The aptly named Casa Vieja, in Corrales, shares a 300 year-old adobe with a handful of ghosts, a shrine to Our Lady of the Conception and some priests buried in the walls. In addition to being a monastery for a spell, it was also a brothel and a courthouse.
The exposed beams, log posts, curving walls and kivas cackling with pitchy wood don’t let you forget that you’re in a magnificent building. Woven tablecloths, piped-in jazz and collection of Southwestern paintings (running the spectrum from warm to stark) complete an ambience that practically commands you to settle in.
Casa Vieja’s menu proudly incorporates local ingredients and traditional New Mexican recipes as a base for exploring the outer limits of culinary creativity. All told, Casa Vieja adds up to one of the most completely satisfying restaurant experiences to be found in this enchanted land.
One such experience began with a strong and pleasantly tart sour cherry Martini, made with Corrales cherries, and a cucumber jalapeño Margarita that was earthy and spicy. The drinks were served with plates of house-baked bread and cheesy crackers reminiscent of high-quality, homemade Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers. It was difficult, but imperative, to not overindulge on these snacks. Much more was coming.
A bowl of mushroom soup positively reeked, in the best way, of truffle oil. Executive Chef Josh Gerwin has a local network of foragers who bring him fungal fruits from the Jemez and other areas, and the mycodiversity in this pureed, buttery soup was evident.
Gerwin’s talent with New Mexico’s native ingredients shined again in a cup of green chile stew. It had perfect heat and an overarching flavor of roasted green chile amidst tomatoes, potatoes, onions and tender local pork. The simple soup was stunning and a testament to the importance of quality ingredients.
I held the shank by the bone and ate it like I was Fred Flintstone. My world was complete.
A chile relleno was stuffed with crab and drenched in a huitlacoche sauce. (Huitlacoche, an Aztec word meaning “raven shit,” refers to the black secretions of corn that’s infected with the fungus Ustilago maydis, also known as corn smut.) Jet-black and soupy, huitlacoche’s rich flavor has tones of fungus and the ocean. This dish is a delicacy in Mexico, and this daring and successful plate proves why. Shorty licked the inky plate clean.
Our server, who was helpful and enthusiastic, came by to apologize that the sweetbreads we ordered weren’t available. “We do our butchering here,” he explained. “The last beef delivery wasn’t what he wanted so he sent it back.”
It was probably for the best, given the gut-busting parade of delicacies yet to come.
A Tijuana Caesar salad consisted of five romaine leaves arranged in parallel, with croutons on the side, thick parmesan shavings and two anchovies crossed on top. While the salad was tasty, if small, the fish tostada delivered alongside it was delicious and large; a mountain of smoked beans, shredded cabbage, falling-apart chunks of cod and roasted salsa, all piled onto a crispy tortilla.
As the main courses arrived, we barely knew where to put them. Shorty’s escolar, a fish with a bold but not “fishy” flavor, was the highlight. It came perched on a bed of saffron rice (the rice wasn’t colored orange to make us believe there was really saffron in it—the flavor did that). It was drizzled with a bright red smoked chile sauce and flanked with a side of sweet and loamy sautéed New Mexico chanterelles.
There was also a local lamb shank braised in coffee and red chile sauce, which arrived resting on a lentil ragout studded with calabacitas and house-smoked bacon slivers. Big and fatty, the meat contained a web of creamy, melting cartilage. Lemon discretely offset the richness. So did a glass of Villa Mt. Eden Zinfandel, which unlocked the flavors of the cartilage, fat and meat. I held the shank by the bone and ate it like I was Fred Flintstone. My world was complete.
And yet, somehow, we managed to save room for dessert: a cherry soufflé smothered in chocolate sauce. It was a fittingly decadent end to our meal, washed down with an outstanding press of coffee.
By this point I had completely run out of wows. Hats-off to the new restaurant, barely half a year old, in the very old building.