by Christie Chisholm, LocalFlavor Magazine, December 2011
Food, like all other forms of art and beauty, should be judged by the beholder. What piques and pleases one person’s palate may not resemble what tickles the taste buds of another. And so declaring what individual dishes make up the best of what Albuquerque’s restaurants have to offer seems impossible, and maybe a little bit implausible, too. The truth is that there are countless stunning culinary creations in the Duke City, from gourmet, seasonal standouts to the comfort food you always want to warm up to. So while this list is far from comprehensive and subject to the whims of my own collection of cravings, I believe it still shows scope of the city’s offerings, and the talent of its cadre of chefs.
P’tit Louis Bistro
I’m just going to come right out and admit it: P’tit Louis is my favorite restaurant in Albuquerque. I knew when cobbling together this list that the Parisian bistro would have a bright, shiny place on it. The only trouble came in deciding which dish to feature, because there are so many I could have chosen, from the delightfully lush mousse au chocolat to the béchamel-endowed croque monsieur. Perhaps I always knew the moules piquantes would win out. Steamed in white wine, these fantastically fresh mussels come with a twist that will win the heat-seeking hearts of many New Mexicans: chili peppers and jalapeños. The savory, fiery broth makes the ideal dip for P’tit Louis’ crisp yet tender fries, which are served next to the moules in a mile-high mound.
When it comes to Persian, Pars reigns over Albuquerque’s Mediterranean menus. The palatial interior of the restaurant—filled with billowing fabrics and ornately carved wood—only adds to the elegance that comes out of Chef and Co-owner Shahnaz Tafti’s kitchen. Even simple items are crafted with sophistication, elevating them to a status worthy of a cross-town drive. This may be best embodied through the fesenjoon stew. This classic Persian dish consists of not much more than walnuts sautéed in pomegranate sauce and served with chicken and basmati rice (or just the rice for the vegetarians in the crowd). But the rich, slightly tart flavor of the stew adds complexity and the compulsion to keep going back for more.
Grilled Sesame Crusted Ahi Tuna
Slate Street Café
We may live in the desert, but it’s still possible to find fish that’s scooped out of the ocean mere hours before it lands on your plate. Slate Street’s seafaring ingredients are delivered within 20 hours of being pulled from the water. That freshness is reflected in the restaurant’s fish dishes, especially when it comes to the Ahi tuna. While there’s a lunchtime version of Slate’s take on the tuna, it’s the dinner listing that serves as the main attraction. Dipped in black and white sesame seeds and then seared, the filet comes encircled by swirls of bright orange habanero and green wasabi cream sauces. The colorful plate is completed with a bed of jasmine steamed rice and a vegetable spring roll. Owner Myra Ghattas says the dish is one of few that’s remained from the restaurant’s original 2006 menu. “People just love it,” she says, adding that as a result “we’ve opted to never take it off our menu, even when we do seasonal changes.”
Blue Corn Crusted Fried Chicken
There is something simply phenomenal about CoolWater Fusion’s fried chicken. It starts, says Owner Glen Williams, with organic meat. Then it’s dredged through buttermilk and blue corn. But the magic to this dish comes in the form of a honey glaze, which is imbued with red wine, chipotle, tarragon and paprika. One bite of the spicy-sweet concoction and you’ll want to slather that sauce over everything in your fridge. And here’s a perk: It also comes gluten free.
Fresh Atlantic Salmon Coulibiac
Brasserie La Provence
As soon as you sit down to brunch at Brasserie La Provence, you’ve won. There are, of course, the white tablecloths and European charm. Then come the mimosas. No matter what you order, you’re delivered a basket brimming with house-made and buttery-soft croissants, baguettes and Danishes. And then there’s the Atlantic salmon coulibiac, which is as rich as it is decadent. A significantly sized salmon filet gets the royal treatment, wrapped in puff pastry and served with spinach, white asparagus and a savory chive beurre blanc. Because the flavors are on the heavier side, keep your mimosas coming to make it magnificent.
The Breakfast Sandwich
The Grove Café and Market
It’s called, merely and modestly, The Breakfast Sandwich. But this assortment of scrambled eggs, tomato, lettuce and mayo squeezed between two sides of a fluffy, house-made English muffin deliver a brunchtime satisfaction that’s hard to match. I like to order this menu items with a few modifications, which I think transform it from noteworthy to unforgettable. Switch out the scrambled for poached, add some thick avocado slices to the mix and ask for some of Heidi’s raspberry jam on the side, and you’ve got yourself the makings for a really good day.
Americano and Chocolate-Almond Croissant
Sometimes it’s a five-course meal that makes you feel like a millionaire. Other times, it’s the little things that satisfy the sweet spot in your gastronomic soul. Take, for example, a ordinary yet extraordinary pairing: an Americano and croissant. When both are made expertly, they fulfill some primordial desire. It so happens that Café Guiseppi makes the best Americanos in town (and far beyond, I imagine). Never bitter and always slightly caramely, if I could get away with it I’d have one permanently holstered to my hand. And then there are the croissants, offered plain as well as in almond and chocolate-almond varieties. It’s the last choice in that list that wins top honors, though. Not just filled with chocolate-almond goodness, these pastries are gooey with it—in fact, they may warrant a fork. Somehow the perfect combination of flaky and sticky, they’ll make you smile, guaranteed.
Grilled Bone-In Tender Belly Pork Chop
Jennifer James 101
Truly, anything that comes out of Jennifer James and Nelle Bauer’s kitchen could probably make this list. Their food is exceptional, without exception. But the two chefs and co-owners believe in many ways, this dish—served with house-made apple brandy mustard, mashed half sweet potatoes and celery-apple slaw—embodies their culinary philosophy. It starts with ingredients they love and simple inspirations. The idea for the mustard grew out of a recent trip the two took to Paris. The pork chop found itself on the plate due to the fact that it’s the “cleanest-tasting” they’ve ever had, says James. Bauer, who created the dish, says she wanted to include it in the fall menu because she knew James would love it. That motivation paid off. While the pork is everything the two claim, it’s the mustard that makes the meal, adding that addictive, mouth-watering sting to every bite (it comes on the side, of course, so exactly how much sting you get is up to you).
Duck Confit and Pumpkin Ricotta Agnolotti
Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro
Ravioli is often associated with heaviness. A chunky pasta added to the menu solely to sate vegetarians, many versions of it disappoint. But Zinc has imbued this standard with an almost inexplicable airiness. The pumpkin-ricotta filling is mousse-like, the pasta itself is delicate, and the broth it’s bathed in—with Grana Padano, fried sage, shitake and the lightest of asparagus slivers—is so good it could be served as a soup. And with an option to leave out the dark, succulent duck, it’s still a viable entrée for the veggie-minded.
Flourless Chocolate Truffle Torte
It’s exactly as good as it sounds. This mink-soft wedge of dark chocolate truffle comes drizzled in pistachio creme anglaise and topped with port wine cherries. It’s rich yet not overpowering, sweet yet subtle and hauntingly, almost unfairly fantastic. Whether it’s the end to a meal or a destination dessert, it’s worth it and will make you see cocoa-dusted stars all the way home.