To some extent, people watch Anthony Bourdain for the same reasons they tune in to infamous shock-jock Howard Stern–to see what he’ll say next. Though Bourdain, the best-selling author, world traveler, renown chef and “poet of the common man” is hardly the potty-mouthed bane of the Federal Communications Commission that Stern is, his incisive comments are oft peppered with pejoratives and references to genitalia. They’re also laden with insightful, well-reasoned, highly intelligent and well articulated thoughts uncommon in the world of food television currently dominated by pretty faces with Ultra Brite smiles.
In the 2010 season premier of his No Reservations show, the first words Bourdain uttered were “the optimist lives on a peninsula of infinite possibilities; the pessimist is stranded on the island of perpetual indecision.” It’s not every culinary celebrity who can quote William Arthur Ward, or even know who he is, but Bourdain is not only a fellow sybarite, he is well-read and highly intelligent. His introduction gave me pause to reflect on Ward’s words, one of my very favorite inspirational maxims. Just hours earlier, I was transformed from an eternal optimist to someone mired in indecision.
What caused this transformation was nothing less than the perusal of the magnificent menu at Terra Bistro Italiano in Albuquerque’s North Valley. Frankly, every visit to Terra is a peninsula of infinite possibilities followed by perpetual indecision. The menu seems to have that effect on many people. Not only is it a very well written, very enticing menu, it is replete with boundless possibilities. It is a well-balanced menu that reflects seasonal changes. It is a menu that diners can easily understand, not written as a compilation of ingredients that don’t really tell you what you’re going to be eating or how it will be prepared.
Though you won’t need an interpreter to understand the menu, you’ll need time to peruse it thoroughly. The highly professional wait staff at Terra is accustomed to hearing, “just a few minutes more” from patrons, like me, who can’t easily decide what to have. The options are seemingly endless, the possibilities exciting. Now, the menu at Terra isn’t encyclopedic in size–about seven starters, five sandwiches and eleven entrees for lunch and ten of each starters and entrees for dinner, but it is an exciting compilation of contemporary Italian-American cuisine.
Terra is the brainchild of Chef-Owner Peter Lukes, an Albuquerque native who left home to stamp his imprint on the San Francisco culinary scene before returning home and launching Terra in 1998. His restaurant is situated in the Far North Valley, an attractive stand-alone milieu on heavily trafficked Alameda Boulevard. There are no other restaurants of the fine-dining genre anywhere near Terra and few fine-dining restaurants in the Duke City which can match the near-flawless execution of such an ambitious menu.
Terra is an Italian word for “Earth.” The appellation was chosen because like the earth, Peter Lukes intends Terra to “be a place diners consider their own.” While it has become a popular neighborhood dining establishment, it also draws in diners from throughout the Duke City. It’s a bright, attractive and welcoming milieu, an upscale-casual restaurant with white linen tablecloths and etiquette-appropriate place-settings, but it’s a restaurant in which nattily attired can mean shorts in summertime.
The restaurant’s cynosure is a sparkling exhibition kitchen with bar stool seating arranged in a half circle where patrons can watch Chef Lukes in action. Sterling steel and burnished copper kitchen accouterments glint with newness though they’ve likely been through the mill a time or two. A pot rack suspended from the ceiling holds the pots and pans in which meals are expertly prepared.
Savvy diners will arrive promptly at 11:30 for lunch, knowing that warm, fresh, house-made bread right out of the oven will arrive at their tables shortly after they do. Terra serves some of the best bread in town and it’s all baked on the premises. The staff of life is of artisan quality and it’s replenished faithfully by the on-the-spot wait staff. The lavender focaccia is an early favorite, its fragrant, pine-like bouquet belying a rich, delicate flavor. Lavender isn’t just for bubble baths and sachets any more. It can be used to punctuate and enhance the flavors of everything from ice cream to lemonade. On Terra’s focaccia, it is marvelous!
At the other spectrum is Terra’s house-made pumpernickel, a dark-colored bread with a pronounced rye taste and virtually no crust. It’s neither light nor delicate, having a more intense flavor profile than the lavender focaccia, but it is no less delicious. This yin and yang bread offering of breads varying in flavor, texture and appearance is indicative of Chef Luke’s genius.
