Monday, May 31, 2010

Do You Remember…

when Julia Child introduced us to French cooking through her television program The French Chef which premiered in 1963?

It wasn’t too long after that America, including yours truly, discovered the crepe. In fact, Child's recipe for seafood crepes in a cream and Swiss cheese sauce with a vermouth reduction became my “go to” recipe for entertaining. Soon I learned that crepes were great for feeding a crowd. The pancakes could be made ahead and frozen (O.K., a purist would say that they get somewhat rubbery), and small cubes of poached chicken made an economical substitute for seafood. And, if one of my guests was a vegetarian, sautéed mushrooms and asparagus could replace the meat or seafood.

So I was intrigued when I read about Le Crepe Michel in Albuquerque on Gil Garduno’s blog (Gil’s Thrilling [and Filling] blog). After a quick check of the menu on the Internet, I was sold. Crepes it would be on our return to Albuquerque.

This small cafe is hidden away in a secluded walkway not far from the plaza in Old Town. Run by Chef Claudie Zamet-Wilcox, it is small (seating six on the outdoor patio, twelve in the front room, and another twenty-six in what Chuck calls the Garden Room), and the Garden Room has a tree growing in the center and through the roof. Off a small corridor leading to the kitchen is another small room normally used for special events and business meetings. We were seated in the Garden Room.

We each decided to order a crepe and to share an appetizer and dessert. For the appetizer, we chose a plate with three small servings of French paté, three cheeses, hard salami, cornichons, olives, grainy mustard, and a small dish of salad. Two of the patés were coarse ground and rustic, and one had an aspic top and was studded with peppercorns. The third was creamy and tasted as if it had a chicken liver base. The cheeses included a blue vein cheese, a brie style, and gourmandize—a soft cheese studded with walnuts. The salad was tossed with vinaigrette made with the same grainy mustard that accompanied the meats and cheeses.

Among the entrée choices were: Poulet Basquaise—chicken breast, mixed bell peppers, white wine, and tomatoes served with rice and Cote de Porc "Forestiere"—a pork chop with wild mushrooms, parsley, garlic, and white wine and served with French fries.

All of the crepes sounded delicious. There was, to list just a few: the Crêpe au Boeuf Bourguignon—chunks of beef braised in red wine, onion, and spices; the Crêpe aux Fruits de Mer—sea scallops, bay scallops, and shrimp in a velouté sauce with mushrooms; the Crepe au Porc Dijonnaise—pork tenderloin, Dijon mustard, white wine, and cream sauce; and the Crêpe au Saumon et Asperges—broiled salmon, asparagus, dill-bechamel sauce, and melted Swiss cheese. For me, it would be the seafood crepes (right) as I embraced my inner Julia Child. For Chuck it would be the pork tenderloin crepe.

Both were extraordinary. The pancakes themselves were lace thin and were the perfect means of transferring the filling from plate to mouth. And both crepes were rich with filling. Not just a piece of pork or seafood here and there. The sauces perfectly melded with the meat and seafood.

Chuck’s mustard wine sauce was the perfect complement to the meat, and my slightly sweet velouté enhanced rather than overwhelmed the seafood. Both plates came with a small serving of sautéed string bean and carrots that were lightly seasoned with garlic. Now I normally won’t touch a cooked carrot, but these departed my plate in rapid order.

It was time to order dessert, and one item on the menu piqued my interest—the Crêpe Au Poivre. Yes, you read that right—pepper. This was a sweet crepe folded around vanilla ice cream, studded with cracked black pepper over which was poured the hazelnut liqueur Frangelico.

We had no sooner ordered our dessert than we heard this disembodied voice coming from the kitchen. “Something’s burning back here. I think we’ve had a plastic meltdown.” Soon smoke began to drift from the back of the restaurant into the dining area. At that point, we decided to eat our dessert on the outdoor patio, which, fortunately, was empty at that time.

And, fortunately, the fire wasn’t serious, and we still had our dessert. The contrast between the sweet and spice and the soft and hard was amazing. This may be one of the best desserts of the year, and we’ve eaten a lot of great desserts.

