Comfort Food, Deli Sandwich, Tacos, Local Seasonal Ingredients and Desserts.  Two versions of each dish–a downhome version and an uptown version–were showcased in lyrical prose.

The wait staff's prep station at Gutiz

The three of us, all New Mexico natives and peripatetic diners, deliberated spiritedly as to what restaurants would fill each category.  Rocky and I, both the type of men who would actually stop and ask for directions, were wise enough to defer to Lesley’s vast knowledge and much broader travel experiences when we were at a loss.  Such was the case in deciding where New Mexico’s best upscale huevos rancheros were served.  While Rocky and I both drew blanks, Lesley buoyantly made a case for a unique interpretation of huevos rancheros masterfully prepared at a small, somewhat off-the-eaten-path diner in El Prado.

Demurely, Lesley admitted that she sometimes wakes up in Santa Fe and wants to drive to El Prado just to eat this “reconstructed” interpretation of huevos rancheros.  All the essential elements used in the construction of huevos rancheros–pinto beans, onions, tomatoes, eggs, cheese, red and green chile and a tortilla–can be found in the dish with which Lesley became so enamored.  The dish–called the Taoseño and served only at  Gutiz in El Prado,–also includes kidney and garbanzo beans, rice and potatoes, all baked and served in a terra-cotta bowl.

Mint Lemonade

Lesley’s enthusiasm for this dish had me wondering if she would channel John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech with a New Mexico twist, “Soy un Taoseño.”  Though she had us at hello, we didn’t interrupt her alacritous delivery which almost literally had us drooling.  On that basis alone, the Taoseño, while not a conventional rendition of the dish, certainly convinced us it warranted recognition as New Mexico’s best uptown huevos rancheros.  Today, a framed plaque on a wall at Gutiz commemorates the Taoseño’s inclusion among New Mexico’s best eats.

Frankly, the term “among New Mexico’s best” could certainly apply to Gutiz as well.  Founding owner and chef Eduardo Gutiz hit upon a masterstroke when he created the inspired menu, a fusion of French and Spanish cuisine made extraordinarily well.  Lesley explained that chef Gutiz was born in Spain, raised in France and has traveled extensively through Peru and Bolivia.  Foodies recognize that Spain, France and Peru (yes, Perus) are some of the most highly regarded culinary hotbeds in the world.  That wasn’t lost on chef Gutiz who incorporated elements of those three nations on his menu.

New Zealand Green Lip Mussels in a garlic, white wine, tomato, Bolivian aji panca cream sauce served over Gutiz potatoes.

Gutiz (the restaurant, not the chef) is housed in an adobe abode the color of earthen stucco (which in New Mexico can be any of several shades).  Window sills and the picket fence enclosing the patio are a sublime shade of Taos blue.  On an upper level wall on the restaurant’s west side is what appears to be a shuttered balcony on which a metallic rooster perches as if to greet the day.  Oval signage indicates you are at Gutiz, the restaurant’s name framed by the words “Latin French Fusion.”

The interior is very small, but very homey.  The front counter does double duty as the wait staff’s prep station and bar complete with bar stools.  Positioned atop a brick facade is a basket of breads baked in-house and fresh that day, their aroma still wafting throughout the restaurant if you get there for breakfast.  A small glass pastry case on one side of the bar showcases artisan cakes and tarts while a beverage cooler keeps the restaurant’s popular mint lemonade in abeyance until you order it.  The walls are festooned with colorful photographs, the type of which glean appreciation from most diners.  In the summer, particularly during monsoon season, the restaurant’s cooling system struggles to keep temperatures comfortable in the sole dining room.

Outstanding, fresh white bread to sop up the wonderful broth in the bowl of mussels

The menu indicates breakfast and lunch are served all day, Tuesday through Sunday from 8AM to 3PM. The breakfast menu is unique and innovative, a true fusion of complementary ingredients from French and Latin culinary disciplines, including some northern New Mexican inspired dishes.  Tapas, small dishes which can be eaten as an appetizer or eaten as a meal are predominantly seafood oriented.  The specialties section of the menu features Paella Valenciana made the traditional Spanish way.  Salad selections meld the flavors of greens, vegetables, fruits and cheeses.  A sumptuous bounty of sandwiches are served on the restaurant’s homemade French bread. French bread, croissants and pastries are baked fresh every morning.

