The Chocolate Maven – Santa Fe

August 5, 2008

Short Take:  Fresh baked bread and bakery combined with local ingredients in tasty, healthy offerings.

Long Take:  Willamina and Higgins continue their travels in the southwest, today meeting up with more friends for lunch in Santa Fe, NM.  Higgins and Willamina were joined once more by Miriam (Cornelius had other duties to attend to, unfortunately) and also by Josefina, Quincy, Brutus, and Violet for lunch at The Chocolate Maven.  

The party was, it must be said, a tad doubtful as they arrived in the vicinity of the establishment.  It looked very much like a warehouse district with metal buildings.  (If you find yourself by the towing company, you’re almost there.)  Upon finding and entering the door, their fears evaporated in the savory and sweet smells that greeted them.  The hostess couldn’t seat the party until all were present, but once they were all accounted for they were seated within minutes.  The host took the party of seven to the 2nd floor via a spiral staircase.  

The menu contained a plethora of options including small plates, salads, two soups, sandwiches, entrees, and a large selection of potables.  The Santa Fe heat is a little intense for Willamina and Higgins, so waters were the first order.  Higgins also ordered a Black Currant Italian Soda and Willamina, an Orange Italian Soda.  The sodas were made the traditional way with a touch of cream or milk.  This pleased Higgins greatly–though Wiilamina was not happy with this development.  Fortunately, Violet found the Orange Italian Soda to her liking and was happy to accept it as her beverage.

If you decide to peruse their menu on-line, be aware the offerings are markedly different on-site.  

To begin the meal, the party ordered a salsa sampler platter (including tomatillo, ancho, and pico de gallo and fresh fried corn tortilla chips.)  The party was divided as to which was the best salsa.  Willamina and Violet enjoyed the tomatillo; Miriam preferred the pico de gallo; the rest chose the ancho (which had a deep smoky flavor.)  (Regular readers may remember that Higgins and Willamina find their palattes do not appreciate the higher end of the Scofield scale.  They found all of the salsas to be enjoyable.)  Josefina also ordered the balsamic glazed valencia oranges with candied pecans.   Higgins was doubtful about this selection, but was forced to change his opinion once he tried one of dressed slices of citrus.  In fact, most of the party  were persuaded to try a slice and were glad for the experience.  Josefina did wish they had removed all of the seeds before serving.

Violet and Brutus chose to share a Pesto Roman Style Pizza.  Josefina ordered a Ham and Brie sandwich.  Quincy and Willamina both had the Steak Au Poivre.  Higgins chose the Smoked Salmon Bialy.  Miriam had the Galisteo Grill (with the chipotle aioli on the side.)

Pesto Roman Style Pizza – It arrived hot, with the cheese melted over a hand rolled crust cooked in a brick oven.  The ingredients were evenly balanced over the canvas that was the crust.  The pizza was oblong shaped, cut into five strips, and was a meal all by itself. 

All of the sandwiches came on fresh baked sourdough or focacccia rolls.  The bread is often the key to a good sandwich and the bread at The Chocolate Maven is fantastic.  The bread was the shining star of the entire meal.  Flavorful, firm on the outside, soft on the inside.  

Ham and Brie – The Ham and Brie comes with a large portion of thinly sliced ham, a good amount of melted brie, and caramelized apples, with a balsamic glaze (Josefina declined to have the honey-mustard on the sandwich though graciously admits others may enjoy such a thing.)  The apples added a delightful fruity flavor to the ham and brie.  Josefina also paid a little extra to get a small side salad with the sandwich.  While the salad was uneventful, the roasted garlic vinaigrette was impressive.  All told, however, the salad wasn’t worth the extra cost of ordering it.

Galisteo Grill (Chicken) – Served on the same delicious bread, the chicken was cooked just right– still juicy while still being cooked through.  Miriam was impressed with the balance of the ingredients and the blending of the flavors.

