Voracious readers*, avid aficionados of art and those aflame with a musical ardor know that great books, art and music are imbued with the power to transport them to another time and place. A recent influx of contemporary restaurants in Albuquerque also has that power.
If you think about it, having a meal at most Duke City restaurants–transcendent though some may be–is just so…Albuquerque. There’s an almost boring consistency and sameness about many local restaurants. Their sole distinctiveness comes from the foods they serve. It’s very difficult, for example, to picture yourself on the beaches at Cabo San Lucas while sipping on a margarita at Garduño’s. Noshing on mussels at the Indigo Crow just doesn’t feel like a leisurely repast on a sidewalk cafe in Paris.
A new dining trend has emerged in Albuquerque that has something to do with the type of cuisine, but perhaps even more to do with the “look and feel” of the dining experience. New restaurants have emerged that can transport you from the dour sameness of Duke City dining. Restaurants such as the Slate Street Cafe, Standard Diner and most recently the Grove Cafe & Market are so un-Albuquerque that you just may feel as if you’re dining at a more sophisticated and cosmopolitan city. This trendy pattern is especially prevalent in the revitalized, reinvigorated downtown district and more so in the East Downtown (EDO) area, a burgeoning residential and business district regarded by real estate experts as one of the “top five up-and-coming areas in the nation.”
The EDO is considered an urban evolution of sorts as historic buildings are reclaimed from veritable scrapheaps and transmogrified into vibrant and thriving neighborhoods in which residents can work, live, shop and play. The EDO is where you’ll find the Grove Cafe & Market which launched its unique restaurant concept in June, 2006. Functionally and esthetically, it’s got the look and feel of a market restaurant in Portland, Oregon or maybe even San Francisco, California. It’s got the look and feel of a market restaurant that’s going places.
The expansive interior, which my friend Andrea Lin says is “somewhere between industrial-loft and trendy restaurant” is bustling and inviting despite cold concrete floors, exposed ductwork and steel beams. Moreover, it is a fun place that will certainly invoke the feeling of deja vu (if ever you’ve dined in Portland) or the feeling that you’re dining in an oasis of sophistication.
You might also feel as if you’re dining in a tightly-enclosed sound chamber of sorts. There’s a perpetual noisy din in the restaurant, the byproduct of diners enjoying themselves. Weather permitting, it’s somewhat quieter on the patio, situated on the restaurant’s west side near the parking area. The only drawback might be the cacophonous commotion from Central Avenue.
True to its name, there is a market, but it’s not to be mistaken for the type of market at which you can pick up all your comestibles. The market portion of the complex has a nice selection of gourmet specialty items such as chocolate, cheeses, crackers, olive oils, pastas and more. The menu isn’t quite fine-dining and it certainly isn’t fast food fare. Call it fast-casual fare for everyday dining. A large slate board lists every item on the menu save for the day’s specials. You order at a counter and are given not a number, but a placard touting a market product provided by a local vendor. Somehow the wait staff will manage to find you.
In its June, 2010 edition, New Mexico Magazine celebrated New Mexico’s Best Eats, eight of the best dishes served in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment. Two versions of each dish–a down-home version and uptown version were selected. The magazine accorded the honor as state’s very best down-home use of local, seasonal ingredients to The Grove’s farmers salad. It’s a well-deserved honor few would dispute. The farmers salad is constructed of mixed greens with roasted golden beets, asparagus, yellow peppers, tomato, marcona almonds and goat cheese, all tossed with a lemon-basil vinaigrette studded with shallots and garlic. It’s a winner in every way. New Mexico Magazine’s amazing associate editor Ashley Biggers also listed the Grove as one of the 50 reasons to love Albuquerque in the magazine’s April, 2012 issue.
Given an opportunity to select the ingredients to craft the salad I’d enjoy most and it would very much resemble the Winter Fig and Prosciutto Salad at The Grove. This salad starts with a bed of mixed greens atop of which lies a tangle of artisan cured prosciutto from La Quercia, an award-winning Iowa-based charcuterie a James Beard Foundation executive extolled as “the best prosciutto you can get in America hands down;” marinated figs; spiced pecans; Old Windmill goat cheese from New Mexico; pomegranate seeds and an orange-poppy seed vinaigrette. This is a salad in which ingredients contrast and complement one another exceptionally well–the tanginess of the pomegranate seeds and orange-poppy seed vinaigrette, the rich pungency of the goat cheese, the salty porcine perfection of the prosciutto and the freshness of the greens.
