New name and menu for a venerable old friend
First visit: May 25, 2012
Chef and co-owner Peter Lukes did what a lot of native New Mexicans do—he left, then he came home. After working in fine restaurants in San Francisco, Lukes decided to return to Albuquerque and open a San Francisco-inspired restaurant. And he chose a surprising location. Terra American Bistro reposes in the rural reposes in the rural North Valley, miles from any other restaurants. But he built it and they came, not surprisingly for food as good as this. We like to start with the griddled crab and corn cakes with remoulade sauce, then move on to comforting yet sophisticated dishes like penne pasta with grilled sausages, slowly braised chicken confit, roasted house-cured pork loin, beef pot roast with braised red cabbage, a traditional beef Wellington with a white truffle demiglace and Moroccan slow-braised lamb shank with couscous. Be sure to save room for dessert, especially the warm chocolate Appaloosa cake with bittersweet chocolate and caramel sauces, a playfully named tribute to the many neighborhood horse lovers who frequent the restaurant.
Several weeks ago, Peter changed the name to Terra Bistro Italiano and revamped the menu with emphasis on Italian cuisine. Some of the old favorites from the previous incarnation remain, and for good reason.
This is not a typical red-sauce and pasta Italian restaurant. The inspiration is northern (Piedmont, Tuscan, and so forth). Yes, you can get pasta (and we did), and it is delightful. My favorites style of Italian cooking is slow braising, and the two best dishes of our first visit were outstanding examples of this peasant-inspired method.
We shared this meal with our dear friends Bob and Linda and Bob’s sister Barb, who will be leaving the East Coast for the Duke City as soon as she finds the right house. Bob and Linda have been here at least a dozen times, and finally dragged us here. The Italian menu was the ticket.
Grilled Prosciutto-Wrapped Asparagus with Gorgonzola
This is a classy appetizer. We have served it (in a slightly modified version) at dinner parties (which included Bob and Linda). The saltiness of the prosciutto and Gorgonzola plays delicately with the gentle balsamic vinaigrette, and both take lowly asparagus to a sublime taste treat. What a delightful presage to what would come later.
Rice flour dusted with lemon aioli and marinara.
It seems that nearly all good restaurants serve some version of calamari, usually deep fried as an appetizer or stuffed as an entrée. None that I am aware of dust the calamari with rice flour before the frying. This treatment makes the crust delicate and light. Perfectly fried, there was no hint of oil on these morsels. I prefer to squeeze lemon on them, eschewing marinara (which tasted fine, but not my bag). As good as any I have had. Gluten free for you GF folks.
Grilled jumbo shrimp, rroasted peppers, arugula salad. Reggiano parmesan, with a lemon vinaigrette.
For you shrimp lovers out there, this is the dish to order. There are six perfectly grilled shrimp on the plate. Tender and juicy. Like they just were dragged out of the water. You will have to search long and hard to find a plate of shrimp like this here in the High Desert. Linda, a transplanted easterner (from Maryland like me) loved this entrée.
Grilled chicken, garlic, capers, spinach, white wine, grated cheeses.
Bob’s sister Barb had the only pasta dish of the evening. And it was an excellent choice. The white wine, garlic, and capers provided a slightly salty treat for the palate. The linguini was perfectly al dente. This is the pasta dish to order here. Wow.
I had the leftovers for lunch the next day, and even leftovers are great. Nuke gently and add some cracked black pepper.
Mussels, shrimp, scallops, clams, tomatos, white wine, rice, and herbs.
Like a fruitti di mare in a delicate broth, this combination is more like a thick soup that a risotto. Beautiful blend of tastes. Perfectly done seafood pieces. Jane loved it, and cautiously guarded her bowl against poachers.
Slow-Braised Duck Risotto (Risotto all’anatra)
Anatra: Slow braised duck with red wine risotto, crimini mushrooms, Romano cheese.
Bob chose this marvelous dish. The slow-braised duck breast is falling-apart tender, and gently absorbed the tastes of the other ingredients. This is the second-best wine-laced risotto that I have had in New Mexico.
Slow-braised beef, rosemary potatos, stewed tomatos, green beans, and a natural jus.
I am a huge fan of slow-braised beef. This method of cooking transforms an otherwise ordinary and tough piece of meat into a succulent, fall-apart tender, incredibly tasty stew. These spezzatini can be made from rump roast or brisket, and Peter uses chuck. You can make this yourself from any of the recipes that you will find on Google.
This was my favorite dish of the evening. Peter is a wizard.
Warm chocolate appaloosa cake with berries and whipped cream.
We didn’t need dessert, but the Appaloosa Cake jumped off the menu at us. We ordered one plate with five forks, and are glad that we did. This is really dense very dark chocolaty stuff, the kind that confirmed chocoholics crave. Save room for this beauty.
This meal is among the best I have had in any Italian restaurant. The slow-braised stuff is superb, and both dishes have earned places in my Best Dishes of 2012 list that I compile at the end of the year.
I hope that as the new menu evolves, chef Lukes will add more slow-braised stuff. Osso Bucco, anyone? Please? And how about some pork belly (the Chinese have been doing this as dong Bo Pork since the eleventh century)?
The service is exemplary. The redesigned dining room is open, light, and airy. I wish I had listened to Bob, who began urging me to try it several years ago. I should listen to him — he knows. I will try the next wine pairings dinner. Can’t wait.
In one visit, Terra Bistro Italiano has earned a place on my Honorable Mention List. It’s that good.
Terra Bistro Italiano