Starters–a meal’s equivalent of an opening act, a preliminary bout before the main event, a diminutive preview of what’s to come–at the best fine-dining restaurants have become reason enough to visit those dining establishments who care enough to give them the attention to detail that whets the appetite and leaves diners eager for more. The starters at Terra have that effect, as well as the aforementioned effect of rendering diners indecisive. Perhaps the restaurant’s worst kept secret is that all the starters are excellent. If you can’t decide, close your eyes and take a stab at the starters’ menu. You can’t go wrong.
The applewood smoked bacon wrapped and grilled asparagus with bleu cheese and aged Balsamic vinegar is one of our favorites. This starter plays complementary and contrasting ingredients against each other in delicious, flavor-melding ways. The applewood smoked bacon has a semi sweet-savory flavor and if you close your eyes, you might swear it was fried over an open campfire with light smoke. It’s lightly fried so it can be wrapped around several perfectly grilled asparagus spears. The asparagus spears have an earthy, slightly charred flavor. Primarily a spring-time treat, nothing brings out the freshness and sweetness more than grilling.
Perhaps nothing complements grilled asparagus more than bleu cheese, the pungent, tangy cheese which definitely makes its presence felt…or tasted. Terra uses a blue vein-rich cheese that’s neither too strong nor too subtle. Juicy, herbaceous tomatoes provide a bit of acidity while an aged Balsamic vinaigrette lends a distinctive sweet-tanginess to this sensational starter. If you like the adventure of flavor discernment, you’ll appreciate this appetizer.
In his 1949 classic The Soup Book, Louis P. De Gouy wrote, “One whiff of a savory aromatic soup and appetites come to attention. The steaming fragrance of a tempting soup is a prelude to the goodness to come. An inspired soup puts family and guests in a receptive mood for enjoying the rest of the menu.” What an appropriate description for the effect Terra’s porcini mushroom soup will have on you. Fresh porcini, a heady and meaty fungi, is imbued with a wonderfully earthy aroma. Chef Lukes adds fuel to the fire by adding aromatic truffle oil and chives to the porcini mushroom soup. The resultant bouquet is a siren’s call for hungry diners needing the warmth and envelopment only a great soup can provide. This soup delivers! It’s as flavorful as it is aromatic.
Some of my faithful readers are probably tired of reading about my quest to add to the handful of outstanding risotto dishes I’ve had in my life. It’s entirely possible only one of George Costanza’s girlfriends and i have such a wanton lust for risotto. Unlike George’s girlfriend, however, I’ve yet to experience “le petit mort” (a French euphemism for….er, uh, really enjoying something) from risotto. Terra offers a rather unique take on risotto, serving it inside an arancini or fried rice balls. The arancini di riso, which translate literally to “oranges of rice”, are (duh) shaped like an orange and stuffed with an herbaceous risotto punctuated with a basil pesto and tiny hazelnut bits served with a tomato sauce and basil oil. You’ll want to enjoy two or three of these delightful starters before your meal.
The entrees portion of the menu has a nice balance of meats, seafood and pasta dishes, all of which beckon diners to try them. Lunchtime portions and pricing are a bit smaller, but no less exciting. Take for example, the grilled angus pub steak with griddled red onions, demiglace, steak fries and house ketchup. At well under twenty-dollars, this is one of the most flavorful, well-prepared steaks in Albuquerque. It’s eight to ten ounces of perfectly prepared (at medium) beef with no sinew or excess fat. Ask for it to be seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic.
The demiglace is a rich, concentrated beef stock ameliorated (I believe) by a fine cooking wine and reduced to a slightly thick, but certainly not syrupy sauce. It’s an excellent compliment to the beef, not a sweet sauce that changes its flavor. The griddled red onions are a surprisingly good addition, too. The steak fries are large and thick, but cooked all the way through. The house ketchup is fantastic with the flavor of rich, red tomatoes seasoned very well with, among other spices, mace and nutmeg.
From among the pasta dishes, one of the real winners is a penne pasta with Molinari hot sausage, hot house tomatoes, spinach and a white-wine-pesto sauce sprinkled with a dusting of Parmesan. This dish is perhaps the best penne dish we’ve had in the Duke City. It’s a magnificent melding of flavors and textures. The Molinari hot sausage has a nice fennel flavor and just enough piquancy to get your attention. The white wine-pesto sauce is rich and buttery, cut by the acidity of the tomatoes and spinach. No Italian restaurant in Albuquerque serves such a good penne pasta dish.
