Saturday, February 06, 2010

Two nights of good eating

I told you a while back that I wanted to write about food but was too tired. Well, here goes.

Two of the big bosses whirled into town and took our crowd of consultants to dinner Tuesday night at Scalo Northern Italian Grill on Nob Hill in Albuquerque. On Scalo's website you may read:
In 2007, Wine Spectator bestowed upon Scalo the Award of Excellence for its outstanding wine selection. Scalo started bringing original and traditional Italian food to Albuquerque in December of 1986. Since its opening, Scalo has brought premium pasta, steaks, fish and other fine cuisine to Nob Hill, in the center of Albuquerque.
Let's just say that I enjoyed the food so much that I took my BFF there for dinner on Thursday night. So the informal (independent and unpaid) review is based on two evenings and the comments of others plus my own experience.

I am going to chide Scalo about one thing upfront. For a very classy restaurant, they really should be more careful in proofreading their menus. "Aniolotti" for "agnolotti," is really grating: the sort of thing one expects in sloppy or illiterate menus. Just saying it stands out when they have obviously spent a lot of money on nice menus.

OK, on to the food.

The first evening we were regaled with several rounds of appetizers. We enjoyed bruschetta with three different toppings.
I am being pedantic tonight but it's my blog so I can. Listen up, everybody. Italian is not German. That should be obvious. "SCH" in Italian sounds like "SK" in English, not "SH." So bruschetta sounds like "brusketta." I'd appreciate the hell out of it if everyone could get on board with this one. I've been in restaurants, not Scalo, where the wait staff said "brushetta" and I've wanted to scream (or slap them). Thanks. Back to our regularly scheduled program.
One topping on the bruschetta involved red peppers and I heard the praises thereof sung. I tasted the sausage and potato one (nice) and the one with sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, and pesto (also nice). The flavors were good though I fear that feeding our large crowd led to the appetizers sitting for a while. The olive oil in the pesto had softened the toasted, crusty bread a bit and thus we did not get as much crunch as one expects.

Speaking of bread, the rustic country bread served in the bread baskets is perfection. A crust that crunches and a chewy interior give plenty of texture and the flavor is wonderful, with or without dipping it in olive oil.

A second appetizer was strips of rare flank steak, with a nicely seared exterior, served on leaves of endive with a sprinkling of grated hard cheese. I loved the flavor of charred beef where the meat had hit the grill and would not have minded if that tray came around more times than it did.

Shrimp wrapped in prosciutto was the third appetizer. The shrimp was fine. The prosciutto was fine. I found the combination lacking, however, and would not be interested in trying it again. Prosciutto does better with melon than with shrimp, but if you are going to violate kosher, this is certainly a twofer.

Finally, there were goat cheese "croutons," slices of chèvre breaded and fried, served on a bed of spinach with a balsamic vinaigrette and sprinkled with raisins and pignoli. (Better known in New Mexico as piñones or pine nuts.) The crispness of the crust and the creaminess of the interior on the goat cheese makes for a very nice combination. I found the spinach salad to be heaven, and enjoyed the bursts of sweetness from the raisins along with the tang of the vinaigrette. I could have made a minor course of this alone.

A bit of a good thing can go a long way. On the second visit I had the insalata di capri: baby lettuce, warm goat cheese crouton, pine nuts, balsamic vinaigrette. Essentially the same only mixed greens instead of spinach. The salad was too heavily dressed, however, powerfully overwhelming the greens, and thus turning something I anticipated eagerly into a course I was eager to see over.

There is good news on the zuppe (soup) front, so do not despair. My friend had the soup of the day on Thursday. It was an acorn squash soup that we give the highest marks possible. It may be the most "something to write home about" dish of both nights. The flavors were complex and perfectly balanced, yielding a deep sense of satisfaction with only one spoonful. We could definitely taste honey in it, and suspect tartness was added by lime. It was truly outstanding and if you ever have the chance to enjoy this dish, do it!

Amongst the Primi, I did taste the gnocchi con crema: house made gnocchi, Gorgonzola cream sauce, shrimp, pine nuts, chives. The shrimp and sauce were wonderful (rich, naturally, but lovely). I found the gnocchi lacking in tooth and therefore texturally uninteresting.

On to the Secondi.

Folks all around me on Tuesday were enjoying their main courses, no matter which item had been chosen. I heard no complaints. On view were a healthy portion of beef filet, grilled sea bass, and duck confit.