The menu is a refreshing departure from the mundane, a carte du jour worthy of the Bohemian free-wheeling style of Taos.  It’s adventure eating in the most pleasurable sense, a different menu than you’ll find anywhere in New Mexico.  Though chai teas, fresh ground coffee, espresso and cappuccino are available, start your adventure with a frothy, cold glass of mint lemonade.  Its a uniquely flavored elixir which might remind you of a thin mint Girl Scout cookie dipped in a lemonade with equal pronouncements of sweet and sour.  You’ll ask for at least one refill.

The Taoseño, one of New Mexico's "best eats"

Here’s a challenge for my readers.  Name one person who says they don’t like bread and who can back it up.  It’s easy to find people who don’t like vegetables or meat, but I don’t recall ever meeting anyone who dislikes bread…and even if you could find one, they’d be converted at first bite of Gutiz’s fresh baked bread.  It’s because of this legendary bread that we ordered a tapas appetizer of steamed mussels, a large order (about 20 New Zealand green-lipped mussels) of beautiful bivalve mollusks swimming in a luxurious broth of garlic, white wine, tomato, Bolivian aji panca cream sauce served over Gutiz potatoes.

The mussels are good.  That’s to be expected.  The broth is superb, a concordant melding of flavors that go exceptionally well together.  It’s a broth made to be sopped up with the restaurant’s delicious yeasty bread.  The staff of life at Gutiz has just enough outer crust to form a rim.  The rest is pure spongy deliciousness capable of sopping up its weight in broth.  It’s almost a guarantee that you’ll pay a pittance for additional slices to ensure you don’t miss a glorious drop.

Scottish Sausage: two eggs, grilled Scottish sausage and chipotle sauce served with a mixed green salad and Gutiz potatoes.

As for the Taoseño, my friend Lesley may have understated just how good this “best eats” eat is.  No one ingredient dominates the flavor profile; it truly is a marriage of compatibility.  Everything works well together!  The textures, the flavors, the aesthetics of the dish–it’s a dish deserving of accolades as New Mexico’s very best uptown huevos rancheros.  Not even the old school traditionalists would argue that honor after but just one bite.

The best part of waking up might also be another Gutiz breakfast entree, the Scottish sausage plate.  Having had Scottish sausage at a pub just off Princess Street in Edinburgh, I expected a square sausage patty about a half-inch thick and the perfect size for a sandwich.  Instead, Gutiz’ rendition of Scottish sausage is two diagonally sliced links about five inches in length drizzled in a chipotle sauce.  This is a taste bud awakening grilled sausage with a pleasantly piquant bite.  The sausage is served with two eggs any style and Gutiz potatoes, cubed tubers seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary, paprika and tumeric.  No mater what you order, you’ve got to have a side of these wonderful potatoes.

Grilled Goat Cheese Quesadilla

The sandwich menu might pry your eyes away from breakfast and tapas entrees, especially since most sandwiches are served on the restaurant’s fantastic French bread.  A better canvas for a sandwich there might not be in all of Taos county.  There’s actually only one sandwich not made on the divine staff of life.  That’s the grilled goat cheese quesadilla which is made on a flour tortilla stuffed with goat cheese, a touch of Cheddar and Jack cheese.  It’s grilled and topped with diced tomatoes and basil pesto and served with a side of cucumber and roasted red pepper salad.

This is not a common quesadilla! Unlike the oh-so oily, blase and boring tortilla sandwiches crafted from (could-it-be-Kraft) processed cheeses and their de rigueur toppings of sour cream and guacamole, this quesadilla shows imagination and flair.   The basil pesto is a nice touch and much more exciting than guacamole.  The roasted red peppers find a perfect foil in the cucumbers.  These are nice adds all, but the real star is the quesadilla itself.  The goat cheese is  unctuous with an earthy richness we enjoyed immensely.  After devouring each wedge-shaped slice of this pinto pony color speckled tortilla engorged with goat cheese, you might never again settle for lesser stuff.

Pollo Borachon (Drunken Chicken)

The “Specialties” section of the menu is as “special” as you might infer.  Though the wait staff are consummate sales people with ambassadorial qualities, I’ve only heard them use the term “great choice” one time on the items we’ve ordered.  The item which prompted the effusive exudation was the Pollo Borachon (drunken chicken), a stew of chicken, onions, carrots, green peas, pinto beans, mushrooms and bacon marinated in red wine and baked in a casserole dish with a thin bread shell that envelops the casserole dish similar to a pot pie dish.

