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Graham’s Grille by Lesley B. Fay – Taos, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Graham’s Grill by Lesley B. Fay, just north of the famous Taos Plaza

While it may be true that you only have one chance to make a good first impression, history has shown that bad first impressions can be overcome.  Further,  given a second chance, someone making a bad first impression may go on to  make a lasting positive impression.   In 1988, a charismatic  young governor was widely jeered during the Democratic National Convention, his first national stage.  After an uninspiring 32-minute-long opening night address, political pundits predicted the demise of the man heretofore considered a rising star in the party.  Four years later Bill Clinton was elected the 42nd President of the United States.

Feedback to a surprising number of my reviews has a palpable tone of negativity–sometimes even anger–based on a first and only visit to a restaurant which made a bad first impression.  Diners should expect, perhaps even demand, tasty food, reasonable portions,  good service and fair value for their hard-earned dollars.  It’s our prerogative not to return to restaurants which don’t meet those expectations, however, before making a hasty judgment, consider that the restaurant may have had an uncharacteristically bad hair day. That’s especially true if that restaurant has been widely recognized by trusted sources as a high-quality, high-performing paragon of deliciousness.

The larger of two dining rooms at Graham’s Grill

Our inaugural visit to Graham’s Grille by Lesley Fay was more a case of high expectations not being met than it was the restaurant having a bad day.  It seems every national and local source to visit Graham’s Grille–from Bon Appetit Magazine to the Taos Newhas touted it as THE place to dine in Taos.  In 2010, Graham’s Grill garnered “best restaurant” (for the third year in a row) and “best ambiance” accolades in the Taos News‘ annual “best of Taos” balloting with chef-owner Lesley Fay earning “best chef” honors.  In 2010, Graham’s Grille also  earned Wine Spectator’s award of excellence as well as a “diner’s choice” award from Open Table.  It’s understandable that most visitors come to Graham’s Grille with high expectations.

To be clear, our inaugural visit was far from a disappointment. It just didn’t “wow” us to the extent that a restaurant with its sterling pedigree should have been expected to wow us.  Some of that might be attributable to the fact that we visited during brunch, not dinner when Graham’s Grille is reputed to shine brightest, but there were other factors contributing to the lack of the wow effect.

Mexican XXX Chocolate: Ibarra Chocolate, Kahlana, Agave Wine, Whipped Cream and Cinnamon

It’s easy to see why Graham’s Grille is so popular.  As we passed the uncovered patio and approached the stairs, the host greeted us with not just a cordial welcome and smile, but by introducing himself and offering a firm handshake.  He escorted us past the open kitchen into a long and narrow dining room that includes an attractive bar area, a showcase for the Fays who, prior to moving to Taos, worked in winery businesses for more than a decade.  Lesley, in fact, created private label food lines for many of Napa Valley and Sonoma’s famous wineries.

Graham’s Grille has a uniquely Taos vibe.  Though considered a fine dining establishment, it has a casual, almost laissez-faire feel without being “out there” Bohemian yet it’s also cosmopolitan in an understated sort of way.  During brunch, the entire wait staff and even Lesley herself, are nattily attired in balloon pants, some sporting the type of psychedelic color and design schemes found on the hippie buses which traversed the highways and byways of Taos county.   It’s hard to believe the restaurant occupies the former digs of J. C. Penney’s downtown store.

Buttermilk Biscuits with homemade strawberry jam and orange marmalade

A quick perusal of the menu reflects the peripatetic chef’s varied culinary influences. The “California” influence is apparent in the freshness of the ingredients and the abundance of vegetables.  Other menu items pay tribute to Lesley’s travels to the Middle East, Mexico, Cyprus and of course, her move to New Mexico.  Playfully, she even names menu items for previous tenants at the location.  There’s the El Miramon Combination Plate named for a bar at the location in the 1910s.  Then there’s the J.C. Penney Burrito.

