All day I’ve faced a barren waste
Without the taste of water, cool water
Old Dan and I with throats burned dry
And souls that cry for water
Cool, clear, water.
– The Sons of the Pioneers
Cool Water! For all of us who have experienced the energy-depleting sensation of being parched on a sweltering, sudorific day in the desiccated southwest, there is nothing which will quench that thirst better than cool water. Country crooner Marty Robbins sang about it in 1959 when he released his version of the classic Sons of the Pioneers song, his velvety smooth voice conveying the anguish of a man (and his mule Dan) in dire need of cool water’s life-giving, energy-replenishing qualities.
Cool Water! From the sense that in the American vernacular, being cool is hot, being bad is good and being really great is wicked, “cool water” conveys something superlative, exciting or attractive as opposed to something merely acceptable, ordinary or satisfactory. The word “cool” acquired that connotation in the jazz era, but the slang term reached its pinnacle in popularity in the 1950s when the beatniks of the age used it to differentiate themselves from the “straights.” Cool could mean relaxed, laid-back, stylish, excellent or just about any life-affirming or positive term.
The “Cool Water Fusion Restaurant” in the Wyoming Mall launched on July 13, 2010, at the very height of Albuquerque’s sweltering summer season. Its north-facing frontage shaded patrons from the heat of the day, the sun-blocking covered walkway keeping the sun’s rays in abeyance. From the perspective that the restaurant offered a respite from the baking furor of the sun, the Cool Water restaurant was indeed a “cool” place to be.
The restaurant is also “cool” from the connotation that it is a hip and happening (two more slang terms from the hipster generation) place to be. Deeper than it is wide, the restaurant’s walls are festooned by framed reproductions of Ansel Adams photographs, including one of Moonrise Over Hernandez. It’s one of only two photographs on the wall taken in New Mexico; most of the other photographs depict water with the sensation of cool only possible in black-and-white. Front and back walls are painted a light, cool shade of blue with faux Anasazi stonework flanking the entrance to the kitchen.
High ceilings reveal the industrial ductwork so prominent in modern restaurant decor. Overhead lighting is subdued, providing just enough illumination to give the sensation of cool. Booth and table seating are available with each table draped by a white linen tablecloth. The floors are stark concrete. An eclectic musical array is piped in through the restaurant’s sound system, but it’s not loud enough to disrupt dining conversations.
Also “cool” is the fact that the restaurant serves “fusion” cuisine, the inventive combination of diverse, sometimes disparate culinary traditions, elements and ingredients to form an entirely new genre. In large metropolitan areas, particularly in California, the fusion of different cuisines have become commonplace. Restaurants featuring the melding of French and Chinese cuisine are especially popular. In studying the menu at Cool Water, you’ll find an imaginative diversity of ingredients from throughout the world playing against one another.
Culinary students will appreciate how well Cool Water’s menu crosses cultural boundaries to invent entrees which very discernibly combine elements of two or more regions. The most obvious cultural meldings are those celebrating New Mexico’s tricultural heritage. The appetizer menu, for example, includes blue corn crusted onion rings served with green chile ranch dipping sauce representing New Mexico’s Native American (blue corn), European (onion rings) and Spanish (green chile) cultures in one dish.
The menu is relatively small, not a compendium of more dishes than a restaurant could possibly execute well. It doesn’t try to do all and be all. Rather it focuses on a select number of appetizers, lunch, brunch and dinner entrees and desserts prepared as well as they can be. Five appetizers lead off your culinary adventure at Cool Water. A soup of the day and three salads are next on the menu which, despite its small size, is more vegetarian-friendly than many restaurants in the Duke City.
The lunch menu, offered from 11AM through 2PM, showcases several sandwiches as well as the chef’s unique interpretation of London fish and chips, Fettucini Alfredo Parmesan, an Indian taco, quiche of the day and two burgers, including the “Coolwater Burger,” a half-pound burger topped with bacon, roasted green chile, and pepper Jack cheese on a handmade bun served with housemade potato chips. Make sure to check the flat screen monitor on the restaurant’s rear wall for the specials of the day.
