Perhaps in time, the Albuquerque-Rio Rancho metropolitan statistical area will be thought of in much the same vein as America’s two most famous “twin city” metroplexes–Dallas-Fort Worth and Minneapolis-Saint Paul. Don’t be surprised if Rio Rancho winds up being the Dallas to Albuquerque’s Fort Worth, the Minneapolis to Albuquerque’s Saint Paul. People have been selling Rio Rancho short for a long time, but that’s starting to change.
By 1980, the end of its first decade in existence, the fledgling city which in 1970 didn’t even have a measurable population by U.S. Census standards had more than 10,000 residents. Ten years later, census reports showed the “little city which could” had grown to more than 32,000 residents and had become the sixth most populous city in the state. Rio Rancho added another 20,000 residents by the millennium. 2007 population estimates now indicate Rio Rancho has supplanted Santa Fe as the third largest city in the Land of Enchantment with nearly 76,000 residents calling the City of Vision home.
Rio Rancho residents who once traversed a two-lane road down the hill to Albuquerque to do their shopping, partake of entertainment and dine at a variety of restaurants offering a diversity of cuisine are increasingly keeping their disposable income in Rio Rancho, especially when it comes to dining. The city may not yet have a truly transformative restaurant (though Noda’s might be close) but it has several very good to excellent restaurants, some of which are luring in diners from the Duke City and beyond.
In the shadow of an economic malaise that precipitated the closure of several popular upscale casual restaurants on the “west side,” restaurateur Matt Havey chose Rio Rancho as the site of another restaurant which should lure in diners from throughout the area. He named his dream restaurant which opened in September, 2009, the Black Olive Bar and Grill. With years of experience as general manager of the highly decorated Gruet Steakhouse and the now defunct Copeland’s of New Orleans, Havey knows what it takes to build a successful operation.
The Black Olive promises “a new fresh taste and spin on everybody’s favorite comfort foods like the Black Olive’s version of New Mexico green chili stew and the special half-pound “The Black Olive Burger.” An expansive menu includes “the finest steaks and wines, along with classic Italian pasta dishes.”
The Black Olive is situated in the Country Club Center on Southern Boulevard and Pinetree, the shopping center in which Albertson’s is the largest anchor tenant and in which you’ll find Joe’s Pasta Cafe, the best Italian restaurant on the west side. The restaurant is open daily from 11AM through 10PM Sunday through Thursday and 11AM through 11PM Friday and Saturday. The restaurant’s Web site offers a reservation service, but you can also reserve your table by calling 891-2690.
Straddling the fine line between casual and upscale dining, the Black Olive showcases a massive bar above which are hung four huge flat screen high-definition televisions tuned to ESPN, but that doesn’t mean this is exclusively a domain for the beer drinking man. Oenophiles will appreciate the fine wines available by the glass.
The restaurant is a yawning complex with both booth and table seating as well as seating by the bar. While the walls are a neutral earth-tone, the booths and chairs are black and even the tables are draped with black tablecloth. The black hardly seems ominous; it’s the type of black which seems to signify power or prestige.
The menu is obviously well thought-out so as not to be a compendium of everything for everybody, but a carefully chosen representation of items designed to provide a diversity of flavorful options. This is exemplified by the starters portion of the menu which offers ten different options ranging from grilled ham and cheese mini sandwiches to an offering of farm house cheeses. The soups and salads menu offers three soups (including the aforementioned green chili stew) and eight salads, most of which showcase the creativity and versatility possible with salads.
There are seven entrees on the pasta menu, all Italian. Sandwiches and burgers range from the comfortably simple (grilled cheese and tomato soup) to the inventively different (chicken muffuletta). Burgers are a half-pound and made from ground sirloin. The steaks and other meats section of the menu are placed into four categories: roasted, braised and grilled; prime rib; steaks and surf and turf. The steaks are seasoned on high-heat and finished in an over-fire broiler to lock in the taste.
Only four items adorn the seafood menu, but they include Australian cold-water lobster and king crab legs which can be served with the prime rib or steak for a classic surf and turf dinner. There are ten a la carte sides such as baked potatoes, macaroni and cheese and sweet corn gratine.
The menu also includes five desserts, all tempting. In what seems to be characteristic of a well-developed menu, the desserts range from the simple (fresh-baked cookies and milk) to the more sophisticated (a trio of key lime pie, peanut butter chocolate and carrot cake).
