There’s talk on the street,
it’s there to remind you,
it doesn’t really matter which side you’re on
You’re walking away and they’re talking behind you
They will never forget you ’til somebody new comes along
- New Kid In Town: The Eagles
As an independent observer of the New Mexico culinary experience, it’s always intrigued me just how fleeting and short-lived the popularity of new restaurants can be. Perhaps indicative of our human need for constant new sources of stimulation and gratification, diners (and restaurant critics) flock to new restaurants like moths to a flame. In our minds, new seems to translate to fresh and exciting. We seem drawn to the spit, polish and promise of new restaurants in our constant quest for new and different.
The phenomenon of newness isn’t solely applicable to restaurants. On the liner notes of “The Very Best of the Eagles,” Don Henley explained the meaning behind their number one song “New Kid in Town:” We’re basically saying, ‘Look, we know we’re red hot right now but we also know that somebody’s going to come along and replace us–both in music and in love.’ The fleeting, fickle nature of our fascination with newness is so strong that some restaurants actually peak in popularity within a few months after opening, particularly after their first glowing reviews.
In the National Football League (NFL), general managers and coaches recognize that the effectiveness of a draft (the signing of new players coming out of college) isn’t realized for three years. New restaurants generally don’t have three years to prove themselves. Many of them don’t make it past their first year. Successful restaurants aren’t just another pretty face in the crowd. They’re generally restaurants with substance, not just flash and panache–eateries which provide reasonable portions of good food in a pleasant ambiance served by an attentive staff. Many of them are constantly reinventing themselves with new and exciting seasonal menu offerings.
In April, 2008, one of the pretty new faces gracing the Duke City dining scene was the Nob Hill Bar & Grill on Central Avenue. The mere fact that it’s survived three years (as of this writing) is indicative that it’s doing things right. The fact that there doesn’t appear to be any surcease in its popularity despite the onslaught of newer and arguably prettier competition says the Nob Hill Bar & Grill formula is working very well indeed.
Perhaps one of the reasons the restaurant continues to thrive is the combination of staying true to its original vision while constantly introducing elements of newness the Albuquerque dining public craves. The Nob Hill Bar & Grill’s vision is to be a place in which everyone feels welcome to come as they are, but with the expectations that they’ll find top-notch food, service and interesting twists on the standards they might find at a neighborhood bar, pub or steakhouse. Think time-honored bar and comfort foods with an upscale gourmet interpretation. Think gastropub done very well!
Situated in an east-facing adobe-hued stucco exterior and a beckoning red brick frontage facing Central Avenue, the Nob Hill Bar & Grill is a beacon for patrons in pursuit of delicious victuals and creative cocktails. The east-facing wall opens up to an exterior patio which nearly doubles the restaurant’s seating capacity. The patio provides an excellent people-watching venue. The restaurant’s interior is decidedly contemporary and masculine with its exposed brick walls, high-backed booths with black leather seating, dark wood floors and an exposed ceiling. An exhibition kitchen is the restaurant’s cynosure, a hectic, but not harried hub of activity. The menu, however, has more than enough variety to please both masculine and feminine palates.
The Nob Hill Bar & Grill’s innovative menu changes with the seasons. To the greatest extent possible, the restaurant sources its beef and produce locally. Hamburgers are crafted from premium-cut steak raised in Roswell (no UFO jokes, please). This is no ordinary beef. It’s a full carcass blend made from premium cuts–New York, tenderloin, ribeye– not scrap meat. You’ll be able to taste the difference.
My friend Ryan Scott, the dynamic host of Albuquerque’s best radio program Break the Chain, (yeah, I’m a shill) and I shared a “Dirty Burger” which our waitress touted as one of the very best burgers in New Mexico. A better name might be “Messy Burger” in the best tradition of four napkin burgers whose ingredients run down your hands and face. The burger is constructed with your choice of Nob Hill’s ultimate blend steak or Snake River Kobe beef topped with chili (sic) con queso, frizzled onions, bacon fried egg and “beeronnaize” served with sea salt fries and chipotle ketchup. Because the chili con queso is made with the foul demon spice cumin, I deprived Scott of the experience of trying the Kobe crafted chili.
Sans chili, this is a terrific burger! Lightly toasted brioche buns are hardly formidable enough to contain all the juiciness and flavor so you might have to eat this burger with a knife and fork. The beef is most assuredly the star of this four-star burger. It has the flavor of premium steak. Cut into the over-easy fried egg and let its yoke cover the beef for a taste sensation savvy restaurants have caught onto. The beeronnaize (not Bearnaise) has an interesting flavor–a somewhat salty, beer imbued mayo concoction applied generously. Only the frizzled onions are truly extraneous, a wholly unnecessary additive.