Steak Au Poivre – The steak was thinly-sliced tenderloin marinated lightly in a sherry and then fried.  This made the steak amazingly tender while still having some crunchy spots.  Quincy had the sandwich as described with swiss cheese and fried onions and green chile.  Willamina asked for provolone instead of the swiss and no onions or green chile.  (The server and the cooks were happy to oblige the requests.)Both enjoyed their sandwiches as ordered.   Willamina chose the fresh made kettle chips for her side.  Though she would have preferred them a tad less brown, they were quite crisp and tasty.  Quincy chose to order the Garlic Rosemary Fries.  While those who tested them found them to be enjoyable, Quincy thought they were deceptively under-seasoned and inconsistently prepared.  (Some fries were undercooked and some were overcooked.)

Smoked Salmon Bialy – The bialy had red onions baked into the top of it (Higgins loathes red onions) but they were easily removed.  The smoked salmon was plentiful with a rich, creamy flavor.  The locally grown tomatoes added a wonderful tang to the sandwich.  The dill cream cheese spread was lightly spread on the bread and pulled all of the tastes together.  


After walking through the bakery to get to the table, the party agreed that desert was definitely in order.  They ordered a few deserts for sharing.  Unfortunately, and shockingly after the lunch experience, the deserts were not all that impressive.

Belgian Chocolate Torte – While Brutus and Violet found the torte to be rich and chocolatey, it should be noted that their palates are still developing.  Quincy found it appropriately dense but decidedly lacking in dark chocolate flavor.  It was not much better than what can be found at some chain restaurants.

Belgian Chocolate Brownie Extravaganza – The sauce was the star of this dish, but the brownie held its own.  The brownie was, unfortunately, a tad on the dry side.  Higgins didn’t enjoy it at all and chose not to finish his.  Josefina and Willamina opined there was not extravaganza to be found unless it was an extravaganza of disappointment.

Carrot Cake – Once Willamina determined there were no raisins in the cake, she ordered it.  She didn’t find it to be that impressive and gave it to Higgins to finish.  (Willamina is famous for making a deluxe, three-tiered carrot cake that makes grown men weep for joy, so her standards are a little high.)  Higgins found the cake to be bursting with carrot flavor touched with a lot of cinnamon.  

Ultimate Chocolate Cheesecake – The cheese cake was light and tangy, but wasn’t at all what Miriam was hoping for.  The chocolate ganache topping was appropriately chocolatey but not on the top; Miriam had been hoping for a solid dark chocolate topping.  The title of the dish is rather misleading as the cheesecake is neither chocolately nor in any way ultimate.


As they walked out, they all paused and looked once again in the bakery cases.  It was suggested by one wag that next time they would order the sandwiches and get their desert from the bakery case.  This seemed like a good idea.  In any case, the sandwiches and the service make this cafe a place to return to–though not for desert off the menu.


The Artichoke Cafe – Albuquerque

August 3, 2008

(Willamina and Higgins have been on an unintentional hiatus– not from our normal epicurean experiences, but from expressing our experiences with you, our fine fans.  We’re off galavanting around the country and our change of scenery seems to have reinvigorated us.  Then again, it just might be the good company and good food we’ve experienced that is inspiring us to put fingers to keyboard once again.)

Short Take:  A upper scale restaurant with a relaxed, classic atmosphere and exceptionally well-prepared food of decent portions.  Absolutely wonderful.  Every dish was a winner.

Long Take:  This evening, Willamina and Higgins went with our dear friends, Miriam and Cornelius, to dinner at the Artichoke Cafe in Albuquerque, NM.  We had reservations for 6:00 pm on a Saturday night.  We found parking in the lot across the side street and were greeted by the parking lot attendant.  We were greeted as we walked in by the hostess and seated immediately at the white-linen draped table.  The waiter was there within seconds to offer us glasses of water.  (He didn’t even bat an eye when Higgins asked for a new glass of water minus the ever-present-these-days slice of lemon.)  

A basket containing three types of bread (an onion white, and two different fruit infused breads we couldn’t identify) and a small container of herbed butter (we guessed thyme) was quickly placed on the table.  Though the dinner menu was smaller than most restaurants offer, it was more than sufficient with multiple offerings that appealed to every member of our party.  (The menu included several vegetarian offerings.)  

We tried to order two appetizers: the assorted cheese plate and the pork, shrimp, and shitake mushroom potstickers.  We were disappointed when the waiter informed us they had sold out of the potstickers the night before.  We decided to stick with the cheese plate and skip the 2nd appetizer; instead, saving room for desert.

