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Southern delights plenty to hoot about

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Hollar Restaurant, a small, independent, laid-back cafe, is one of several nontraditional food options in the nonconformist town of Madrid, about a half-hour drive from Santa Fe, south of Cerrillos on N.M. 14. Owner/chef Josh Novak smartly found an unoccupied niche for his culinary efforts: Southern cooking.

Opened in 2008, The Hollar is easy to find, right on Main Street, just across the highway from Madrid’s landmark, The Mine Shaft Tavern. The Hollar has room for about 25 inside and perhaps a few fewer on its inviting front patio, shaded by trees and red umbrellas. Three friends and I came for Sunday brunch, and sat outside to enjoy the sunshine and watch locals and visitors stroll by.

When a restaurant bills itself as “Southern,” you expect biscuits. At brunch, biscuits are everywhere, and they are tasty. None of those oversized megabiscuits that leave your mouth greasy, the kind that you find in some megachain restaurants. No, here they serve the real deal: hot, fresh, homemade, light but satisfying, with just the right saltiness to match the black pepper that seasons up the gravy.

The Hollar Restaurant
LOCATION: 2849 N.M. 14, Madrid, 505-471-4821
HOURS: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. weekdays, until 9 p.m. weekends; Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
BEER AND WINE

Gravy? Of course gravy. What would a good Southern Sunday brunch be without gravy to go over the biscuits? Unless, of course, you’re having The Hollar’s carnivorific Cowboy Breakfast, which features both ham and sausage, scrambled eggs and green chile with cheese grits on the side.

Grits? In addition to biscuits, cheese grits — a concoction of coarsely ground cornmeal, heat, cheese, pepper and kitchen magic — are another Southern trademark. Grits come with all entrées at brunch, even the exotic-sounding Seared Ahi Tuna with Hollandaise. You also can order another Southern specialty, fried green tomatoes, served at brunch with a fried egg on a biscuit. And when requesting iced tea, you’ll be asked if you want your tea sweet or unsweet.

I was in the mood for a salad, but unfortunately the brunch menu (which changes) didn’t offer that. So I opted for something that seemed decidedly unSouthern, the green chile Swiss burger ($11). But The Hollar serves burgers on biscuits — far better than the standard bun — and adds a side of the cheese grits. The burger was smaller than I was expecting, but the meat patty was tasty and thick and cooked medium as requested. Topped with a coat of melted cheese and good chopped green chile, it didn’t require the bottle of ketchup or yellow mustard the waitress brought. The lettuce was wilted, perhaps from waiting in the kitchen, and there was no tomato but, all in all, nicely done.

My friend’s Croque Madame, most often a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich with a fried egg on top, arrived smothered beneath a rich sweet sauce described on the menu as lavender béchamel. Underneath the white sauce he found a croissant enfolding thinly sliced ham, a egg fried until the yolk was hard and mild cheese that had melted into the bread and meat. The buttery croissant, the rich sauce, the cheese on the sandwich and the cheesy and substantial grits created a meal that makes one long for an afternoon nap. I’d serve this heavy meal with a little salad on the side instead of the grits, or pass on the béchamel sauce even though it was delicious. You can have too much of a good thing.

The biscuits and gravy entrée, served with two smallish patties of pork sausage and a two-egg omelet, was a substantial meal. The only problem I saw with it was not enough of the rich, creamy gravy. I liked its peppery flavor and would have liked it even better with bits of sausage or ground beef.

We tried the chicken biscuits, two uncomplicated little sandwiches of battered and fried breast meat on a biscuit with butter and mayonnaise. The batter gave the chicken a nice crunch, but the meat was overcooked. The menu also included asparagus and scallop Benedicts, a ham, tomato and goat cheese omelet, breakfast burrito, a couple other burgers and an okra, egg and grits bowl. A few salads and some fruit would be a welcome addition for those who want to eat lighter.

Southern cooking is known for its fruit pies and cobblers, but those choices weren’t on the brunch menu. The two desserts we sampled, tiramisu and Italian cream cake, were beautiful. The rich custard-style tiramisu had a layer of cocoa atop rich mascarpone and a thin base of cake, soggy with espresso. The two-layer Italian Cream Cake had an abundance of tasty cream-cheese frosting, but the cake itself was dry. The coffee was lukewarm.

Lunch for two, with tea, coffee and two desserts, was $41 with tax before the tip.

Photo Credit – adolphe pierre-louis/journal
Cutline – A prosciutto provolone burger served with a side salad is one of the specialties at The Hollar Restaurant in Madrid.

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