A few weeks ago we were walking through Nob Hill when an intriguing flyer in the window of Scalo caught my eye. Nantucket Shoals, the best fish market in Albuquerque – really, the only standalone fish market – was hosting a popup dinner at Elaine’s restaurant. The menu was posted on the flyer, and it looked intriguing. Plus, I associate the word “Pop-Up” with great things where food is involved: from Talin’s wonderful Pop-Up Dumpling Shop to the inimitable Holdfast in Portland OR, which I expect to stand for a long time as one of the most delicious and memorable food experiences I’ve ever had.
While $105 is a lot to spend for a meal, it’s a bargain for five courses with wine pairings, including tax and tip. At least, it is if the food is good. I had high hopes that it would be; multiple articles highlighted chef Ryan Hickey’s culinary-school background when he took over Nantucket Shoals from longtime owner Nancy Chavez-Berg early this year.
So I made the reservation.
Like Holdfast, my other fine-dining pop-up experience, the Nantucket Shoals event had just one seating. We arrived promptly at 6:00 and were led to a table set for six. The tables in about a third of the room were not set; the others were set for four, except for one other six-top to my right. As the room filled up and we sipped glasses of really nice champagne – very slightly yeasty, with light fruitiness – another couple was seated at the opposite end of our table. They greeted us politely enough, but weren’t interested in chatting. When the room was almost full, the last couple slated to sit at our table arrived; they balked at the center seat and asked to be moved to the bar. The same appeared to have been the case at the one other six-top. So it seems no one wants to sit in the middle at dinner any more than on an airplane!
When my champagne glass was about half-empty, the first course came out: two oysters crowned with caviar and a dollop of lemon gel, accompanied by a little piece of toast with foie gras and Heidi’s raspberry-lavender jam. There were two different kinds of oysters, and though we didn’t know which was which, we agreed that one was much brinier than the other. (I preferred the less briny one.) They were both sparkling fresh, and the toppings were a good counterpoint. The foie gras toast added crispness and richness to the plate. It was a nice way to start.
Wine was poured before each course, and our wine steward for the evening described each wine in detail, including where it came from and some information about the grape. (I didn’t catch his name, but he was a cheerful man who really seemed to enjoy what he was doing.) Our second wine was a Royal Tokaji (often spelled Tokay) from the Furmint grape varietal, and as he explained how Tokay was coveted and consumed mostly by royalty, I couldn’t help but think of the book The Golden Compass and the decanter of golden Tokay that… well, if you haven’t read the book, go do so. It’s terrific. In any case, I was amused to hear my neighbor say the exact same thing to her dining companion as we tried the wine. It was really unusual, almost savory and very light in character. Not what I was expecting at all. Then again, this wasn’t a dessert Tokay – but we were promised one to go along with our dessert course.
Soon thereafter, we received our second course, which was absolutely beautiful (photo at top). At the bottom of the wide-brimmed bowls was a small amount of clear but flavorful liquid, which the chef described as clarified tomato and honeydew gazpacho. We were encouraged to stir all the salad elements from the bowl’s brim into the liquid and eat it as a soup. There were so many elements – beautiful fresh hamachi (yellowtail, my favorite sushi fish), rich and funky uni (sea urchin, which I have found overwhelming in the past but enjoyed here), serrano chili, mint, sorrel, cucumber, baby greens, orange fish roe… but the gazpacho broth held them together in a refreshing, imaginative dish that’s among the most interesting things I’ve eaten in Albuquerque. It was really lovely.
Next came a dish that was very hard to photograph. (In general, the light at Elaine’s is challenging for photography.) It was served with a barrel-aged Viognier from Freemark Abbey, which I really liked – no surprise, since I don’t know much about wine but one thing I know is that I really like Viognier. The dish paired a nicely browned halibut cheek with a… well, a bone. A marrow bone. Beside them was a little salad of thinly sliced kumquat, garlic, and delicious pickly caramelized fennel that I desperately wished there’d been more of. Underneath was a mysterious black pool that tasted a bit like balsamic vinegar, which turned out to be black garlic puree. (I need to experiment with black garlic; it’s a really surprising and tasty ingredient.) And on top was a veil of thinly sliced daikon, which waved gently like a peace flag as the plate was carried to the table.