Brunch selections, offered on Sundays from 10Am to 2PM, include some of the “usual suspects,” but done with Cool Water’s unique touches. Huevos Rancheros, for example, start with a fry bread canvas instead of a more conventional corn or flour tortilla. Crab eggs Benedict are also interpreted freely with a Challah bread base instead of English muffins and a roasted corn and Poblano Hollandaise served with a red chile glazed bacon. There are seven items on the brunch menu and all are, at the very least, interesting.
As to what’s for dinner, expect even more of the inventiveness and fusion which makes this restaurant’s menu very cool. Try, for example, blue corn crusted fried chicken topped with chipotle honey glazed and served with roasted corn on the cob. The restaurant’s Osso Bucco is made with turkey instead of veal shanks. Rainbow trout is stuffed with crab meat, wrapped in bacon and served with roasted corn salsa. Dinner is served Monday through Thursday from 4:30PM to 8PM and on Friday and Saturday from 4:30PM to 9PM.
Our inaugural visit was fittingly on one of the coolest days of the year 2010, ironically a day in which being “cool” was the furthest thing from our mind. We wanted to swaddle ourselves in the warmth of piquant chile within the confines of a warm restaurant. Even though Cool Water’s high ceilings and concrete floors don’t easily trap and disperse heat, the restaurant is comfortable enough even on a cool day. More importantly, service is warm and accommodating with a single, highly energetic waitress making everyone feel welcome.
Perhaps the warmest sounding appetizer in this cool new restaurant is a red chile braised pork served over a corn cake and topped with an egg and green chile coulis. It’s big enough for two and will warm the coddles of your heart, taking the chill off any cold day. The braised pork is shredded with nary a hint of fat. It’s tender and perfectly prepared, akin to a very good carne adovada. Neither the red chile or the green chile coulis are particularly piquant, but both have a sweet, smooth flavor with no cumin. The corn cake is sweet and moist, better than creamed corn. Break open the fried egg and let the yoke run over the dish for yet another taste experience. This is an excellent appetizer.
During a recent visit to the Golden Crown Panaderia, Albuquerque’s best baker Pratt Morales brought a handful of blue corn flour to our table, inviting us to close our eyes and imbibe its sweet fragrance. At the hands of a master, blue corn flour can be used to make fantastic breads and tortillas–not only good, but good for you, containing twenty percent more protein than white or yellow corn. Cool Water offers a blue corn crusted onion ring appetizer that showcases the pronounced flavor and coarse texture of a blue corn crust; it’s somewhat unlike other onion rings you may have had. Bite into that gruff exterior and you’re rewarded with sweet, flavorful onions in large ringlets. The green chile ranch dipping sauce has just the faintest of hints of green chile and is wholly unnecessary. These onion rings stand out on their own. In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded the Cool Water Fusion restaurant its Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its blue corn crusted onion rings as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.” Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor.
During our eight years of living in the Mississippi Gulf Coast, we frequently worshiped at the altar of Paul Prudhomme and other high priests of Cajun and Creole cooking, especially those expert in blackening techniques. Those eight years made Cool Water’s Cajun Chicken Sandwich (blackened chicken, pepper Jack cheese, sauteed bell peppers and aioli) a welcome offering. Contrary to some misconceptions, blackening is not at all about charring food to form a crust around it. Instead, it’s about dipping fish, fowl or meat in melted butter, dredging it in a mixture of herbs and spices then preparing it in an extremely hot cast iron skillet. The characteristically black-brown shades on the crust result from a combination of charred spices and browned butter.
The Cajun Chicken Sandwich is served on a square, soft bun about the size of a hamburger bun. The blackened chicken is redolent with a charred herbaceous and spicy quality some may find off-putting. This is not the Colonel’s chicken. It’s got a sophisticated, adult-flavor wholly unlike the sweet, moist fried chicken usually inserted between buns. The pepper Jack cheese, a spicy, semi-soft cheese and the sauteed bell peppers add to the strong, pungent flavors. This isn’t a sandwich for everyone, but it rekindled my Cajun impressed taste buds at least for a while.
