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 Jun 29 - Jul 5, 2017 
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Restaurant Review

Summer Magic

Consistency and kindness reign at St. Clair

By Maggie Grimason
Summer berry salad
Summer berry salad

It was nearly 2pm and the temperature was hovering around 98 degrees when I parked my car under the last patchy swatch of shade in the parking lot outside of St. Clair Winery & Bistro on Rio Grande and scurried inside like a vampire to the shadows. It was the day before the summer solstice, several days shy of a new moon, and the lunar calendar was soon to move into the domain of Cancer. As mystically significant as all this was, even witchier was the fact that my dining companion came straight from a tarot card reading.

We were greeted promptly by an icy blast of air conditioning and a friendly host inside the building, which is equal parts tasting room and restaurant. The host asked us if we would like to sit outside or—in unison we answered with the only response that seemed reasonable: Who wants to sit outside right now?

It was quiet inside the restaurant, the Albuquerque bastion of New Mexico's largest winery, which also hosts spots in Alamogordo (opening fall 2017), Las Cruces and Farmington, as well as a tasting room in Deming (in the Mimbres Valley, where St. Clair's vineyards are). The Lescombes family—who own St. Clair—have been making wines for six generations and offer around 70 different varieties. Just as we slipped into our booth, our server appeared at the head of the table with a bottle of white wine in hand; she was practically clairvoyant. It turns out that St. Clair chooses a “wine-of-the-month” that suits the season at hand, and June happened to feature a riesling, on special for $5-a-pop. We each sampled the wine—which was gloriously chilled and not quite as sweet as grocery store rieslings I have sampled in the past. With no hesitation, we each filled our long-stemmed wine glasses.

Wine poured, we proceeded to order a mighty spread fit for two queens—a plate of edamame ($6) and one of roasted brussel sprouts ($9) for starters, and two sandwiches for finishers. The two appetizers arrived just as we were about halfway done with our glasses of riesling and talking about sound baths—you know, where you spend hours listening to gongs and singing bowls and stuff like that—the conversation could not be turned from the mystical. The conversation continued as I piled edamame on my plate. The beans were sprinkled with salt and pepper, with a soy glaze served on the side. The edamame itself was perfectly steamed and fresh, though I preferred it without the sauce, which was surprisingly heavy and sweet; too reminiscent of barbecue sauce for my delicate herbivore palate. The brussel sprouts were decadently bathed in oil and well-salted, served with bacon and butter on the side. Both appetizers were satisfying without being too filling, a perfect way to start a long, slow, late-afternoon lunch—sating the appetite just enough to draw the experience out longer.

I drained my cup of riesling, and as I set it down, my sandwich ($9)—the veggie sandwich—appeared before me, the timing impeccable and auspicious. Served on a perfectly patterned, thick slice of marble rye bread, the sandwich was stuffed with roasted red peppers, grilled onions, hearty portabello mushroom, zucchini and a mix of fresh greens. The substantial quality of the bread itself perfectly balanced the verdant, healthy contents of the sandwich. The dish serves up not just a healthy number of calories, but calories that feel well spent. We floated out of the restaurant two or so hours later as if on a cloud or a broomstick. Maybe it was the wine.

On a later solo sojourn to St. Clair, I settled into a different booth and ordered a glass of one of St. Clair's classic wines, the Mimbres red ($6). A blend that is slightly sweet, the Mimbres is extremely drinkable. On this second trip to the restaurant for dinner, the space was considerably more bustling, but despite the number of tables to serve, the wait staff was consistently patient and genuinely—strikingly, even—kind. And taking their suggestions turned out to be the right move. I ordered the seasonal summer berry salad ($11) on the server's recommendation. For the dressing, I asked for the balsamic vinaigrette. The server hesitated a moment, and then gently suggested that I give the pecan vinaigrette a try. While individual tastes may vary, I find that I'm happiest when I listen to the waiter and this instance was no exception.

The salad itself was a perfect blend of grains and greens—a healthy portion of kale and spring greens (dubbed in-house as “Arcadian mix”) was tossed with quinoa and toasted almonds—making this salad healthy, definitely, but filling, too. Tossed on top were raspberries and blueberries, and several delicate slices of Mandarin orange. The real high point of this well-crafted dish however, was, in fact, the pecan vinaigrette, perfectly sweet, but balanced with a nutty warmth, the dressing perfectly complemented the crispness of the greens and the tartness of the fruit, evidencing a very thoughtful dish created by a chef with balance in mind.

Balance seems to be what St. Clair is good at. Their restaurant is upscale without feeling out-of-bounds when you're dressed down, the staff is knowledgeable about the wine list without sounding snobbish, and the food is refined without the price tag. There's a reason this New Mexico staple has found such success across the state. Balancing the scales means that St. Clair hits the target dead on—and that's another kind of magic.

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St. Clair Winery & Bistro

901 Rio Grande NW
(505) 243-9916
Hours: Sun-Thur 11am-9pm, Fri-Sat 11am-10pm
Vibe: Upscale but not off-limits
Alibi Recommends: Summer berry salad, Mimbres red wine
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