“A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe.”
A recent tweet from Ortega (yes, that purveyor of “high quality Mexican products”) posed the existential question “What’s your cooking style: cooking from the soul, from your taste buds, from a book or from your gut?” While most cooks and almost all chefs would contend they cook with their souls, their assertions are belied by the absence of the qualities and experiences diners might associate with the term “cooking from the soul.” For many of us, that term kindles cherished memories of our precious mothers lovingly preparing our favorite dishes, every spoonful an expression of their boundless love. For others, “cooking from the soul” may engender fond recollections of a perfectly executed gourmet meal served by a fabulous staff against a spectacular backdrop.
Whatever imagery the term “cooking from the soul” conjures, most of us know when we’ve experienced it just as we can usually surmise that a cook or chef is just “going through the motions” in rote fashion. If you’re uncertain just what constitutes cooking from the soul, let’s turn to the wit and wisdom of The Ramen Girl: “You must learn to cook from the quieter place deep inside of you. Each bowl of ramen you prepare is a gift to your customer. The food that you serve your customer becomes a part of them. It contains your spirit. That’s why your ramen must be an expression of pure love. A gift from your heart.”
When Tony Punya walked up to our table and introduced himself as the owner of Soul and Vine, a casual fine-dining restaurant in the downtown district, my first question was “why the name?” though I’d already surmised the answer. Not surprisingly, he confirmed that “Vine” represents the fruit of the vine, a sommelier’s dream of red and white wines from California, Oregon, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Australia and even New Zealand. The “Soul,” he explained, describes the passion and energy with which executive chef David Ruiz prepares each and every meal.
From ambiance alone, it’s hard to feel “cooking from the soul” as you’re seated in a milieu perhaps best described as scrupulously immaculate and maybe even lacking warmth (courtesy of painted concrete floors and a fairly monochromatic palette). It’s not that Soul and Vine is unattractive or unappealing. Far from it. It just doesn’t have those warm, embracing qualities some restaurants have that make their guests feel as though they’re enveloped in a nurturing and comfortable cocoon. Attentive, personable service, the type which seems standard at Soul and Vine, goes a long way toward offsetting an impersonal ambiance. Both our server and the owner could not have been more gracious.
Ironically, Soul and Vine is ensconced in a space that previously housed Thai Saweiy and before that Thai Crystal, two restaurants with decorative touches that seemed just a tad more homey. Even more ironic is that the original concept for the restaurant wasn’t fine dining showcasing American tapas and a wine bar, but a food truck. That’s when serendipity played a hand. At about the time plans started to move forward with the food truck idea, Chef Ruiz was in search of a new opportunity and Thai Sawely had just closed. The space on Gold Street just west of First beckoned. Soul and Vine launched in October, 2014.
Lunch and dinner menus include several commonalities as well as distinct differences that extend beyond price. Because Chef Ruiz meticulously plans and preps dinner entrees for “just in time” service, they’re not available during the lunch serving. Available during both lunch and dinner, starters include eleven “soulful apps,” tapas-style appetizers big enough to share, but not so large that they’ll leave you too full for your meal. Soups and salads are also available for both servings. While the lunch menu showcases crafted sandwiches, for dinner it’s seasonal favorites (such as Papardelle Pasta and Carmelized Sea Scallops) that steal the show. Value oriented options are available for both lunch and dinner. For lunch, it’s the “Soul and Vine Trio,” a terrific threesome featuring sinful soup, savory salad and a crafted sandwich. For dinner, the “Soul and Vine Quartet” offers soup or salad, a soulful app, seasonal favorite and truffles.
As you contemplate your meal, a basket of flatbread and green chile-infused butter is delivered to your table. The flatbread, thicker than Indian papadum, but not as thick as a corn chip) is impregnated with cracked pepper. The green chile-infused butter spreads easily on the flatbread and couples with the cracked pepper to provide piquant-savory notes which complement the sweet mildness of the flatbread.
There’s significant variety in the soulful apps menu where you can find everything from an artisan cheese and charcuterie pairing to white Cheddar truffle mac and cheese. Any more than three or four of them are filling enough to constitute a meal, but you’ll want to order at least two. Make one of them the bay scallop ceviche on lettuce cups. Bay scallops are the 98-pound weakling of the mollusk family as they’re dwarfed by much larger scallops. The size limitation doesn’t apply to flavor. Bay scallops put their behemoth brethren to shame when it comes to flavor. They’re the perfect scallop for ceviche. Best of all, Chef Ruiz doesn’t obfuscate the natural brininess and flavor of the scallops by drenching them in citrus juices. The citrus juices complement the bay scallops very well.
Another soulful app not to be missed is the Pork Cubano Tacos, a trio of open-faced tacos stuffed with wonderfully moist, perfectly seasoned and absolutely delicious pork topped with caramelized onions punctuated with pickled Fresno chili. Now this is a soulful appetizer! Its flavor profile includes savory, sweet, tangy and piquant notes that work very well together. The soft corn taco shells have a pronounced corn taste that serves as a nice foil for the marinated pork and caramelized onions. These are the type of tacos you might want to eat by the dozen.
Mathematically there are probably hundreds of combinations possible with the Soul and Vine Trio and it’s likely they’re all delicious. Think about it. Is there anything better for lunch than the tasty trinity of soup, salad and a sandwich? Of the three it’s often the salad that’s most under- if not unappreciated. The Scarborough Farms Baby Greens salad (candied pecans, goat cheese, grilled onions with a white Balsamic dressing) may sound like many salads you’ve had, but the freshness of the ingredients and the tangy Balsamic elevate it to a rarefied state. So does the creamy, delightfully tart goat cheese. Soul & Vine also elevates the BLT to more than your everyday basic bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. Smoked bacon is the most elevated ingredient, rendered absolutely transformative with a light, delicate smoking process. Pairing perfectly with the sandwich is a tomato basil bisque, the very essence of comfort food and every bit the essence of soul cooking. It’s a terrific soup any time of year.
Not on the menu, but perhaps it should be is the butternut squash and sage ravioli which is served over a bed of toasted rainbow chard and topped with a piñon butter sauce and citrus curls. There are only seven raviolis per order, but each is roughly the size of a baby’s fist. Moreover they’re replete with ingredients and flavors which coalesce into a harmonious and yes, soulful platform of rich deliciousness. That richness is counterbalanced by the earthy, nutty, mineral-rich qualities of the rainbow chard. The citrus curls sneak in on occasion to provide a delightful contrast. This dish is a winner!
Soul and Vine may not look like a restaurant imbued with soul, but there’s plenty of cooking from the soul going on in the kitchen. Ultimately that’s what matters most.
Soul And Vine
109 Gold Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 2 May 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Butternut and Sage Ravioli, Soul and Vine Trio, Bay Scallop Ceviche, Pork Cubano Tacos