If that sounds like a Latin-French fusion interpretation of Coq au Vin, the fabulous French chicken stew, it’ll take only one swoon-inducing whiff for you to appreciate the liberties taken by the chef.    If your mouth is as agape as mine was when yours is delivered to your table, perhaps one of the helpful wait staff will volunteer to play “mommy” and cut it open for you as they did for me.  The surgical precision cut at the top of the golden bread bowl releases the steamy fragrance of the dish, exposing nearly an entire chicken, bone and all.  The chicken, purplish in color from the red wine, falls off the bone into the blessed broth which is just tailor-made for sopping up with the bread cover. The vegetables are perfectly prepared, a healthful and delicious mix.  This is a fabulous entree!

Flourless Chocolate Cake

During both my near noon visits to Gutiz, the pulchritudinous pastries I so lusted after were gone (darn those locals who get there early or call in and “reserve” their favorite desserts as you should), but you can hardly call chocolate croissant (pain au chocolat) a consolation prize.  This light, delicate and flaky French-style croissant is engorged with delicious adult (dark) chocolate, but not so much that it oozes out.  Each bite rewards you with the butteriness of the croissant and the incomparably addictive sweet bitterness of dark chocolate.

If you love “adult” chocolate, the semi-sweet variety with a high cocoa composition, you’ll fall for the flourless chocolate cake which is drizzled with confectioner’s sugar and accompanied by whipped cream dusted with cocoa.  It’s gluten-free greatness in every rich, moist, delicious bite.  During a January, 2011 visit, there were three desserts on the table to be split among four of us.  Our 96-year-old friend Patty Sahd enjoyed the flourless chocolate cake so much, we let her have most of it.  She said she’d never had anything like it.

Banana cake

In the summer of 2010, Eduardo Gutiz sold his eponymous restaurant.  We were assured nothing on the menu has changed.  We were glad to discover that the friendliness for which Gutiz has long been known remains a constant in this extremely popular restaurant truly serving some of New Mexico’s very best eats.

Gutiz Restaurant
812B Paseo del Pueblo Norte
Taos, New Mexico

(575) 758-1226
Web Site
LATEST VISIT
: 16 January 2011
# OF VISITS
: 3
RATING: 23
COST
: $$
BEST BET
: The Taoseño, Scottish Sausage, Steamed Mussels, Goat Cheese Quesadilla, Pollo Borachon Chocolate Croissant, Flourless Chocolate Cake, Banana Cake

Gutiz on Urbanspoon

Desert Fish – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Desert Fish, a seafood oasis on Central Avenue

If you were entertaining a visitor from Seattle or Portland, would you take them to Long John Silver’s, Captain D’s or even  Pelican’s to show them how the seafood in land-locked Albuquerque measures up to the seafood in those two bastions of fresh, succulent seafood?  Not likely!  You’d probably want to take them to a restaurant which showcases New Mexico’s red and green chile.  For some reason, however, during business trips to Seattle and Portland, my well-intentioned colleagues insist on taking me to Mexican restaurants.  Perhaps they assume that with my Spanish surname and place of residence, I would want to try their Mexican food.  That makes as much sense as expecting me to stay at La Quinta and drive a Ford Fiesta rental car.

As a consequence of such faulty (albeit well-meaning) assumptions, I’ve been subjected to such chains as Chevy’s and other restaurants of that ilk where instead of “red or green,” a gloppy brown “sauce” absolutely reeking of the accursed demon spice cumin is ladled on liberally over the overly cheesy entrees.  Perhaps discerning my disdain for chains, my colleagues have also entertained me at such independent, but no less offensive Americanized Mexican restaurants as Macheezmo Mouse (you read that correctly).

The swanky interior at Desert Fish

Admittedly two or three days into a business trip, I start to crave New Mexican food, but not so much that I’ll visit a pitiful pretender.  My friend and colleague Steve Caine did that and will forever rue the day.  Upon returning from Portland, he asked me to help him with his expense report. His itemized report indicated he had dined twice at Chevy’s, a middling quality Americanized Mexican restaurant which wouldn’t survive in the tough Albuquerque market. I teased him mercilessly. Worse, when our boss saw what the commotion was all about, he immediately put Steve on double-secret probation. Steve has never lived down visiting a Chevy’s in Portland where he could have had some of the country’s freshest and best seafood.

When the din died down, Steve admitted somewhat sheepishly that after two days in Portland, he was missing New Mexican food so desperately that he visited the closest facsimile he could find. It was either Chevy’s or the aforementioned Macheezmo Mouse. Most business traveler from New Mexico have probably been there, too…well, not to Chevy’s, but at a point in the trip where the craving for New Mexico’s inimitable cuisine strikes like an addict’s need for a fix.