One of Terra’s most popular menu items, alas available only for lunch, is the seasoned crab and corn cakes served with seasonal vegetables, roasted new potatoes and a tangy remoulade sauce. The most telling feature of the crab cakes is that they taste like fresh crab, not some unnecessary filler. The sweet, succulent flavor of the crab is punctuated by the even sweeter flavor of roasted corn niblets. Texturally, the crab stands out too. There’s no surfeit of binder to render these cakes gummy as some I’ve had in Albuquerque. Instead these crab cakes fall apart, not disintegrate, into forkfuls of flavor. My esteemed colleague Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, knows more about crab cakes than anyone else in the Duke City area. I’m betting he’ll love these.
Seasonal vegetables decorate this plate in both appearance and freshness. Peruvian purple potatoes, roasted fingerling potatoes, beets, tomatoes, French green beans, snap peas, asparagus and carrots are all prepared to perfection with a farmer’s market freshness to them. The tangy remoulade sauce, while intended for the crab cakes, complements each vegetable very well. The remoulade (tarragon, dill, French mustard, anchovies) is rich and complex, the type of sauce which improves anything it touches.
Tired of reading about my quest for risotto? You might want to skip the next two paragraphs because the summer, 2013 menu at Terra includes not just one, but two risotto dishes. Both are terrific. Neither elicited le petit mort, but both warrant return visits. The first risotto is called Anatra which translates from Italian to “duck.” Duck is indeed the star of this risotto. It’s braised slowly and served with a red wine risotto (rendering the dish almost purple), crimini mushrooms, Swiss chard and Romano cheese. Most risotto dishes of my past have been rather mellow with subtle flavors coalescing around perfectly prepared round, short grain, high starch rice. The Anatra is bold and exciting in much the manner that French wine dishes are bold and exciting.
Even better, if possible, is the Fennel Risotto, a more traditional risotto dish showcasing the same perfectly prepared rice, this time braised in white wine, spinach, Romano cheese and seared sea scallops. The four scallops are lightly seared and mildly sweet with just a hint of brininess. With a soft, slightly chewy texture, each morsel is thoroughly enjoyable. There is no clumping on the risotto, every grain of perfectly prepared rice punctuated with the flavors of white wine and Romano.
Terra Bistro Italiano has a handful of dessert offerings, the most popular being the Appaloosa, named in honor of the many neighborhood horse lovers who frequent the restaurant and because of its black and white coloring. The Appaloosa cake is served warm and has the texture and feel of a molten flourless cake, but the wait staff will swear it’s not flourless. Nonetheless, a chocolate flourless-style cake is topped with a layer of white hazelnut cream cheese then topped with bittersweet Belgian chocolate and caramel sauces. It’s an outstanding dessert, a fitting way to end a fine meal at one of Albuquerque’s very best fine dining establishments.
To say Chef Lukes is multi-talented is an understatement. He’s not only a chef, he’s a baker and a pastry chef, too. That’s a troika of talent few chefs possess. Among the many surprises on the menu are what he does with ice creams and sorbets, all completely housemade. His sorbets are crafted from seasonal ingredients at their peak of flavor and juiciness. The strawberry sorbet is one of the two or three best sorbets I’ve ever had. It’s the perfect antidote for lethargy, a refreshing kick of strawberry-infused flavor that will get you going. As with all desserts, the sorbet goes well with the Whiting Coffee served at Terra since its inception. Whiting Coffee is roasted in Albuquerque from premium coffee beans. It is one of my favorite brews.
As important as kitchen skills are, some chefs seem to disregard the most important people-pleasing aspects of running a restaurant. It’s apparent Chef Lukes has ensured his dining public is well-served in every way with some of the best, most savvy wait staff in Albuquerque. If you’re a semi-regular, they’ll not only remember your name, but more than likely what you ordered during your previous visit.
If you’re waiting for a special occasion to visit Terra, consider waking up a special occasion and head to Terra for lunch or dinner. It’s an Albuquerque gem.
Terra Bistro Italiano
1119 Alameda Blvd., N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 July 2013
# OF VISITS: 5
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Housemade Bread; Bacon-Wrapped and Grilled Asparagus with bleu cheese and aged Balsamic vinaigrette; Penne pasta with Molinari Italian sausage, hot house tomato, spinach and white wine-pesto sauce; Grilled angus pub steak with griddled red onions, demiglace, steak fries and house ketchup; Warm chocolate appaloosa cake with bittersweet chocolate and caramel sauces