May ended with a surge of optimism for the local restaurant scene. Patio dining got the green light to reopen 2½ months after being shut down to slow the spread of coronavirus. A week later, dine-in services came back.
But by the end of June, it had become apparent that the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel was from an oncoming train. A wave of coronavirus infections hit the state in July, forcing the governor to pull the plug on the dine-in experience.
For restaurateurs, the timing was especially unfortunate. Places all over town had been ramping up their operations and bringing people back to work. At the Grove Café and Market, the popular breakfast and lunch spot on Central in East Downtown, the area behind the counter was bustling with workers during a recent lunchtime visit just before the latest edict came down. There was palpable enthusiasm among the mask-wearing staffers as they attended to patrons lined up all the way back to the entry doors.
If you’ve visited the Grove with any frequency over the past few years, you expect to find a line at the counter. You expect to circle the parking lot looking for a space. That’s pretty much been the norm since it opened in 2006.
Owners Jason and Lauren Greene built a following by offering healthy, homey dining options in a plant-filled space with whitewashed wood set against sky-blue and lime-green walls. It feels like visiting an affluent friend’s kitchen, if that friend had a cooking show on the Food Network. Even with COVID-19 numbers rising, the café was almost entirely full during the lunch hour. Ceiling fans spun diligently above the large, almost entirely enclosed patio, taking some of the edge off the 100-degree heat outside.
The Grove’s unfussy approach and commitment to locally sourced ingredients shines in such simple dishes as a side of finely chopped, lightly dressed kale salad served in a small ramekin. A cup of tomato soup ($4.50), shiny with a drizzle of olive oil, had the sweetness of something just pulled from the garden. No wonder it sold out before our meal ended.
The building blocks of the breakfast entrées are familiar, but the thoughtful preparation and quality of the ingredients set them apart. Smoked salmon ($12.95) arrives piled on two housemade English muffin halves like a more evolved form of bagels and lox. The accompanying mix of briny capers, cream cheese and chives augment the mildly flavored fish without overwhelming it.
Another breakfast item, prosciutto and asparagus poached eggs ($12.95), is lovely to look at, the eggs and a few strips of shaved parmesan balanced over a handful of asparagus spears, prosciutto and a couple of pieces of grilled sourdough bread. Without a sauce to bind it together, the dish felt disconnected. It didn’t help that the eggs were overcooked, leaving the yolks just barely runny.
Lunch consists of a dozen sandwiches, almost all over $10. The thin-sliced meat in the lemon herb turkey sandwich ($11.75) was layered thickly between two slices of grilled gluten-free bread, an option on all the sandwiches. The creaminess from the avocado and herb mayonnaise and the brightness from the lemon jam helped make it worthy of its price tag.
Any thoughts that the Grove is all about sprouts and kale vanish when your eyes fall on the baked goods in the display case beneath the counter. Cupcakes line up on the top shelf, while cookies, scones and other goodies clamor for your attention from below. A lemon drop cupcake ($3.50) was so moist it quickly fell apart around the lemon curd center. With its airy, slightly sweet lemon buttercream frosting topped with candied lemon peel, it’s as apt for the season as a lemonade stand.
Walking out, I was reminded of how far this stretch of Central between Interstate 25 and Broadway has come. Once dominated by the dilapidated hulk of the old Albuquerque High, it now hosts several high-quality restaurants and a boutique hotel, the Parq Central, carved out of an old hospital and psychiatric ward.
The Grove is a worthy anchor to it all, and even though the dine-in option is going away for a while, it’s still worth a stop for takeout or patio dining. Several spaces in the parking lot have been reserved for customers picking up takeout orders, and the patio is fairly comfortable, especially early in the day.