Ever the unrelenting purist, I’m not sure what would influence (possess) anyone, much less a heralded chef,  to use  the accursed demon spice cumin on dishes in which the star of the flavor profile should be New Mexico’s incomparable red and green chile, but Graham’s Grille uses it copiously (perhaps the California influence).  As a result of the cumin contaminant, the multi-page menu becomes  a bit more limited for those of us who will never go over to the dark side.  In addition to the New Mexican dishes, cumin slithers onto other items we might otherwise have enjoyed–including the vaunted El Pequeño baked macaroni and Cheddar cheese with mild green chile and hickory smoked bacon.

Winter Spinach, Goat Cheese, Julienned Carrots and Strawberries

Perusing the menu is like reading a fine novel you don’t want to put down.  It’s a voluminous compendium of  interesting and ostensibly delicious items.  Audaciously, page one of the menu is dedicated to desserts and dessert beverages, obviously in deference to American writer Ernestine Ulmer who wrote, “Life is uncertain…Eat dessert first.”  Alas, not all the desserts are available during  brunch, that leisurely weekend repast which makes you feel you’re getting away with something…as if you’re defying your mom’s mandate not to have dessert before the main entree.

The brunch menu is replete with tempting sweet treats such as vanilla orange French toast with fresh strawberries and blue corn blueberry pancakes as well as fresh French donuts and a basket of buttermilk biscuits with homemade jam.  We opted for the latter two.  Having lived in the Deep South for eight years, we grow lascivious at the mere thought of  melt-in-your mouth, tender and flaky  buttermilk biscuits.  Alas, the biscuits at Graham’s Grille were neither tender nor flaky.  Expatriated Southerners would probably compare them to hardtack.  Both the orange marmalade and the strawberry jam are more than a bit on the sweet side and neither showcases the flavor of the fruits ostensibly used in their creation as does the miraculously good orange marmalade at Gutiz.

Peter’s Bigger Boy: Angus Burger with Grilled Green Chile, Cheddar and Swiss, Frizzled Onions and Bacon (served with Cajun fries)

The menu describes the fresh French donuts as having “5 spice cinnamon sugar,” but neither five spice nor cinnamon sugar were in evidence on our taste buds. That’s a pity because either would have enlivened the otherwise bland donuts. Powdery white confectioner’s sugar is fine on beignets, those small, square puffs of fried doughy deliciousness, but it didn’t do much for the French donuts which in addition to being bland, were slightly on the tough side.

Our disappointment with the buttermilk biscuits and French donuts were tempered somewhat by the Mexican XXX Hot Chocolate (Ibarra chocolate, Kahlana, agave wine, whipped cream and cinnamon), a Mexican hot chocolate with a kick.  It’s one of the very best hot chocolates we’ve ever had, a rich and flavorful elixir with a lively flavor.  It’s not a teetotaler’s cup of tea, but it’s perfectly fine for someone who indulges ever so infrequently on adult beverages.

Passion Fruit Barbecue Sauce Sandwich, Homemade Pickle and Cajun Fries

Our third strike–a salad composed of winter spinach, goat cheese, julienned carrots and strawberries–can be attributed to the bane of my culinary existence, the demon spawned spice cumin. Both the salad dressing and the walnuts normally found on this salad included cumin, a revelation made upon the salad’s delivery. While the blue cheese dressing was good, the vinaigrette with which this salad is normally served was more tailored for the flavor profile we wanted. On the positive side, the salad ingredients were fresh and delicious.

“Graham’s Famous Burgers” are available for both lunch and dinner.  Save for the lamb burger, they are served with Lesley’s “special burger sauce,” a tasty amalgam of mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup and are served on a housemade bun.  On each burger plate is tomato, lettuce, sliced onion and a housemade dill pickle.  Peter’s Big Boy, an eight-ounce angus burger with green chile, Cheddar and Swiss cheeses, frizzled onions and bacon is a very good burger, a burger worthy of consideration for inclusion on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.  The angus beef is hand-formed and prepared to your exacting specifications.  What the green chile lacks in piquancy, it more than makes up for in roasted flavor perfection.  The frizzled onions, a tangle of deep-fried onion strips, are piled on.  Burgers are served with your choice of Cajun fries, New Mexican slaw, house greens, Caesar salad or soup (hopefully not the cumin cursed posole).

