A change of seasons
By Jennifer Wohletz
Hibernation is a beautiful thing. I love nothing more than to spend snowy winter months eating meat and soup (meat soup kills two birds with one stone) and holing up in my house. Last week was one of those rare times I've encountered since moving to Albuquerque five years ago. I woke up in the middle of the night with the vague realization it was cold, and I went to turn on my rarely touched heater. On my way back to bed, I glanced out through my window: Huge clumps of snow were pelting the glass. I was so shocked I opened my front door to have a look, only to find half my neighbors staring up into the sky like aliens had landed.
Wintry meat dishes are not the first thing that comes to mind when contemplating a meal at Graze (now sans founding chef and co-owner Jennifer James). I usually go there with a vague picture of summery, delicious but light, cool and vegetative fare. But not this time. Like nature, Graze changed colors for winter, and included many warming comforts to a new menu rife with meats and spices.
With the exit of Jennifer James in September came very few cosmetic changes (but the horrible oilcloth flowered tablecloths on the patio were gone, to my delight). I entered the old Kanome building with a little reverence, and I must admit I was glad to see the simple, zen-meets-organic décor in place. Contrasting lime and maize painted walls meet in a pattern of waving grasses, and a raw wood beam ceiling, yellow glass lamps and hardwood floors are all refreshing to the eye. A profusion of windows surrounds everything in a warm, healthy light. I was in a vegetative state of mind thanks to my barnyard-industrial surroundings.
I was worried that the seasonal wine list would undergo drastic changes, but my server Andrea assured me that only minor changes “for the best” had occurred.
The menu, also seasonal, is a fantastic collection of exotic and more familiar morsels, all served to share with plates for all. This, of course, brings up the age-old argument of quality versus quantity. To the meat-veg-and-starch-with-gravy crowd, I say you're going to miss out if you don’t broaden your horizons a mite.
Graze's salads have put on a few pounds (in a manner of speaking) for the winter with a romaine salad loaded with avocado and red onion and bathed in a smoked tomato vinaigrette, and a mixed baby lettuce salad filled with goat cheese-stuffed dates in a blood orange vinaigrette.
The appetizer-sized “small plates” still retain a cheese plate with three artisan cheeses, garnish and baguette. The house pâté has also survived with the addition of maple-roasted apples, served alongside a thick, chilled square of chicken liver and mushroom, potted and creamy, and wrapped in a guardrail of bacon. Mine tasted very well-blended and fleshy, and the sour cornichons and whole grain mustard it's served with brought out the meaty flavor when spread onto a slice of supple, sweet fig bread. Then there were some new additions: creamy spinach-lentil dip ($9) and sesame-crusted tofu ($10), both of which I decided to sample as well.
The spinach-lentil dip had a distinctive yogurt tang and a fine texture, with whole green lentils and a generous coating of savory house-ground chorizo right on top. It was served warm with a nice, crisp baguette, sliced into dippable pieces. The tofu was artfully arranged over a warm salad of lightly seared bok choy and shitake mushrooms that went perfectly with its star anise vinaigrette. The triangles of bean curd were enrobed in toasted black and white sesame seeds, giving them a wonderful texture and a nutty flavor, all of which was finished off with a sweet soy glaze.
My chef was Raul Lelal, who I recognized as a rising star in the CNM culinary program a couple of years ago. We chatted for a moment, and he reminded me that I covered a dinner he prepared for the campus paper back in the day. I knew he would go far, as evidenced by my fine lunch at Graze. He assured me that he, too, was glad to see the ugly tablecloths gone for good.
The dinner-sized “large plates” feature old favorites like barbecue pork spareribs with ancho sauce, now served with homemade goat cheese potato salad, and newcomers such as crispy skin salmon served over spiced lentils and fried shallots, scallops grilled with fresh vegetables and drizzled with ponzu sauce, rack of New Zealand lamb with mustard spaetzle and caramelized baby carrots in a thyme jus, and stuffed sweet onion filled with wild mushrooms and herb couscous with pea shoots.
Even the seasonal desserts had a wintry feel to them: peppermint mousse, star anise crème brûlée and mango-rum granita (FYI, a granita is a coarse-textured sorbet). All in all, my meal was no earthenware bowl of beef stew next to the fireplace at home, but if I’m going to brave this uncharacteristic snowfall (and the bad, bad drivers that go with it), Graze is worth scraping the ice off the car for.
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Graze, 3128 Central SE, 268-GRAZ. Hours: Mon-Thu 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri and Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun noon-9 p.m. Price range: Expensive. No smoking, credit cards accepted, booze, daily specials, seasonally open patio (dog-friendly), live music.
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