Great French food in the land of the green chile? You bet. Even with the plastic meltdown (adding a little excitement to our lives), this was a 5.0 Addie experience.

NOTE: Our return to Albuquerque was a bit stressful, because Kate had two appointments scheduled related to her surgery follow-up and a general check-up with another physician. The news was very good, and we will talk about this in a couple of days, but our short stay focused on food stops as a way to work around these two appointments.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Great Breakfast,

No Toast.

A number of years ago, our friend Tom drove from Albuquerque to Santa Fe along a road west of I-25. During that drive, he stopped at a small restaurant and had what he claims are the best blue corn pancakes ever. Unfortunately, he can’t remember either the restaurant’s name or location. So everywhere we go in this area, we ask people if they know of a place serving great blue corn pancakes. Everyone we asked here in Santa Fe responded with “Tecolate.”

“When Bill and Alice Jennison opened Tecolote in 1980, they did so with a sense of mission. Their goal was…‘to serve a wholesome, tasty meal, at a reasonable price, in a comfortable and cheerful environment.’…the Jennison's specialty, and the distinction of Tecolote, is breakfast. Lines of morning customers waiting to get in are testimony to their fulfill-ment of the mission. This sprawling roadhouse serves some of the tastiest breakfast in the South-west,” noted Michael Stern (from the Roadfood web site). Regrettably, Bill Jennison died in mid-May, but the family plans to continue the business.

There is nothing about the restaurant that would lead you to believe this is a break-fast mecca. In fact, even if you noticed it, you might not be inclined to enter. But there are all of those cars in the lot.

Inside, the restaurant’s décor is what I call “minimal decora-tion.”

There are a few artworks on the walls and the chairs are of the institutional stack variety.

The breakfast menu included the standard diner choices. But there was a fairly long list of New Mexico breakfast classics. One could chose from: the Breakfast Burrito—eggs scrambled with ham, bacon, or sausage, rolled in a flour tortilla, and topped with red or green chile and melted cheddar with a choice of beans, posole, or potatoes; the Huevos Rancheros—two eggs any style on a corn tortilla, smothered in red or green chile with cheese on request and a choice of beans, posole, or potatoes; the Huevos Yucatecos—a corn tortilla layered with black beans, two eggs any style, green chile, Swiss and feta cheese, and pico de gallo, and surrounded with fried bananas with a choice of beans, posole, or potatoes; Carne Y Huevos—a serving of lean pork cooked in a blend of red chiles with two eggs any style and potatoes; the Chicken Livers Tecolote—chicken livers sauteéd with salsa fresca and served with two eggs any style and potatoes.

I was really intrigued by the chicken livers, but finally ordered the Sheepherder’s Breakfast—boiled new red potatoes, jalapeño, and onion that has been browned on the grill, then topped with red and green chile, melted cheddar, and two eggs any style. With this came my choice of either a flour tortilla or the pastry basket ("Great Breakfast, No Toast," just as the menu cover states).

First, I didn’t detect much browning of the potatoes, onion, and pepper. Second, Tecolate cooks with almost no salt and the entire dish tasted bland. A modest sprinkling on the last few bites certainly perked up the flavor. Third, the green chile was very good and the red chile was very, very good. The biscuit in the basket was o.k., but the green chile corn muffin was remarkable and had the kind of crusty sides that come from baking in a well-oiled cast iron pan.

I had also been intrigued by the café’s French toast selections. For bread, you could choose from orange poppy, cinnamon raisin, honey almond oat, honey wheat, honey blue corn, or fresh French (plain). Hot cakes came as Melba (peach and raspberry sauce), Tollhouse (chocolate chips and walnuts), strawberry, or atolé piñon (in New Mexico, blue corn atole is finely ground cornmeal toasted for cooking). These were Tecolate’s famous blue corn pancakes and Chuck’s breakfast choice, along with a side of home fries.