Local, seasonal ingredients are an essential component of The Grove’s operational philosophy. Executive chef Jason Green and his wife Lauren are passionate about using ingredients of the highest quality and employing artisan methods. Their focus on local products and produce is core to the restaurant’s success. Most of the vegetables used on the menu are acquired within a 40-mile radius of the restaurant. Other high-quality ingredients are procured out-of-state because those ingredients are the best to be found anywhere.
It was in recognition of The Grove’s commitment to the local food movement that it was singled out by the Huffington Post in a feature celebrating the “ten best US cities for local food.” Albuquerque was ranked number eight on the list though only two restaurants were mentioned–the Flying Star and the Grove about which the Post wrote, “the Grove uses green produce along with artisan meats and cheeses.”
Greenopia, recognized experts on green living, gave The Grove four and a half stars out of five meaning it meets 90 percent of its stringent criteria for meats, poultry, eggs, seafood, dairy products, prepared foods and even personal care products, all of which are verified to be certified organic and/or locally grown or raised without chemical treatment, fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics.
Large, steaming vats of coffee are conveniently situated in close proximity to the order counter. This is fresh-roasted coffee from Chicago’s Intelligencsa Coffee. Andrea raves about this stuff with the same fervor with which I speak of The Grove’s strawberry-rosemary lemonade. It’s an intensely flavored lemonade, neither too sweet nor too tangy and punctuated by the freshness of the rosemary. The Grove is open six days a week (closed Mondays) with workday hours being 7AM to 4PM. On Sundays the Grove opens from 8AM to 3PM. Breakfast is served all day long and lunch starts promptly at 11AM. A small (in item size only) brunch menu is also available on Sundays.
The quintessential New Mexican breakfast seems to be defined in our uniquely wonderful breakfast burritos. The Grove has a very interesting take on this ubiquitous morning indulgence that’s good any time of the day. Like all breakfast burritos, it starts with scrambled eggs which the Grove somehow manages to serve sheet-like. They also include goat cheese with a pronounced creamy and earthy flavor; housemade green chile which smells and tastes housemade, not canned; and hearty chunks of Tully’s sausage.
Unlike traditional New Mexican breakfast burritos, the Grove tops their version not with red or green chile, but with a roasted tomato jalapeno salsa served cold. Normally I would balk at eating cold salsa on a warm burrito, but have nothing but praise for the salsa. It is only mildly piquant, but explodes with flavor though not so much that it obfuscates other flavors on this magnificent breakfast burrito. In its September, 2011 edition, the staff of Albuquerque the Magazine rated the breakfast burrito at the Grove Cafe & Market the third best breakfast burrito in the Albuquerque area. Considering the number and quality of the competition, that’s a significant honor.
The Grove’s Sunday brunch menu is posted on the restaurant’s Web site’s “Feature of the Day” section. Not surprisingly, this section is kept up-to-date, a lesson other restaurants should learn. The brunch menu doesn’t introduce a large number of items not normally found on the day-to-day menu, normally two entrees. If the sunchoke hash is any indication, some of those brunch items should become menu standards. Sunchokes are a real treat! Also called Jerusalem artichokes, they taste a bit like a cross between potato and artichoke heart. The Grove’s hash showcases this edible tuber, serving it with spinach, garlic onions, local feta cheese and Benton’s bacon topped by two eggs over-easy. The pairing of sunchokes and the bacon are especially noteworthy. No ordinary bacon is Benton’s, a hickory-smoked, full-flavored bacon cut lardon thick. It may well be the best bacon to ever cross into New Mexico.
For breakfast or lunch, few entrees are as satisfying as the Croque Monsieur. At its most elemental level, it’s essentially a hot ham and cheese sandwich, but being French, it’s got a storied background more interesting than some fiction. The Croque Monsier has been around for more than a century and it’s literal translation is “crunch mister” based on the verb “croquer” (to crunch) and the word monsieur (mister). The Grove’s rendition starts with a rustic farm loaf topped with black forest ham and tomato both covered in a rich Gruyere cheese. It’s served open-faced with whole grain mustard on the side. It’s a very good sandwich.
