There was a time the name “Hilton” didn’t conjure up images of a ditzy blonde airhead whose celebrity is based largely on promiscuity. On second thought, maybe not. More than 50 years ago, another ditzy blonde temptress, Zsa Zsa Gabor honeymooned at Albuquerque’s Hilton Hotel with her then husband Conrad Hilton, a New Mexico native and founder of the historic downtown hotel. It was Hilton’s fourth hotel and the very first modern high-rise hotel in the Land of Enchantment.
The ten-story hotel, launched in 1939, was an example of New Mexico Territorial style architecture, showcasing earth tone stucco and southwest woodwork, furnishings and artwork. Its imposing two-story lobby, stately arches, hand-carved beams and balconies overlooking the lobby made it one of the finest hotels in the Duke City. Being within easy walking distance of the city’s transportation hubs–the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Depot and America’s mother road, historic Route 66, made it convenient for weary sojourners and well-heeled travelers.
Though the hotel’s guest registry was signed by a veritable who’s who in celebrity and politics–many of whom came for the hotel’s Spanish colonial charm, opulent ambience and impeccable service–the Hilton Hotel chain eventually outgrew its classic downtown hotel, selling it in the late 1960s to build a larger, more modern Hilton at its present site near the Big I interchange. The hotel was renamed the Hotel Plaza, a name it would carry until 1984.
By the early 80s, railroad and bus company crews were quartered in several of the hotel’s floors, earning the hotel a reputation as a “flophouse” and ultimately foreshadowing its closure. Thanks to grants in aid from the city of Albuquerque and the National Register of Historic Places, a full scale restoration was completed with the goal of returning the hotel to its glory days of the Roaring 30s. In 1984, the grand hotel was reborn and christened La Posada de Albuquerque. It was also placed on the National Register of Historic Places the same year
Alas, a storied past, historical significance and the best of intentions proved not necessarily indicative of future success. By 2005, the hotel’s halcyon days were long past and the hotel was sold for four-million dollars at a bankruptcy auction. Three years and a thirty-million dollar investment later, Albuquerque’s Phoenix rose from the ashes once again, this time as Andaluz. Self-described as “downtown Albuquerque’s new siren,” Andaluz provides a “tantalizing and sensuous tapestry of past and future,” celebrating yesteryear while embracing today.
An elegant boutique hotel deserves an inspired restaurant and in Lucia, a posh Mediterranean-influenced dining establishment, hotel guests and local diners have one. In a cosmopolitan milieu replete with subdued opulence and richly appointed furnishings awash in color, they are treated to innovative combinations of fresh ingredients inspired by classic Mediterranean cuisine. Weather permitting, al fresco dining is available on the outdoor patio. An exclusive VIP room seating as many as 20 guests allows for intimacy among friends and family.
At its start-up Lucia’s was in the superbly capable hands with one of Albuquerque’s most celebrated culinary figures serving as executive chef. Albert Bilotti, a veteran restaurateur, has garnered a reputation for innovative cuisine and successful restaurant start-ups with previous stints at the long defunct and much missed fusion restaurant Kanome an Asian Diner; Al’s (now JC’s) New York Pizza Department; and the Slate Street Cafe, all in Albuquerque as well as La Bocca in Tempe, Arizona. Bilotti is widely heralded as one of the city’s premier chefs and culinary entrepreneurs. Bilotti is long gone, but his legacy of innovative dining options remains.
The stage in which Lucia’s chefs ply their trade is a well-lit and wide-open exhibition kitchen which operates with the precision and efficiency of a well-tuned orchestra. The kitchen is buffed and polished with pristine woods and burnished metal, spanning nearly the entire breadth of the spacious restaurant. It holds–and delivers on–the promise of excellent food.
Delivering–promptly, efficiently and with a smile–is a wait staff as polished as the restaurant. During our inaugural and subsequent visits, the wait staff has displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of the menu–not rehearsed wait schtick, but the type of knowledge which comes from actually having tried everything on the menu and understanding the nuances and subtleties of what she was eating. The wait staff will lavish attention upon you while simultaneously attending to other tables on their appointed route.
Our inaugural visit transpired shortly after the restaurant started serving Sunday brunch. Brunch is the best of two worlds–not quite breakfast and not quite lunch, but the best of both. Generally a heavy meal, it ideally mixes sweet and savory dishes that might make you feel you’re getting away with something, like eating dessert before the main entree. Lucia’s brunch menu is so good, it might mean fewer trips to Santa Fe on Sundays and more trips downtown.
There’s no longer any need to ponder the wondrous possibilities of an intriguing menu as there was when Lucia first started serving brunch. All you need to know now is that the “Grand Buffet Brunch” is one of the best reasons to get up and get out. The brunch buffet is one of the best in town–a Vegas quality brunch featuring Southwest eggs Benedict with green chile Hollandaise; waffles, pancakes and eggs made to order, applewood bacon and sausage, an antipasto tray, seasonal fruits and berries, assorted garden greens and dressings; lox, stock and bagels, an assortment of pastries; fresh baked cookies, muffins, danishes and croissants and a carving station.
