Vinaigrette – Santa Fe & Albuquerque, New Mexico

Vinaigrette, a salad bistro in Santa Fe

During a 1994 episode of Seinfeld, Elaine’s boss, Mr. Pitt becomes obsessed with finding a spaceship obfuscated within a stereogram, a computer-generated image that presents an optical illusion in which a 3D image is hidden within a single 2D image to be revealed only when the viewer focuses his or her eyes correctly.  To the detriment of a pressing business deal, Mr. Pitts loses three days trying to find the spaceship.  First he tries blurring his eyes as if staring straight through the picture before eventually finding success by employing an intensely deep focus.

Placitas resident Gary W. Priester calls creating 3D stereographic images his “all-consuming passion for almost 15 years.”  Gary has authored three books on stereogram images and is one of two contributors to a Japanese stereogram magazine series which has sold close to four-million copies.  His work is mesmerizing in its ability to captivate the viewer.  Fortunately for those of us who don’t always focus correctly, Gary does us all a favor on his Custom Stereographic Web site by explaining exactly how to see stereograms.

Garden Salad, a bright mix of baby greens, carrot ribbons, bell peppers and parmesan cheese. Tossed in a zippy Romesco dressing.

Gary’s clarity and focus aren’t  limited solely to stereograms.  He’s become a trusted advisor on dining options I might not otherwise know about or maybe even consider,  including introducing me to more healthful options.  For years I was of the ilk which associated salads with the word “diet,” an extension of the word “die.”  Though my advancing geriatric progression has changed that perception, I’m still not always as attuned to healthful alternatives as I am to where you can find the best new purveyor of green chile cheeseburgers.  Fortunately clearer-minded readers of my blog like Gary keep me honest.

Alas, it took almost two years before I followed Gary’s recommendation to try Vinaigrette, an environmentally aware “salad bistro” in Santa Fe.   Perhaps indicative of my meaty myopia and carnivorous cravings, I also neglected a recommendation from immensely talented writer Wolf Schneider when she interviewed me for Edible Santa Fe.   Had the restaurant been named “Blue Cheese” I surely would never have waited.

Cherry Tart: Dried cherries, mild feta cheese, peppery baby arugula and toasted pecans with Champagne vinaigrette.

Vinaigrette opened its Santa Fe doors in November, 2008, the unintended brainchild of Harvard graduate Erin Wade who had never previously worked in, managed or owned a restaurant.   Obviously a novitiate no longer,  she now owns and operates two of New Mexico’s very best and most highly regarded farm-to-table restaurants, having expanded to Albuquerque’s Old Town district in November, 2012.  Much of the medley of multicolored organic greenery used in her restaurants comes from an absolutely unimpeachable source–her own organic ten-acre farm about half (which includes a 1,200 square-foot greenhouse) an hour north of Santa Fe in the village of Nambe.  Local sources are used widely in the Albuquerque operation.

Wholly unlike the middling quality all-you-can-eat salad bar restaurants dotting the fruited plain, Vinaigrette offers a menu showcasing healthful salads in bountiful, but not profligate portions.  You won’t waddle out of this restaurant wondering how salad can be so filling.  Nor will you find such un-salad-like offerings as chocolate muffins, focaccia bread and other high-carbohydrate, high-calorie offerings.  That doesn’t mean every plate is heaping with barely edible “rabbit food” lacking in flavor or imagination.

The very best Cobb salad in the universe!

The very best Cobb salad in the universe!

The only rabbit-like aspect to Vinaigrette is the tendency for diners to hop from option to option unable to decide which salad to order, so replete with creativity is Vinaigrette’s inspired menu. Featuring ten signature salads and seven classic salads, the menu may eliminate any preconceived notions about salad restaurants you may have.  It did me…and that’s even before studying the available salad pairings, none of which are needed to make any  Vinaigrette salad outstanding, but any of which makes it just that much better.

You can pair your salad with meat (lemon-herb chicken breast, grilled flank steak, grilled pork tenderloin, hibiscus-cured duck confit), seafood (seared tuna steak, seared diver scallops, grilled shrimp and the day’s fresh fish) or choose from a category called “et cetera” which includes roasted seasonal vegetables, grilled tofu, grilled marinated baby artichokes and baked Panko-crusted goat cheese.  Sight unseen, these offerings are more taste bud tantalizing than ingredients which sit in steely repositories for who knows how long at those “other” salad restaurants.

A basket of bread

Vinaigrette’s palate-pleasing prowess doesn’t stop at salads.  The menu also includes a bevy of sandwiches, soups and sides.  Sandwiches are served with a side Garden, Greek or Caesar salad.  The “sides and soups” include Erin’s Mac & Cheese, fresh seasonal sauteed Nambe greens, mushroom stew and soup of the day.   Vinaigrette also offers beer and wine lists which change periodically to provide variety for guests.  There are a few differences between the Santa Fe and Albuquerque menus. 

Before launching in Albuquerque, Erin Wade had actually considered making Southern California the home of her second restaurant. As fate would have it, she was then introduced to a long vacant a 3,000-square-foot building on the fringes of Old Town with tremendous potential.  Fittingly the edifice was tailored for the type of “green” operation Wade desired, wanting to be “green outside the plate,” too.  The Albuquerque restaurant features reclaimed pine floors from Dixon, high efficiency lighting tracks, Energy Star kitchen equipment, recycled-content tiles, door hardware made from 90% post-consumer waste, eco-friendly fabrics and zero-volatile-organic-compound paint.  Vinaigrette recycles and composes all its organic waste.

In November, 2012, Vinaigrette launched in Albuquerque

In November, 2012, Vinaigrette launched in Albuquerque

The attentive servers at both locations are attired in bright tee-shirts on which the leafy parts of salad ingredients are painted.  It takes away much of the mystery as to what “greens” actually are and if you thought lettuce is the principle component of all salads, you’re in for a pleasant surprise.  Vinaigrette’s salads are sophisticated and inventive without being too fru-fru.  Even some of my troglodytic carnivorous colleagues will enjoy them.

Even Vinaigrette’s most rudimentary salad is an edible work of art.  The Garden Salad, a bright mix of baby greens, carrot ribbons, bell peppers and Parmesan cheese tossed in a zippy Romesco dressing is a colorful concordance of fresh and beautiful ingredients resembling a colorful painting.  It’s more than several orders of magnitude better than what most restaurants call a garden salad, typically a mound of iceberg lettuce, artificially ripened tomatoes, cucumbers and a large dollop of gloppy salad dressing.

Cuban Torta: Mustard-roasted pork shoulder and green chile ham, griddled with red onions and Swiss cheese on a split roll with avocado and mayonnaise, chipotle and sweet relish.

Cuban Torta: Mustard-roasted pork shoulder and green chile ham, griddled with red onions and Swiss cheese on a split roll with avocado and mayonnaise, chipotle and sweet relish.

If you’re a fan of bold flavors, it’s possible to enjoy them even with salad.  The Cherry Tart, while it may sound like a pastry dessert, is such an bold-flavored salad.  It’s composed of dried cherries (as fresh and delicious as any I’ve ever had), mild feta cheese, peppery baby arugula and toasted pecans with a Champagne vinaigrette dressing.  Baby arugula has been described as having a “subtle nutty flavor with a radish-like edge.”  While not entirely accurate, it is most certainly a bold and spicy, maybe even peppery green.  It’s clearly the star of this salad.  The Champagne vinaigrette dressing is lightly applied to allow other flavors to shine. 

If you don’t necessarily want to experiment with heretofore untried salad ingredient combinations, the “Classic Salads” section of the menu provides more familiar, traditional and time-honored options.  It may even restore your faith in how “Classics” such as the Cobb salad should be made and remind you why you loved them in the first place.  Kelly Koepke, (erstwhile restaurant critic for the Albuquerque Journal) who can turn a phrase better than anyone in Albuquerque, turned me on to Vinaigrette’s Cobb salad.  Though she liked my “best of the best for 2012” choices, she was confident the Cobb salad would make my list once I tried it.  She was right!  I’ll let her describe why it stands out: “It’s not the usual composed Cobb with gloppy dressing that most restaurants serve. Instead, it’s a chopped, tossed Cobb with the perfect amount of tangy dressing. Best. Cobb. Ever.”

Morty & Cheese: Mortadella and tangy melted robbiola with scallion yogurt sauce, on griddled and pressed ciabatta

Morty & Cheese: Mortadella and tangy melted robbiola with scallion yogurt sauce, on griddled and pressed ciabatta

A small basket of bread is available for the asking.  The bread is fresh and delicious with a nice crust surrounding soft, pillowy insides.  Best of all, it’s served warm.  A decanter of olive oil (and malt vinegar if you request it) accompanies the bread to your table.  Beauteous breads are also the canvas upon which some of the best sandwiches in New Mexico are made.  Vinaigrette’s sandwich menu includes some of the classics– Reuben, tuna melt, hot turkey–and some sandwiches upon which inventive liberties are taken to increase their deliciousness. 

You might think you’ve had every variation of the Cubano possible with little discernible difference between most of them.  Vinaigrette’s Cuban Torta (mustard-roasted pork shoulder and green chile ham, griddled with red onions and Swiss cheese on a split roll with avocado and mayonnaise, chipotle and sweet relish) actually surprised me in many pleasant and delicious ways.  The first surprise is the split roll on which the sandwich is constructed.  It’s not the de rigueur panini-style bread which is often abrasive enough to hurt the roof of your mouth.  It’s a soft bread somewhat reminiscent of just baked bagels without the chewiness.  The combination of chipotle and sweet relish provides a wonderful balance between tangy, sweet and piquant notes that complement the mustard-roasted pork shoulder and green chile ham, either ingredient of which would make the basis of a wondrous sandwich.  This sandwich doesn’t subscribe to any template of what a Cubano should be and taste like.  Viva la diferencia!

Peach berry pie

Another sandwich replete with surprises is the Morty & Cheese (Mortadella and tangy melted Robiola with scallion yogurt sauce, on griddled and pressed ciabatta).  Mortadella is the “Rodney Dangerfield” of cold-cut cured meats, often regarded as just “Italian bologna.”  As someone who grew up enjoying fried bologna (as well as fried spam) sandwiches, I’ll rise to the defense of this maligned meat.  Italian Mortadella is a fatty, nicely seasoned meat that goes well with any other sandwich ingredient.  That’s especially true of a good cheese such as Robiola, a soft-ripened, slightly tangy (with slight notes of sourness) cheese that couples well with yogurt.  The sandwich construction department at Vinaigrette obviously understands sandwich harmony.  This one has it in spades!

A number of fresh desserts is also available and all hold true to the restaurant’s commitment to serving organic and local as much as possible. One post-prandial treat which will impress itself on your memory is a peach berry pie made with peaches, blackberries and blueberries. The peaches are certainly not the canned variety; they have a recently picked texture and taste. This is a lip-puckering dessert also lacking that artificial pectin sometimes used to over-sweeten pies. It’s all natural and all delicious.

