On tapas the world

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Su­san Mead­ows

Some­times I have to pinch my­self to see if I’m dream­ing. Here in our lit­tle New Mex­ico cap­i­tal we have more than one 2010 James Beard Award nom­i­nee for Best Chef of the South­west. For the price of a few tapas you can taste why James Camp­bell Caruso and his chef-owned res­tau­rant La Boca have drawn na­tional at­ten­tion.

Though he’s a Bos­ton boy, Caruso’s Basque and Ital­ian her­itage, cook­ing stints and tours in Spain and Mex­ico, and even his an­thro­pol­ogy stud­ies at The Uni­ver­sity of New Mex­ico all in­form a cui­sine he calls “Latino-Mediter­ranean.” Caruso honed his skills at Scalo North­ern Ital­ian Grill in Al­bu­querque, at La Casa Sena, and as El Farol’s ex­ec­u­tive chef. He opened La Boca with his wife, pas­try chef Leslie Camp­bell, in 2006 in the for­mer Paul’s Res­tau­rant lo­ca­tion on West Marcy Street. Be­cause Del­i­casa (a Camp­bell-Caruso lunch and Span­ish-goods re­tail spot) closed ear­lier this year, the chef can fo­cus in­tently on La Boca. And you’ll ac­tu­ally see him there, un­like nom­i­nal chefs of some other restau­rants in town. So strike while the tapas are hot.

And hot they are, with the pop­u­lar­ity of small plates ev­ery­where. But while the plates are small, the fla­vors aren’t. Caruso cre­ates a deft in­ter­play of salty, sweet, and tart height­ened with the stim­u­lat­ing tin­gle of chile — with­out ma­cho ex­cess — and an un­der­tone of warm spices. Sub­tle vari­a­tions on clas­sics cre­ate New World fla­vors with­out gim­micks — just high-qual­ity in­gre­di­ents drawn mostly from Spain and New Mex­ico. One dish com­bines sweet Dixon peaches wrapped in salty Span­ish jamón ser­rano with mildly tangy queso Mahón (a but­tery, slightly salty, and gen­tly aro­matic soft cow’s-milk cheese named af­ter a port on the Cata­lan is­land of Mi­norca) and a driz­zle of vine­gar re­duc­tion. New Mex­ico bo­letes (porcini mush­rooms) sautéed in but­ter, white wine, and gar­lic with a sprin­kle of queso reg­gian­ito (a hard parme­san-like Ar­gen­tine cheese) ap­proached culi­nary per­fec­tion; the earthy-sweet mush­rooms were picked at their pin­na­cle of meaty taste, and the but­tery wine sauce was boosted by the bite of ca­pers, the per­fume of gar­lic, and sharp scrap­ings of cheese. Sautéed farm­ers-mar­ket kale with gar­lic chips, pi­men­tón-spiced pota­toes, and smoky Span­ish chorizo took the old greens-and-pork sta­ple to a higher plane.

We de­voured spicy-sweet piquillo pep­pers from north­ern Spain stuffed with queso Mahón; slices of Span­ish mor­cilla (blood sausage), both sweet and spicy, with pi­quant mar­i­nated Basque pi­par­ras chile pep­pers and a creamy Cata­lan aioli; a se­lec­tion of farm­ers-mar­ket veg­eta­bles roasted to sweet­ness ( es­cal­ibada) and served with del­i­cate mar­i­nated bo­querones (white an­chovies) on toasts; and grass-fed New Mex­ico beef kid­neys tamed by per­fumed and nutty Oloroso sherry. The tapas de­liver a fi­esta of fla­vors that’s hard to re­sist, but you can also lunch on sal­ads and

bo­cadil­los (sand­wiches) or dine on paella and hanger steak. We chose from the black­board of daily tapas spe­cials and drank wine by the glass to broaden our hori­zons. The al­mond and cream Torre Oria Brut cava, bright and crisp Botani Mosca­tel from Malaga, and ro­bust Pa­gos de Galir from Gali­cia were our re­ward. An ex­pen­sive and dis­ap­point­ing Pri­o­rat made us glad we hadn’t or­dered a bot­tle. Half glasses and tastes are gra­ciously of­fered. Servers are knowl­edge­able and re­fresh­ingly opin­ion­ated.

The tapas are Span­ish ra­ciones (por­tions), more than just a taste and suit­able for shar­ing. For two, five tapas with desserts suf­ficed. Only one frank dis­ap­point­ment in the lot: a taste­less chile rel­leno stuffed with shrimp rice was unre­deemed even by bits of mor­cilla and grilled shrimp. A pin­txo (a small bite af­fixed to a tooth­pick) of grilled pork loin and apri­cot-honey sauce might be fine some­where with less com­pe­ti­tion for your taste buds’ at­ten­tion. And patatas bravas (fried pota­toes with spicy sauce) weren’t fine — the wimp­ish sauce on lightly sautéed split fin­ger­lings would be bul­lied in Barcelona.

Camp­bell (she and Caruso met while cook­ing at Scalo), and San­dra Nitschke con­fect La Boca’s desserts, like Span­ish

tur­rón (al­mond nougat candy) ice cream; moist al­mond cake with fresh black­ber­ries, crys­tal­lized gin­ger, and tangy crème fraîche; and a di­vine choco­late and espresso pot de crème.

The at­mos­phere at La Boca re­calls a wine-bar bistro in some Cata­lan or Basque moun­tain town — a long, nar­row room with only the black­board over the bar and low-hang­ing lamps over small ta­bles pushed close to­gether. The real art is on the stylish — and prac­ti­cal — ob­long plates.

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