Some restaurants seemingly have it all: tastefully designed interiors, breathtaking views, crisp-looking staff, and did I mention breathtaking views?
Bien Shur’s location at the top of Sandia Resort and Casino is an ambience jackpot. Set high above the clangs and clatters of one-armed bandits, the restaurant seems worlds away from not only the casino nine floors below, but Albuquerque itself. The city is barely visible from the west dining room windows and hardly a thought from the east view. As the setting sun casts a crimson glow on the mountains, it’s plain to see why Spanish explorers named them for watermelons.
From Bien Shur’s website that claims it’s a “premier dining establishment,” to a large elevator button emblazoned with your destination, excitement builds all the way to the top floor. An incredibly enthusiastic hostess will lead you to your seat, whisk napkins from the table and place them in your lap. Not too shabby.
Don’t bother with the wine list. Shockingly disappointing, it contains very little worth more than a polite glance before ordering a cocktail. Another liquid letdown is the automatic pouring of tap water. In most restaurants in Bien Shur's lofty price range, diners are given the option of sparkling or still for their table water, but not here.
The menu has a few shining stars. For starters, the foie gras plate is absolute perfection. Seared duck foie gras is plated with pain d’épices (spiced bread), caramelized figs and blood-orange marmalade. It’s a lovely combination that allows culinary newbies and seasoned foodies alike to appreciate foie gras’ complexity. Though there’s no Sauternes available (wine's jelly to foie's peanut butter), the rich bread and tangy-sweet marmalade make a good stand-in.
In a nod to traditional French cuisine, escargots Bourguignon give insight into how absolute simplicity can translate to pure bliss. It's a classic preparation of snails, garlic and butter that even the squeamish will enjoy. Another appetizer of ahi tuna tartare is topped with salmon roe and wrapped in a cucumber slice. My biggest issue with it is presentation: As pretty as cucumber encircling tuna is, it’s just not practical. Tuna and cucumber work well together, but in order to experience this clean pairing, you're forced to dismantle the dish and chop the sliced veggie yourself.
A marinated heirloom tomato salad is refreshing, with whole slices of rustic-looking tomatoes and fresh basil. The accompanying toasted focaccia is a little cumbersome. It’s completely manageable where the dressing has soaked through; otherwise the croutons are so hard, eating them politely is difficult. Made tableside, Caesar salad is a treat. Although not an overly exciting salad, the preparation is elaborate and ritualistic. It somehow calls to mind a Catholic communion, with greens and anchovies instead of crackers and wine.
The Cognac-flamed lobster bisque is not as tasty as it sounds. Ladled from a large tureen, also performed tableside, it fails to impress on the spoon. It tastes like smoke. I really don’t know what else to say. No richness, no creaminess. Just smoke.
Crispy skin salmon is more appealing. Here the smoky flavor of the skin adds intrigue to an otherwise run-of-the-mill fillet. A duck breast fillet is on the same level. Nothing to write home about, but certainly not offensive.
And then there’s black truffle pappardelle with veal meatballs and arugula mascarpone. It’s a bewildering combination to me. Truffles and pappardelle are brought together in the Piedmont region of Italy and in restaurants everywhere. All it takes is a swipe of Parmigiano-Reggiano and butter to make this dish sing, so I cannot for the life of me figure out why veal and mascarpone had to be chucked into the equation. What results is a limp pile of pasta completely overwhelmed by unnecessary trimmings.
Bien Shur's service is also touch and go. My first visit brought a server who was prompt and knowledgeable, if a little casual. My second visit left much to be desired. Our server was absent for most of the meal, making occasional appearances to offer water when other things were clearly needed. Dishes piled up, and the time between courses extended into infinity. Never were the lapses in service acknowledged or apologized for. I tipped begrudgingly that night.
Bien Shur is missing key parts. Inconsistent service, a poor wine list and some dishes that just miss the mark are out of place among astonishing scenery and a ritzy atmosphere. It’s a good place to spend your blackjack winnings, but, for the time being, Bien Shur is a few aces short of a truly memorable meal.