“These things are just plain annoying.
After all the trouble you go to, you get about as much actual “food”
out of eating an artichoke as you would from licking 30 or 40 postage stamps.
Have the shrimp cocktail instead.”
- Miss Piggy
Miss Piggy, that shrill and garrulous walking side of bacon, may not appreciate the humble artichoke much, but among both health conscious and discerning diners, the artichoke has long been a healthful and delicious dining option. Considered a “super food” for its high antioxidant, fiber, potassium, phosphorous, iron, calcium and magnesium content, artichokes have long been used in the treatment of gall bladder and liver conditions because it improves liver functions and is recognized for its ability to lower blood pressure. It’s also been known, in some cases, to help with migranes and to give skin a healthy glow.
In 16th Century Europe, eating an artichoke was considered scandalous behavior for women because the artichoke was considered an aphrodisiac (along with the humble tomato) and was reserved exclusively for men (especially aristocrats like Henry, VIII). Catherine de Medici, bride of King Henry, II of France, denounced that social more, introducing the artichoke along with traditional Italian foods and cooking to the French kitchen. Catherine was passionate about artichokes, consuming them in large quantities. Henceforth the French elevated the artichoke to the stature of a gourmet ingredient. It was treated as such when introduced to the American colonies.
It’s only fitting that one of Albuquerque’s most highly regarded fine-dining gourmet treasures pay tribute to the artichoke by festooning its name on the marquee. When the Artichoke Cafe opened in 1989, the artichoke was hardly ubiquitous on Duke City restaurant menus, many of whom seemed to believe vegetables stopped and ended with green chile. In its two decades plus of serving the city, the Artichoke Cafe has helped pioneer culinary trends diners now take for granted. That includes concepts such as seasonal menus, sustainable foods, a wine bar and…a mission statement.
Mission statements are commonplace in the military and in the corporate world, but not necessarily among restaurants. They should be! The Artichoke Cafe’s mission statement is inspired, especially the part which reads, “The guest is always is always right and we will accommodate every guest’s dietary needs to the best of our ability. We strive to make our guest’s dining experience a delicious and memorable one at the Artichoke Cafe. We encourage every employee working at the Artichoke Cafe to make this vision a reality. On any given day we are only as good as our best effort. Therefore, every employee is an important link in the chain of our mission statement and is valued as such.”
From the onset, the Artichoke Cafe has been a trend-setter, launching in the East Downtown (EDO) district long before it was the burgeoning residential and business district regarded by real estate experts as one of the “top five up-and-coming areas in the nation.” In 1989, the district was actually considered failing. You can’t underestimate the impact the Artichoke Cafe has had on the area nor that it has rightfully earned the sobriquet “heart of EDO.” In fact, there’s no disputing the veracity of any of the other slogans the Cafe has used: “the saucy little bistro at the heart of creative cuisine” and “where artisan cocktails meet creative cuisine” among them.
The 5000-square foot, 120-seat establishment is the brainchild of proprietors Pat and Terry Keene. Pat serves as the restaurant’s executive chef, a vocation for which she was formally trained in New York City while Terry has more than 30 years experience in restaurant management. While that marital pairing was certainly made in heaven, the restaurant is reputed to serve heavenly pairings of fine wine and exquisite cuisine. As a non-imbiber of adult beverages, I can’t speak for the wine, but The Wine Spectator certainly can, perennially listing it in its annual dining guide.
The Cafe’s walls are adorned with art whose beauty pales in comparison to the the truly artistic cuisine, whose artists are merely stick figure novices in comparison to the classically trained masters who create in the kitchen. From the complimentary bread basket to desserts, this restaurant exudes four star first class with a culinary repertoire which melds the finest in creative American, Italian and French cuisines. Be aware, however, that it’s easy to fall in love with an entree that may not be available because of a seasonal menu rotation.