I decided to go for animal cruelty and political incorrectitude and had the vitello scallopini (veal): pan fried scallopini, shallots, butter, veal jus, and sautéed forest mushrooms. The menu does not mention that this comes on a bed of very nice mashed potatoes.

Every bite was delicious. If I wanted to quibble I might say that the veal was not as tender as veal might be, but 'twas guud, as my friend The Cunning Runt might say. I enjoyed every mouthful from beginning to end. There was a richness to the flavor, the kind that comes from caramelization and reduction and blending of flavors. I think this would fall easily into the category of my dad's preferred food: meat and potatoes, but this moves into another plane. It was awesome and I was prepared to order it again if my friend did not get some. He did, and I had some of his just to revisit it.

On Thursday I had the costolette di agnello: grilled rack of lamb, butter glazed carrots, green beans, soft polenta. This is not the usual rack of lamb, roasted then cut into lamb chops but chops cut from the beginning and grilled over not too high a heat, yielding incredibly tender, juicy meat. Really, really good stuff. I love corn meal in its many guises, not least as polenta. The carrots were not overcooked; I daresay, given that they were large chunks of carrot, they were undercooked, and I do not mean that in an approving way. But they were good for me and the taste was fine. This dish had a sauce that included maple syrup, something I did not expect, rather like the surprising honey in the squash soup. It works and the lamb was truly wonderful. Were I cooking, I would go a bit lighter on the maple as it does not need to be quite as sweet as it was. Still, a lovely entrée and some memorable lamb.

We cannot stop here. There are Dolci: the desserts.

Tuesday I had what is a new dessert for Scalo, the polenta pound cake served with fresh strawberries, a dash of orange liqueur, and whipped cream. As I wrote above, I love corn meal. The grittiness and the flavor both appeal to me. I have had polenta pound cake before in the Bay Area, so it is not a new dish to me. The cake was fine, though not stunning, and I am not sure I can put my finger on why. There was nothing pointedly wrong with it. The strawberries looked a bit drained of color. Was it the lighting or had they been cooked a bit? I would definitely keep them fresh. I love calories yet felt there was more whipped cream than optimal. Good grief, why am I picking nits here? I think I would like to take a good dessert into the realm of a stunning dessert. Instead of, or in addition to, orange liqueur, I would probably have infused the pound cake itself with orange zest (but I adore orange zest). For all that, it was good.

Next to me I saw chocolate gelato (favorably reviewed) and the "chocolate pâté." This latter is actually a triple chocolate mousse: dark, milk, and white. It was also deemed a good dessert, though we all felt that pâté is an unfortunate word to combine with chocolate as it suggests chocolate and liver somehow. *shudder* Very unfortunate term. Nonetheless, that is how it is listed on the dessert menu. I would change that at the next possible reprinting.

Thursday I had the bread pudding, which came with vanilla gelato and caramel sauce. I liked it very much (more than the ones I had in New Orleans, though EVERY eatery in New Orleans serves it as a signature dish). My friend thought it too dense and not pudding-y enough but I liked it. He had the tiramisù. I do not like the flavor of coffee in anything, so I never order tiramisù, but I had a bite of his and it was really fabulous. Light as a cloud, delicate in flavor. I highly recommend it.

Oh, I failed to mention wines after beginning with that theme in the restaurant's own blurb. They have an extensive wine list, but there might be no bottles in the bin you order. We had to try again. The wines were very nice on both evenings.

The atmosphere at Scalo is pleasant - a blend of warm coppery tones, white tablecloths, and mirrors. The staff is professional and helpful. The noise level is medium as the crowd there, whether at the bar or in the restaurant, seems pleasantly energetic. A nice ambience.

All in all, two very nice evenings dining out. It is not inexpensive but it is very good.

Bon appetit!

--the BB


it's margaret said...


susankay said...

Paul -- I do love the mountains up here but you so often make me want to get back down to Albuquerque and do a LOT of eating.

Fran said...

I have eaten there more times than I can tell you - well I did between the years 1998-2003, when my travel to ABQ dried up.

I still dream of the fried calamari. It was the best fried calamari I have ever had - and I had it many times. In a landlocked state too, go figure.

I thoroughly enjoyed your review. You should write restaurant reviews, you are good at it! And think of the fine dining opportunities if you could be paid for this!!