Fresh French Donuts with Five Spice Cinnamon Sugar

Barbecue aficionados might be drawn in by a tempting sandwich offering showcasing a passion fruit barbecue sauce on a generous mound of pulled pork. Alas, the passion fruit is wholly understated lacking the sweet richness and aromatic flavor that titillates the taste buds.  The pork is tender and delicious, but would have been something special had the passion fruit flavor come across more prominently.

On the whole, our inaugural visit to Graham’s Grille had some hits and it had some misses, but what it didn’t have was that “wow” factor we crave from the vaunted restaurants anointed as something special.  Lack of wow factor not withstanding, we look forward to future visits when we hope to discover for ourselves why Graham’s Grill is widely recognized as the very best in Taos.

Graham’s Grill by Lesley B. Fay

106 Paseo del Pueblo Norte
Taos, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 March 2011
# of VISITS: 1
RATING:
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Peter’s Bigger Boy, Passion Fruit Barbecue Sandwich, Mexican XXX Chocolate

Graham's Grille on Urbanspoon

Quarters – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Quarters BBQ on Albuquerque's Northwest side

Quarters BBQ on Albuquerque's Northwest side

Some of my friends accuse me of making my Web site a bully pulpit against chain restaurants and being a shameless “homer” when it comes to promoting locally owned and operated restaurants. I make no secret of my overwhelming preference for local restaurants, but never at the expense of a personal integrity which won’t allow me to pander to local restaurants which, in my honest opinion, don’t quite measure up. One such restaurant is the venerated Quarters–at least in terms of its barbecue.

One of Duke City’s oldest and most revered barbecue joints, the Quarters is generally teeming with loyal patrons who will tell you that Quarters puts the ‘cue in Albuquerque. Now with three locations, including a sprawling edifice launched in 2004 on Albuquerque’s burgeoning West side, the Quarters shows no surcease in popularity. The Nellos family which owns and operates Quarters is practically royalty in Albuquerque, not only because of their popular restaurants, but because of their civic involvement and community-mindedness.

Teriyaki Shish-Ke-Bab with mushrooms and red and green peppers

Teriyaki Shish-Ke-Bab with mushrooms and red and green peppers

Before you accuse me of sacrilege for not liking the Quarters, hear me out. Like most barbecue purists, to me barbecue is all about the meat, specifically the long, slow process utilizing indirect low-heat to “smoke-cook” meat. The best barbecue emphasizes a faintly smoky taste in succulent meats that are fork-tender, juicy and need little or no sauce. Any sauce that’s added should further emphasize the inherent flavor of the meats, not detract in any way from it. At Quarters, barbecue entrees typically swim in a mediocre  tomato sauce-based barbecue sauce which detracts from any native flavor the meats might have.

When we’ve asked for meat entrees sans sauce or sauce on the side, we’ve determined why the sauce flows freely atop those entrees–the meats are as dry as an Albuquerque summer day…and that’s not just my opinion. During a December, 2005 team outing, I asked several colleagues to break their “I love Quarters” paradigm and honestly assess their meals; not surprisingly, most of them validated my assertion. During yet another team outing (after my team mates’ amnesia had set in) my friend Ellie ordered a brisket sandwich and after  one bit of marathon mastication, proclaimed it a “carne seca” sandwich. Not even the surfeit of sauce could moisten the barbecue.

The rib dinner: eight to ten pork spare ribs with onion rings, corn on the cob and Texas toast

The rib dinner, eight to ten pork spare ribs served with two sides, exemplifies what I don’t like about Quarters.  The ribs are dry despite being slathered with the tangy sauce.  That’s entirely two bad considering the generous amount of ribs on the plate and the fact that the ribs are meaty. The barbecue is dry.  It’s over-sauced.  I think my point has been made, but if you’d like an other opionion, check out the musings of Larry McGoldrick, New Mexico’s premier contributor to Urbanspoon. His sentiments toward the Quarters’ barbecue echo mine.

I started off this review acknowledging that Quarters is “revered.”  It is  indeed a perennial recipient of several “people’s choice” and “best of” awards and its parking lots are usually crowded.  There are probably more people who love the Quarters than there are detractors.  Because it’s not one of my favorites (by a long-shot) doesn’t make me a “hater,” as one of my Quarters-loving work colleagues accused me of being.  I like to think it makes me a discerning diner whose preferences for barbecue are elsewhere. You’re free to agree or disagree as you please.