The love starts early as in when the basket of fresh bread is delivered to your table along with a delicious herbed butter. The basket typically includes a triumvirate of breads including a very good French bread. It’s an excellent bread for sopping up the restaurant’s inspired soups, among them memory-triggering Potato-Leek soup. The Artichoke’s rendition transported us back to The Mermaid Inn in picturesque Burford, England where we luxuriated in its warmth and depth of flavor. It’s a high compliment to the Artichoke’s version that it can even be mentioned in the same sentence as the wondrous elixir served at the Mermaid Inn.
Also quite inspired is the French Onion Soup gratinee with imported Gruyere. It’s easily among the very best French Onion Soups in Albuquerque, so good even French-hating xenophobes would appreciate a steamy bowl of aromatic beef broth in which sweet onions and pungent cheese swim merrily with spongy, soft crostinis. Considered a “peasant food” by virtue of its humble, economically borne origin, French onion soup has risen to the level of much coveted, highly sought after gourmet favorites.
Don’t be surprised if lunch entrees at the Artichoke are exceedingly better than more expensive dinner entrees at other fine dining establishments. Such is the case when the lunch menu includes a grilled sliced steak served atop a bed of angel hair pasta, pine nuts, basil, asparagus spears, roasted red bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and mixed greens drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette and sprinkled with Parmesan. Only the grilled sliced steak is served warm; the rest of the entree is essentially a very clever, very well executed salad. The steak is grilled to absolute perfection at medium with the familiar diamond shaped grill marks prevalent throughout.
At the Artichoke, we’ve also discovered one of the very best Italian entrees we’ve had in the Duke City, an inspired lunch entree of Italian sausage and roasted hot peppers, a concordant marriage of sweet, savory and piquant flavors that had us salivating with every delicious morsel. The Italian sausage is of Chicago or Philadelphia caliber with the perfect amount of fennel. Italian sausage and roasted hot peppers are a quintessential Italian dish, especially popular throughout the East Coast where they’re often stuffed into sandwiches.
For dinner, perhaps no restaurant in New Mexico serves a lamb quite as luscious as the Artichoke Cafe. The oven roasted New Mexico rack of lamb, as succulent as you’ll find anywhere in the state, is not to be missed. It is tender and mouth-watering without the prevalent gamy smell of lamb served in restaurants not of the Artichoke’s caliber. The only fault you can ever find with outstanding lamb is that you’re always left wanting more. That’s the case with this luscious lamb.
One of the hallmarks of the Artichoke Cafe is its commitment to sustainable seafood. The menu features a “chef’s daily creation” in which only sustainable king salmon and seafood are used. You’ll want to pay rapt attention to your server’s description of this daily seafood bounty though doing so may dissuade you from ordering what you thought you had wanted. One daily special we happened upon during a December, 2011 visit showcased sustainable king salmon atop a bed of ginger and scallion sticky rice and topped with pickled onions and a chopped Serrano chile relish served with snap peas and carrots. This was an entree with one surprise after the other. The salmon has a near “just caught” freshness that seems enlivened by the mouth-watering combination of pickled onions and a chopped Serrano chile relish. The combination of tanginess and piquancy is a winner, far better than disguising the native flavors of the salmon with some syrupy sweet sauce as other restaurants are apt to do. The ginger and scallion sticky rice had me longing for ripe Thai mangoes.
The Serrano chile relish so captivated me that I asked for it to be added to my dessert choice of mocha semi-freddo. To our server’s credit, he didn’t call for a straight jacket or attempt to dissuade me from potentially ruining what is an excellent dessert. Alas, instead of the Serrano chile relish served with the salmon, chopped Serrano chiles were delivered in a plate. It didn’t matter. I garnished the dessert with the chiles and enjoyed my fiendish concoction thoroughly.
The Artichoke Cafe is one of the Duke City’s premier dining destinations, a fact not lost among the city’s movers and shakers who make it their destination of choice for “power” lunches and dinners. Whether or not you consider yourself a “player” in the arena of business, politics or any other enterprise, you’ll feel right at home at the Artichoke Cafe, truly one of the city’s very best restaurants of any genre.
The Artichoke Cafe
424 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 28 December 2011
# OF VISITS: 7
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Italian Hot Peppers, New Mexico Rack of Lamb