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 V.23 No.35 | August 28 - September 3, 2014 

Restaurant Review

The Three Pillars of Dining

MÁS Tapas y Vino

Grilled lamb chops
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Grilled lamb chops
Food, service and atmosphere are the three pillars of the restaurant experience, at least the three that are in control of the business itself (others like company, mood, headache, just being an asshole, etc.., a diner is herself responsible for, of course.)

Of these three, food is the most controllable and objectively ratable. A steak ordered medium rare on one night should more or less match a steak ordered medium rare on another night. A restaurant’s signature dish should be consistent across a week’s worth, a month’s worth, a year’s worth of time. Atmosphere is a bit more mercurial and subject to the vagaries of fate (a caterwauling baby two tables down is a trial beyond reason, but hardly the restaurant’s fault), but there is a subtlety there that leads diners to head for their favorite tables time after time and avoid restaurants whose overall feeling is “off.” And service is by far the most difficult to pin down because it depends upon that most agonizingly inscrutable collection of factorsother human beings. Your waiter is your advocate, the person you trust to see that your needs are met to the best of the restaurant’s ability. More than that, he or she is also a presence throughout your meal that straddles a line between companion and employee.

I’m opening with this rumination because two recent visits to MÁS Tapas y Vinothe still relatively new restaurant taking up the ground floor of Hotel Andalúzgave me occasion to contemplate how just one of these factors can change the course of a dining experience from wondrous to a trial.

I’m opening with this rumination because two recent visits to MÁS Tapas y Vinothe still relatively new restaurant taking up the ground floor of Hotel Andalúzgave me occasion to contemplate how just one of these factors can change the course of a dining experience from wondrous to a trial.

On my first visit, all three elements worked in harmony. The table was on an elevated level by the window, providing both a view of the outside and of the dining room as a whole. The waiter was a consummate professional, soft spoken and attentive, watchful from a distance and at our side the moment a question flickered on our lips. And the food was delicious. It was everything that a fine dining experience should be.

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
On my second visit, however, those pillars were wobbling from the get-go. My companion and I were led to a peculiar little nook separated from the rest of the restaurant by a wall. No doubt, the table is supposed to be intimate or even romantic (Conrad Hilton supposedly proposed to Zsa Zsa Gabor in that very spot), but for me the effect was more like an oubliette, the infamous French dungeons where prisoners were left to be forgotten about. Adding to this unfortunate feeling was the fact that we had to step over a gym bag carelessly left at the entrance to the roomlet by a nearby boisterous table, and that the wall seemed to render our table invisible to the waitstaff. Indeed, service was sluggish, and we spent far too long in our closet with neither water nor wine, nor the hope of impending tapas to soothe us into the rarified comfort that a night of fine dining is supposed to entail. In other words, two of the pillars were leaning, and as a result the whole experience was crooked.

Fortunately, things started to straighten when the wine got there. Wine makes most things better, and our half bottle of Frank Family cabernet sauvignon was a bitey affair that went down quickly and satisfyingly. It may not have brought everything back up to the level precisely, but it at least pushed things back in the right direction.

It must be said that on both occasions the food was excellent. As the name reveals, the focus of the restaurant is on tapasdainty plates of beautifully presented and succulent morsels. My first choice was the grilled lamb chops ($16) (which came from tiny little lambs naturally). They are centered on ivory white porcelain, with a crimson harissa paste to keep them company. I will admit that I was sorely tempted to Instagram the dish with every filter I could find. Harissa, a North African blend of roasted hot peppers, feels right at home on any New Mexican plate, but although the Albuquerque impulse may be to smother, I found that a restrained dab of harissa provided just enough of a spicy accent without overpowering the succulence and sear of the chops.

If meat’s your thing, then may I suggest the blood sausage? The name’s a hard sell, so let’s reframe it, like the menu does, as morcilla ($12). Dark red medallions of crisp-on-the-outside sausage melt away to a buttery, sweet and paprika flavor at a bite. Mustard aioli provides another avenue for augmenting the flavors, but with sausage this good, I was happy to let it sit neglected on the side.

Paella
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Paella
And there’s more, so much more. 24 different tapas plates by my count, not including soup and salad or the handful of entrées. They run the gamut from a gouda fondue with chorizo and baked apple ($10)a warming way to turn crostini bread into a near-mealto crispy fried Brussels sprouts ($10). Oh, and seafoodblack mussels ($12) and a squid ink pasta ($14) that I really will have to try next time I’m there.

If dabbling through a table full of beautiful but small plates doesn’t quite sound appealing, first of all you’re probably in the wrong place (read the name of the restaurant again). But there are some full entrées as a concession to those who wish for a longer-term-relationship with their dishes. Of these, I tried the paella ($28), which was a glorious bricolage of saffron rice, mussels, shrimp, chicken and chorizo. The kind of dish that’s one part meal and two parts scavenger hunt. Something of a tapas microcosm itself, in other words. There are also steaks (filet mignon and flat iron) available, as well as grilled salmon.

For dessert, there are a few options, but the cream Catalana was the true standout. I have a weakness for the simple, well-made custard (either St. Peter will be waiting for me with a piece of flan, or I’m going to go out and come back in again), and this was as good as any I’ve had. As my good friend Amélie noted, there is a sublime satisfaction to cracking a perfectly caramelized custard surface, and I felt one step closer to peace as my spoon tap-tapped upon the Catalana. The custard itself is a vanilla cream with a touch of orange, just sweet enough to encourage you to order a cappuccino to take full advantage of the contrast, and light enough that you won’t regret it.

It’s strange how two experiences at the same restaurant can be so markedly different, especially when the food itself is excellent. I wonder about that strange little nook we found ourselves seated in. Under the right circumstances, I suppose that romance and intimacy could be kindled within it, but it’s such an idiosyncratic location that it really seems as though a diner would really have to commit to the idea. Regardless, the restaurant is very good, but don’t let one of those pillars start off sinking. When you make your reservation, say “and not in the nook, please.” Unless, of course, you’re planning on popping the question to your very own Zsa Zsa. If this is your plan, be forewarned: That marriage only lasted four years.

View in Alibi Chowtown calendar

MÁS Tapas y Vino

125 Second Street NW
923-9080
hotelandaluz.com

Hours: 7am to 2pm; 5pm to 9:30pm Sunday through Thursday
7am to 2pm; 5pm to 10pm Friday and Saturday
Price range: $4-$16 for tapas; $26 to $34 entrées
Vibe: Fine dining or broom closet, depending on seating
Vegetarian options: Yes
Extras: Vino of many varieties.

The Weekly Alibi recommends: Morcilla, lamb chops, paella and cream Catalana
 

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