Urban Dictionary, that oft hilarious, veritable cornucopia of slang, jargon and streetwise lingo, defines “lush” as “someone who drinks a lot.” (Actually, there are several pages of similar definitions for “lush” in the “peoples’ dictionary,” but this one was the best fit for this PG-rated blog.) When I asked Sandy Gregory, a self-admitted “food industry lifer” and co-owner of Albuquerque’s Cafe Lush why the name Lush, she laughingly kidded “because we like to drink a lot.” Seeing that her response left my mouth agape, she winked and corrected herself, “because our food is luscious.”
You’ve got to love a restaurant owner with whom you can engage in witty repartee. At Cafe Lush, you’ve got two of them. Sandy’s husband and business partner Tom Docherty explained why they launched their restaurant venture: “We’re too poor to retire and too old to work for someone else.” With nearly a combined eight decades in the restaurant business, Tom and Sandy want to make Cafe Lush a cafe in which “food for the senses” is more than just a clever but empty slogan.
Most recently executive chef at the Radisson Hotel, Tom is the creator of cuisine while Sandy, formerly a familiar face tending bar at Mykonos and before that the Rancher’s Club, runs the front of the house. With just under 775 square feet under roof plus limited sidewalk seating, Cafe Lush is small enough to be intimate and friendly enough to become a local favorite in the fringes of the burgeoning downtown district. It is situated in a historic edifice which has served as a restaurant since the 1920s, most recently as Gold Rush Cupcakes. Cafe Lush is within easy walking distance of high-rise hotels and their pricy fare, but its immediate vicinity is heavily populated by purveyors of jurisprudence.
The Cafe is proud to feature local and organic ingredients and fresh seasonal produce of the highest quality, the goal in mind to support the healthy, happy and sustainable lifestyles of the Duke City. Cheeses are procured from Tucumcari and coffees from Red Rock Roasters. Produce is acquired from the nearby farmers’ market and other products from La Montanita Co-op. Cafe Lush is open on weekdays for breakfast and lunch. On Saturdays, it features a ten item brunch menu at a fixed price which also includes your choice of juice, tea or coffee.
Because the restaurant is small, the menu is, too, but there’s something for just about everyone. All items are south of ten dollars and portions are generous. The six item breakfast menu includes some eye-openers including a breakfast pizza crafted from a breakfast potato crust topped with eggs, house-made red or green chile (unfortunately both include cumin) and local cheeses. Breakfast offerings also include assorted pastries, “lushchiladas,” a breakfast burrito and more.
A fourteen item lunch menu showcases Chef Docherty’s inventiveness with sandwiches (named for family friends), pizzas, wraps and salads. Sandwiches and wraps are served with your choice of southwest slaw or potato chips with a side of fresh fruit available for a pittance more. There are five dessert options available including gluten-free brownies, house-made ice cream and a chocolate chip whiskey bread pudding I’m betting my friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, will appreciate.
Cafe Lush opened in mid-June, 2011 and added brunch on Saturdays two months later. The brunch menu is the best of two world’s: breakfast and lunch, both executed very well if our inaugural Saturday visit is any indication. Our introduction to this terrific cafe came on a day in which fall was in the air, the venerable open transoms allowing just enough crisp air to cool the small space. It was a good day for good coffee and Red Rock Roasters delivered on that promise.
With cumin an ingredient in all brunch items featuring red and green chile, the limited number of choices left allowed us to be adventurous and order items we might not otherwise have selected. One was a fruit and yogurt parfait, a goblet brimming with fresh fruit (strawberries and melon) and seasonal berries (blueberries) with vanilla yogurt, crunchy granola and a single blueberry muffin. This is a yogurt parfait the way it should be made. Neither the yogurt nor the granola are cloying in their sweetness. The fruit is seasonably fresh and plentiful.
The Chop Salad, one of the two best in the Duke City (along with the chop salad at Relish), is an exemplar of fresh flavors melding well to truly entice the senses. How can you go wrong with black beans, Lush bacon, roasted corn, cilantro, red bell pepper, natural smoked turkey, avocado, cheese and Romaine lettuce tossed with a house-made green chile citrus dressing and four pita wedges? This is a virtuosos composition, true salad greatness with nice textural and ingredient contrasts that complement each other well. The chunky, buttery avocados at the epitome of ripeness and the Lush bacon made for an especially wonderful melding of disparate flavors. Then there’s the green chile citrus dressing made the thickness of a bleu cheese dressing–so good it should be bottled and sold.
The French toast, which the menu refers to as a “breakfast bread pudding” (Larry McGoldrick, are you reading this?) truly earns the “luscious” adjective for which the cafe is named. It also earns every other superlative you can think of. The foundation for the fabulous French toast is Fano Bakery’s cinnamon bread which is dredged in an egg and coconut milk wash along with currants and apples then grilled. It’s topped with “Lush dust” (cinnamon, cardamom and cocoa powder) and served with a house-made Kahlua syrup. Unlike some French toast which can be downright tooth-decaying sweet, these wouldn’t make a child ping off the walls. Texturally it does bring to mind some bread puddings while the apples and currents might remind you of a great fritter.
When Sandy showed us the lunch menu, I couldn’t help but espy the chocolate chip whiskey bread pudding. Though not on the brunch menu, our ever-accommodating hostess delivered the sole portion left over from the previous day’s lunch. This is first-rate bread pudding topped with Lush dust and drizzled with Kahlua syrup. If your initial inclination is to recoil at what could naturally be perceived as a very sweet dessert, you’ll be happy to learn this bread pudding isn’t overly sweet. It’s an “adult” bread pudding emphasizing flavor combinations, not cloying compositions.
Another intriguing dessert is the ice cream sandwich made with your choice of several house-made ice creams sandwiched between two thick chocolate chip cookies. You probably won’t eat this confection sandwich style. The ice cream is creamy and rich with a pronounced vanilla flavor. It’s served cold so it won’t melt all over your hands or clothing. The chocolate chip cookies make for a nice snack later.
The Urban Dictionary also defines “lush” as “something pleasing or desirable” and “something really cool, nice looking, tasty, and so on.” Cafe Lush is certainly all that and more!
700 Tijeras, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 10 September 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Fruit & Yogurt Parfait, French Toast, Chop Salad, Chocolate Chip Whiskey Bread Pudding, Ice Cream Sandwich