Back to class
Frank Marcello, a local Svengali of fine dining, has achieved the impossible. His latest creation, Marcello’s Chophouse, has lured me to finally visit the new ABQ Uptown shopping center, something I’d been avoiding like the plague (for fear of cookie-cutter mini-villages in general and losing my entire paycheck to Williams-Sonoma in particular). Marcello has had a polished hand in the inception of such genteel establishments as Copeland’s of New Orleans, Zea Rotisserie and Grill, and siblings Gruet Grille and Gruet Steakhouse. His latest restaurant is steeped in class and offers our fair city a taste of the high life, and I don’t mean Miller beer.
Marcello’s immediately impresses with an über-friendly hostess and waitstaff, all attired in neat, crisp black. A warm ecru and cabernet color scheme is accented with photos of movie stars from the Rat Pack era, like wistful Natalie Wood and a congenial, cocktail-swilling Dean Martin.
My dining companion and I ordered our entrées, mine being the Kobe steak Diane ($15) with a mixed green salad and Maytag bleu cheese dressing (an extra $3) and hers the signature “ABQ Uptown dip” sandwich ($10) with a side of hand-cut, sea-salted fries. I added a side of seared Hudson Valley foie gras ($12) and truffled macaroni and cheese ($8).
The virtually flawless service began with an astute wine suggestion from Jeffrey, our server, who brought me a glass of 2004 Château Saint-Sulpice ($8), a fine Bordeaux blend of 70 percent Merlot (heavy tannins with a silky finish), 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon (red fruit aroma and soft spice) and 10 percent Cabernet Franc (less tannic, rounds off a young Cabernet).
Lunch began with oysters Marcello ($12)—huge oysters on the half-shell baked in Marcello’s creamed spinach with a heavy dusting of Parmesan bread crumbs. They were served with a grilled half-lemon on a colorful bed of rock salt and mixed peppercorns, alltogether a harmony of salty, meaty, tangy and vegetative flavors. I did get a few fragments of shell in my last one, but I left with unchipped teeth so no harm done.
Next was lobster bisque ($9) presented with a dollop of brandied crème frâiche. The lobster flavor was assertive—I tasted it down to my toes. This bisque was a refreshing change from some I’ve had when the lobster is secondary to the heavy cream base of the soup.
Our entrées were more substantial than we expected. The large ABQ Uptown sandwich was filled with shaved prime rib, caramelized onion, mild but fruity green chile and served with a rich au jus. The bread soaked up its side of beef juices like a sponge yet still held its shape. A garnish of breaded and deep-fried garlic pickle chips were amazingly good.
My Kobe steak was a four-ounce medallion, cooked to medium-rare, and tender as slicing through warm butter. I did not care for the Diane sauce on it—although it was made very well (creamy, brandied, buttered and thick), it totally overwhelmed this fine breed of beef, which would have been just fine on its own. The Maytag bleu cheese was classic perfection: spicy with a sharp acid bite.
Truffles (of the fungal variety) and foie gras tend to scare off the average Joe, probably no thanks to snobby French waiters in Bugs Bunny cartoons gone by. Don't be afraid. Not here, anyway. Marcello’s foie gras was a diamond-scored, beautifully seared fatty duck liver with the vein intact and a rare center. In the "Mac and Cheese" dish, buttered pasta was the perfect foil for shaved black truffles, made even more delirious with white truffle oil.
After the meal I met the manager and realized I already knew him: Bill Howley, formerly of Howley’s Place. He told me all the steaks were hand-cut, the chops brined and the Kobe beef burger ground in house. Of course, quality comes at a price. Lunch was not cheap—$92 for two people, not including tip—but it was fantastic. ABQ Uptown did suck me in on the way out, with its cool fountains and soft, piped-in music from speakers hidden in artificial rockwork. But Marcello’s is a classy joint. I love that even in plastic suburbia world, you can find rare, genuine and beautiful things.