For lunch the menu has a selection of warm, pressed sandwiches as well as several cool sandwiches, the word “cool” having dual meanings involving temperature as well as fashionability. Sandwiches are served with fresh fruit and sweet pickles (a welcome respite from the all-too-common dill variety). One of the coolest sandwiches we’ve had in a while is called simply “The Beef.” The Beef starts with a canvas of fresh sourdough bread which is then topped with thin sliced housemade roasted sirloin, caramelized onion, butter lettuce, whole grain mustard and havarti. This is no boring roast beef sandwich! The Beef is served in the proportions he-men like, but is crafted with high-quality ingredients women appreciate. It is a two-fisted sandwich as good as any you’ll find anywhere in Albuquerque.
Another spectacular pressed sandwich (sometimes referred to elsewhere as panini sandwiches) is called simply “Aged Salami” and it’s constructed of aged salami, olive tapenade, arugula and aged provolone on sourdough bread. The lightly toasted and buttery sourdough bread is a terrific canvas for ingredients which work very well together. The aged salami isn’t too heavily salted or garlicky as aged salami tends to be; instead spices are well balanced for optimum flavor. The aged provolone has a light, creamy flavor and the tapenade complements the other ingredients very well.
EDO’s Best BLT isn’t just some audacious claim. The Grove’s rendition of the not-so-humble BLT is one of the very best in Albuquerque, ranking with the BLT at Gecko’s Bar & Tapas. At the Grove, this descendant of Victorian tea sandwiches, is crafted with butter lettuce, the Grove’s guacamole, tomatoes and applewood smoked bacon. There are two stand-outs in this sandwich–several strips of crispy bacon (the type of which only restaurants seem to be able to acquire) and the Grove’s creamy, rich guacamole. Though it’s generally made with whole wheat bread, ask for it to be crafted on the restaurant’s homemade English muffin which, unlike some English muffins, isn’t crumbly. Still another sandwich, the Mozzarella was named one of the city’s 12 yummiest sandwiches for 2012 by Albuquerque The Magazine in its annual food and wine issue for 2012.
Beethoven once said, “Only the pure of heart can make good soup.” If that’s true, the Grove’s soup makers are as chaste as ice and as pure as snow, creating an impressive array of homemade soups of the day. One of the best is piquillo pepper soup. Piquillo translates from Spanish to “little beak,” and have a rich, spicy-sweet flavor. As if the flavor profile of the tiny piquillo isn’t enough, The Grove adds garlic, harissa, celery and smoked paprika then tops the concoction with creme fraiche. Though it looks like tomato soup, its flavors are much more concentrated and intense. It is an amazing soup!
Nowhere in Albuquerque will you find cupcakes comparable to The Grove. That’s the findings of a Duke City Fix taste test. How can you dispute those findings when you’re enjoying such unique concoctions as red velvet and coconut cupcakes. These are outstanding! Ernestine Ulmer stated something very obvious and wise when she said “Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.” It’s an aphorism to which visitors to The Grove should subscribe, especially when the counter at which you order showcases cookie jars with such treats as chocolate chip and ginger cookies and cookies constructed with chocolate, walnut and sea salt. These cookies are fabulous!
Three large “trasteros” as white as a stereotypical picket fence, showcase a variety of dry goods: shelves of chocolates, vinegars, teas, candy and more. Two other standing displays include mustards, cookies, gourmet dried pastas and more while a small refrigerator displays fine cheeses. This is the market portion of The Grove, an integral component of a swanky place to be.
Albuquerque is as close to perfect as any city in America, but it’s good to know that if you want to, you can get away quickly and easily simply by driving to the Grove Market & Cafe where in an instant you can be transported elsewhere–a better, more delicious Duke City.
*Voracious readers, the type of which I mention at the start of this essay, should make sure their reading list includes La Bajada Lawyer, a spell-binding mystery by Albuquerque attorney Jonathan Miller. Miller made a couple of observations about the Grove which will warrant many happy returns. He wrote that “The Grove hired the most beautiful waitresses in town,” and “the place is a “chick restaurant” at lunch.” If my male readers needed a reason to visit The Grove, perhaps Miller’s writing will inspire that visit.
The Grove Cafe & Market
600 Central Avenue, S.E.
LATEST VISIT: 25 March 2012
1st VISIT: 4 September 2007
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: The Burrito, The Beef, Signature Cupcakes, EDO’s Best BLT, Croque Monsieur, Cookies, Piquillo Pepper Soup, Sunchoke Hash, Winter Fig & Prosciutto Salad