The heart of Albuquerque seems to suffer from the always-a-bridesmaid-but-never-a-real-Downtown problem. It seems to be on the cusp of something great – a place you could go to see a movie or play and have a great meal and stroll around any night of the week.
In the last several years, it’s been getting better: with the help of places fronted by locally famous chefs like James Campbell Caruso at MÁS Tapas y Vino with its modern Spanish dishes, our Downtown might just get there.
MÁS opened in 2013 in the poshly renovated Hotel Andaluz, hitting its stride after a few months and then continuing to refine and improve with periodic menu tweaks. Seasonal changes are to be expected in any higher-end establishment, but MÁS walks a line between new menu items and old favorites, never replacing the tried-and-true for a trendy dish of the month. This means a regular patron can have the same dishes for months or years on end, while sampling the rarer new flavors as they appear.
My favorite of the new is both gimmicky and wonderful: Bacon-Wrapped Dates ($10) delivered as a lineup of skewers, each holding one slender almond-stuffed date swaddled in charred bacon. The char is what makes these morsels stand out from the dozens of other fanciful date appetizers in town. Char factors heavily in the flavor of two other excellent tapas: Grilled Asparagus & Broccolini ($10) and Crispy Fried Brussels Sprouts ($10). Both allow a diner to feast on greens and enjoy Spanish flair in the respective pepper-olive and romesco sauces.
While the brussels sprouts are a good portion, it is difficult to judge the size of individual tapas – some kind of visual reference on the menu would be helpful. A table could order five tapas and, depending on which were chosen, could wind up with an appetite raring for the entree or completely stuffed and ready for a check.
In the heartier category are the garlic-and-sherry-laced Sauteed Shrimp & Chorizo ($12), served with grilled bread that you’ll want for the decadent pan sauce pooled on the plate.
And then there are entrees to consider, though a good strategy is to get partially full on tapas and share one entree. In that case, order the Almond Crusted Sea Bass ($36) to enjoy one of the best pieces of fish you’ve ever had, period. Buttery, delicate and well-seasoned, this dishes’ only flaw is the weirdly uninteresting harissa-coconut rice underneath.
Yes, there are desserts you should consider: the pastry chefs here are talented and consistent. My favorite is the Walnut Cake ($9) with sauteed apples strewn over top. It seems more like a fall dish, but I really don’t care. The classic Spanish Crème Catalan ($9) is also a good meal ender, rich and eggy without unctuousness.