When we went to breakfast with the same friend I mentioned in the first paragraph, Tom would joke that Chuck was the only person he knew who would order potatoes with pancakes. Upon presentation, these potatoes had possibilities. They looked to have been sliced on the thinnest setting of a mandolin and to have a crisp crust. Alas, the rest of the potato slices were unevenly cooked, thus spoiling what could have been a top-rate plate of home fries. The pancakes were good but not great, and Chuck detected the dreaded taste of baking soda, although I didn’t. The piñon nuts added texture, but I thought the kitchen was a little light on the nuts.

We still haven’t found Tom’s restaurant, but we’ll keep asking. As for Tecolate, we only give it a 3.5 Addie rating.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Time to Call in the Pro…

she says with tongue planted firmly in her cheek.

On his solo trip to Santa Fe last fall (this was during my pre-hospital, but post-healthy period), Chuck stopped for lunch at Bobcat Bite, one of the best known and highly regarded hamburger joints in the country. Since then, he has maintained that this very small restaurant served the best green chile cheeseburger ever and that I needed to eat there to validate his opinion. This was to be the day.

“Located on Old Las Vegas Highway which at one time was part of historic Route 66, the Bobcat Bite has been a family-owned-and-operated restaurant since 1953. Originally a trading post, then a gun shop, it was made a restaurant by Rene Clayton (owner of the Bobcat Ranch). It was first operated by her daughter Mitzi Panzer in 1953. Since then it has been operated as a mom and pop diner by a series of proprietors: Don and Millie Cowell, Don and Shelba Surls, Bob and Judy Amos, and John and Bonnie Eckre, who took over in May of 2001.

Many people ask how our name was derived. Years ago, before I-25 was built, bobcats came down from the hills and were given treats at the back door at what was one of the few local dining spots that were friendly to bobcats at that time.” (From the restaurant’s web site.).

While there were tables available, Chuck insisted that we sit at the counter where we had a view of the mountains and could observe birds at their feeders. While waiting, I started talking with the woman sitting next to me. She and her husband had lived in Albuquerque for years and now lived in Texas. Back in the area to visit their son, Bobcat Bite was their first stop when reaching Santa Fe. She assured me that there was no better burger than the one I was about to have. We’ll see about that.

The hamburgers come in one size – ten ounces of fresh-ground choice whole boneless chuck and sirloin. That is one large burger. That is one very large burger. So I decided that I would forgo any of the sides – home fries, potato salad, cole slaw. (Those are Chuck’s home fries shown in the photo below, and yes, I did help myself to a few.) So I kept it simple--the green chile cheeseburger, medium, with MOP. MOP was Chuck’s mnemonic device to remember that I like Mayo, Onion, and Pickle on my burgers.

The burger arrived. Egads, this thing is huge. It’s got to be an inch thick! Would it be, as they describe “medium” on the menu, “Pink through and through”? You bet. I took one bite, and juice poured onto my plate. I took a second bite, and the heat of the green chile exploded against my taste buds. On the third bite, it registered that the meat was fresh and hand-formed. I have to admit it. Chuck was right. This was the best green chile cheeseburger ever. This was indeed a 5.0 Addie burger.

You Have to Admire this Courage

“When Sage Bakehouse co-owners Andree Falls and Amy Cox met in Dallas, Andree was running her own restaurant and Amy was completing a Master's in neuro-biology. Both had been coming to Santa Fe to hike for years before they chose it as an ideal place to live. When they decided to open a bakery, the fact that they had no idea how to do it didn't deter them in the least.” (From the web site.)

They found their bread mentor in Michael London, a well-known baking connoisseur in upstate New York and former English professor, who taught them everything about the baking business--from ingredients to equipment.

“Sage Bakehouse opened in June of 1996, and served 300 people on its fifth day in business. By the end of August, the company had grown ten times over. Originally baking 200 loaves per day, the bakery now produces 3,500 to 4,000 daily. "We're very lucky to be well-received," Andree asserts gratefully.

Since its debut, the Sage Bakehouse has become a Santa Fe institution. The bread is golden perfection, made even more delicious by a natural leavening process free of commercial yeast, and other restaurants around town proudly feature it. “ (From the web site.) Shown on the left are (l. to r.) a batard, a multi-grain with seeds, a cranberry loaf, and a chipotle cheese loaf.