We’ve had much better luck at Quarters with red meat entrees which have, in recent visits, been prepared to our exacting specifications. If you ask for your red meat entree to be prepared medium, the grill chef executes. If you ask for salt, pepper and garlic on both sides of your steak, it’s applied in exacting proportions–and we’re not talking garlic salt here. It’s minced garlic that brings out the flavor of a New York steak. The New York steak is perfectly tender with nary any excess fat. At twelve ounces, it is a beauteous strip of meat with charred edges. Cut into it and the succulent juices flow, exposing the perfect amount of pink.

New York steak with macaroni and cheese

New York steak with macaroni and cheese

Another nice meat entree is the Teriyaki Shish-Ka-Bob sans skewers. It’s a generous plate comprised of sliced steak, mushroom caps and grilled red and green peppers. The ka-bob is sliced into larger than bite-sized pieces of moist, tender and delicious meat, the flavor of which is ameliorated by a teriyaki sauce that is neither too sweet nor too savory.

Another favorite item at Quarters is the dinner salad (iceberg and Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, croutons, cucumbers) with as much blue cheese as the wait staff can carry. The blue cheese dressing is light on the mayo and heavy on the blue cheese, a great combination for blue cheese aficionados.

In 2006 and 2007, Quarters earned Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence,” an accolade bestowed upon restaurants whose wine lists offer interesting selections…and appeal to a wide range of wine lovers.”

Quarters
905 Yale, S.E.
Albuquerque, NM
843-7505
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 23 March 2011
# OF VISITS: 13
RATING: 14
COST:: $$
BEST BET: Dinner Salad with blue cheese dressing, Teriyaki Shish-Ka-Bob

Quarters BBQ on Urbanspoon

Santa Ana Cafe – Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico

The resort at Tamaya

As you gaze in awe at the sheer opulence of the expansive Tamaya hospitality complex and resort and consider the Santa Ana Pueblo’s Vegas-style, high-stakes gaming center or 27-hole, championship golf course, you have to conclude that the Pueblo’s tribal enterprises are flourishing–and you would be right. An entrepreneurial spirit is nothing new to the Santa Ana people. The Santa Ana (Tamaya) Pueblo has a long and storied history of forward-thinking and self-reliance. To increase its land base and agricultural production, in 1709 the pueblo purchased 5,000 acres along the Rio Grande. Coupled with its 15,000-acre Spanish land grants and other land purchases, the reservation (population about 500) is today a vast expanse of about 73,000 acres.

While Tamaya, the ancient Keresan (Keres is a group of seven related dialects spoken by Pueblo peoples) pueblo isn’t open to the public, Tamaya, the pueblo’s opulent, award-winning Hyatt Regency resort and spa is. Located just northwest of Bernalillo, Tamaya is a sprawling complex of luxurious pueblo-style guest rooms appointed with traditional designs and modern amenities. The resort is renown for its soothing spa, nationally ranked golf course and restaurants which celebrate the tri-cultural traditions of New Mexico.

The Santa Ana Cafe is the more informal and family-oriented of the two fine-dining restaurants on the site. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in a comfortable setting where you’re surrounded by traditional Native American art as you dine. Picture windows provide spectacular vistas, at your forefront being the resort’s hornos in which breads are baked in time-honored ways.

Some of the tasting offerings from the Prime Rib Buffet

The menu is a melding of New Mexican and nouvelle cuisines showcased in innovative dishes, many of which are punctuated with red or green chile and other New Mexico staples. Visit after work on Friday and even if you’re determined to order one of the mouth-watering menu options, you’ll succumb to the lure of the Friday evening Prime Rib Buffet, a bargain at under $30 a person. The buffet features a slow-roasted herb-crusted prime rib of beef, au jus carved to order. With more than a hint of pink and juices oozing freely, it is richly marbled with fat and tender enough to cut with a fork. Alas, the restaurant’s horseradish is one tame pony (if it doesn’t make my eyes water and nose run, it’s not horseradish), so fortunately the au jus and a spicy chimichurri sauce are good alternatives.

