Terra American Bistro
Grounds for celebration
This part of New Mexico isn’t hurting for upscale restaurants, which means we diners have some tough decisions when a holiday or special occasion arises. Where to take the in-laws who can’t stand us? Where to wine and dine the new boss who we suspect doesn’t like us? Where should we feed the new lover who we really hope likes us?
Valentine’s Day looms especially large, and relationships can be made or broken over something as simple as the restaurants we choose. But at least in this instance, we can relax. Terra American Bistro is a happy median between tiny plates of stuff you can’t pronounce and a patty melt and fries—refined comforts that are just right for wooing.
Like most people, my Valentine’s date (we’ll call him Ike) and I have full, conflicting schedules, so any romantic dining must be done during daylight hours. Our requirements are daunting: excellent food, wine and service in an intimate setting, all before the sun passed the yardarm. Terra, under owner and chef Peter Lukes, had a big order to fill.
We were seated by our server, Ray. From the jump he exhibited professionalism, class and a light and friendly sense of humor. His service was impeccable during the entire meal—no easy feat, as he had a sudden surge of tables toward the middle of our meal.
We asked for the wine list. Ike attempted to absorb the two pages of Beau-Chard-Cab-Blah-Blah, then silently handed me the menu, much like one would hand a Sanskrit scroll to an interpreter. The list was above average for a smaller restaurant. I ordered a half-bottle of Kenwood’s Sonoma 2005 Sauvignon Blanc ($18), thinking its melony and herby undertone, balanced by a little oak and its crisp finish, would be a nice accompaniment to vegetables and cheeses.
I gave the lunch menu to Ike, who immediately recognized the herb-crusted baked Brie with roasted garlic, candied walnuts and champagne vinaigrette ($8) as being “cheese,” which he is a fan of. I chose to start with the traditional grilled, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus with shaved Spanish goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette ($8). Both appetizers received an A+ for presentation. The Brie was an island surrounded by taut red grapes, shards of homemade walnut brittle and aromatic cloves of garlic, while the asparagus plate was lively with diced tomato and asymmetrical triangles of creamy white cheese.
The light, buttery casing on the Brie housed a melting core of warm, earthy, melted cheese—in fact, I think it was downright thrilling to Ike, who didn’t speak much during this first course.
For our entrées, I picked the chicken-wedge salad with iceberg lettuce, tomato, red onion and creamy Maytag blue cheese dressing ($12). (I adore Maytag blue cheese. Maytag ages the stuff in their own caves; they’re also based out of Iowa, my beloved birthplace.) Ike settled on a jerk-seasoned, sautéed tilapia sandwich with rémoulade and a side Caesar salad ($13).
My salad plate was artfully arranged—neatly sliced grilled chicken off to one side, plump tomato wedges resting atop a bed of shaved red onion on the other, a tender lettuce wedge flanked in the center of the plate. I think it was all just backdrop to showcase the dressing, though, which was a beautiful teal color, and poured around the wedge so that every ingredient gently rubbed up against it. This dressing touched me deep down inside. It made me remember why I just can’t stoop to buying the bottled stuff anymore.
Our chef did an excellent job of preparing the tilapia for Ike’s sandwich. Tilapia is a versatile fish, but it has a tendency to crumble with too much moisture. The jerk seasoning gave this firm fillet a good color, and the rémoulade (a French-origin, mayonnaise-based sauce) flavored the grilled bread, lettuce and tomato like a song. The Caesar salad, unfortunately, was dusted with an overabundance of shredded Parmesan.
Dessert was imminent, and we had a tough time choosing between burnt Bing cherry custard with a vanilla tuile cookie ($7) and a glass of Quady “Elysium” Black Muscat ($6), and pineapple upside-down cake with ginger-honey syrup and vanilla bean ice cream and a glass of Wisdom and Warter’s cream sherry. We decided on the former, mainly because I really wanted Ike to sample the black Muscat. (Muscatel wine is made from black-skinned Muscat grapes; it’s rose-scented and sweet as sugar.) The custard and the Muscat were both wonderful, but I was off-base in pairing this particular dessert wine with the tart cherries and vanilla custard. It would have probably faired better with a dark chocolate dish.
I wanted to shoot the sherbet with Chef Lukes after our meal, but Ray told us he and his wife just had twins, a boy and a girl, and he goes home between lunch and dinner shifts to spend time with his family. Warm fuzzies.
To his credit, Ike didn’t even cringe when he paid our $90 lunch tab. I asked him on the way out how he felt after enjoying his first really expensive lunch. He put his hand on his head. As far as I can tell, that’s international strong, silent man-speak for “love.”
The Alibi Recommends:
Herb-crusted baked Brie with roasted garlic, candied walnuts and champagne vinaigrette
Chicken-wedge salad with iceberg lettuce, tomato, red onion and creamy Maytag blue cheese dressing
Kenwood Sonoma 2005 Sauvignon Blanc
Terra American Bistro, 1119 Alameda NW, 792-1700. Hours: Tue-Sun 11 a.m.-2 p.m. lunch, 5:30-8:30 p.m. dinner. Closed Mon. Price range: Expensive. No smoking, credit cards accepted, booze, patio.
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