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Terra American Bistro: A simple plan
Thursday, 21 April 2011
Photos by Wes Naman
Terra American Bistro’s straightforward approach to food plays out in near effortless fashion

By Mike English
Whenever I get unduly tangled in the emotional drama of the day, or otherwise struggle with life’s complications, I often turn to the advice of a close friend of mine: “Keep it simple, stupid.” Frankly, I find such words of wisdom trite and a little annoying. Yet, I think what bugs me most is that my friend is probably right.

This concept of simplicity was brought to mind recently, during a dinner at North Albuquerque’s Terra American Bistro. Sometimes a memorable meal at a fine restaurant can seem a complex act of culinary magic. How did the chef create such exquisite flavors? There must be some exotic cookery involved. But the genius of Terra is just the opposite: delicious fresh ingredients in straightforward combinations, prepared and served impeccably.

The restaurant, which opened in 1998, is tucked away in a west Alameda locale, just on the Sandia Mountains side of the Rio Grande. During a recent visit, my wife and I were met at the door by our waiter, who greeted me by first name (nice touch) and ushered us to a corner table already set with bread and butter. Bread before dinner — no big deal, right? But details matter at Terra, and this sampling of cheese, rye and herb breads was melt-in-the-mouth delicious, setting the tone for the meal to come.

ImageWe perused the menu and wine list. I felt pretty certain I was headed in a red meat direction, so I settled on a glass of Milagro Vineyard’s Corrales Red ($9), my favorite New Mexico wine and from right up the river. My wife, ever kinder to her arteries than I, spied Terra’s seafood offerings and went with a Chilean sauvignon blanc ($7.25).

Wine in hand, we focused on the menu in earnest. For starters we could choose from a range of salads, steamed mussels or brie baked in puffed pastry, to name just a few options. But what jumped out were the griddled blue crab cakes with corn ($12, and quite adequate as a simple entrée), and the smoked-bacon-wrapped grilled asparagus spears ($9).

Now, I won’t presume to express the culinary philosophy of Terra’s chef and owner Peter Lukes, who was in the kitchen the night we ate. He’s a New Mexico native who worked in fine restaurants in San Francisco before coming home to open Terra. All I know is this: The unadorned crab cakes were 1-1/2 inches thick, crispy on the outside, tender and creamy within, and sat beside tender corn kernels modestly seasoned in a tart sauce. The asparagus presentation was equally simple: a collection of plump green spears wrapped in three pieces of thick bacon, sitting atop diced tomato and fresh arugula and sprinkled with bleu cheese.

ImageHere’s where the Terra approach of letting delicious ingredients stand on their own revealed itself. Each element of each dish was fresh, thoughtful and tasty. The combination of those elements gave the distinct impression that somebody had a plan.

Ditto for the entrées. I went with the filet mignon ($32), which sat atop whole-roasted Vidalia onions and a porcini red wine reduction, surrounded by tender fingerling potatoes and asparagus. The entire dish was flawless. I felt like I’d died and met Julia Child in heaven. My wife raved about her grouper ($30) on a bed of tabouli lightly seasoned with a beurre blanc sauce, which sat alongside an arugula salad sprinkled with diced papaya, tomato and candied walnuts.

These were all large portions, keep in mind, but dessert ($8 each) called. The chocolate appaloosa cake gets it name from the irresistible white cheesecake/dark chocolate combo. The creme brulée, adorned with a Danish butter cookie, is quite likely the best in town — and I know what I’m talking about. Coffee made with beans from nearby Whiting Coffee Co. added the finishing touch.

The menu offers some options for budget-conscious diners, but expect to spend around $100 on a full meal for two at Terra American Bistro. Also expect one of the best dining experiences you’ll find anywhere in Albuquerque. It’s that simple.

Terra American Bistro
1119 Alameda NW, 505.792.1700
Hours: 11:30a-1:30p, Tue.-Fri.;
5:30p-close, Tue.-Sat.
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