There’s no casino at the Hotel Chaco near Old Town, but there is some gambling happening on the premises.
Reservations at Level 5, the high-end restaurant and lounge on the hotel’s roof, are available only to guests. For everyone else, getting a table is a roll of the dice, or a spin of the roulette wheel if you prefer. Show up early, your odds are good. Arrive after 6, you’re playing a long shot.
My wife and I turned up at 5 on a recent Saturday night after visiting ArtsThrive, an exhibit/auction of local artwork at the nearby Albuquerque Museum. We were seated immediately. An hour later, the place was full and several large parties were being turned away at the door.
Level 5 is the newest – and priciest – of Albuquerque’s rooftop restaurant/lounges.
One of its chief selling points is the view. With only one tall building nearby – Chaco’s sister property, Hotel Albuquerque – Level 5 provides a view to the horizon in almost every direction. Virtually the entire length of the Sandia Mountains is visible, an especially stirring sight at sunset.
Local developer Heritage Hotels launched Hotel Chaco in 2017. It was an important step in the transformation of a stretch of Bellamah east of Rio Grande from a drab industrial area to a lively center for eating and drinking. Sawmill Market is across the street, and other projects are filling the remaining lots. There is plenty of free parking on the streets and in assorted lots near the hotel.
The hotel, inspired by Chaco Canyon and its prehistoric ruins, is done in a kind of minimalist Pueblo Revival style. It houses an impressive collection of works from Native artists that’s worth a look at before you head up the elevator to the restaurant.
Named for Chaco Canyon’s five-story Pueblo Bonito, Level 5 has indoor seating around the bar, but most of the space is outdoors and includes a variety of seating arrangements to suit couples and large parties. At the table next to us, a dozen people were getting hydrated for a long-distance cycling event taking place the following day.
Any inspiration derived from the view is tempered by the condition of the outdoor furniture. The fabric coverings on the chairs looked like they had been repurposed from crime scenes. There was a half-eaten cracker wedged into the side of my seat cushion.
Don’t judge a book by its cover, I said. Or a restaurant by its chair covers. I found a marginally better chair, sat back and took in the small menu from acclaimed French chef Christian Monchâtre. Despite the Chaco Canyon-inspired décor of the hotel, Level 5’s offerings don’t hew to any particular style of cuisine. Prices are even more rarefied than the view, topping out at $52 for a filet mignon.
A starter of a Bibb Lettuce Spring Salad ($14) was pretty to look at, with pink slices of watermelon radish set against the buttery greens. The cherry tomatoes and the sliced avocado were fresh and matched well with the Chef’s Mom’s vinaigrette, a creamy, tangy blend served in a small cup.
Entrees on the “From Land” portion of the menu include an assortment of proteins, a pasta dish and one veggie option. My wife got the Airline Chicken Breast ($44), named for the way the wing rises off the breast as if poised for flight. The chicken was good, moist and with a crisp skin, even if the portion was a little on the small side. Underneath it, a spread of potato purée studded with peas, bacon and morel mushrooms in gravy looked appetizing, but it was barely warm and had to be sent back for reheating. The plate reappeared five minutes or so later, and the sides, now sufficiently heated, were superb and appropriate for the season, with a stick-to-your ribs heartiness reminiscent of Thanksgiving dinner.
Only two items make up the “And Water” portion of the menu: Miso Glazed Black Cod ($48) and Swordfish Steak ($40). The latter is served with a mix of tomatoes, capers and olives – puttanesca sauce minus the anchovies. Briny and acidic, it was a perfect foil for the mildly flavored fish. Like the chicken, the fish portion was undersized. A side of fingerling potatoes, crisped on the grill, helped compensate.
Cocktails are an important proposition here, as evidenced by the assortment of bitters and spirits infused in-house. Based on the server’s recommendation, I ordered the Red Sky ($14), one of the seasonal drinks. It’s a potent mix of hibiscus-infused gin, Cointreau and elderflower liqueur blended with ice and served in a martini glass. Fruity, flowery and sour, it seemed more suited to a hot summer day.
A separate dessert menu offers a handful of pricey treats. We chose one of the gluten-free options, a cylinder of mascarpone cheesecake ($12) over an almond cookie crust. Mascarpone is smoother and sweeter than the traditional cream cheese, and the terrific sauce of strawberries stewed in balsamic vinegar gave it a charge of flavor.
The server was prompt, personable and profusely apologetic for the underheated sides. Most of the menu is gluten-free or can be made that way.
On the way to the elevators, we heard the host telling one prospective diner that the place was understaffed. That might be why a meal at Level 5 is such an uneven experience. The views are splendid, but at prices like these you expect more from the meal.