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Even better is a pumpkin cheesecake so good you might wish for fall year-round.  The menu describes it simply as “aromatic, autumnal, satisfying!”  It has all those qualities and so much more, especially the satisfying adjective.  Its aromatic qualities are courtesy of using the right spices in perfect proportion to one another and the pumpkin itself which is garden-picked fresh.  For years my Kim and I have experimented with pumpkin cheesecakes and have never managed one quite as good.  

In its annual food and wine issue for 2013, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Vinaigrette a “Hot Plate” award for its chicken souvlaki.  Hot Plate awards are accorded annually to some of the city’s most delicious dishes as seen by the magazine’s editors and staff.  The magazine warns that you’ll be rooting for an encore after your first slow jam…” with this carrot cake.

Vinaigrette is, dare I say, a welcome departure from the superfluity of Santa Fe style so prevalent in the City Different.  Fortunately Santa Fe style, as represented by the bandana-sporting coyote baying at the moon  (ostensibly a carnivore who probably doesn’t like salads) who has come to symbolize Santa Fe style is adaptive and inclusive and there’s a place for great salads in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.  That place is Vinaigrette.

Vinaigrette
709 Don Cubero Alley
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 820-9205
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 5 October 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Garden Salad, Cherry Tart, Peach Berry Pie

Vinaigrette on Urbanspoon

Vinaigrette
1828 Central, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 842-5507
LATEST VISIT: 31 December 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cobb Salad, Cuban Torta, Morty & Cheese, Pumpkin Cheesecake

Vinaigrette on Urbanspoon

Heaven Dragon – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Heaven Dragon

Heaven Dragon

From Norbert, the Norwegian Ridgeback of Harry Potter lore to Smaug, the greatest and most powerful of all dragons in The Hobbit, dragons are a familiar icon in modern literature, movies, music and pop culture.  Dragons are symbols of fantasy, whimsy and magic, often representing ancient legends and far-off lands.  They range from the malevolent, fiery tempered, scaly fire-breathers (insert your favorite mother-in-law reference here) to the affectionate benefactors of mankind.  What could possibly explain the popularity of dragons?  Could it be because dragons once existed? 

Stories of dragons are pervasive in such ancient cultures as the Chinese, Australian aborigines, Babylonians and Welsh.  Ancient Chinese cosmogonists actually defined four types of dragons.  The Heaven, Heavenly or Celestial Dragon (Tianlong) guarded the heavenly dwellings of the gods.  The Earth Dragon (Dilong) controlled the waterways while the Spiritual Dragon controlled the rain and winds.  The fourth, Fuzanglong, was the dragon of hidden treasure.  

Steamed and fried dumplings

Steamed and fried dumplings

The Heaven Dragon of Chinese mythology may have looked down from its celestial perch as emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties visited Beijing’s Temple of Heaven to pray for a good harvest.  The Temple of Heaven is one of two large, colorful photographs (the other is of Wi Mountain) on the walls of the main dining room.  That’s as ostentatious as it gets in this rather austere restaurant located next door to an Albertson’s grocery store in a busy shopping center.  It’s an attractive restaurant not dominated by stereotypical Chinese restaurant accoutrements.

Ambiance by subtraction or minimalism is sometimes a good formula and in Chinese restaurants, that’s especially true if there are no buffet troughs to detract from the dining experience.  Thankfully Heaven Dragon doesn’t offer a buffet.  It does provide a very robust take-out business.  It’s not uncommon to see throngs of diners waiting to pick up their orders.  The menu is replete with many of the Americanized Chinese favorites diners seem to like.  It’s not a menu that will excite staunch seekers of authenticity, but the throngs of guests who frequent the restaurant does say a lot.

Egg rolls

Egg rolls

While eat-in diners wait for their orders, your server brings over a small, complimentary plate of peanuts liberally sprinkled with powdered sugar.  This “amuse bouche” (sweet peanuts) may not tantalize your taste buds, but it won’t make you thirsty as salty peanuts might and it just could tide you over until something more substantial arrives at your table.

That might be fried or steamed dumplings.  Since this appetizer comes eight to an order, ask for four fried and four steamed dumplings.  You won’t be disappointed. Heaven Dragon’s dumplings are some of the best in the Albuquerque area.  They’re accompanied by a dumpling sauce made from soy sauce, Hoisin sauce and just enough chile oil to add a piquant potency.  The dumplings are quite good by themselves, but that dumpling sauce makes them something special.

Bar-B-Q Spareribs

Bar-B-Q Spareribs

As at many Chinese restaurants, an appetizer order of egg rolls is quite popular.  Rather than order them as appetizers, savvy diners might opt instead to order one of the special combo platters in which an entree is accompanied by egg rolls and pork fried rice.  Heaven Dragon’s egg rolls are nothing special, but that can be said about virtually every Chinese restaurant in the Albuquerque area.  They’re golden brown and crispy on the outside with a standard filling of cabbage and pork inside.  Perhaps owing to their middling quality, the sauce offered with these egg rolls comes in a small plastic, tear to open bag.  The egg roll sauce is also of modest quality. 

Less exciting (or more disappointing depending on whether your perspective is glass half full or half empty) is an appetizer order of Bar-B-Q Spareribs.  Available in small or large sized orders, these ribs are heavily lacquered in a cloying sauce that dominates the flavor profile.  You’ll be hard-pressed to discern any smokiness in this bar-b-q.  Nor can it be described as “off-the-bone” or “fork tender.”  The ribs are chewy and tough, but it’s the sugary qualities that are least endearing.

Roast Pork Lo Mein

Roast Pork Lo Mein

The menu is replete with many standard offerings, but if you prefer something other than the de rigueur sweet and sour offerings, you may want to opt for something designated on the menu as “chef specialties.”  During my inaugural visit, my eyes settled on mango beef, an entree I first had in a Vietnamese restaurant in Denver.  Done well, this is a dish that melds sweet, savory and tart tastes in a gravy of deliciousness.  The only thing lacking in Heaven Dragon’s version was mangoes in-season.  Had the mangoes been just slightly sweeter, this would have been an excellent entree.

Alas, during our second visit, another chef’s specialty nearly proved the undoing of my appetite.  The menu’s description was of “fried scallops and aromatic walnuts, lettuce in brown sauce served in a crispy fried potato nest.” Here’s what was delivered: a fried bowl (ostensibly of potato) reminiscent of the greasy taco salad bowls served in Mexican restaurants piled with scrimpy fried scallops and candied (not aromatic) walnuts sitting atop shredded lettuce.

Orange Chicken

Orange Chicken

Delivered on the side was a bowl of what resembled and tasted suspiciously like a vanilla pudding–wholly unlike any “brown sauce” I’ve ever had at any Chinese restaurant.  While I usually like sweet and savory combinations if the sweet isn’t overly so, I’m averse to anything overly cloying and this was one of the sweetest concoctions ever set before my table. Hoping to salvage this “sauce” I added an entire bowl of house Chinese mustard and even the gunpowder incendiary mustard couldn’t “defunkify” it.  Ultimately I resorted to eating the scallops with Sriracha sauce. In the breath following my admonition to the waiter to bury the aforementioned entree, I praised the restaurant’s rendition of beef chow mein fun which was garlicky and delicious.  The thin rice noodles, white and green onions and profuse garlic melding was almost as good as the scallops were bad.

Smartened up by two disappointing chef’s specialties, my third visit was a venture into Americanized Chinese food.  Any departure from the mundane seems to extend many Chinese restaurants beyond their capabilities and that may be the case at Heaven Dragon.  Such restaurants, however, sometimes do a wonderful job in preparing all the standard favorites.  That’s probably from all the practice they get in turning out large volumes of American favorites such as sweet and sour anything.

Lemon Chicken

Lemon Chicken

Sure enough, Heaven Dragon does a fair to good job in preparing such entrees as Orange Chicken and Lemon Chicken.  Some aspects of these dishes disappoint while others were surprisingly good.  Both are very heavily breaded and the overall quality of the mostly dark meat chicken is not very high.  Their biggest saving grace were the very tangy and nicely piquant orange sauce and the tangy, lip-pursing lemon sauce.  Both sauces deserved better.

I’m not well enough versed in the dragon diet to know whether or not a dragon might enjoy a meal at Heaven Dragon, but recent experiences may make my own visits extinct.

Heaven Dragon
4300 Ridgecrest, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 891-0888
LATEST VISIT: 30 December 2012
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 14
COST: $$
BEST BET: Orange Chicken, Roast Pork Lo Mein, Fried and Steamed Dumplings

Heaven Dragon on Urbanspoon

Paisano’s Italian Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Paisano09

Paisano’s cooks like your Italian grandmother.

For years, the Duke City dining scene has been infiltrated by a plethora of cookie cutter Italian “chain gangs.” Despite deep corporate pockets, the flash and panache of Madison Avenue marketing machines and scripted, saccharine service, the chains have failed to drive away the beloved local mom and pop establishments to which Duke City diners remain steadfastly loyal?  One of the very best of the mom-and-pop lot is Paisano’s Italian Restaurant which was launched in the 1970s by  Johnny Camuglia.  Paisano’s gained a faithful following well before the plague-like incursion of the Olive Garden, Johnny Carino’s and others of that ilk. Four decades later under his son Rick, Paisano’s is still going strong thanks to doing things right for Duke City customers.

The right things are often the small things such as paying attention to the details, the real difference makers.  It’s things like preparing everything on the premises from scratch.  It’s things like preparing fresh pasta, veal, fish, poultry and beef in the traditional Italian ways.  The motto at Paisano’s is “we cook like your Italian grandma.”  It’s not only an apt description for Paisano’s no short-cuts approach to preparing terrific Italian food, but a tribute to the love with which Italian grandmothers approach cooking for their families.

Shrimp wrapped in prosciutto and covered in marinara sauce with crostini

Shrimp wrapped in prosciutto and covered in marinara sauce with crostini

No short-cuts means nothing is prepared until after you order it.  Your meal doesn’t sit out under some heat lamp waiting for a server to deliver it to your table.  When an order is placed is when the kitchen goes into action, rolling, cutting and cooking your fresh pasta.  The restaurant’s ravioli, lasagna, manicotti and other fresh stuffed pastas are handmade as are sauces which range from fresh basil pesto to white clam sauce.  Made with 100-percent Semolina flour and fresh eggs, the housemade pasta is unfailingly fresh and delicious.  Paisano’s also offers a gluten-free option as well as spinach or tomato pastas.

One other example as to how Paisano’s pays attention to the difference makers is the complementary bread basket comprised of focaccia, black olive bread and more. The bread is served with a mixture of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and herbs–not the boring herbs served at other Italian restaurants, but herbs with taste contrasts that complement one another (including flecks of red and black pepper that sizzle on your tongue).  You can purchase bread to take home, too.  It’s bakery-quality bread your family will enjoy.

Stuffed Portabella Mushroom Appetizer

Stuffed Portabella Mushroom Appetizer

Among the other things done right are the roasted garlic appetizer with local goat cheese, roasted peppers, capers and bruschetta toast (pictured above). This appetizer is absolutely perfect almost every time although a bread-based appetizer on top of the complementary bread basket may fill you up quickly.  Fortunately the other appetizer standards are all terrific.  You can also count on the specials menu to include a special can’t miss starter.