As down-to-earth as Ryan Scott is, he is admittedly a barbecue snob. Years of trial and some error have made him a true smoke master and undoubtedly imbued him with the patience all barbecue purists must have. Dine with him and you’re practically assured your meal will include smoked chicken wings if they’re on the menu. The Nob Hill Bar & Grill’s wings are smoked in applewood, a “light” wood which imparts a fragrant smokiness without overwhelming the meats. You can have the wings tossed in your choice of buffalo sauce or mango-habanero and served with your choice of blue cheese or ranch. The mango-habanero is slightly tangy and only mildly piquant, allowing the applewood smoke to shine. Shine it does. These wings are so good Ryan eschewed dessert and opted for a second order of wings.
Sunday brunch is a special event at several Nob Hill restaurants. It’s the thing to do on lazy Sunday mornings and restaurants such as Zinc are the place to be. Look for the Nob Hill Bar & Grill to attract even more people to the cultural heart of the city. When the Nob Hill Bar & Grill first opened, it offered a bountiful brunch buffet. Bidding bonjour to that brunch buffet is a blow softened by a memorable, weekly changing brunch menu. Sure, you won’t engorge yourself with multiple trips to the buffet, but you’ll be treated to prepared to order entrees that don’t suffer the ignominious fate of sitting under a heat lamp (which will diminish the flavor of even the best entrees).
Huevos Rancheros are just a little bit different, maybe just a bit better than huevos rancheros at most New Mexican restaurants. Instead of piling ingredients atop a corn tortilla, these beauties start with two rolled duck meat enchiladas topped with both green chile stew and red chile sauce and a fried egg. The green chile stew is fantastic–piquant and flavorful, albeit parsimoniously portioned. The red chile has a beautiful purity with no discernible thickening agents. It is earthy and delicious, but alas, there’s just not enough of it. Not everybody wants a veritable lagoon of fluorescent red chile (a description shared with me by long-time friend of this blog Bruce Balto), but when it’s this good, you want more than to be teased. The huevos are accompanied by old-fashioned refried beans which, honestly, would have benefited from some of that fabulous green chile stew.
Until a few years ago, you couldn’t find an imaginative pancake in all of Albuquerque. Sure you could find pancakes topped with every conceivable fruit you can find, but in terms of griddle greatness, buttermilk was about as good as it got. It took chefs like Dennis Apodaca at Sophia’s Place and the Nob Hill Bar & Grill’s Culinary Institute of America trained Matt Ludeman to elevate pancakes to a new level.
Ludeman’s contribution includes oatmeal Guinness pancakes topped with a Balsamic orange butter and whiskey syrup. Roughly the circumference of a coffee cup, these flavorful orbs are dense and thick instead of light and fluffy, but they’re good enough to eat sans syrup and butter, not that you’d ever want to considering the whiskey syrup is sensational. Accompanying the pancakes are two strips of candied pepper bacon and two eggs sunny-side-up. The candied pepper bacon will compete with the honey-chile glazed bacon at the Gold Street Caffe as the best bacon in town. It’s a flaccid bacon as opposed to the jerky textured bacon some restaurants serve.
The “brunchies” portion of the menu includes several nice starters such as chips and salsa three ways. Sweet, smoky and tart is one way in the form of smoked mango salsa composed of mangoes, tomatoes, cilantro and green peppers. Another way is with creamy avocado sparsely dotted with corn niblets and replete with flavor. It’s not a conventional guacamole per se, but if you like just the whisper of citrus influenced tartness with the buttery richness of avocado, you’ll love this one. The third way is pico de gallo, a composite of tomato, green pepper, red onion and cilantro. There’s not much pico in this rooster’s bite, but it’s delicious. The red, white and blue corn tortillas are crisp and low in salt.
Dessert options include an Editor’s Pick in Albuquerque The Magazine’s 2008 Best of the City edition. That would be the Cafe Con leche, a coffee lover’s lascivious dream. It’s Thai coffee mousse with a white chocolate, coffee sponge cake and a crumbly trail of decaf coffee crumbles leading to sweetened condensed milk ice cream made in-house. Wow! It’s one of the most unique and intensely flavored desserts in town, a dessert you might not want to share no matter how much you might love your dining companion.
In 2008, the Nob Hill Bar & Grill was selected by readers as Albuquerque’s best new restaurant in the Alibi’s annual “Best of Burque Restaurants” poll. It earned the same accolade in Albuquerque The Magazine‘s annual “Best of the City” honors. In subsequent years, this restaurant has continued to rack up honors and accolades, surely indicative that this is no flash-in-the pan. The Nob Hill Bar & Grill is here to stay.
Nob Hill Bar & Grill
3128 Central Avenue, S.E.
1ST VISIT: 27 April 2008
LATEST VISIT: 19 August 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Oatmeal Guinness Pancakes, Huevos Rancheros. Chips & Salsa Three Ways, Cafe con Leche, The Dirty Burger, Applewood Smoked Wings