Campo at Los Poblanos – Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico
A simple day laborer at a wealthy estate, Ysidro began his days by rising early and attending Mass. His fellow laborers complained that they had to do some of his share of the work because he lingered in church. After hearing the complaints of his farmhands, the land owner visited his fields while Ysidro was at Mass. To his astonishment, he saw two angels guiding Ysidro’s plow in his absence. Later when Ysidro returned to work, the angels stood next to him and plowed alongside. Ysidro was essentially doing twice as much work as he would have on his own and while at Mass, his work was getting done, too.
One snowy day when taking wheat to the mill to be ground, Ysidro passed a flock of pigeons scratching fruitlessly for food on the hard surface of the frozen ground. Taking pity on the birds, he poured half his sack of wheat upon the ground, giving the pigeons the sustenance they needed to survive. Passers-by witnessing his kindness mocked him. When he reached the mill, however, Ysidro’s bag of wheat was full and when it was ground, it yielded twice the expected amount of flour. During his simple life, several miracles were attributed to the humble laborer who was declared a saint by the Catholic Church in 1622.
Today, San Ysidro is venerated as the patron saint of farmers, peasants, day laborers and agriculture in general. He has a special place in the heart of rural New Mexico, bringing rain, encouraging crops to grow and protecting fields from blight. Visit any Hispanic folk art fair or market and you’ll invariably see wood carvings of San Ysidro, one of the most revered of all saints in New Mexico. The carvings depict a tall man attired in working clothes of the period–a black hat with a flat crown, short jacket and knee-length pants. Often, in front of him is a primitive plow guided by a carved angel and pulled by a yoke of oxen.
A modest sign at the entrance to Los Poblanos depicts San Ysidro in the very same working clothes, flanked by motifs of wheat on one side and a pair of oxen on the other. San Ysidro is very important to the sprawling organic farm so you’ll see his image everywhere. In the central ballroom, for example, you’ll find carvings of San Ysidro by Gustave Baumann, one of New Mexico’s most beloved artists, a maestro considered one of the finest woodcut printers of the 20th century. On the metalwork over the door to the restaurant, you’ll espy an angel guiding a team of oxen with San Ysidro standing by a sheaf of wheat.
Nestled among 25 acres of scented lavender fields, lofty cottonwood and elm trees and luxuriant formal gardens, Los Poblanos is a magnificent historic property, a rural enclave in the midst of urban sprawl and a departure from the mundanity and strife of 21st century living into the simpler, more agrarian lifestyle of yore. Your portal into this transcendent setting is a canopy of towering trees arching overhead as you make your way toward the inn and restaurant. It’s easy to imagine Ysidro among the field hands assiduously tending to the acreage of produce or perhaps gently stroking the soft fleece of the alpacas who feast on the property’s grasses.
Though its lineage can be traced back to the ancient Anasazi of the 14th Century, the true genesis of Los Poblanos as we know it today can be credited to two very prominent families. First was the family of Congressman Albert and Ruth Simms, baronial land-owners who in 1932 commissioned the renovation of the L-shaped ranch house and creation of the Cultural Center they christened La Quinta. The architect for this effort was the renowned John Gaw Meem, regarded as the leader of the Santa Fe style movement which combines Spanish Colonial and classic architecture.
The second prominent family for whom credit is richly deserved is the Rembe family. In the late 1990s when the threat of redevelopment loomed over La Quinta, next door neighbors Armin and Penny Rembe purchased the property, restored the building and turned their home into a bed-and-breakfast. The Rembes introduced sustainability to the acreage by planting lavender which does not deplete the soil or consume as much water as other crops. They begin making lavender oil then lavender salve which was provided to the Inn’s guests. Penny also served warm lavender shortbread cookies upon check-in.
In 2005, son Matt assumed the helm at Los Poblanos. From the onset he devised an approach designed to make Los Poblanos more profitable while not compromising on the family’s preservation goals. Today, after $10 million in improvements, the enterprise is comprised of six distinct but interdependent business entities: farming, lodging, retail, wholesale production, events and a restaurant. While the property has had a restaurant (La Merienda) for years, at nearly 5,000 square-feet, Campo dwarfs its predecessor and is a better vehicle for showcasing the farm’s produce. Campo occupies the space previously used as dairy barns.