Mojito Ceviche:  Rock cod thinly sliced and marinated in lime juice, light rum, sugar and mint. Served with fresh made blue corn chips.

Peter Martin can certainly relate to that type of craving.  The Seattle native and owner of the Desert Fish restaurant has been marooned on a land-locked desert isle of a sort, having moved to New Mexico shortly after a friend bought the Tesuque Village Market outside of Santa Fe.   Youthful in exuberance and chronology, Peter has been working in nightclubs and restaurants for more than two decades, but it wasn’t as much an entrepreneurial spirit that prompted his venturing into the restaurant ownership business as it was just how much he missed seafood.  No matter how much New Mexico’s restaurants may think they’re serving good seafood, they’re not serving the type of seafood with which Peter was raised.

That would be seafood prepared as it is throughout the Pacific Northwest by seafood houses whose idea of freshness is off-the-boat and where catch of the day means this morning.  It’s seafood the type of which you find at the world-famous Pike’s Place Market where fishmongers toss fish at one another to the delight of visitors.  It’s wild-caught fish which are healthier and are more palatable in texture, aroma and flavor than their farm-raised brethren.  It’s an oyster bar serving a variety of oysters with a sweet oceanic flavor.  It’s Dungeness crab, a delicately flavored, slightly sweet West Coast delicacy.  Peter has made all of this available in Albuquerque.

Fresh Oysters: Kumamoto, Snow Creek, Penn Cove, Kushi and Miyagi with three dipping sauces: Clover honey and Tabasco, Raspberry and Champagne

The aptly named Desert Fish was launched on December 10th, 2010 at the former site of Sonny’s Bar and Grill on Route 66 in the Nob Hill District.  Gone are the pool tables, dartboards and numerous televisions usually tuned to sporting events.  The bandstand was retained, its stage to be graced by local music acts, their tunes piped in through a sound system reputed to be one of the best in town.  The ambiance is refined, like a true Northwestern seafood emporium and not a stereotypical nautical themed template.

While rich, dark woods imbue a room with masculinity, Desert Fish’s more gender-neutral light, but no less rich, woods give it character.  The bar’s paneled wainscoting extends to the smooth hewn planks on the ceiling.  Exposed industrial-style ductwork adds a touch of modernity while a twelve-foot totem pole, reminiscent of those carved by the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest,  provides a bit of whimsy.   On the day of our inaugural visit, the topmost figure on the totem pole sported a Seattle Seahawks helmet.

Cioppino: Hearty fish stew with shrimp, Dungeness crab, salmon, clams and mussels in a savory tomato broth with our own Desert Fish spice. Served with grilled bread.

The restaurant has two main dining areas.  As you enter (through a door on the edifice’s west side, not through Central Avenue as you might think) to the right there’s an intimate dining room with about a dozen tables.  More commodious is the main dining room where your interior views are of the stage, bar and oyster bar while your exterior views through large picture windows are of Central Avenue.  You’ll want to appreciate those views later; first you’ll want to peruse the menu which is not so much a compendium of all great seafood, but a carefully selected assemblage of incomparable seafood.

There are seven appetizers on the menu including a couple (French fries and kabobs) which are decidedly not seafood.  A soup of the day and clam chowder as well as a number of salads provide delicious alternatives to starters to be  sampled during future visits (and there will be many), but it’s the “bar menu” which will command most of your attention.  Price points are surprisingly comparable to what you might pay at a restaurant in Portland or Seattle and there’s no compromise in quality here.  Seafood is flown in fresh every two or three days.  A grilled rib eye steak au poivre is the only landlubber’s entree on the menu, but then you didn’t come here for meat, did you?

Whole Dungeness Crab: Succulent steamed crab served with corn on the cob and choice of fries.

You came to Desert Fish for the seafood, the quality of which my foodie friend Larry McGoldrick describes as “superior.”  On his Urbanspoon page, Larry assures readers that “Desert Fish has become a polished eatery and imbibery in the three short weeks that it has been open.”  You can trust the good professor of oceanography.  He lived on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay before moving to New Mexico.  Larry’s recommendations in mind, we wanted to try everything he had but opted instead to try a few different items so readers can get two perspectives on the menu’s delicious offerings.

