Vinaigrette – Santa Fe & Albuquerque, New Mexico
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
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.
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.
709 Don Cubero Alley
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 5 October 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Garden Salad, Cherry Tart, Peach Berry Pie
1828 Central, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 31 December 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Cobb Salad, Cuban Torta, Morty & Cheese, Pumpkin Cheesecake