There are some flavor combinations which challenge even the most skilled of chefs.  Among them are the unnatural pairing of fruit and seafood.  One item which has proven concordant with almost everything with which it is paired is pork.  At Paisano’s, one of the more intriguing appetizer options is the pairing of prosciutto (a thinly-sliced, cured ham often mistakenly referred to as Italian bacon) and shrimp.  Paisano’s takes a handful of shrimp, wraps them in prosciutto and serves them with a marinara sauce.  The prosciutto has a salty and briny, but delicate flavor which melds beautifully with the sweet, succulent shrimp and the acidity of the marinara sauce.

Lentil and sausage soup

Lentil and sausage soup

Lighter appetizer fare is available in the form of a stuffed portabella mushroom, a large sauteed mushroom cap stuffed with sweet Italian sausage and spinach then topped with melted mozzarella and sweet basil.  Large enough for two to share, the stuffed portabella mushroom is like an island of deliciousness surrounded by a tomato sauce lagoon.  Though you might expect for the tomato sauce to dominate, all flavor components shine brightly on their own, complementing one another as all great flavor combinations do.  The sweet Italian sausage is the star, as good as any Italian sausage in the Duke City.  The portabella, a fleshy and flavorful fungi has a fresh woodsy and deeply rich, strong flavor.  The tomato sauce appears to be made from hand-squeezed Roma tomatoes and is fresh and delicious.

Genesis 25:34 recounts the story of Isaac’s two sons Esau and Jacob. Esau, the elder son was willing to give up his birthright for a pot of fragrant lentil soup prepared by Jacob. I’ve often wondered if Paisano’s managed to get hold of Jacob’s recipe. That’s how good their lentil soups is, particularly when ameliorated with the restaurant’s housemade sausage.  Warming the cockles of your heart, especially during a blustery evening, are an array of these succulent soups, some of the best in the city. This is comfort food soup of gourmet quality–perfectly seasoned, served steamy hot and portioned generously.

Mushroom and spinach soup

Mushroom and spinach soup

With full-order dinner entrees, you have your choice of soup or salad and that’s a tough choice because Paisano’s has a terrific dinner salad–also one of the best in the city (especially if served with the restaurant’s sharp blue cheese).  Every time I think I’ve experienced Paisano’s most superlative soup, the soup of the day changes and a better soup than my prior favorite emerges as the possessor of my heart.

The quadrumvirate of taste bud tantalizing soups currently vying for my affections starts with the lentil soup, a deliciously spicy concoction with the restaurant’s housemade sausage (something you can never have enough of).  Aristophanes, an ancient Greek dramatist called lentil soup “the sweetest of delicacies” and even mentioned it in his plays.  He didn’t praise it because it’s a good source of protein, fiber, iron and potassium.  He praised it because it’s absolutely delicious.

Butternut Squash Soup with Ham

Butternut Squash Soup with Ham

The second soup on my list is a mushroom and spinach soup (pictured above) in which the flavor and fragrance of the fleshy fungi comes to the forefront. It’s not quite as thick and creamy as some mushroom soup tends to be, but that allows for the named ingredients to shine. Only the magnificent mushroom soup at Cafe Jean-Pierre is in the same league

Who doesn’t love tomato soup, the archetypal comfort soup that’s been warming tummies and hearts for generations? No soup better represents American comfort food and few in New Mexico does it as well as Paisano’s.  If you love the purity of fresh, acidic, meaty tomatoes sliding down your throat and warming your belly, this is the soup for you. 

Boston Bluefish

Boston Bluefish

Autumn and winter signal the widespread availability of butternut squash with its bright orange flesh  and a nutty, sweet taste some liken to sweet potatoes.  Butternut squash is prevalent in Italian pasta and soup dishes such as Paisano’s butternut squash soup with ham.  While many restaurants offer butternut squash soup or bisque in season, some prepare it almost dessert sweet.  Paisano’s rendition is only slightly sweet and made even better because it’s punctuated by the salty influence of ham sliced into tiny cubes.

Lest I be remiss and omit mentioning another pre-prandial star, Paisano’s serves a mean Caesar salad (replete with artichoke hearts and olives). Crisp and fresh Romaine lettuce and spicy, housemade croutons dressed with a deliciously light Parmesan cheese and olive oil dressing make this salad a popular choice.

Fettuccini alla Lucchese

Fettuccini alla Lucchese

Paisano’s entrees generally border on excellence and the specials earn that sobriquet as few in town do.  Entrees range from the simple–spaghetti with meatballs or Italian sausage–to sublime–Fresh Boston Bluefish.  Jim Millington, a trusted fellow gastronome, contends that Albuquerque’s best seafood can be found in Italian restaurants such as the much missed Vivace and Paisano’s.  I’ll second him there.  Some of the very best seafood entries we’ve had in the Duke City have come from Paisano’s.  That starts with the fruit of the sea.

The lasagna frutta di mare (fruit of the sea) is among the very best lasagna entrees I’ve had in a restaurant anywhere outside of Massachusetts: black (from squid ink) pasta layered with fresh scallops, shrimp, calamari, clams, snapper, roasted smoked Roma tomato, three cheeses, and marinara and asiago cream sauces.  This is a rich and complex entree that takes four hours to prepare. As such it’s on the menu only as a special of the evening and not as standard fare.  Were it on the standard menu, it might be the only thing I order and for that I’d be missing out on other succulent seafood excellence.

Grilled Sausage Links

Grilled Sausage Links

If it’s on the specials menu, don’t miss out on the fresh Boston Bluefish, an oily and fatty cold water Cape Cod fish with a rich, strong flavor.  It’s so strong, in fact, that it’s typically marinated in acidic foods such as lime or lemon juice, vinegar, wine or tomato sauce.  Strong doesn’t necessarily mean “fishy” and that’s certainly the case here.  The Boston Bluefish entree at Paisano’s is unique in its preparation, wholly unlike any bluefish I ever had in Massachusetts.

Maryland transplant and trusted fellow gastronome Larry McGoldrick happened upon this special months before I did.  He described it as “perfectly prepared” indicating it “exploded in his mouth with complex tastes.”  He christened it “one of the finest dinners he’s had in New Mexico” and urged seafood lovers to do campaign for this entree to be featured on the menu.  “Beg.  Offer your firstborn.  You’ll be delighted.” he declared in his rousing endorsement of a special I just had to try.

Pan-Seared Sea Scallops: Fresh angel hair tossed with spicy tomato, red sweet pepper sauce with shellfish broth and herbs

Pan-Seared Sea Scallops: Fresh angel hair tossed with spicy tomato, red sweet pepper sauce with shellfish broth and herbs

The bluefish is encrusted with hazelnuts and pan-sauteed, finished with sun-dried tomato butter on butternut squash risotto.   The fillet is easily an inch thick, every bit of its outer core encrusted with finely crushed and toasted hazelnuts.  What a wonderfully refreshing change from the de rigueur flour-coated fish you’ll find on many a menu.  The fish is moist and fleshy, not as light and flaky as some white fish, but much, much more flavorful.  It’s not quite as oily as sardines, but not at all fishy.  Within its hazelnut crust, its richness shines.  This is a fantastic fish entree!

The butternut squash risotto is a worthy accompaniment.  The creamy richness of the risotto bespeaks of buttery starchiness.  Its texture is smooth, maybe not quite velvety, but certainly not crunch as risotto which hasn’t been vigilantly watched over as it’s being prepared.  Perhaps because it requires constant vigilance, few restaurants serve even a passable risotto.  Paisano’s serves a good one.

Stuffed Shells:  Giant pasta shells stuffed with a tantalizing blend of cheeses and spinach served with marinara.

Stuffed Shells: Giant pasta shells stuffed with a tantalizing blend of cheeses and spinach served with marinara.

If seafood doesn’t float your boat, perhaps Paisano’s sweet Italian sausage might.  At several Italian restaurants in Albuquerque, Italian sausage is more than a misnomer, it’s an outright fabrication.  Italian sausage should not taste like Jimmy Dean brand sausage or those mystery links you sometimes see on all-you-can-choke-down buffets.  Italian sausage should be redolent with the flavor of fennel blessed, perfectly seasoned pork.  It should be moist, succulent and delicious, a melding of sweet and savory flavors.  That’s what you’ll find at Paisano’s and it’s housemade.

The sweet Italian sausage is showcased in an entree called Fettuccini Alla Lucchese (pictured above), a spicy tomato-cream sauce with Italian sausage, chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, portabella mushrooms and sage served with fresh fettuccini.  As with so many of the restaurant’s tomato-based sauces, this one appears to be made with hand-squeezed, red rich Roma tomatoes.  It makes a difference.  This is a fantastic entree, one in which complex flavors coalesce into a delicious whole crowned by rich, creamy dollop.

Lasagna

Lasagna

An even better canvass for the sausage might be the Grilled Italian Sausage Links special with roasted potatoes, red and green peppers, grilled onions and a crumbled ricotta salata.  If there’s a season made for roasting vegetables, it’s fall and winter when this special is available.  Paisano’s vegetables are roasted to perfection.  You know they’re perfectly roasted when typically bitter vegetables such as red and green peppers and strong vegetables such as onions are imbued with a pleasant, maybe even slightly-sweet flavor.  Not only that, roasting preserves the natural nutrients of the vegetables.  Few things in this world are as wonderful as Italian sausage and roasted vegetables.

An outstanding non-sausage pasta dish is the linguine carbonara (for me, best ordered with rigatoni noodles) which may be the richest entree on Paisano’s menu.  Carbonara is perhaps the richest and creamiest of all Italian pasta sauces, usually made with heavy cream, eggs, pancetta (Italian bacon) and black pepper. Paisano’s version is among the very best in the city, but because it is so rich, it might be advisable to share it with someone you love–someone who perhaps might order the Fettuccini Alla Lucchese. Split these two entrees and you’ll strike a memorable balance of richness and tomato induced greatness.

Sicilian Cannoli

Sicilian Cannoli

If you’re of the school that scallops go best with sauces that are as delicate and sweet as the edible bivalves themselves, you might have some trepidation about ordering a dish in which scallops are paired with a spicy, tangy tomato and pepper sauce.  You needn’t be if the dish is Paisano’s pan-seared sea scallops which are served atop fresh angel-hair pasta tossed with a spicy tomato and red sweet pepper sauce with a seafood broth and herbs.  Each thin strand of the angel-hair pasta is perfectly prepared as are the pan-seared scallops themselves, but it’s the complementary nature of the sweet-tangy-piquant sauce which will surprise you most of all.  With discernible notes of pepper piquancy, it’s a sauce which not only goes well with scallops, but with any other pasta or seafood dish. 

Fromage fanatics will enjoy the stuffed shells entree most.  Four giant pasta shells are stuffed with a trio of terrific cheeses–ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan–and spinach and served with marinara.   The cheese blend is tantalizing, a savory blend of mild cheeses that go well together.  The marinara sauce enlivens the shells with a tangy, herbaceous profile.