You won’t see the traditional marriage of prime rib and baked potato on the Prime Rib Buffet. Instead, you’ll savor the Yukon Gold Whipped Potato Bar featuring sautéed mushrooms and onions, roasted garlic sour cream, butter, chopped bacon, cheddar cheese and scallions–all you need to dress a potato deliciously. The whipped potatoes have the tender, buttery taste of baked potatoes without the mess of the potato skin. The buffet captures the essence of a New Mexican staple and the spirit of the Caribbean with its signature grilled red chile jerked chicken. This intricate blend of uniquely pungent spices and tender poultry is even popular among children who probably think it’s some sort of barbecue.

Salads at the Santa Ana Cafe

The third carnivore’s delight on the buffet might be pork scaloppini with burgundy braised shallots. In our travels, we’ve experienced veal, beef, pork and even venison scaloppini and have had scaloppini with a variety of sauces–some sassy and sweet, some stewy and bland and some even lemony and tart, but few as complementary as the burgundy braised shallots. The pork is moist and tender with a lively melding of savory and sweet tastes. If there’s one complaint we have about the restaurant’s “meaty main event,” it’s that the meats and even Yukon gold potatoes are generally no more than lukewarm, probably to prevent them from drying out. Don’t hesitate to have the restaurant’s attentive wait staff take them to the kitchen and warm them for you. You’ll be happy you did.

A lively mélange of assorted mixed greens with a selection of toppings (including piñon, roasted corn, and bleu cheese crumbles) and dressings (the Italian dressing is incomparable and the green chile buttermilk) make for creative salads. You might also opt for a salad of nopalitos and citrus with a charred jalapeno vinaigrette. The choices are limited only by your imagination.

Chocolate decadence defines the dessert bar. Your eyes, heart and appetite will be immediately drawn to the chocolate fountain where all your fondue fantasies will be fulfilled. You can dip all the strawberries, marshmallows and pound cake you want in rich, creamy milk chocolate. It’s so popular among chocoholics that the hot fudge brownie pudding, New York style cheesecake with strawberries and other tantalizing sweet treats are virtually ignored.

Santa Ana Baby Back Ribs Sweet and Spicy Glazed Ribs served with Steak Fries and Wasabi Slaw

On the evenings in which the prime rib isn’t the featured attraction, the dinner menu provides a number of American and New Mexican specialties, all reasonably priced and generously portioned. The menu includes a build your own burger you can have your way–with a beef, chicken, tuna or veggie pattie and all your favorite fixings. One of the specialties of the house is a Dr. Pepper Glazed Short Rib, a braised, fork-tender beef short rib topped with “Old Time” Dr. Pepper glaze served with mashed sweet potatoes and sauteed fresh vegetables.

The Santa Ana Baby Back Ribs, sweet and spicy glazed ribs served with your choice of pinto beans or wasabi coleslaw, are quite good–better, in fact, than baby backs served at several local purveyors of barbecue.  These baby backs are uncharacteristically meaty and the meat is fork-tender.  As advertised, the glaze has a nice pronouncement of spicy sweetness though it’s not as much glazed on as it is slathered.  The wasabi coleslaw is considerably more piquant than the barbecue sauce though it won’t quite water your eyes either.

Fish Tacos

The lunch menu includes burgers, sandwiches, salads, soups and daily specials, some very inventively crafted.  Fish tacos, for example, are made with seared ahi topped with a cabbage slaw, a lime-cilantro crema and guacamole in a crispy, hard-shelled blue corn taco.  Though different than other fish tacos I’ve had in New Mexico, these are characteristically dry with the ahi being the dominant flavor.  More of the crema’s influence would have improved these tacos greatly.

Santa Ana Cafe
1300 Tuyuna Trail
Santa Ana Pueblo, NM
867-1234
LATEST VISIT: 20 March 2011
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 19
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Sunday Brunch, Friday Evening Prime Rib Buffet, Santa Ana Baby Back Ribs

Santa Ana Cafe on Urbanspoon