The halibut cheeks were delicious, with a bit of grilled flavor but still tender and meaty. I was puzzled for a bit as to how to get at the bone marrow – the hole in the bone was too narrow for my fork – but when I lifted the bone and poked into it with my knife, the marrow slid right out. Wow, that is rich stuff! It was amazing paired with the halibut, a little of each in every bite, the richness countered by the tang of black garlic and kumquat.
We had one savory course left to go. This was paired with a Pinot Noir, and a few words about pairing fish with red wine. (My takeaway was to avoid tannic wines or fatty fish, the latter part of which I found surprising.) At this point, we were both getting pretty giggly, since neither of us usually drinks more than a single bottle of beer or cider at a sitting – I rarely finish a pint, actually – and we’d both drunk all of our glasses of wine. But the Pinot was lovely, with a vanilla scent and a tart-cherry flavor, and we happily drank it too.
This course was undergirded with something I’ve been hearing about for years but never tried: squid-ink risotto. I expected it a fishiness to it, brininess, perhaps even a bit of funk, but it had none of those. It was rich and deeply savory, meaty and satisfying. The texture was stickier than most risotto I’ve had, and I don’t know if that was from the technique used or the squid ink. Anchored by the risotto was a filet of monkfish topped with pale pink sauce, which I found not very attractive in color but quite tasty. I wish the fish had been hotter, but it was well cooked, meaty and moist.
On the other side of the plate was a little salad of fiddlehead ferns and tiny red-and-yellow tomatoes with a bright sunburst of watermelon radish, very pretty against the black risotto. Fiddlehead ferns are a treat for their extreme seasonality, a beautiful sign of spring. I tried to make them once and they managed to come out simultaneously tough and slimy. And bitter. Happily, the chefs knew what they were doing, and these were nice: crunchy, with the light tonic bitterness of greens, just a bit of the sweet freshness of asparagus, and a whiff of fresh damp earth.
And then we were on to dessert. First came the promised Tokaji “Mad Cuvée” dessert wine. It was lovely, very sweet but still elegant. And then a square bowl of panna cotta with a bright pink trail crumbled along the side. I was pleased, because I love panna cotta, but didn’t expect to be wowed. Until Arne visibly swooned after his first bite and issued a challenge for me to pack this much flavor into a panna cotta.
I spooned up a biteful, and it was just as Arne said: sweeter than many panna cottas I’ve had, with a stunningly rich flavor. It was written up on the menu as “Rosemary, Lavender, and Elderflower.” I think there was vanilla too. At any rate, I would not have picked out the lavender or elderflower, but the rosemary was hard to miss, as in among the pretty rubble of the topping were needles of fried rosemary. I fear working with rosemary, since the first time I knowingly tasted it was on a crusted pork loin with so much rosemary it was like eating a Christmas tree. The fried, slightly salty rosemary was sensational on this though. Also in the rubble were perfectly fried salty walnuts, magenta sprouts so gorgeous I mistook them at first for flowers, and something crunchy-crumbly that I think was a salty meringue. Anyway, the dessert was amazing, and I was so happy about that, because too often dessert is an afterthought.
The chefs came out and were introduced to us all by head chef Ryan Hickey, and were greeted with enthusiastic applause. Then… we were done. People scraped up the last of their panna cotta, sipped the last of their wine, waited in line for the restroom, and wandered into the beautiful cool spring evening. Our heads were clearer than they’d been mid-meal, but we still took a nice walk to clear them completely before heading back to the car. Walking under the stars, we talked about how very much we’d enjoyed our evening, our hopes that this event would happen again, our desire to see more events like it in Albuquerque.
I hope we see many pop-ups springing up in our town. And I look forward to sharing them with you.