Luscious Lemon Pudding Cake with Raspberry Sauce

Luscious Lemon Pudding Cake with Raspberry Sauce

A nice alternative to pasta is a Paisano’s pizza. The restaurant’s dough is made daily and is rolled by hand. It is available with thick or thin crust and is a ten-inch pie. Available toppings include pepperoni, sausage, Canadian bacon, meatballs, anchovies and of course, green chile.  A colleague of mine likes to sing “the pizza’s perfect at Paisano’s” but that’s probably because he likes alliteration even more than I do. Paisano’s does serve a very good pizza with nicely charred edges and gooey, melted cheese. Try it with garlic and plenty of that spicy sausage.

The mere mention of Paisano’s homemade desserts might make your mouth water, especially if you’ve ever had one.  We’re trying to go through the entire dessert menu to determine which dessert is best, but every time we find one we love, we tend to order it three or four times before moving on to the next dessert on the luscious line-up.

The latest sweet treat to capture our affections is the luscious lemon pudding cake (pictured below) with raspberry sauce.  The lemon pudding is lemony, not in the fashion of those made from a box puddings and their obvious artifice.  This is made from scratch lemon pudding that will pucker your lips and tease your taste buds.  The cake itself offers a sweet contrast that accentuates the tanginess of the lemon pudding while the raspberry trail provides a fruity, sweet complement.

The molten chocolate cake and gelato is fresh baked to order which means you’ll have to wait about ten minutes for it, but it’s well worth the wait. The hot molten chocolate is topped with homemade Italian vanilla ice cream flecked with orange peel for a wonderful taste contrast. It is a decadent way to finish a good meal in Albuquerque’s best Italian restaurant.

In Italian the word “Paisano” means “countryman” which can be either someone who lives in the country or someone from the same country or region.  In Albuquerque “Paisano” means Italian food excellence at a restaurant which specializes in doing the right things and has been doing so for nearly four decades.

Paisano’s
1935 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 298-7541
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 28 December 2012
# OF VISITS: 12
RATING: 22
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Salsiccia Griglio, Lasagna Frutta Di Mare, Fettuccini Alla Lucchese

Paisano's on Urbanspoon

Gil’s Best of the Best For 2012

Chef Paddy Rawal presides over OM Fine Dining in Albuquerque, one of the best restaurants to launch in 2012

Chef Paddy Rawal presides over OM Fine Dining in Albuquerque, one of the best restaurants to launch in 2012

Over the years Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog has become a community in which readers freely share their opinions. I invite all my dear readers to share your favorites by replying to this post…and if, like me, you love “best of” lists, I invite you to check out Cheryl Jamison’s The Ten Best Things I Ate In New Mexico This Year. Cheryl, the elegant and scintillating James Beard Award Winning Author, is the New Mexican I trust most for culinary recommendations so it’s a sure bet I’m going to try as many as possible of the dishes she enjoyed during 2012.

While my travels throughout the Central California Coast, Chicago and Kansas City in 2012 introduced me to some transformative dishes, be it ever so humble, there is nothing quite as wonderful as the food served throughout New Mexico. The dishes listed below–Gil’s Best of the Best for 2012–are my baker’s dozen plus two list of the best foods I had in New Mexico. They still linger on my taste buds and remain imprinted on my fondest memories. My favorites are listed in chronological order.

  • Ironically, some of the most sumptuous seafood in landlocked New Mexico, is served in a three-legged cooking and serving vessel made from pure volcanic basalt. It’s the Molcajete Sinaloense from Albuquerque’s El Zarandeado. The deep-pucked cauldron includes three types of shrimp along with two butterflied fish filets and ringlets of octopus served in a mildly piquant green salsa served almost bubbling.
  • Jambo Cafe is so exciting, enticing and exotic that any number of dishes on its menu could rank among the best of the best for any year. The Coconut Peanut Chicken Kebabs with Curry Coleslaw is such a dish. It’s an appetizer with a grown-up peanut curry flavor. It’s a melding of textures, colors and tastes in such harmonious relationship to each other that the recipe could have been written by Mozart.
  • Neither sweet nor made of bread, sweetbreads are the ultimate organ meat, highly coveted by skilled chefs and daring connoisseurs alike for their mild yet exotic flavor and velvety texture. Chef Kevin Bladergroen at Blades’ Bistro in Placitas prepares the most rich and delicious veal sweetbreads I have ever had. It’s worth enduring a bout or two with gout for this offal deliciousness.
  • In Africa there is nothing more festive than sharing foods. Villagers near and far are called to such festivities by “talking drums.” It’s only appropriate that the Duke City’s first and only African restaurant be named Talking Drums for the method of communication which calls people to eat. One of the dishes which calls loudest is jerk chicken, an assertively piquant poultry dish that, as Emile Lagasse might say, “pops.”
  • From Chef Jean-Pierre Gozard’s eponymous Cafe Jean-Pierre in Albuquerque come some of the very best oysters these lips have ever tasted–pearlescent beauties with pronounced flavors of savory-sweet brininess. Having lived outside of New Orleans for almost eight years and having consumed boatloads of oysters should give me a modicum of credibility.
  • Cynics and critics alike decry pork belly as “so yesterday.” It’s fortunate, therefore, that Albuquerque tends to be a bit behind the times and trends because in 2012, the Duke City fell in love and lust with the pork belly with butterscotch miso sauce at the Farm & Table restaurant. It’s bacon in its purest and most delicious form, three petite pieces of porcine perfection provide a textural and flavor experience few foods can hope to match.
  • If you believe Albuquerque’s Ming Dynasty is solely a dim sum restaurant and haven’t ordered from the day-to-day menu in a while, you owe yourself a visit. Tell Ming you want the shredded duck entree. It’s laden with crisp, fresh vegetables and rich, succulent duck doused in a beauteous brown sauce that has discernible notes of piquancy. It’s one of my very favorite duck dishes in New Mexico or anywhere.
  • If you think Jennifer James 101 is an unlikely choice as my top 2012 choice for Mexican-New Mexican inspired cuisine, you haven’t indulged in her fresh corn smut tamale served with a chipotle cream and a roasted corn salsa. Corn smut is, of course, the gnarly, slimy, sometimes gooey, ink-black corn fungus long savored in Mexico. It’s a rare delicacy in New Mexico, but it’s catching on. This tamale is one of the reasons why.
  • In its December, 2012 edition Bon Appetit Magazine named the Cemita sandwich one of the top 25 food trends for 2013. There’s only one place in Albuquerque where you can get the Cemita–Chile Rio Mexican Grill. Better yet, Chile Rio offers two variations on the sandwich often called Mexico’s Big Mac or Mexico’s Dagwood Sandwich. Available with Yucatan Chicken or Slow-Roasted Pork Carnitas, I just call it one of my favorites.
  • In August, 2008, during a filming of his No Reservations show, the Travel Channel’s indefatigable host Anthony Bourdain proclaimed the enchiladas at the Pepper Pot in Hatch “the best red enchiladas of his life.” It was the green chile enchiladas which ensnared my affections. Now who are you going to trust–me or the best-selling author, culinary adventurer and self-proclaimed hedonist.
  • One of my very favorite culinary finds for 2012 is Rey’s Place for whom the terms “hole-in-the-wall” and “mom and pop” truly apply. So do the terms “made-from-scratch” and any synonym for delicious you can think of. Grandma Gloria’s Tacos are among the many Rey’s specialties which captured my heart and expanded my belt line during the year. When Rey’s is no longer a well-kept secret and becomes so crowded you can’t find a seat, you’ll regret you didn’t visit earlier or more often.
  • It wouldn’t be an authentic favorites list for me if it didn’t include at least one Vietnamese soup (which dominate my Favorite Soups list). In 2012, the best soup of any genre I slurped to my heart’s content may well be the Pho Sate Kim Long from Kim Long Asian Cuisine. Think bold flavors, soul-warming comfort and uncommon deliciousness. It’s served in a swimming pool-sized bowl. A swimming pool of this pho might not be enough.
  • As a snot-nosed kid, I wasn’t as culinarily adventurous as I am now and would turn up my nose at such delicacies as chicken liver. It’s too bad I wasn’t exposed sooner to the sauteed chicken livers “Agre Dolce” with pine nuts, raisins, caramelized onions, vinegar and mashed potatoes from Santa Fe’s Il Piatto. You haven’t lived until you’ve had liver this good.
  • Few new restaurants arrived with the fanfare and reputation of Paddy Rawal’s OM Fine Indian Dining which launched in November in the Duke City. If anything, this restaurant exceeded expectations. Even its buffet has earned accolades–not for portion opportunities, but for its high quality. Forgo the buffet and try the Seafood Korma (Scallops, Shrimp, Mahi Mahi, Cashew Cream Sauce). It’s the catch of the day–any day in 2012.
  • Quick! What’s New Mexico’s best sandwich? If your answer is “the green chile cheeseburger,” you’re like many New Mexicans who haven’t been sufficiently impressed by any sandwich. You’ll be more than impressed if you visit Mucho Gourmet Sandwich Shop in Santa Fe and order the Southwest Grilled Cheese Sandwich. The Food Network believes it’s our state’s best sandwich. You probably will, too.

You’ll notice that some of my very favorite restaurants–Budai Gourmet Chinese, Mary & Tito’s, Torinos @ Home, Joe’s Pasta House,  and The Bobcat Bite aren’t represented on this list even though I did visit every one of them (some several times) in 2012. Those are my stand-bys and they serve some of my favorite dishes of any year. It would have been too easy to name my favorite dishes from these fabulous eateries.

Gil’s “Best of the Best”: 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 |

Savoy Bar & Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Savoy, one of Albuquerque's best fine-dining restaurants

Savoy Bar & Grill, one of Albuquerque’s best fine-dining restaurants

In 1881, the Savoy Theater in London’s trendy West End was built to showcase the brilliant Victorian era collaboration of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan who composed fourteen comic operas.  The Savoy was the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity.  It also has the distinction of being fronted by the only road in Britain where traffic is required by law to drive on the right-hand side.

In 2006, the Savoy Bar & Grill was built in Albuquerque to showcase yet another brilliant collaboration, that of identical twin brothers Keith and Kevin Roessler who also own and operate Seasons Rotisserie & Grill in Albuquerque’s Old Town and Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro in fashionable Nob Hill.  As restaurant impresarios, the Roessler brothers may have no equal in Albuquerque with each of their three restaurants being regarded as among the best in the city, particularly for high-end dining.

Housemade Foccacia Bread and Fano Bakery Baguettes With Butter Compound made with garlic and thyme

Housemade Foccacia Bread and Fano Bakery Baguettes With Butter Compound made with garlic and thyme

Savoy, the latest addition to the Roessler restaurant triumvirate, resembles a California wine-country bistro in both ambiance and menu.  That’s a natural considering their uncle and mentor Roger Roessler is a successful restaurateur in Sonoma County, California where the fruit of the vin is showcased in some of America’s finest wineries.   Roessler Cellar wines are featured at Savoy though not exclusively.

As one of the Northeast Heights’ few fine-dining establishments, the Savoy Bar & Grill helps fill a niche in an area that includes High Desert, Tanoan and North Albuquerque Acres, three of the city’s most upscale residential areas.  Fittingly, Savoy is an extravagant milieu, the result of a million-dollar plus renovation which saw the metamorphose of what used to be YesterDave’s, a 50s-style neon spangled burger and malt joint into one of the city’s most capacious and classy fine-dining eateries.