We had sampled their bread at Sophia’s Place and Ezra’s Place in Albuquerque, and nothing was going to stop us from going right to the source. After at least fifteen minutes of debate, we finally settled on (clockwise, from top left): the Sourdough made with authentic lactobacillus sourdough culture and which, the bakers claim, is “tangier and chewier than the typical Bay Area offering; the Pane Paisano, an Italian country bread that is “the ideal sponge for extra virgin olive oil” (and we can attest to the accuracy of that claim); the Pecan-Raisin that contains more than a third of a pound each of select raisins and pecans; and the seeded baguette.

Well, these were devoured in short order, and a stop to replenish our supply will be necessary before leaving Santa Fe.

Friday, May 28, 2010

While You Were Watching TV

Just north of Albuquerque and a bit south of our lunch stop near Santa Fe is the world of Ross Ward.

Tinkertown Museum, located in Sandia Park, houses the result of 40 years of carving, collecting, and constructing. We entered Ross Ward's world of miniature wood-carved figures.

Before learning about the contents of the Museum, however, we were struck by the construction of the Museum itself.

After seeing Grandma Prisby's Bottle Village in Simi Valley, California in 1980, Ward began his use of bottles in the construction of what to become his collection's home.

Within a year, Tinkertown became a neighborhood recycling center accepting bottles from all his friends, neighbors, and the local tavern. The construction process continued for over 15 years, and today over 55,000 glass bottles form rambling walls that surround a 22-room museum.

His interest in carving the figures that appear in the Old West Village began on a trip to Knott's Berry Farm in 1949, at age 8.

When he returned to his home in Aberdeen, SD, he began creating scenes from the Old West by using cardboard boxes, molded clay people, and read almost all the books in his local library about the West.

We found that the best way to view the collection was in small scenes. In small doses, the life-like characters in the scenes tell a story from the strategy employed in a simple game of checkers (above) to the pending battle (right) between the nurse and the pharmacist who seems to be practicing beyond his pharma-ceutical training.

The detail in the expressions and gestures of his characters show the years of practice that began at age 11.

After barely graduating from high school, Ward held jobs with roadside attractions from the Black Hills to antique car museums to Knott's Berry Farm.

At these businesses, he learned how to "sell a look." "They'll pay everyday to see the same old bear, and you won't need to buy a new bear every day either," was the message from Ray Bivens of the Black Hills Animal Farm.

He certainly has "sold the look," creating a display that both requires more than one trip through the maze of corridors to fully appreciate and produces a strong word-of-mouth advertising from its visitors.

As his collection grew, his display "platform" grew from store windows to a sixteen-foot trailer to the permanent building of today.

When we viewed the displays as "the big picture," Ward's whimsy appeared promi-nently.

Here, for example, is Mary Poppins floating over the Western town's ice cream parlor. I'm not sure I get the association, but that may be because I don't know the story of Mary Poppins.

But it is at Jason's of London Toys, Ltd. that the lighter side of his Western town shown through most clearly.

Perched atop the building is Humpty Dumpty and

waiting patiently at the side of the street are Mickey Mouse, Snow White and the seven dwarfs.

We wondered how many of the 1500 hand-carved and painted miniature figures we saw; we knew we had studied only a small portion of this total.

Near the end of the corridors through the collection, we found these items displayed on the ceiling. There was virtually no open space in the Museum.

As we neared the end of the Museum's displays, one of Ward's favorite sayings came to mind: "I did all this while you were watching TV."

At age 61, Ross passed away on November 13, 2002.

"Live Life As the Pursuit of Happiness" is the message below this sculpture and seemed to be Ross Ward's guide to his life.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

It Would Have Been the Perfect Day, . .. .

but Sugar’s wasn’t open.

After a busy morning in O’Keefe Country, we were ready for lunch. Realizing that we were about fifty miles south and west of Embudo, Sugar’s BBQ & Hamburgers immediately came to mind. Why, you might ask. Because we had eaten there on our first visit to New Mexico, and we remembered fondly the wonderful green chile cheeseburgers and the general funkiness of the setting.

