Albuquerque Journal review

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Albuquerque Journal review

by Anne Hillerman for the ABQ Journal

Does winter seem an unlikely time to open a new salad restaurant?

Well, after the 12 Days of Christmas come the long weeks of dieting until Valentine's Day. Vinaigrette joined the Santa Fe restaurant scene about two months ago, and customers can't seem to get enough, even on days when the high temperature hovers at the freezing mark. Vinaigrette owner Erin Wade must be ahead of the curve. (Santa Fe's isn't nicknamed The City Different for nothing.)

It was a stretch for me to consider a salad lunch on a snowy afternoon when green chile beckoned, but I discovered two things: Vinaigrette has hot food and good coffee, and a colorful salad helps cure the winter blahs. The menu features some 20 salads along with soups, a few sandwiches and side dishes like mac and cheese, potato gratin and mashed potatoes.

In many restaurants, salads are insipid –– a bowl of limp greens straight from the bag soaking in chemicalrich dressing. Not here. Vinaigrette’s clever salads grow from vegetables, raw and roasted, fruits, nuts, many kinds of cheese, other goodies and, of course, fresh greens — spinach, romaine, arugula and more. The menu suggests pairings such as flank steak, chicken breast, seared tuna, or grilled tofu with each bowl of greens. Customize your protein with add-ons from scallops to portobello mushrooms. Or, do as we did. Just pick something from the menu and enjoy.

The “French Frisse,” frilly greens with a poached egg, bacon and warm vinaigrette, sounded
great, and it came with optional hibiscus duck confit to make it a heartier meal. I considered the Asian beef salad, grilled marinated steak over arugula, roasted cherry tomatoes and rice noodles with Thai peanut dressing. I loved my choice, “The Nutty Pear-Fessor,” red and green baby lettuce, toasted pecans, pungent bits of Gorgonzola, chewy bacon crumbles and a crown of soft grilled Bosc pear slices. The dressing, described as “ruby port vinaigrette,” was just right, tangy but not overpowering.

My friend had the “Chop Chop,” which masterfully combined ribbons of yellow and red bell
pepper, provolone and salami, all cut exactly the same size. Wedges of tiny tomatoes provided bright acidic bites of flavor. Shredded crisp romaine and slightly sweet garbanzos added to the mix, all tossed in creamy balsamic dressing. The only off–notes were the soggy, tough cubes of chicken.

Vinaigrette serves salads in large white bowls with a basket of fresh-tasting focaccia bread and a
jug of olive oil.

My partner and I also sampled soups: the wild mushroom stew in a miso base topped with a bit of olive bread warmed me from the toes up. Clam chowder with posole was great, too. Who would have thought this hybrid of New England and New Mexico would be such a hit? For dessert, satisfying house-made apple pie ice cream came as three small very rich scoops. Lemon cheesecake, pumpkin cheesecake and other ice creams and sorbets also were available — all made on the premises.

Our ample lunch with a soft drink and a latte was $28.50 with tax before tip. (It would have been $8 more, but the soup was complimentary because of a service problem.)

Vinaigrette’s service, willing and hard working, had a few glitches I’d attribute to being new and
busy. Like the cuisine, the building is sunny and contemporary, with bleached wooden tables, a blond floor and red chairs in the dining area and at the bar.

There’s an airy, sophisticated but unpretentious vibe here. All the elements for success are in place: fresh, creative food, a cheerful space and reasonable prices for the quality. Take a deep breath, you server guys.

Smile at us customers.