Local goat cheese wrapped in prosciutto with toasted baguettes and a black pepper-cranberry chutney

Local goat cheese wrapped in prosciutto with toasted baguettes and a black pepper-cranberry chutney

Facing Montgomery Boulevard, Savoy is an impressive sight, a 10,000 square-foot building which incorporates a stucco facade with an imposing grey brick frontage.  Step inside and there’s little architectural resemblance to any restaurant in Albuquerque.  The restaurant is smartly partitioned into several sections, each designed for optimal function and stylish comfort.

The bright and open main dining room includes comfortable seating for more than 140.  It also features unobstructed views to an arresting 1,800-square-foot exhibition kitchen where, despite the hustle and bustle of activity, sound is muted and won’t interfere with the enjoyment of an intimate mealtime conversation.  Strategically positioned skylights and natural New Mexico sunlight allowed in by large windows coupled with light colored walls complement some of the dark wood touches to form an elegant milieu.

Pomegranate Glazed Quail with Sweet Potato Fries

Pomegranate Glazed Quail with Sweet Potato Fries

A wood-burning oven is the exhibition kitchen’s culinary cynosure, the heart of the kitchen whose olfactory-arousing aromas will draw the rapt attention of Savoy’s guests as cedar planked salmon and seasonal flatbreads are prepared.  To the immediate west of the kitchen is the 25-seat Tasting Room highlighted by walls of glass-encased, refrigerated wine cubbies, a continuation of the restaurant’s wine-friendly theme.  Saturday afternoon wine-tastings are held in this venue.

Savoy’s Napa Room which seats as many as 50 guests and features state-of-the-art audiovisual drop-down equipment is ideal for corporate events and private parties.  A semi-private room with windows on three sides accommodates another 36 guests while a 45-seat bar and lounge lead to a 60-seat, vine-covered patio.  The sophisticated milieu has several fireplaces and seems tailor-made for long visits.

Fabulous salad: two types of greens, feta cheese, fried prosciutto de Parma, raspberries, port dressing

Like Gilbert and Sullivan, the Roessler brothers’ collaboration is complementary.  Keith is the operations and financial manager while Kevin serves as the restaurant’s wine manager.  It’s a formula that works well.  You can’t mention collaboration without a word or two about Savoy’s food and wine pairing.  The menu is designed to accentuate the combination of food and wine so they balance and complement one another’s natural flavors.  My best advice is to enjoy the foods you like with the wine you like.  Fortunately, the staff is on hand to provide good advice on food and wine pairings that make the most of both.

Keith Roessler describes Savoy as “like a chophouse, a blend between a steakhouse and a seafood restaurant.” Unlike at some chophouses, sides aren’t a la carte, making the high (for Albuquerque) price point very reasonable considering the high quality of the cuisine. As much as possible, both produce and meats are procured locally. The menu changes with the seasons to accentuate the availability of the freshest ingredients.

Autumn Squash Bisque:fried sage, whipped creme fraiche

Autumn Squash Bisque:
fried sage, whipped creme fraiche

The restaurant’s executive chef and co-owner is Bob Peterson whose previous experience includes stints at both the Seasons Rotisserie & Grill in Durango, Colorado and Albuquerque’s Old Town, both of which were founded by the Roessler brothers’ uncle.  Peterson’s cooking philosophy centers around providing a balanced dining experience in which flavors, textures, food temperatures and nutritional value are considered in the preparation of an entree.

Shortly after you’re seated and the menu is presented, a plate of breads will be brought promptly to your table. Savoy bakes its own bread in an oak-fired oven, but it’s the bread’s flavor which places it in a rarefied class. A housemade focaccia infused with caramelized sweet onions and rosemary is some of the best restaurant bread in town as are the restaurant’s sliced baguettes. Best of all, you can purchase either or both the focaccia or baguettes and take them home with you. It’s better than bakery-quality bread.

Antipasto Plate – house Burrata cheese, duck pate, cured meats, hummus, marinated olives, parmesan breadsticks, crostini

Antipasto Plate –
house Burrata cheese, duck pate, cured meats, hummus, marinated olives, parmesan breadsticks, crostini

The breads are served with a creamy whipped butter made in-house with garlic and thyme though tempered so it’s not as strong as garlic butter can be.  The butter spreads easily on the focaccia and sliced baguettes, both of which are fresh and delicious.  Characteristic of great baguettes, a hard-crust complements an airy inside texture.  The focaccia is soft and chewy.  Both are so good, you might finish a plate or two before your appetizers are delivered.

In general, critics don’t advocate ordering a bread-based appetizer when a restaurant’s in-house bread is as good and filling as Savoy’s bread is, however, if you exercise sufficient restraint with the complimentary bread, you shouldn’t miss the baked local goat cheese. The goat cheese is procured from The Old Windmill Dairy in McIntosh, New Mexico. It is packed in a “rind” of prosciutto and is served with toasted baguettes and a black pepper-cranberry chutney. It’s pillow soft and has a mild flavor accentuated by the saltiness of the prosciutto. The black pepper-cranberry chutney lends dimensions of flavor that seem to bring out unexpressed qualities in the cheese. This is an excellent appetizer!

Thin Sliced Lamb Sandwich with a Risotto Salad

Thin Sliced Lamb Sandwich with a Risotto Salad

From among the ten appetizer menu, you’ll probably want to try at least two starters.  The pomegranate glazed quail with sweet potato fries is an excellent option.  Despite its diminutive size, quail is a meaty fowl with little fat or sinew.  It’s also a fairly juicy bird which absorbs complementary flavors well.  The quail is lightly encrusted in a thin sheath that allows the sweet-tart flavor of the pomegranate glaze to penetrate deeply.  The sweet potato fries, just a handful, are thick and soft with a sweet, delicious flavor. 

On a blustery winter day, there may be no more comforting appetizer than a soul-warming bowl of soup, whether it be in the form of a pho, chowder, stew, consomme or bisque.  Savoy’s autumn squash bisque, is a  rich, thick, creamy soup that has been pureed so that it has an even texture.  It is delicious in its flavor profile and made even more magnificent because it’s served piping hot.  The sweet-savory flavor of the autumn squash is punctuated by the sour-tanginess of creme fraiche and the mildly astringent touch of fried sage.  The prevalent flavor, however, is that of succulent squash.  This is a soul-warming soup you will crave year-round.

Prime Rib Peppersteak Sandwich –spicy Tabasco remoulade, Gruyere cheese, parmesan fries

Prime Rib Peppersteak Sandwich –spicy Tabasco remoulade, Gruyere cheese, parmesan fries

Savoy’s antipasto plate is in rarefied air among all the antipasto plates offered throughout the Duke City.  The burrata, an almost unnaturally soft and moist fresh Italian cheese made from cream and mozzarella, is ethereal in its texture.  While it complements other plate ingredients, it’s best on its own.  The duck pate is mellow, the strong flavor of liver cut by spices (maybe even star anise) and perhaps a sherry or cognac.  The flavor of the hummus would be more discernible with pita slices rather than crostini or the parmesan breadsticks.  On its own, you’ll discern some the wonderful Middle Eastern spices used to flavor hummus.   The marinated olives are meaty, moist and flavorful.

Chef Peterson’s favorite meat is lamb, an overt invitation for diners to try the thin-sliced lamb sandwich for lunch.  The lamb comes from the Talus Wind Ranch in Galisteo, New Mexico which purchases, transports, processes and distributes the lamb and literally tracks it from ranch to refrigerator.  With a pedigree like that, when you can track a lamb’s parents, how can you possibly go wrong, especially when you order something like the amazing Thin Sliced Lamb Sandwich.

Fontina cheese Pasta with sage, chicken sausage, cherries, herbs and port wine topped with bread crumbs.

Fontina cheese Pasta with sage, chicken sausage, cherries, herbs and port wine topped with bread crumbs.

True to the menu, the lamb is thinly sliced, almost like the packaged stuff grocery stores call roast beef (but infinitely better).  Layers of pinkish-reddish hued slices of succulent lamb are embellished by a basil aioli, lettuce and tomatoes and served generously between two glorious slices of toasted olive bread.  It’s a thick sandwich, succulent, juicy and wholly wonderful.  The lamb sandwich is served with a side pine nut, red pepper and risotto salad served cold.  Unlike some risotto which tends to be clumpy, Savoy’s rendition showcases each and every grain of rice, all of which are perfectly prepared.  The salad collaborates fantastically with the sandwich. 

If sandwiches are what calls you loudest (and they often do, me), one sandwich which will absolutely sing is the Prime Rib Peppersteak Sandwich.  While peppersteak is known to have originated as a Chinese-American dish made with strips of steak sauteed with bell peppers and seasoned with pepper, ginger, and soy sauce, Savoy’s rendition is very unlike any Chinese version you’ve had.  The prime rib is sliced into tender strips, drizzled with  a spicy Tabasco remoulade and topped with melted Gruyere cheese.  It’s not nearly as peppery or spicy as its name might imply, but instead resonates with the characteristics of the high-quality prime rib from which it is made.  The sandwich is served with twice-fried parmesan fries.

Antelope Sausage Burger

Antelope Sausage Burger

During a visit in December, 2012, the lunch special of the day at Savoy was an intriguing burger unlike any burger I’ve ever had.  It’s an antelope sausage burger the size of a small skyscraper.  It’s a marvel to behold and far too large to fit in most human mouths.  In fact, it’s probably best consumed with a steak knife and fork.  The base for this behemoth burger is a toasted sesame seed bun baked on the premises.  It’s topped with organic arugula, a thick red tomato, crispy onion rings, melted housemade mozzarella, a house marinara sauce and one of the largest meat patties conceivable.  The patty is constructed of 85 percent antelope, pancetta and pork fat then seasoned with rosemary, thyme, pepper and fennel.  The concept is compelling, but frankly, this burger might have been best served as a pasta dish.  That’s what the combination of antelope sausage, marinara and mozzarella will remind you of.  Though flavorful, this burger isn’t exactly enjoyable to consume.  It’s just too large to enjoy as a true burger.  If you “squash” it down, the effect is similar to a car running over a squirrel (don’t try to picture that).   It’s not a pretty picture.

For dinner, New Mexico lamb is showcased in some of the most succulent lamb chops you’ll find anywhere. For some reason, there are several high-end, fine-dining restaurants in New Mexico touting their use of Colorado lamb entrees. They apparently don’t know that New Mexico’s lamb doesn’t’ take a back seat to lamb from anywhere.  Prepared at medium-rare, there’s more than a hint of pink on each of the three chops.  In fact, the meatiest part of the chops are even a bit chewy, courtesy perhaps of not being done sufficiently.  The edges, and especially around the bone, are grilled perfectly.  These chops have little of the characteristic gaminess of lamb and what little gaminess there is, is obfuscated by a sublime roasted garlic port wine glaze. Never mind the mint jelly; this glaze is fantastic…sopping up with bread good.  Though this entree is served with a couscous dish, substitutions are allowed.  The sour cream mashed potatoes are a worthy accompaniment to the lamb.