There are several items on the grand brunch buffet well worth mentioning (and return trips). If prime rib is one the carving station, you can be assured it’s a beautifully pink medium-rare slab of pure deliciousness draped across your plate. Its edges are seared to a caramelized finish and the horseradish has the kick of a mule (it’ll water your eyes). The fruit–watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple, blackberries, raspberries and more–is fresh. Those fresh fruits are incorporated into coffee cakes that are as good as any you’ll have anywhere. The green chile Hollandaise on the Southwest eggs Benedict is fairly anemic in terms of piquancy, likely a recognition that out-of-state guests may not be able to handle the heat of our chile. The coffee is excellent as are the rich dessert options.
Lucia is a restaurant with a social conscious, sourcing much of its food locally and offering organically grown foods to the greatest extent possible. The daily menu always includes meatless options in recognition of the health and environmental benefits. The water, served only on request, is purified at the restaurant to standards which equal or exceed most bottled waters. Albuquerque’s water is generally very good; Lucia’s water is even better. Unused food meeting stringent requirements is donated to the Roadrunner Food Bank while the remainder of the restaurant’s uneaten food is composted into fertilizer for local farming and gardening. All packaging materials are recycled and even the restaurant’s menu is printed on recycled paper that has not been bleached in chlorine.
The Mediterranean-inspired seasonal menu has changed over time as the menus at great restaurants are apt to do. Though it means you can’t get too attached to menu items you love because they might not be there during a future visit, it also means there are other options to explore. One item you should explore if on the menu is the Moroccan Pita. Somewhat similar to a gyro or doner kebab, this fabulous sandwich starts off with a tortilla-sized pita which is engorged with a skewer of roasted lamb prepared at medium. It’s not the shaved beef and lamb amalgam you’ll find on a gyro. Instead, the lamb is cut into bite-size chunks, as tender, moist and delicious as any lamb I’ve had in Albuquerque with none of the gaminess for which lamb is often denounced. The pita also includes harissa, a North African equivalent of salsa; black mission figs, the purplish figs with a uniquely mildly sweet flavor; and a lively and fresh cucumber relish. This is a wonderful sandwich.
Also tailor-made for two is a Steak Frite salad, the restaurant’s delightful interpretation of what the classic French entree of steak and French fries might look and taste like if served on a salad. In this interpretation, a grilled flatiron steak is sliced into bite-sized chunks and served at about medium. A large pile of hand-cut, golden-brown French fries somewhere between stiff and flaccid seems a natural next to the steak. The salad portion is comprised of grilled Romaine hearts, charred asparagus, Cabrales bleu cheese and a to-die-for bacon vinaigrette.
In 2010 and 211, Lucia was one of fifteen Duke City restaurants participating in Albuquerque’s inaugural Restaurant Week, a seven-day extravaganza which invited diners to “experience extraordinary menus from the area’s finest restaurants at a price you’ll eat up.” Offering three-course dinners for just $25 per person, the event was the most delicious economic stimulus Albuquerque has seen in years.
Appetizers such as a warm spinach salad (warm bacon vinaigrette, feta cheese crumbles, shaved red onion and Kalamata olives) and a potato porcini mocha soup (not normally on the menu) would normally command a princely sum, however, during restaurant week, as part of the tasty three-course triumvirate, they were priced right for all pocketbooks. Both are superb and easily worth the regular menu price.
The potato porcini mocha soup is served in a thick ceramic mug and has the look and feel of a steaming cup of coffee. One luxurious sip will tell you this is no coffee, but a thick, savory broth with a swirl of chocolate for a slightly sweet contrast. The warm spinach salad is decoratively plated, a picture-perfect arrangement that made it appear almost as delicious as it is. Almost.
One standard menu entree normally priced ($19.95) nearly as much as the entire Restaurant Week price is the Roasted Butternut Squash Ravioli, an artfully plated melange of baby artichokes, pear tomatoes, cipoliini onions, brown butter sauce and Parmigiano Reggiano. This entree might best be described as a concordance of flavors and ingredients which bring out the best in each other. Though butternut squash is generally thought of as a fall comfort food, Lucia’s preparation is so sublime and fresh, you might think you’re consuming it during a windy October day when colorful leaves are departing their arboreal homes. We’ll order this entree again and again.
Lucia’s desserts are a crowning jewel, the calorie-rich culmination of a tremendous meal. The chocolate layered cake is an intensely chocolate experience, so intense it might even have adults pining off the wall from the rich sweetness. The vanilla bean creme brulee garnished with fresh berries offers a similar explosion in sweet intensity, fortunately in a smaller delivery. The chocolate layered cake is a veritable slab, easily large enough for two; the creme brulee, a smaller, but no less flavor rich dessert.
Lucia is the right restaurant at the right place for the rebirth of an Albuquerque hotel that is part of the very fabric of the downtown area, a historic institution offering respite for the weary and deliciousness for the hungry.
125 Second Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
1st VISIT: 31 January 2010
LATEST VISIT: 21 August 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Steak Frite Salad, Andaluz Bakery Basket, Moroccan Pita, Brioche French Toast Stuffed With Figs, Warm Spinach Salad, Potato Porcini Mocha Soup, Roasted Butternut Squash Ravioli, Vanilla Bean Creme Brulee, Chocolate Layered Cake