Campo is a worthy venue for the talents of Executive Chef Jonathan Perno and his team. A four-time James Beard Award semi-finalist for Best Chef in the Southwest region and twice recipient of a Local Hero award from Edible Santa Fe, Jonathan is an innovator with a hands-on approach. Renowned as a champion of the field-to-fork philosophy and slow food movement, he calls his culinary approach Río Grande Valley Cuisine. In an interview with New Mexico In Focus, he explained “Rio Grande Valley Cuisine tastes like New Mexico. It’s the sky, it’s the air, it’s everything that encompasses this state and that river and the culture that resides here.” He’s not trying to reinterpret California cuisine with its emphasis on fresh ingredients grown locally; he’s cooking the bounty of New Mexico’s fields at their peak of freshness and optimum flavor.
The minute you set foot into the cavernous restaurant, you’re enveloped by the fragrant wood smoke of oak and mesquite emanating from the crackling blaze of the open-fire hearth in the back of the large exhibition kitchen. Flames lick the pots and pans in which meals are being prepared. It’s an olfactory and visual sensory experience not to be missed. Make sure to ask your congenial server to take you into the kitchen. As you’re escorted into the gleaming, well-organized bastion of culinary creativity, you’ll be announced: “guests in the kitchen.” Though the staff is focused on making guests happy in more hands-on ways, they’ll take the time to greet you and maybe answer a question or two.
Campo’s dining room also entrances all your senses. Visually, it’s a stunning departure from almost every other dining room in which you’ve enjoyed a great meal. Some of that is because it got its start as a dairy building in which cows were milked. Its transformation is amazing, yet vaguely familiar. Dining tables are constructed from reclaimed building materials used in Santa Fe’s Bishop’s Lodge. Ceilings–rustic and corrugated wood–were recycled from the venerable Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Hanging on one wall are the wooden covers used on barrels, not as someone on the table behind us described as “pizza paddles.” The overhead lighting, suspended by thick gauge metal, provides the intimate level of lighting guests appreciate. The only aspect of our dining experience which wasn’t top-tier was the noise level in the room. Reverberating sounds made it difficult to speak at normal conversational volumes.
You need only peruse the menu (on which San Ysidro and his oxen are depicted) to affirm Campo’s commitment to authentic field-to-fork dining. It’s a well thought-out menu resplendent with fresh, seasonal ingredients grown on the premises or sourced locally. Though it’s proudly and most assuredly a menu of New Mexico’s farm bounty, it does not showcase chile, the Land of Enchantment’s official vegetable and the culinary ingredient for which our state is best known. The menu nonetheless pays homage to the rich history of the region where living off the land has long been a tradition.
You know a menu’s offerings are spectacular when the number of appetizers and entrees are limited, but you can see yourself happily enjoying every single one of them. Campo’s “fire-centric” menu is such a menu. “Beginnings,” the menu’s nine appetizers, are very intriguing, but it’s the nine entrees you’ll be most hard-pressed to select from. If you can’t decide what to order it, narrow it down to your two or three or four items you’d happily enjoy and ask your server to surprise you. It’s what your humble blogger did and couldn’t have been happier with the results.
Service is absolutely impeccable. From the minute you step into Bar Campo where early arrivals are enjoying hand-crafted artisan cocktails, you’re very well tended to. Our ebullient server James, a self-professed “biggest fan of Campo’s menu” was attentive without hovering, friendly without being overly familiar and professional without being overly formal. Moreover he was perceptive about our needs and sagely answered all our questions without any of the “wait schtick” you find at chain restaurants. When he wasn’t taking care of us, his fellow servers were capably doing so.
In Campo’s Artisinal Cheese Plate, we found the best of its kind we’ve had in New Mexico, an array of fabulous fromage wedges, house condiments and crispy crackers. We’ll happily get lost in the Bermuda Triangle, an award-winning California goat milk cheese with an earthy, tangy flavor ameliorated with intense pepper notes. It’s served with a fabulous green chile jam and butter crackers. Our favorite turned out to be a veiny blue cheese from Tennessee named Shakerag. This was the most complex of the three cheeses with discernible notes of everything from whiskey to fruit. It was paired with an addictive fennel marmalade and seeded shortbread. Our least favorite (equal to calling any one of your children your least favorite) may have been the Estero Gold, another California cheese, this one made from unpasteurized cow’s milk. Estero Gold is from the Parmesan family, sporting the familiar Parmesan textural and flavor qualities. Paired with this cheese were balsamic mushrooms and lavosh.
To accompany your cheese plate, the Chef recommends a drizzle of 20 year, cask-aged balsamico made by Aceto Balsamico in the restored ghost town of Monticello, New Mexico. If you’re thinking all balsamico is the same, you’re in for a surprise. When we first encountered this award-winning balsamico several years ago, we agreed it was not only the very best balsamico we’d ever had, but that it had provided us with one of life’s defining dining moments, a sense that we had touched touched gastronomic perfection. On my restaurant rating scale of 1-30, it would warrant a 35. So splurge for the balsamico featured in a Wall Street article entitled “A Ghost Town, Dressed in Vinegar.” Your palate will be smitten.
