“The qualities of an exceptional cook are akin
to those of a successful tightrope walker;
an abiding passion for the task,
courage to go out on a limb
and an impeccable sense of balance”
– Bryan Miller
Former New York Times food critic
The qualities of a truly exceptional cook do not include plying his or her trade under the spotlight of a heavily trafficked metropolitan restaurant frequented by the glitterati and anointed by the cognoscenti or the Food Network. Truly exceptional cooks can shine brightly even outside the big city and media spotlight. Some of the very best cooks and chefs in the fruited plain are relatively unheralded by the teeming masses and remain undiscovered by the the saccharine television food programs. Some of them toil far from the well-beaten-and-well-eaten path and care more about the craft than they do the pursuit of celebrity.
Truly exceptional cooks shine so brightly that their reputations for exceedingly high standards and inventive cuisine precede the media stampede. The very best among these exceptional chefs maintain those standards after they’ve been discovered. Though they may appreciate any newfound attention, their focus remains on proving themselves with every single meal and to every single guest. These are the truly exceptional cooks, the ones whose passion for the task shines through!
One such chef is Byron Harrel-Mackenzie, chef and founder of Bella Luca in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico who prefers small town friendliness to the dog-eat-dog world of the fishbowl (wow, two bad metaphors in one sentence). Before settling in relatively sleepy T or C in 2007, he plied his craft under the bright lights and glitz of the Signature at MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada. Unlike the proverbial light under a bushel basket whose brilliance remains hidden, his restaurant quickly earned a reputation as a hidden gem. Snowbirds, tourists and those of us who love T or C’s salubrious waters began spreading the word about this oasis in the desert.
Fittingly Bella Luca translates to “beautiful light” because that’s precisely what this metropolitan caliber Italian restaurant is. It’s the brightest culinary shining light in a city named by Budget Travel in 2008 as one of the “ten coolest small towns” in America, an honor accorded to cities with fewer than 10,000 people—but which can rival larger cities when it comes to good food, culture, and quality of life.
Beautiful light might not be a term you’d ascribe to Bella Luca’s minimalist ambiance. From the outside, there are few telltale signs (except maybe the crowded parking lot) as to why Bella Luca has become one of the highest regarded Italian restaurants in New Mexico. If your expectations are for a swanky fine-dining interior, you won’t find that either. Instead, Bella Luca is one large dining room whose cynosure is fittingly a brightly illuminated open kitchen. The dine-in experience includes painted concrete floor, seating that is more utilitarian than it is comfortable and north-facing picture windows with not much of a view.
Located in the historic bathhouse district, the restaurant is one block west of Broadway and within easy sauntering distance of the healing waters. In terms of ambiance, Bella Luca might be antithetical to most foodie’s conception of a fine-dining quality Italian restaurant, but then it’s conceivable few people even notice their surroundings when they’re raptly enjoying their meals. Admittedly, my inaugural visit to the beautiful light was to pick up dinner and take it back to our room at the Fire Water Lodge. Eating out of biodegradable to-go boxes with plastic utensils is hardly the way you’d want to first experience Bella Luca, but the fact it still impressed us speaks volumes about this Italian idyll.
In terms of a holistic dining-in experience, our inaugural visit was wholly unlike that of Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, who called his first meal at Bella Luca “the best dining experience I have ever had in New Mexico.” Another friend and fellow foodie Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott places Bella Luca in rarefied company among the very best Italian restaurants in New Mexico. Local IQ publisher Kevin Hopper may have given the restaurant the ultimate compliment in calling it “a chef’s restaurant.”
Because it is a chef’s restaurant, Chef Harrel-MacKenzie won’t compromise on quality. All dishes are prepared from scratch, employing Escoffier cooking fundamentals. His focus is on taste and balance of flavor, using pristine ingredients to enhance the individual flavors of each element. He procures ricotta from New York City for recipes which call for it. He flies fresh seafood in daily. His wife’s grandmother Rusty, a octogenarian transplanted from Boston makes the restaurant’s homemade raviolis weekly from a 100-year-old recipe. The quality shows.
Sophia Loren, the ageless movie siren and perhaps the most voluptuous septuagenarian in the world, once said “everything you see, I owe to spaghetti.” Certainly genetics and portion control helped, too, but perhaps her point is that spaghetti has had a ubiquitous presence on her diet as it does for many people. Spaghetti is something my Kim loves, too, leaving the “experimenting” to me. The spaghetti at Bella Luca is among the very best we’ve had in New Mexico. The meatballs certainly are. Four of them are served on the plate, each large and meaty. The spaghetti sauce is redolent with Italian seasonings and applied parsimoniously enough for you to enjoy the pasta. It’s the Italian way.
It’s the chef’s way to take creative liberties with traditional entrees. The results are often brilliant. Take, for example, the braised short rib in demi-glaze over gnocchi, a dish pitting textural and flavor contrasts against each other in a way that differences meld into a superb coalescence. The gnocchi are delightfully uneven dumplings of deliciousness, usually signifying a hand-made approach. Each gnocchi is close-your-eyes-and-swoon light on the tongue, as smooth and soft as pillows. The braised short ribs are melt-in-your-mouth good.
Dessert options include tiramisu and other traditional Italian favorites, but on a sweltering summer day after soaking in a tub of geothermal hot mineral waters, you can’t beat sorbet and gelato, both made on the premises. Two terrific flavors are prickly pear and raspberry, both of which taste as their named ingredients should taste and both of which are smooth, delicate and absolutely delicious.
In 2010, Chef Harrel-Mackenzie was invited to prepare dinner at the James Beard House in New York City, an honor bestowed only to exceptional cooks. For New Mexicans who have discovered Cafe Bella Luca, it’s no surprise the chef would be accorded such an honor.
Cafe Bella Luca
303 Jones St
Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 16 June 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Spaghetti and Meatballs, Braised Short Rib in Demi Glaze, Prickly Pear and Raspberry Sorbet