By Laura Marrich
New Perennial Favorites, Part One—It should be enough that chefs work punishing, 80-hour weeks and still manage to create beautiful plates of food. If they can come home and, still reeking of garlic and grease traps, find the romance—and energy—to produce a brood of their own, so much the better for the human race. (That's survival of the fittest in action, folks.) In the event these chefs survive that lethal combination and can create another fine restaurant to preside over, it's a near-miracle. And that's the sweet spot some of Albuquerque's brightest chefs are working themselves into right now. This multi-part edition of "The Dish" is devoted to Albuquerque chefs who are burning the candle at both ends, stepping up to the range at old favorites and new projects alike. If our beloved chefs don't keel over from heatstroke, we'll be eating well this year.
Nob Hill Bar and Grill is an unassuming name, but it embodies a much-trafficked intersection of good food in the Duke City. The chef is Sam Etheridge of Ambrozia Café and Wine Bar in Old Town, a restaurant that plows into highbrow praise with the scrappy playfulness of an underdog. It's home of the lobster corn dog, after all. The new place is on the corner of Central and Bryn Mawr. Sound familiar? That's the old Graze building—Chef Jennifer James' worshipful small plates restaurant that closed in late January of this year. You can still spot her orphaned fans shuffling past the empty Nob Hill building, sighing.
So what happens when you mix up these two bastions of local culinary legacy? First thing's first: The wall—the one that separated the Graze dining room from its twee Gulp sidebar—has got to go.
"You won't even recognize the building," Sam said before the dinner rush at Ambrozia last week. There's talk of booths and a "gigantic" bar, which (like Gulp before it) will serve fresh fruit cocktails and good, inexpensive wines by the glass. Sam says there'll be early and late-night happy hours with "little bites" from the menu.
He likens his new project to a gastropub, a newish concept in the restaurant world that combines boozy casualness with sterling food, like a French brasserie. Only instead of Euro-centric food (no beet foam here, thank you), you'll get "upscale American bar food with a twist," he says. Sam's relying on his gut as always, mixing unexpected ingredients with manly, munchie comfort foods. Most plates won't run you more than $20.
Sam says he's been rolling on Nob Hill Bar and Grill for the past two months, but he "knew before Graze closed" he wanted to do something with the space. He's been dreaming of a neighborhood bar just for him. A place where stinky cooks and perfumed professionals both can knock off after work for booze, a big counter to belly up to and, of course, great food. "I'd love to have a place to have that here," Sam laughs.
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