For my Kim, any salad which includes beets is a must-have, especially if both red and golden hued beets are on the plate. Campo Beets may be the best beet salad we’ve had in New Mexico. The beets were beautifully al-dente with a nice crispness and the earthiness of freshly harvested beets. Old Windmill Dairy goat cheese and sprouted almonds provide a nice counterbalance to the sweetness of the beets, but it’s a small dollop of green chile that really brings out the flavors of all the other components. Whether that’s the endorphins talking or the preternatural ability of green chile to improve everything it touches, we’ll be craving green chile on all other beet salads we have.
My carnivorously inclined bride of 32 years could always be counted to order steaks–until she discovered that the pork chops I tended to order were invariably a tastier option. Now she’s the one who orders pork chops while her uxorious husband has to “settle” for something else (it’s only settling when the pork chops are as wonderful as the grilled, cider-brined pork chop at Campo). Sliced into six large half-inch thick medallions, including one with bone-in, these chops were porcine perfection, as good as any pork chops we’ve had anywhere. Even the accompaniment was fabulous–stinging nettle spätzle, lardon, spring beans, chimichurri sauce and a sunny-side-up farm egg. The chimichurri imbued the spätzle and spring beans with a lemony flavor that seemed to bring out their freshness and flavor. Even the sunny-side-up farm egg earned its keep on the plate.
James explained that the mole negro (much to our surprise) is the most popular item on the menu. That bespeaks of more sophisticated diners who aren’t of the mind that if they have mole, they’re somehow being unfaithful to chile. In keeping with its seasonal menu traditions, Los Poblanos changes the two moles on its menu every six months. The mole amarillo, a vegetarian mole, showcases vegetables in season during spring and fall. As seasons rotate so does the protein on the mole negro, a meat-based mole.
If braised lamb is the featured protein on the mole negro, it’s easy to see why this dish is so popular. Another reason is that unlike some moles, this one isn’t trying to let chocolate be the dominant flavor. Sure chocolate is often a prominent ingredient on mole, but there are so many other flavor profiles and combinations that work, too. Campo’s rendition has a bit more heat than any we’ve had in New Mexico—not a New Mexico chile heat, but a heat that will titillate your tongue and taste buds nonetheless. Piquant and potent though it may be, it does not obfuscate the melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness of the six-ounces of beautifully braised lamb. The mole is served mixed toasted grains and sautéed greens, both of which are prepared masterfully.
There are only six items on the dessert menu, but that doesn’t make it any easier to decide which one (or two or three…) to order. James steered us toward the Los Poblanos honey cake, a European-style cake layered with elderberry syrup and studded honey brittle. Reminiscent of the many French gateaus we enjoyed during our time across the pond, this pretty-as-a-picture cake is surprising for several reasons, the least of which was our relative unfamiliarity with elderberries. Renowned as a cold and flu remedy, elderberries are high in antioxidants, but don’t taste good unless you cook them then sweeten them. Honey is the perfect foil for the bitter berry. Another surprise is the textural contrast between the soft, moist cake and the bits of honey brittle hidden between the layers.
Organic lavender farming has been central to Los Poblanos’ preservation mission. A steam distillation process extracts the lavender’s essential oil which is used in a line of artisan products and amenities offered to guests. Artisan lavender products available at the Farm Shop include salves, lotions, soaps, body washes, shampoos and other personal care items. We weren’t thinking of any of these products when we espied blueberry-lavender ice cream on the dessert menu. Normally served with a puff pastry, we asked to have just a scoop of the ice cream. We should have asked for six scoops. While lavender has beautiful floral notes, its aromas are always clean and wondrous to inhale. Those aromas were more subtle on the ice cream, but the blueberries came across nicely.
Campo, a Spanish term which translates to English as “field” is an appropriate name for one of the Land of Enchantment’s most heralded restaurants. Rather than being a venue for special occasions, Campo makes every meal a special occasion. It is in rarefied air as one of New Mexico’s very best restaurants.
Campo at Los Poblanos
4803 Rio Grande Blvd, N.W.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 31 May 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Artisinal Cheese Plate, Campo Beets, Grilled Cider-Brined Pork Chop, Mole Negro, Los Poblanos Honey Cake, Blueberry-Lavender Ice Cream