New Mexico Lamb Chops with Roasted Garlic Port Wine Glaze and Sour Cream Mashed Potatoes and Green Beans

A special restaurant like Savoy tends to have wonderful daily specials.  We happened upon such a special during our inaugural visit for lunch–a pasta dish with a Fontina cheese, port wine and cherry sauce with sage infused chicken sausage.  Quite simply, this is an exquisite entree, as wonderful a pasta dish as can be imagined. The flavors are rich and deep with heightened deliciousness, a perfect coalescence of complex and simple ingredients melding together perfectly.  This is an entree which would be the starring attraction of many a menu.  Sage is a vastly underused ingredient which really stands out in chicken sausage.

A true stand-out in the dinner menu is the seared ahi tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes, sugar snap peas, sauteed mushrooms and a sake burre blanc (an ultra-rich, buttery sauce).  The sashimi grade ahi tuna is perfectly seared (the only way to truly appreciate tuna) with lightly crusted edges bordering the beautifully pink flesh.  The wasabi mashed potatoes aren’t nearly as Americanized Japanese horseradish tends to be, but it certainly imbues the potatoes with a slight burning sensation. The sugar snap peas are a delight, as much fun to eat as they are delicious.

Seared Ahi Tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes, sugar snap peas, sauteed mushrooms, sake beurre blanc

Dessert options are limited–at least in terms of quantity.  An apple strudel with vanilla ice cream sounds simple and commonplace, but at Savoy it’s a transcendent dessert.  A flaky puff pastry enrobes thinly sliced apples which are a perfect balance of tart and sweet.  A small scoop of luxurious vanilla ice cream seems tailor-made to bring out the tartness of the apples even more, a perfect collaboration of flavors.

Peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream showcases the natural fruitiness of in-season peaches, not the artificial pectin that tends to be overly sweet. The peaches are juicy and tender, topped with a rich, buttery crust. You can taste the vanilla bean on the vanilla ice cream, a wonderful surprise. Though not a big dessert, it’s big in flavors.

Peach Cobbler With Vanilla Ice Cream

The Savoy Bar & Grill is all about collaboration: the collaborative partnership between entrepreneurial brothers who are bringing refined dining elegance to Duke City dining as well as the exquisite pairing of bold flavors in both food and wine. Savoy is among the finest in fine dining in the Duke City.

Savoy Bar & Grill
10601 Montgomery Boulevard Northeast
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 294-9463
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 27 December 2012
1st VISIT: 30 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 22
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Baked Local Goat Cheese, Pomegranate Glazed Quail, Thin Sliced Lamb Sandwich, Apple Strudel, Peach Cobbler with Vanilla Ice Cream, New Mexico Lamb Chops, Seared Ahi Tuna

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2012: A Thrilling (and Filling) Year in Food

Friends Who Feast: From Left to Right--Bob of the Village People, Paul "Boomer" Lilly, Bruce "Sr Plata" Silver, Gil Garduno and Bill "Santa" Resnik

Friends Who Feast: From Left to Right–Bob of the Village People, Paul “Boomer” Lilly, Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver, Gil “The NM Gastronome” Garduño and Bill “Santa” Resnik

Tis the season…for year-end retrospectives in which the good, the bad and the ugly; the triumphs and tragedies; the highs and lows and the ups and downs are revisited ad-infinitum by seemingly every print and cyberspace medium in existence. It’s the time of year in which the “in-your-face” media practically forces a reminiscence–either fondly or with disgust–about the year that was. It’s a time for introspection, resolutions and for looking forward with hope to the year to come. The New Mexico culinary landscape had more highs than it did lows in 2012. Here’s my thrilling (and filling) recap.

The dailymeal.com apparently can’t keep a secret. In January, the site revealed America’s ten most secret restaurants, eateries which “remain conundrums to the outside world, with only a select few joining the inner circle of diners privy to their culinary secrets.” The only New Mexico restaurant “outed” was Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse in Albuquerque which the dailymeal described as “a high class speakeasy.”

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Egg Rolls from SaiGon Restaurant in Rio Rancho

More than 1,200 guests visited the Roadrunner Food Bank on January 29th to partake of the very best soups and desserts in the Duke City as prepared by nearly 50 restaurants. In addition to sampling soups and desserts, attendees got to vote for their favorite soup, vegetarian soup and dessert.

  • The People’s Choice Soup winner was the Artichoke Cafe for its butternut squash crawfish bisque. Kelly’s Brew Pub earned second place for its cream of chicken green chile. Third place went to the Standard Diner for its bourbon lobster bisque.
  • The People’s Choice in the vegetarian soup category was Johndi’s BBQ for its gazpacho. Second Place went to the AKayTahRing Company for their Green Chile Chicken Chowder. Finishing third was the Gecko Bar and Tapas for its fire-roasted chipotle carrot chowder.
  • The “Critics’ Choice” for best soup as determined by a panel of eight celebrity judges went to Sheraton Uptown for a green chile and mushroom soup. Second place went to the Marriot Uptown for their cream of calabasitas with green chile and smoked chicken. Street Food Asia earned a third place finish for its curry laska.
  • In the dessert category, the People’s Choice winner was Nothing Bundt Cakes. Second place went to the Artichoke Cafe while Farina Pizzeria and Wine Bar earned a third place showing.

Double meat, double cheese, double green chile burger from Twisters

Going vegan in Albuquerque is easier than learning how to spell the city’s name!” That’s the verdict of the dailymeal.com which in February, named the Duke City one of America’s Most Vegetarian-Friendly Cities. The site advised, “You’ll find tons of vegan options, such as the veggie chicken nuggets and boba tea at the Fei Health Café and the tofu scramble at Flying Star Café. Also check out both locations of Annapurna’s World Vegetarian Café, offering a selection of vegan bakery items and ayurvedic cooking classes.”

In February the James Beard Foundation announced its nominees for 2012 honors. Three of New Mexico’s finest chefs were named semi-finalists for Best Chef Southwest: Martin Rios, owner of Santa Fe’s Restaurant Restaurant Martin; Jennifer James of Jennifer James 101; and Frederick Muller of El Meze in Taos. Both Rios and James are three-time semi-finalists. Santa Fe’s The Compound Restaurant, owned by Mark Kiffin, a previous Best Chef Southwest winner, was nominated in the national restaurant service category.

Egg, Ham and Beans Burrito with Suiza Sauce from Delicias Cafe, one of the very best Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque

Zagat celebrated Mexican food week in March, finishing the week off in style by addressing six debates about Mexican food and asking readers to weigh on on what side they support. New Mexicans can relate to most of the debates: Corn Tortillas vs. Flour Tortillas; Hard Shell vs. Soft Shell; Green vs. Red; American-style vs. Mexican-style cheese; and big vs. thin burritos. Who better than New Mexicans to weigh in on the green versus red debate. Eric DiStefano, chef and owner of Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe prefers green while Mary & Tito’s owner Antoinette Knight is a staunch advocate of the red chile which she credits with helping the restaurant earn a James Beard America’s Classics Award.

During its Mexican food week, Zagat also compiled a list of 10 Crazy Tacos From Around the U.S. On the list was the Navaho (sic) Taco from Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe which the Zagat writer described as a “disc of Navaho fry bread covered with beans, cheese, chilies (sic), shredded lettuce, tomato and usually a salsa. For most New Mexicans, the only thing crazy about these tacos is how Zagat spelled Navaho. Zagat also recommended washing down these tacos with one of the Coyote Cafe’s habanero margaritas.

A slice of Sicilian style rosemary pizza from Fastinos by Saggio

Zagat must have had a few too many habanero margaritas in declaring “Southwestern” style Mexican food in Arizona and New Mexico as “pretty darn similar,” that reasoning based on the fact that they’re both on the border of Mexico’s Sonora state. Dan Garcia, vice president of Albuquerque’s Original Garcia’s restaurant family stressed that green chile is what makes New Mexican food best and touted hand-rolled tortillas which are “nicer, thicker, fuller and more filling” and sopaipillas.” At least Zagat didn’t compare New Mexico’s unique and superior cuisine to Tex-Mex.

In April, the Huffington Post‘s food blog proclaimed the green chile cheeseburger the “hottest roadside dish in the U.S.,” crediting its ascendency to the Food Network “Throwdown” episode in which San Antonio’s Bobby Olguin bested Bobby Flay in a green chile cheeseburger throwdown. According to the writer, New Mexico’s iconic burger “suddenly took on nearly mythic proportions across the country as the rodeo food of the cowboy gods.” (huh?) Surprisingly he wasn’t as impressed by Olguin’s Buckhorn Tavern burger as he was with the green chile cheeseburger at Santa Fe’s “practically unknown dive cafe,” Horseman’s Haven. (huh, again)

Penne con Salsiccia from Scalo Northern Italian Grill

in a May, 2012 article entitled State Dinners, 2012: Food Pilgrimages You Must Make This Summer, Grub Street New York, the daily food online magazine from New York Magazine published a list of 50 dining pilgrimages its readers should undertake. The ambitious list was limited to only one restaurant per state which meant leaving off hundreds of potentially worthy choices. It’s hard to argue that New Mexico’s “not-to-be-missed” restaurant is Mary & Tito’s, but there are so many other wonderful restaurants in the Land of Enchantment. Grub Street got it right in saying Mary & Tito’s has been “serving up what most agree is the best red chile in town” since 1963.

In May, New Mexico’s four-time James Beard award-winning authors Bill and Cheryl Jamison released Tasting New Mexico: Recipes Celebrating One Hundred Years of Distinctive Home Cooking, a terrific tome which should grace the kitchen and library of every home in the Land of Enchantment. Their passion for the traditional foods of their adopted home state is reflected in their raconteur approach toward describing the state’s restaurants, cooks, food products and local dishes. Tasting New Mexico is a love story–more than a cookbook, better than a travel guide. Featuring 100 distinctive recipes, it is the best and most important culinary compilation about New Mexico ever written.  Cheryl is also the contributing culinary editor for New Mexico Magazine where she publishes the wonderful Tasting New Mexico blog which dishes out the latest from the New Mexico dining scene.

Tasting New Mexico, an outstanding cookbook from Bill and Cheryl Jamison

On May 9th 21st Century Business, an award winning targeted business show, visited the Golden Crown Panaderia to spotlight the bakery’s online ordering system and how the orders come into the bakery and are displayed to the employees. Owner Chris Morales praised the reliability and efficiency of the panaderia’s point of sale system, indicating the system makes it easy for the restaurant to process its orders and perform inventory to ensure the availability of needed ingredients.

In its May, 2012 issue Taste of Home magazine celebrated the “Great American Drive-Through,” a compilation of “regional foods that make significant deposits to the culinary treasure of the country.” Four distinct culinary trails were spotlighted: the Colorado Ale Trail, the Vermont Cheddar Trail, the North Carolina Barbecue Trail and the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. According to the magazine, four spots in particular “reveal the true meaning of “hot on the trail.” Those four spots were the Bobcat Bite, Monte Carlo Steakhouse, Buckhorn Tavern and Sparky’s.

The Wednesday special at Mary & Titos: Carne Adovada Chimichanga

The May 21, 2012 issue of People Magazine featured popular Albuquerque restaurant Tim’s Place and its affable proprietor Tim Harris. In a feature entitled “Serving Hot Food and Warm Hearts,” the magazine profiled the “world’s friendliest restaurant” serving breakfast, lunch and hugs. Harris, likely the only person in the United States with Down Syndrome to own and operate his own restaurant has given more than 18,000 hugs to customers according to the “official hug counter” in the dining room that tallies each hug.

