Artis­tic li­cense

Pasatiempo - - RESTAURANT REVIEW - Alex Heard I For The New Mex­i­can

Over the hol­i­days, a friend vis­it­ing from New York called and said he wanted to meet for lunch. I sug­gested The Com­pound be­cause I knew he’d like the quiet lo­ca­tion off Canyon Road, the sub­tle South­west­ern in­te­rior (cre­ated by the late designer and folk-art col­lec­tor Alexander Gi­rard), and the menu of sea­sonal se­lec­tions — heavy on beef, pork, chicken, and seafood — put to­gether by award-win­ning chef Mark Kif­fin.

He went away well stuffed, but a lo­cal friend was skep­ti­cal when I took him there re­cently. He thinks The Com­pound coasts along on food that’s de­pend­able but not very in­no­va­tive, and he pointed out with a laugh that one of its sig­na­ture desserts — liq­uid choco­late cake — is sim­i­lar to the molten choco­late cake cited in the movie Chef as a per­fect ex­am­ple of a mod­ern restau­rant cliché.

Who’s right? Af­ter two re­cent vis­its, I have to lean to­ward op­ti­mism: When you’re in the mood for a splurge, The Com­pound is still a good choice. It’s ex­pen­sive but not shock­ingly so, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the level of ser­vice and the qual­ity of in­gre­di­ents.

My first trip, for lunch, hap­pened on a snowy day, so I tried one of The Com­pound’s brown-booze cock­tails: the “1966,” a vari­a­tion on the Saz­erac. In­vented in New Or­leans in the 19th cen­tury, the Saz­erac fea­tures rye or bour­bon, bit­ters, and an anise-fla­vored liqueur like Pernod or Herb­saint — all stirred to­gether with ice, strained, and gar­nished with a lemon peel. The Com­pound’s up­date uses Bulleit rye, brown sugar, Pernod, fizzy wa­ter, lemon peel, and ice. It was OK, but they should dial back the Pernod: This drink came per­ilously close to tast­ing like licorice-fla­vored gin­ger ale.

My friend or­dered the tuna niçoise salad — a win­ner. It’s pricey ($19), but it’s a meal in it­self, com­bin­ing raw spinach, wa­ter­cress, tomato, olives, green beans, hard-cooked egg, and a gen­er­ous amount of rare tuna that’s been ex­pertly seared. (Our salad’s in­gre­di­ents didn’t match what’s on the menu, but that was good: It con­tained ex­tras.) An­other starter I’d rec­om­mend is the stacked salad, a dense com­bi­na­tion of ro­maine let­tuce, tomato, ham, eggs, blue cheese, and av­o­cado ranch dress­ing.

My main event was a long­time Com­pound sta­ple: chicken schnitzel, a noth­ing-fancy dish the restau­rant does well. A chicken breast is pounded to a uni­form thick­ness, coated (just guess­ing, but the cooks prob­a­bly use flour, eggs, and panko bread­crumbs), and then fast-fried. The fin­ish­ing touch is a rich, lemony sauce with ca­pers and herbs, and the schnitzel is served with but­tery steamed spinach.

For a sec­ond trip, at din­ner­time, the plan was to econ­o­mize by sit­ting at the U-shaped bar to the right of the main en­trance, a cheer­ful place livened up by bar­tenders like Mike O’Keefe, who has a tal­ent for mak­ing you feel re­laxed and wel­come. Un­for­tu­nately, our reser­va­tion was an­nulled by peo­ple hav­ing so much fun drink­ing they didn’t want to get up and leave. The restau­rant can’t con­trol that, and the host han­dled the sit­u­a­tion adroitly: apol­o­giz­ing, putting us at a cor­ner ta­ble for two, and mak­ing it clear that we could still or­der off the less-ex­pen­sive bar menu if we pre­ferred.

We started with two drinks, both ex­cel­lent: the Rain­bird (a mar­garita made with prickly pear purée) and the Gi­rard Lemon­ade (cit­rus vodka, lemon juice, Coin­treau, and Cham­bord). While work­ing on those, we gob­bled up a stack of im­pres­sively del­i­cate and per­fectly bat­tered onion rings, as well as one of the best ap­pe­tiz­ers I’ve had in a while: the roasted heir­loom beet salad. Our thought­ful waiter had the kitchen split our one salad in two, with each plate an artsy cre­ation show­cas­ing, with­out fuss, the ap­peal­ing colors and tex­tures of the in­gre­di­ents: mul­ti­col­ored small beets and beet wedges, whipped ri­cotta cheese, Mar­cona al­monds, pink grapefruit, sprouts, fresh dill, chives, and tiny fen­nel blos­soms.

I tried some­thing heav­ier for my en­tree: seared pork ten­der­loin. Be­cause ten­der­loin is rel­a­tively lean, it’s tricky to cook it so that it’s crisp on the out­side and pink on the in­side. The cut I got had good fla­vor — much of it picked up by a pear-rose­mary puree that sur­rounded it — but it wasn’t as ten­der as I’d hoped. My friend or­dered the shrimp and grits, a South­ern sta­ple smartly re­gion­al­ized at The Com­pound with a red sauce that has a smoky red-chile un­der­cur­rent.

For dessert we picked the ap­ple strudel with maple ice cream. The ice cream was ter­rific, but the ap­ples were un­der­cooked. Also dis­ap­point­ing were the cof­fee and cap­puc­cino we had with the strudel: Both were on the bit­ter and luke­warm side. Maybe we just hap­pened upon a medi­ocre batch, but a restau­rant that serves so many good things should be able to pro­vide a con­sis­tently fine and mel­low brew.

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