A Jane and Michael Stern (Roadfood) “Top Pick,” Sugar’s is described as a “...way-out-of-the-way little barbecue hut.... Sugar's serves knock-out beef brisket, at its best when rolled with green chile and cheese inside a soft flour tortilla.... Sugar's is just a kitchen in a tin-sided trailer.”

Named for the owner’s daughter’s late bulldog (that’s Sugar in the framed photo), Sugar’s was named in May 2005 as one of America’s ten best drive-ins by no less than Gourmet Magazine. The same year, the Forty-Seventh Legislature of the State of New Mexico issued a proclamation that ends with: “Now, therefore, be it resolved by the Senate of the State of New Mexico that congratulations be extended to Neil, Nancy, and “Sugar” Nobles on being named one of the best Road-Side Eateries in the US.”

We were primed and ready. Visions of sharing a green chile cheeseburger and a BBQ Brisket Burrito danced in our heads (lunch at Sugar’s is like Christmas).

And they weren’t open.

Well, one web site had advised calling ahead for hours, but we ignored that advice.

The outdoor dining area was a lonely setting.

Alas, we left with only the years-old memory of having eaten at one of the 10 Best Road-Side Eateries.

Time for that ever popular Plan B. Drive to Santa Fe and have lunch at Harry’s Roadhouse Café, the site of an amazing breakfast during our February sojourn in Albuquerque (2/22/10). (I fondly recall the smoked trout scramble with goat cheese.) We arrived after 2:00 p.m., and there were still a good number of cars in the parking lot and diners in each of the three dining areas we saw. (The patio was empty. This was one of those very windy days we have learned are common in New Mexico in May.)

We were led to our table by a man who I swear is the twin of the “Woo-Woo” man you see at Cubs’ games. We were seated in the glass-enclosed porch that looks out on the patio. And a colorful porch it was. The walls were painted salmon and bright blue with green trim.

On one wall was hung a “Tree of Life” metal sculpture just above a painted wooden table.

The other tables were covered with gaudy plastic table-cloths—no two of them alike.

Just perfect for the mismatched chairs at each table.

The lunch menu included appetizers, soups, salads, and pizza. Other choices included: a Turkey Reuben with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island Dressing and served with fries; a Cold Turkey Meatloaf sandwich on sourdough with sweet 'n sour tomato sauce and caramelized onions and served with chips; Dry Rubbed, Smoky St. Louis Cut Pork Ribs with cowboy beans, slaw, and cornbread; the California Dreamin’—a big hand-held burrito filled with grilled carne asada, onions, garlic, poblanos, beans, and rice with guacamole and chile arbol salsa on the side; and Grilled Salmon Tacos with tomato salsa, refried black beans, and a salad.

Chuck was in a comfort food frame of mind and ordered the Hot Turkey Meatloaf with mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy and a house salad. He did have a few qualms about turkey meatloaf, but why not go for it. This was actually one of the better meatloaves of the year. It was moist, juicy, and had a minimum of filler and contained chopped onion and carrot – the latter of which gave the meatloaf a slight sweet flavor. Not being a mushroom man, the fungi from the gravy quickly made their way from his plate to mine. The mashed appeared to have been made from Yukon Gold potatoes and definitely were not from a box or bag. The accompanying salad of baby greens, tomato, and sliced red onion was tossed with a non-vinegary salad dressing.

I had more difficulty choosing and debated between the California Dreamin’ burrito and the grilled salmon tacos. What did I chose? The Roasted Turkey Breast Sandwich with bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado, and green chile and served with cole slaw and chips. Why? I’m not sure. A turkey sandwich is a turkey sandwich, even when it is made with REAL roasted turkey—none of this sliced deli stuff. The slaw was more like a pickled cabbage salad and had an undertone of spice. Different and good when eaten on the turkey sandwich. This was good, but no substitute for a Sugar’s BBQ brisket burrito.

We gave our breakfast at Harry’s a 4.5 Addie rating, but this lunch only earns a 4.0.