While not quite the South of France, St. Clair Winery & Bistro near Old Town comes close to replicating the atmosphere of California wine country. The restaurant is a showcase for St. Clair Winery, a longtime grower of local wines based in the southern part of the state, to create French-inspired dishes and unique American wines for an Albuquerque audience.
The meal started with the caprese appetizer ($9), a traditional Italian salad with sliced tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese and fresh basil sprinkled on top. St. Clair’s is better than usual, with a balsamic reduction glaze generously drizzled on the plate, but the giant slices of tomatoes weren’t fresh or tender enough to make it a groundbreaking dish. The quality of the balsamic vinegar, though, was outstanding.
While the pecan-crusted chicken breast ($14.50) tasted delicious, its presentation could stand improvement. A jumbo free-range chicken breast is hand-pounded and then lightly coated in a delicious pecan breading, then cooked “sous vide” and smothered in a sauce.
The chicken was cooked perfectly but it wasn’t as tender as sous vide (“under vacuum” in French) meats usually are. Typically, sous vide meals are vacuum-sealed in plastic bags and immersed in hot water for hours, cooking thoroughly and evenly at a constant, controlled temperature. It takes longer, naturally, but the goal is a naturally flavored, tender cut of meat.
It was, however, delicious. Even the sauce, earthy and thick with the consistency of applesauce, had a delicate, if not rich, flavor. Pecans grown in the Mesilla Valley are crushed with figs and other seasonings, and then slathered on the chicken breast, with larger chunks of pecan sprinkled on top. The result is an incredibly fresh dish with flavoring that leaves room for wine, paired by the staff of St. Clair.
(In the case of the chicken, try the D.H. Lescombes Chardonnay.)
Homemade mashed potatoes are served on the side, along with a vegetable medley that tasted like calabacitas: Fresh zucchinni is marinated alongside sweet corn kernels, then cooked to tenderness. The mashed potatoes are good, but in my opinion, if you’re going to eat mashed potatoes at all, you might as well load them with more unhealthy stuff like cream or butter. St. Clair’s mashed potatoes are the slightly more guilt-free variety, though.
The menu also features traditional dishes like pot roast, green-chile infused pastas, hand-cut rib-eye steaks and a few fresh seafood options. A full menu of gluten-free options is available.
The star of the meal on a recent lazy Sunday wasn’t the food, though, but the ambiance. A big open-air patio – well-behaved dogs are welcome to accompany your party – is littered with potted plants, a non-functioning waterfall, portable gas heaters, and enough room for 30 or so diners. Strings of lights provide a nice atmosphere in the evening.
Despite the decidedly Southwestern decor, the place felt more like a bistro in Napa Valley than a restaurant in New Mexico. A rustic but restored old pickup truck out front is loaded with wooden wine barrels, and approaching the entrance feels like walking into a rich person’s well-stocked wine cellar.
St. Clair Winery & Bistro serves wines grown exclusively at its 15-acre New Mexico winery, outside Lordsburg near the Mexican border where the nighttime temperatures, 4,500-foot elevation and unique soil properties create some of the best wines in the state.
St. Clair has four bistros and one tasting room throughout New Mexico. The Albuquerque bistro opened a dozen years ago, and it has become one of the best places in town to enjoy a lazy afternoon with friends. The food is good, the service is fine, and the proprietary wine list is excellent.