New Mexicans tend to shy away from lists because of the notoriety the Land of Enchantment seems to garner in many quality of life lists. In June, National Geographic published its “Top 10 Best of Everything” book that includes lists of magnificent museums, stylish ski runs, superb cigars and the ten best hamburgers under the spacious skies. Blake’s Lotaburger was named America’s fourth best burger. Serving New Mexico for six decades and now with 75 restaurants, Lotaburger’s motto is “if you are what you eat, you’re awesome.” Who can argue with that?

Lamb enchiladas with an ancho chile-peach sauce, a unique Ezra’s Place offering

Just before Fathers’ Day in June, Tim Harris was profiled in a CBS News “On the Road” segment. As the only person in America with Down’s Syndrome to own his own restaurant, Tim is the architect of the “family feel” concept behind the popular Tim’s Place. CBS cited hugs as the restaurant’s measure of success, pointing out that Tim was nearing the 19,000 hug plateau as of the program’s airing.

Starting July 1st, the Land of Enchantment enacted a law that protects chile farmers from pepper pretenders. The New Mexico Chile Advertising Act declares that chile can only be labeled New Mexico chile if it is actually grown in New Mexico soil. Nefarious producers have for years marketed charlatan chile as “Grown in New Mexico” even though it is brought in from China, India and maybe even New York City. The law prohibits vendors from claiming such products as salsa and enchilada sauce contain New Mexico chile unless the chile was actually grown in the state. Violators will be forced to stop selling chile products (and should probably be subjected to eating the faux fiery stuff).

EggStravaganza 2012, the largest fund-raiser for New Mexico’s Meals on Wheels

In July, USA Today named Giovanni’s Pizzeria the very best purveyor of pizza in the Land of Enchantment, the second time in two years Giovanni’s was accorded that honor by the daily periodical. USA Today indicated: “This is New York style thin-crust pizza crispy with a blackened spot or two and a good, yeasty taste. But being New Mexico, green chile shows up frequently as a topping.”

On July 25th, the Travel Channel aired “Best of the Road,” an hour-long program honoring small towns in the categories of best food, most beautiful, most fun, most patriotic and most friendly in a competition created by Rand McNally, USA Today and The Travel Channel. Online voting determine the finalists before each town was visited by a two-person team of judges, one team for each category. To the surprise of absolutely no one, Santa Fe was selected as the small city with the Best Food in the country. The judges were treated to some of the best Santa Fe had to offer: breakfast at Tia Sophia’s, dinner at the Coyote Cafe, pizza and beer at the Marble Brewery, margaritas at Maria’s and more.

Arepas from El Pollo Real Colombiano in Albuquerque’s International District

In July, Conde Naste Traveler, the world’s premier travel magazine, named 10 Food Trails Worth the Flight (and the Calories), ten places around the world where it’s easy to sample the local specialty. New Mexico’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail was one of the trails selected. A few highlights from the 66 restaurants and 100 locations that made the cut included the Buckhorn Tavern, Blake’s Lotaburger and The Owl Bar & Cafe.

A Hamburger Today, a weblog about America’s national dish, was in Albuquerque in July to sample the green chile cheeseburger at Q Burger, a Central Avenue burger restaurant previously called bRgR. The blog mentioned that “the menu features more run-of-the-mill, fancy-pants burger offerings,” such as kangaroo burgers and Wagyu beef burgers with Kaseri cheese, but it was the iconic green chile cheeseburger which the writer cited as “one of the better green chile cheeseburgers I’ve had in state.”

Carne Adovada Plate from Rey’s Place, one of my very favorite discoveries in 2012

Meals on Wheels of Albuquerque hosted its eleventh annual Breakfast Egg Stravaganza on Saturday, July 14th, 2012. The breakfast is an all-you-can-eat plethora of deliciousness that includes freshly made pancakes, build-your-own omelets, made to order waffles, a fresh fruit bar and much more. Thanks to the generosity of civic minded (and hungry) Duke City citizens more than 500 people attended the event and Meals on Wheels raised over $20,000! That is BY FAR their best year ever! Thank you, my dear readers, for supporting this most worthwhile cause.

In July, Edward Sung, a long time friend of this blog, and his lovely better half Hannah Walraven launched a delightful blog called Once Again We Have Eaten Well. Once Again…is a delightful change of pace from the mundanity of most food blogs (and food writing in general). The blog employs a novel conversational approach so entertaining and realistic, you’ll find yourself transported to the table with Edward and Hannah. It’s almost as good as being there with them.

The Not-cha-mama’s family displaying the very best gourmet pickles in New Mexico (the secret: Hatch chile)

In July, two New Mexico restaurants were recognized for providing meals with a view–incomparable views. OpenTable, an online real-time reservation site took the pulse of more than five-million restaurant reviews in which “scenic view” was highlighted and compiled a list of the top 100 restaurants with a scenic view. The two enchanting restaurants were the High Finance at the top of the Sandia Peak Tramway and Sandiago’s Mexican Grill at the Tramway’s bottom.

Taking input from its readers, Zagat published an article in August hailing “superlative out-of-town patties that might actually be worth a road trip.” The “Destination Burgers: 10 Patties Worth a Trip” included the Bobcat Bite’s legendary burger. Zagat credited the Bobcat Bite‘s “secret-recipe green chile sauce” for giving the burger its “addictive that has fans making the trek out to the joint off the Old Las Vegas Highway year after year.

Thanksgiving Turkey Sandwich from Torinos @ Home: Oven roasted turkey, gravy,
cranberry orange sauce,caramelized onions, provolone cheese. Served with sweet potato fries

In August, Pacific Standard asked the question “Is New Mexico Hoarding All the Good Chile, or Just Really Bad at Selling It?” Acknowledging that “Mass roasting of the smokey-yet-sweet-yet-piquant nightshade will make Albuquerque the best-smelling city in America for the rest of the summer,” the blog waxed pondered why “New Mexico’s singular crop has never earned the national fame that Maine lobsters, Idaho potatoes or Midwest sweetcorn enjoy, though anyone who tries them tends to find his or her life improved, in a minor but permanent way. Ultimately, Pacific Standard surmised that “It would appear the New Mexicans are quietly content keeping their best stuff to themselves. A test: try asking one about sopapillas.”

American Profile magazine celebrated Hatch as the ““chile capital of the world” in a flattering profile published in August. Shayne Franzoy of Hatch’s “first family of chile acknowledged that “everyone [in Hatch] eats chile at least once a day,” but it was a chile devotee from Little Rock, Arkansas who best expressed the sentiment of many New Mexicans: “It’s almost like having salt and pepper on the table.”

Pumpkin bisque with creme Fraiche at Il Piatto Italian Farmhouse Kitchen

While the Land of Enchantment has achieved international acclaim for our incomparable green chile cheeseburgers, New Mexico is not known for our sandwiches. There is no one sandwich we can point to and proclaim it our definitive sandwich. Maybe there is. In the September, 2012 issue of Food Network Magazine, an article entitled “50 States, 50 Sandwiches” listed one sandwich for every state, ostensibly the state’s very best feast between bread. At first browse, a grilled cheese sandwich may not seem especially noteworthy, but add Cheddar cheese slices, tomatoes, green chile and crunchy bacon and you’ve got something special. New Mexico’s best sandwich comes from Mucho Gourmet Sandwich Shoppe in Santa Fe.

The 2012 New Mexico State Fair, in association with the New Mexico Tourism Department and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, hosted the Green Chile Cheeseburger Centennial Challenge at the State Fair on Tuesday, September 18th. Twelve competitors vied for the honor of being named New Mexico’s very best and earning a trophy which, in an example of delicious irony, misspelled New Mexico’s official state vegetable as “chili.” Despite the sacrilege, none of the competing burgers actually served a “chili” cheeseburger, “chili” being a Texan creation. The winner of the event was BZ Rockin’ Burgers, a newcomer from Alamagordo whose “build your own burgers” are made with fresh ground chuck. “

Food Lovers’ Guide to Santa Fe, Albuquerque & Taos: The Best Restaurants,, Markets & Local Culinary Offerings

James Beard award-winning blog Serious Eats had no problem spelling “chile” correctly in a feature entitled “Snapshots from New Mexico: Obsessed With Chile.” In a sixteen photo slideshow published in October, the writer enjoyed chile rellenos at La Placita Dining Rooms, green chile enchiladas at El Pinto, a green chile omelet from Daily Grind Coffee, green chile cheese bread from the Golden Crown Panaderia, green chile with polenta and a green chile BLT from Cafe Pasqual, green chile mac and cheese from the Standard Diner, green chile apple pie from Cecilia’s Cafe, fried sopaipilla bread from El Parasol and chocolate red “chili” fudge from the Candy Lady. It wasn’t the writer who committed the spelling faux pas, but the candy maker who in 2012 gained notoriety for is selling what it calls “meth candy,” rock candy dyed blue to resemble the much-coveted blue meth made on “Breaking Bad.”

In October, Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos, the most prolific commenter on this blog mentioned a new culinary find he described as “the porn of pickles!!!…the enrapture of Sweet & Hot!!!” He was talking, of course, about Not Cha Mama’s gourmet pickles which are every bit as wonderful as he described them. Other readers who tried the Hatch chile-infused pickles chimed in and eventually so did Victoria Smith, the sweet lady who puts lots of love (and a little magic) in each jar of her pulchritudinous pickles. If you haven’t already tried them, make it a New Year’s resolution to do so.

Rio Rancho really knows how to celebrate diversity

October saw the launch of Food Lovers’ Guide to Santa Fe, Albuquerque & Taos: The Best Restaurants,, Markets & Local Culinary Offerings by Andrea Feucht. You’ll be well advised to keep one copy in your vehicle and one in your kitchen. That way you consult the guide to help you decide where your next meal should come from as well as consulting it for recipes Andrea charmed some of New Mexico’s best culinary minds into sharing. Andrea is one of the most tenacious food writers in the Land of Enchantment and keeps the pulse of the local dining scene.

A New Mexico institution of higher learning got a failing grade from The Daily Meal which revealed the worst college food in America in a November 15 post. The cafeteria at St. John’s College in Santa Fe didn’t endear itself to its diners by offering such culinary curiosities as vegan loaf with pineapple salsa or even by offering pizza for Sunday brunch. Despite all the wonderful New Mexican food throughout the Land of Enchantment, no New Mexico school made The Daily Meal’s 52 best colleges for food in America.

Sweet sticky rice with coconut milk and fresh ripe mango (Seasonal)

Sweet sticky rice with coconut milk and fresh ripe mango (Seasonal) from Thai Cuisine in Albuquerque

Santa Fe obtained some level of redemption in December when MSN named the Kakawa Chocolate House as one of the “ten most luxurious places in the world to drink hot chocolate.” Kakawa (an ancient Olmec word for chocolate and the cacao tree) features chocolate prepared from traditional, time-honored recipes. In the tradition of the Meso-American chocolate pioneers, most of Kakawa’s chocolate drinks are made with water. A few contain restrained amounts of milk, rice milk or almond milk. This allows the purity of cacao to shine through while preserving its healthful qualities in ways that are lost when milk is added.