As we do at most mariscos (Mexican seafood) restaurants, we had to have ceviche.  At Desert Fish that means Mojito Ceviche, thinly-sliced rock cod marinated in lime juice, light rum, sugar and mint.  The ceviche is served with fresh made blue corn chips and in the fashion of tostadas de ceviche, the combination of light, delicate fish and crispy corn is hard to beat, not that the chips were necessary in the least.  This is ceviche reminiscent of ceviche you might find at a Peruvian restaurant meaning it’s incomparably fresh and wholly imbued with flavors which are both complementary and contrasting.  The infusion of fresh citrus juices and rum, in particular, impart an almost Tropical feel.

 

Truffle Fries, Sweet Potato Fries and House Fries

Seafood connoisseurs recognize that no other seafood offering tastes as much like the sea as oysters, renown nearly as much for their aphrodisiac properties as for their flavor.  It’s a flavor attributable to terroir, the specific environment in which they grow.  Desert Fish offers a variety of oysters from a variety of locales.  Order at least one from each and discern the nuanced flavors.  The Kumamoto, considered by many as the perfect oyster, is sweet and “fruity” in an oceanic way.  Snow Creek oysters, raised in the deep waters of the Puget Sound, have a hint of iron in a sweet-salty flavor profile.  Penn Cove, perhaps the most “beautiful” of all oysters, are about medium in brininess while retaining a sea-saltiness.  Kushi (Japanese for “precious”) oysters have a clean flavor and are small in size.  Miyagi oysters are full-flavored and robust.

Though I prefer the unfettered flavor of oysters in all their native deliciousness, Desert Fish serves their oysters with three dipping sauces: clover honey and Tabasco, raspberry and champagne.  Each imparts its own complementary flavor ameliorating qualities to the oysters.  Unlike most oyster “shooters” which are tangy and piquant, these sauces are sophisticated and delicious.  The champagne resonated most with me with its characteristically dry and sweet flavors.  Neither the raspberry or clover honey and Tabasco sauces are as sweet as their names might suggest.

Milk and cookies

During all my visits to San Francisco, one of America’s truly great culinary hotbeds, the one dish I absolutely have to partake of is cioppino, a fish stew whose genesis is indeed the City by the Bay.  No one does this Portuguese-Italian dish better than the seafood houses by the piers.  Traditionally made from the catch of the day–usually Dungeness crab, shrimp, mussels, fish and clams–in a savory broth of fresh tomatoes and a dry white wine sauce, it is a hearty, delicious comfort soup.  Though several restaurants in Albuquerque have tried their hand at cioppino, they all fall woefully short.  Cioppino is a very nuanced dish with distinct seasonings which bring out the flavor of their seafood constituents.  Desert Fish’s rendition includes a beautifully pink grilled salmon, Dungeness crab, clams and mussels and is served with grilled bread.  It’s a San Francisco-worthy cioppino.

Another San Francisco treat popular throughout the Pacific Northwest is Dungeness crab, sweeter and more tender than lobster with more meat than the vaunted blue crabs of Larry McGoldrick’s former stomping grounds.  The legs  and body are engorged with sweet, succulent meat that’s easier to extricate than the meat of Alaskan king crab.  At Desert Fish, a whole Dungeness crab is served with sweet corn-on-the-cob and your choice of fries.  Ask the accommodating wait staff to bring you a sampler of all three fries: sweet potato, truffle fries and house fries, all of which are so reminiscent of the fries served at seaside stands.  The corn-on-the-cob is grilled and unseasonably sweet.  Best of all, it’s a whole ear of corn, not a half-sized piece that will have you longing for more.

The totem pole at Desert Fish. Check out the Seattle Seahawks helmet on top

The dessert menu includes several surprises including milk and fresh-baked cookies.  While milk and cookies may sound a bit quaint outside the child’s menu, these cookies are very good–two chocolate cookies with chocolate chips and pecans.  Milk, of course, is the perfect accompaniment to cookies of any kind.  This is a combination that might take you back to your childhood.

Desert Fish is the real deal–a Pacific Northwest seafood house in the desert southwest.  From its look and feel to the fantastic flavors of the fish and more, it is a welcome respite for expatriates from either coast.  It’s the type of seafood restaurant to which I wish my colleagues would have taken me all those times I suffered through Mexican food as mediocre as any you’d get on a frozen dinner.

Desert Fish
4214 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 January 2011
CLOSED: May 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Fresh Oysters, Chioppino, Dungeness Crab, Mojito Ceviche, Fries, Milk and Cookies

Desert Fish on Urbanspoon

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