One of the many reasons Willamina and Higgins enjoy being with Miriam and Cornelius is their willingness to share.  Since each of us found multiple dishes we might like to try, we quickly decided to each order a different dish to share.  We ordered the pan seared duck breast, the fresh sea scallops, the beef tenderloin, and the salmon du jour.

The Assorted Cheese Plate came with three artisan cheeses, some slices of italian bread, two types of crackers, a medium sprig of purple grapes, and a small dollop of quince preserve.  (The jam and the nuts described in the on-line menu did not make an appearance.  We didn’t miss them.)  The three cheeses were ? (a soft, but solid, ricotta-like cheese with a very mild taste), compte (an aged, hard cow’s milk with a very strong taste), and ? (an aged, smokey monterey jack with a slight nutty flavor that we all liked best.)  The quince preserve was quite tasty, but there could have been more of it.  A fine way to start the meal.

The Salmon du Jour was grilled with a with a citrus glaze.  It came with garlic infused mashed potatoes and asparagus spears wrapped in prosciutto and grilled.  The salmon was meaty and tender and moist.  Flavorful and well cooked (Miriam very much enjoyed the golden crust of the salmon.)  The prosciutto added just the right hint of salty flavor to asparagus spears.

The Pan Seared Duck Breast was cooked perfectly.  The spices were less intense than we expected, and that was, we agreed, a good thing.  The pomegranate sherry glaze was very light and left only a touch of fruity undertones to the duck breast.  Higgins, who is not particularly fond of duck, found it to be a delightful, appealing dish.  The golden raisin relish appeared to have been mixed in with the root vegetable and brown and wild rice pilaf.  Miriam and Cornelius found it to be an excellent complement to the duck’s flavors.

The Fresh Sea Scallops were larger than expected.  Even though there were only two of them, they were more than enough for a meal.  The prosciutto wrapped around the scallops was grilled perfectly, the fat rendered off without leaving the dried ham tough or charred.  (A difficult culinary feat to accomplish, indeed.)  The scallops were covered with a very salty white wine and butter broth containing small pieces of prosciutto.  The broth lent its salty flavor to the roasted potatoes and green and yellow beans in the bottom of the dish.  The scallops were cooked perfectly and were still sweet enough to stand up to the sauce.  This dish tied with the duck for favorite amongst our party. 

The Beef Tenderloin was delivered as ordered, medium rare, wrapped in smoked applewood bacon.  The meat was flavorful, juicy, and well seasoned.  Unlike the menu listed on-line, the tenderloin was served with a gorgonzola stuffed portobello mushroom.  While the steak was very good by itself, everyone agreed the flavor was greatly enhanced when eaten with even a small portion of the mushroom.  (Miriam expected this dish to be best, but was pleasantly surprised by her duck and by the scallops ordered by Higgins.)

The portions were large enough to allow all four diners to share generously with everyone around the table.  Everyone was satisfied with what they ordered and enjoyed the other dishes as well.  We had just enough room to order two deserts-again to be shared: the Peanut Butter Chocolate Mouse Torte with Caramel Sauce and the Blackberry Balsamic Panna Cotta.

The Peanut Butter Torte was beautiful with its creamy peanut butter layer, its chocolate mouse layer, and the hard semi-sweet chocolate covering.  While it was difficult to share in a neat and orderly fashion, our four epicurean heroes managed it.

The Blackberry Balsamic Panna Cotta came in a sloped glass filled with a magenta custard and topped with three plump blackberries.  The balsamic undertone was quite pleasant with the sweet, tart custard.  Higgins suggested the two deserts together made for a high-end peanut butter and jelly experience.  (Higgins is fanciful when he has enjoyed a fine meal with good company. Willamina and Miriam contend that Higgins is fanciful most of the time.)

It is a very rare thing for everyone to not only enjoy what they ordered, but for everyone to enjoy what everyone else ordered as well.  The service was impeccable, with our water glasses being refilled promptly and with subtlety.  Each dish was surprisingly good and plentiful.  The restaurant was fine dining without being “snooty.” (Cornelius said it was only “hoity.”)  Each of our party would be thrilled to return to this wonderful establishment.

(The prices are listed on the menu, but if you are curious, our meal consisting of one appetizer, four entrees, two desserts, and one soft drink came to $170.00 including the standard tip.)