As you contemplate the menu, a plate with a wedge of warm focaccia bread and soft butter is brought to your table. The focaccia is soft and surprisingly not as crumbly as this type of bread tends to be. The butter spreads easily. Depending on what your order, you may want to hold back some of the focaccia for dredging up a sauce.
Fromage fanatics will gravitate toward a starter of Farm House Cheeses, described on the menu as “honeycomb, candied nuts, fruit compote and artisan breads.” Unless you consider crostini (slices of toasted bread) an artisan bread, the bread is hardly special though it is a good base for the other components of this starter plate. Another example of taking artistic liberty in describing the menu items is the term “honeycomb” which in this case turns out to be a ramekin of honey–real honey, not the honey-flavored syrup some restaurants serve with sopaipillas. It’s very good honey.
The three cheeses served on our plate were a luscious, fresh and creamy goat cheese; a white Cheddar of medium sharpness and a pungent blue cheese. All were quite good and proved perfect toppings for the artisan bread. The fruit compote was both sweet and tangy, its emphasis being on its natural flavors, not some pectin pretender. The candied nuts are an addictive lot, the type of which you could eat by the handful. In all, this is a very nice appetizer.
Every once in a while, I receive feedback critical about one of my reviews that leads me to ask, “why did they order that?” Frankly that’s the question I asked myself after one bite of the Cioppino, Dungeness crab, black mussels, Manila clams, shrimp, calamari and fresh fish in a hearty tomato-herb stew. While it’s about as good as you can expect in land-locked New Mexico, I’m very nit-picky about Cioppino, one of my very favorite seafood stews. Several trips to San Francisco reenforced that cioppino should be a lusty, flavorful, and full-bodied comfort stew with a fine balance of acidity, savoriness and freshness. Black Olive’s rendition didn’t live up to those standards.
The Pasta Pomadoro, on the other hand, is a nice rendition of this quintessential Italian dish. Pomodoro, an Italian word which means “golden orb” is an apt description for tomato considering its brilliant color at a ripened state. Pasta Pomadoro should emphasize fresh tomatoes and the Black Olive does. This dish, which also includes basil, garlic and extra virgin olive oil tossed with an angel hair pasta is light and delicious, the antithesis of heavy marinara sauces.
The Black Olive has only three burgers on the menu, but that doesn’t mean your choices are limited. The restaurant’s signature burger is the Black Olive Burger which is stuffed with your choice of cheese. The Classic Sirloin Burger includes lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle and white Cheddar cheese. Where you can really get creative is with the “Create Your Own Burger” option where, for a buck apiece, you can add any of the following ingredients: New Mexico green chile, applewood-smoked bacon, sliced mushrooms, blue cheese, caramelized onions and grilled portabella mushrooms.
Each burger weighs in at a half-pound of ground sirloin beef and ostensibly is prepared to your exacting specifications. I say ostensibly because that wasn’t the case for both me and a dining companion during a February, 2010 visit. We both ordered the Black Olive burger at medium, but as the photo above shows, mine arrived at well-done. What could have been a great burger had it had the requisite juiciness of all great burgers, was merely a fair burger, too dry for my taste. Stuffed with goat cheese and topped with very fresh ingredients, it deserved better than near incineration. Because we were in a hurry, we didn’t send the burgers back.
A dessert option sure to please even the most finicky of sweet teeth is the bread pudding topped with vanilla ice cream. The bread is lightly toasted, soft and moist and is infiltrated by sliced, baked apples. Cinnamon and raisin are also prevalent in this excellent example of what is essentially a peasant dish turned refined.
Philip Pate who recommended the Black Olive Wine Bar & Grill to me compared it to Geo’s Fine Food Restaurant, a short-lived but much beloved Rio Rancho restaurant whose closing surprised many. Philip believes that with its “very favorable selection of food” and “not the usual” menu, it has a chance for greatness. The Black Olive is a restaurant which bears watching as it does have the pedigree and menu to be another destination restaurant in Rio Rancho. The key will be in how the restaurant executes at even the minute details–keeping portion sizes reasonable, preparing food to exacting specifications, providing good value for the money. If it doesn’t, Rio Rancho residents certainly know the route to Albuquerque.
The Black Olive Wine Bar & Grill
3301 Southern Blvd.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 9 February 2010
1st VISIT: 12 October 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Pasta Pomadoro, Bread Pudding, Farmer House Cheeses