Save for the turkey wrap which is accompanied by a small wedge salad, sandwiches are served with housemade potato chips. The chips are slightly thicker than commercial chips and like those chips in a bag, aren’t uniform in size or texture. Some are thicker than others and have virtually no crust while others have a pleasant, discernible crunch.
Blue corn shows prominently in a dinner selection that our waitress indicated is one of the restaurant’s most popular entrees, the blue corn crusted fried chicken topped with chipotle honey glaze. You can count on one hand the number of restaurants in Albuquerque which serve fried chicken. Cool Water’s fried chicken deserves the index finger as in the finger designating it as number one, the best fried chicken served by any Duke City restaurant, a fried chicken that doesn’t rely on twelve herbs and spices for its flavor.
Instead of the conventional leg, wing and thigh, this organic bird offering is in the form of a large chicken breast. You won’t discard the crispy exterior of the blue corn crust as you might a greasy crust elsewhere. When a crust is good, you can usually expect that it seals in the moistness and flavor that characterizes great fried chicken. The blue corn crust certainly does that. The chicken is juicy and it’s tender, fully impregnated with flavor. The chipotle honey glaze elevates it to an even higher level of deliciousness with just a hint of the smoky fire for which chipotle is known coupled with the sweetness of honey, a coupling somewhat reminiscent of a great Chinese sauce, but better.
Dinner specials tend to be fine-dining restaurant quality offerings and they’re priced that way. The cioppino, for example, set us back $35, but after having enjoyed every morsel, we didn’t flinch at the price. Made well, cioppino, the incomparable Portuguese-Italian dish is one of the most comforting, hearty and delicious comfort soups anywhere. Cioppino is a very nuanced dish that takes on the personality of the seafood from which it is constructed as well as the distinct seasonings which give it its kick. Alas, some cioppino, even some in San Francisco, tastes like seafood swimming in spicy V8.
Cool Water’s cioppino emphasizes the seafood–haddock, cod, shrimp and mussels. It does not mask–with a surfeit of seasonings and a plenitude of piquancy–the native flavors of high-quality seafood flown in fresh. Haddock, a mild-tasting, white-fleshed fish and cod, another mild-flavored, flaky fish, instead are the stars of a broth made with sliced, fresh tomatoes (not out of a can), red and yellow peppers and seasonings that complement, not overwhelm, the cioppino. It’s a San Francisco quality cioppino.
There are only three items on the dessert menu: bread pudding a la mode with caramel, cobbler of the day a la mode and fried ice cream served over fry bread. The bread pudding is very basic, much in the tradition of the bread puddings which have been made for hundreds of years. It’s a no-frills bread pudding wholly unlike some of the extremely complex concoctions made at other restaurants in the Duke City. Its components are bread and custard topped with creamy vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of caramel. It would certainly be interesting to hear what my friend Larry McGoldrick, a bread pudding aficionado thinks of this rendition.
The cobbler of the day is a nice contrast between hot and cold, sweet and savory, tangy and other textural and flavor differences. On the day of our inaugural visit the flavor of the day was peach, a juicy variety with only a mild sweetness. Unlike some pectin-enhanced cobblers, this one relies on natural sweetening. It makes a difference. The sweetness comes from the vanilla ice cream, a premium blend with a good flavor.
In its inaugural year of operation, the Cool Water Fusion Restaurant was selected by Alibi readers as Albuquerque’s very best new restaurant for 2010. Ensconced in a not cool at all strip mall, it’s Arthur Fonzarelli cool in a Potsie Weber nerd shopping center.
Cool Water Fusion Restaurant
2010 Wyoming, N.E., Suite B
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 June 2011
1st VISIT: December 30, 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Red Chile Braised Pork, Cajun Chicken Sandwich, Cuban Sandwich, Cobbler of the Day, Bread Pudding, Blue Corn Crusted Onion Rings, Cioppino, Blue Corn Crusted Fried Chicken