In the “Headlines” segment of the December 3rd episode of The Tonight Show, Jay Leno shared a laugh with the audience over a newspaper clipping for a Rio Rancho Oktoberfest event. The clipping showed the extent to which Rio Rancho celebrates its diversity: Oktoberfest, culturally diverse version of this traditionally German celebration includes music by Norio Hayakawa, Rio Rancho’s Japanese country and western singer, 6-11 p.m. Saturday at the Italian American Association Hall.

Lunch Special at the Banana Leaf in Rio Rancho: Green Curry, Egg Roll and Steamed Rice

Lunch Special at the Banana Leaf in Rio Rancho: Green Curry, Egg Roll and Steamed Rice

In December, Santa Fe’s fabulous Geronimo was the sole New Mexico restaurant earning a much-coveted place on OpenTable’s Top 100 Best Restaurants in the U.S. More than five million diner reviews were reviewed for more than 15,000 restaurants in all 50 states. If Geronimo isn’t New Mexico’s very best restaurant, it’s on a very short list of restaurants which can lay claim to that distinction.

In December, Zagat, a guidebook America has been trusting for ratings and reviews for restaurants, nightlife, hotels and more, named its 20 Awesome Winter Foodie Destinations. The terrific twenty included such exotic locations as Tulum, Mexico; Prague, Czech Republic; Montreal, Canada; West End, Anguilla; Grand Cayman Islands and…Albuquerque, New Mexico. You thought I was going to say Santa Fe, didn’t you? The feature lauded Los Poblanos, “a historic inn and farm that’s perfect for a foodie getaway.”

Beef Tongue

Beef Tongue from Budai Gourmet Chinese

Albuquerque was also highlighted in Fodor’s Travel GuideGo List” for 2013 as one of the “25 trips to book right now.” Visitors were encouraged to visit Farina Pizzeria for “some of the best pizza you will find anywhere.” No matter when you go, Fodor’s recommends a visit to the Candy Lady for a bag of “Blue Ice” candy, the stand-in for Breaking Bad’s signature Blue Sky crystal meth.

Every year in December, Saveur magazine publishes its Saveur 100 Travel edition, a celebration of its greatest gustatory discoveries over the year. New Mexico was represented among the elite 100 by Silver City’s The Curious Kumquat. Saveur described The Kumquat’s offerings as “most far-flung modernist cuisine.” Chef Connoley incorporates elements of molecular gastronomy with locally foraged ingredients to create a menu unlike any in New Mexico…or possibly anywhere. Visiting the Curious Kumquat has been a New Years Resolution for several years now. Maybe 2013 will finally be the year in which it actually happens.

Sadly this is the fate of many restaurants

Drive through Corrales during harvest time in autumn and you’ll see roadside signs for “gourmet hay.” Historically even horses and cattle have eaten well in Corrales, however, its human inhabitants won’t eat quite as well hereafter because two of the villages restaurant gems, El Rancho de Corrales and La Casa Vieja, closed. 2012 was a tough year for New Mexico restaurants with nearly 30 restaurants reviewed on this blog closing. As much as those restaurants will be missed, we will miss T.C. Perea even more. T.C., the much beloved proprietor of Perea’s Tijuana Bar & Restaurant, passed away in July. He left a legacy of hospitality and family that touched every guest who has dined at his restaurant.

2011 was another banner year for readers of Gil’s Thrilling (and Filling) Blog who put up with more than two months of inconsistent page launches as the site was under constant attack from malicious hackers. There are now more than 4,350 reader comments on my 725 reviews. I value your comments immensely and appreciate that you thought enough of my blog this year to have voted me as one of the Duke City’s five best bloggers for 2012 in Albuquerque The Magazine’s annual “best of the city” issue.

Special thanks to my friend Paul “Boomer” Lilly for the magnificent photos which grace the banner of this blog and for his annual photo of the “friends who feast” at the top of this article.

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Joe’s Dining – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Joe's Dining on Rodeo Road in Santa Fe

Joe’s Dining on the junction of Rodeo Road and Zia in Santa Fe

In the American vernacular, there is no male name which denotes “average” more than Joe. The terms “Average Joe,” “Ordinary Joe” and “Joe Sixpack” are used to convey a completely average, down-to-earth working class male just as Ordinary, Average or Plain Jane are used to describe average women. These terms are used more as general descriptors than they are for anyone in specific. When someone does something extraordinary or special, the expression “no ordinary Joe” is often used.

Joe’s Dining in Santa Fe does its best to define just who Joe is:  Joe is everyman.  He is you, he is me, he is the guy next door, 
the gal next door.  He is José, Giuseppe, Joseph and all female renditions of the name. Joe is the common thread among us and yet he is one of a kind.  He is friendly, unpretentious, straightforward with quietly discriminating tastes. Joe has a robust sense of humor – he loves to laugh, even at himself. He loves good food, good drink and good company.

Organic Chicken Liver Pate, Bagel Chips, Onion Marmalade & Cornichons

Organic Chicken Liver Pate, Bagel Chips, Onion Marmalade & Cornichons

Joe’s Dining is certainly no ordinary Joe.  What sets it apart is a palpable passion for a sustainable, local food supply-food that is wholesome, non-genetically engineered, often “better than organic,” humanely treated and minimally processed and that has been grown with  a smaller energy-use footprint and transported short distances.  To that end, no restaurant in Santa Fe purchases as much of its product from the Santa Fe Farmers Market than Joe’s.  From 2008 to 2010, Joe’s increased such purchases 167 percent–from $30,000 to over $80,000.

Joe’s is the brainchild of owners Roland and Sheila Richter who launched the restaurant in 2002 as a diner with the intent of offering an unpretentious comfortable atmosphere for locals who demand high-quality local food and uncompromising quality of ingredients offered at a fair price.  In 2012, the restaurant changed its name and concept from “Joe’s Diner” to “Joe’s Dining,” the difference being more than a few letters.  With the name “Diner,” patrons often expected a Denny’s-like menu and that’s just not what Joe’s is all about.

Grass-fed fresh New Zealand Lamb with onion rings and vegetables

Grass-fed fresh New Zealand Lamb with onion rings and vegetables

Joe’s is the quintessential neighborhood restaurant with a menu several orders of magnitude more sophisticated and more environmentally responsible than your typical diner.  Having headed kitchens in London, New York City, Toronto and Santa Fe, chef-owner Roland Richter offers a broad menu showcasing gourmet dishes and gluten-free items even as he and Sheila endeavor to restore a food culture in which we know once again who grows our food and where it comes from.  Joe’s has been a pioneer in the locavore movement, sourcing locally for well over a decade now.

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day of the week from 7:30AM to 9PM, Joe’s truly does offer something for every taste.  The standard menus will pique your interest, maybe even make your mouth water in anticipation, but the daily specials will have you drop whatever plans you have and speed to the restaurant’s Rodeo Road location.  Such specials as Roast Goose with Braised Apple, Red Cabbage and Gnocchi in Sage Butter truly earn the distinction “special.”

A Large "Giovanni" Pizza: Montrachet Goat Cheese, Roasted Red Peppers, Roasted Garlic Cloves and Fresh Oregano

A Large “Giovanni” Pizza: Montrachet Goat Cheese, Roasted Red Peppers, Roasted Garlic Cloves and Fresh Oregano

The appetizers menu includes such treasures as Organic Chicken Liver Pate sauteed with onions, seasoned and enriched with butter then chopped. The pate is garnished with an onion-marmalade and cornichons and is served with bagel chips.  The organic, non-processed qualities of the pate give this dish a strong liver flavor much like you’d experience in Europe.  The sweet onion-marmalade will cut that strong flavor somewhat, but use it sparingly if you enjoy liver (and not everyone does).

One of the more pleasant surprises about Joe’s is that even on the lunch menu you’ll find more than the standard diner offerings of sandwiches and burgers.  You can, for example, have grass-fed fresh New Zealand Lamb chops which are roasted gently over the restaurant’s open fire mesquite grill.  You also have the option of a full rack or a half rack.  A full rack features four lollipop (what lamb rib chops are called when they’re “Frenched” (when the meat is cut away from the end of a rib or chop, so that part of the bone is exposed)) lamb chops served with mint sauce. They essentially come with a built-in “handle” which makes them easy to pick up and eat. Each lamb chop is pert and petite, but it’s packed with flavor and is very tender. When asked the degree of “doneness” for your chops, it’s best to leave it to the chef’s discretion.  At medium-rare, Joe’s lamb chops are moist and delicious.

Peach-Pecan Pie with Haagen-Dazs ice cream

Peach-Pecan Pie with Haagen-Dazs ice cream

Six years before launching Joe’s, the Richters opened their first Santa Fe restaurant.  Named Pizza Etc., it featured locally grown organic produce, mozzarella made on the premises and vegan-friendly options.  Though the Richters sold Pizza Etc. to employees, they continue to offer pizza at Joe’s and it’s no ordinary pizza.   Joe’s pizza (and pastry doughs) are made with organically grown New Mexico flour and no stabilizers, preservatives or milk powders are used.  The pizza sauce is made from reduced tomato (not reconstituted) paste, olive oil and spices. On all its pizzas Joe’s uses its own fresh mozzarella made several times a day in the restaurant’s kitchen.  The pizza crust is made from New Mexico grown organic wheat flour and a gluten-free crust is available in the 10″ size for an additional charge.

The restaurant’s signature Margherita Pizza is made with heirloom tomatoes from Dave Fresques.  Because the tomato growing season is short, this pizza is offered only for a short period of time, a sign that Joe’s will not compromise on quality.  At other times, you’ll have to “settle” for other pizzas such as the Giovanni which is made with Montrachet goat cheese, housemade mozzarella, roasted red peppers and roasted garlic cloves.  If you’re used to delivery pizza which will set you back three sawbucks for three pizzas, you might go into sticker shock at the near thirty dollar price tag on the Giovanni.  The Montrachet goat cheese with its soft, moist and creamy texture and mildly tangy flavor profile is worth the price all by itself.  “Settling should always be this good!

Gluten-free Chocolate Cake

Gluten-free Chocolate Cake

Joe’s recently introduced a gluten-free chocolate cake that’s as moist, rich and delicious as any chocolate cake you’ll find anywhere.  It may look like one of those cloying, waxy store-bought chocolate cakes, but it’s not overly sweet in the least.  In fact, the frosting seems to have mocha-like properties and is definitely in the realm of adult chocolate.  Another dessert that’s antithetical to its store-bought counterpart is the apricot-pecan pie which takes the best qualities of a standard pecan pie (New Mexico grown pecans) and adds a unique twist with apricots instead of the gooey, syrupy standards typically used on pecan pies.

Joe’s Dining certainly does not live up to its name. It is, by no means, an ordinary Joe!

Joe’s Dining
2801 Rodeo Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 471-3800
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 22 December 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: New Zealand Lamb Chops, Giovanni Pizza, Gluten-Free Chocolate Cake, Peach-Pecan Pie, Organic Chicken Liver Pate

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