On tapas the world
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.