Often referred to as foodies, winos, oenophiles or perhaps bon vivants, a growing culture of hedonists is on the hunt for a unique voyage with virtually every dining and imbibing experience. For many, it typically began with one moment. A moment when the light bulb was turned on and food and drink were encountered in a way never anticipated. I will always remember my “aha” moment. It was a dinner in Monterey, California where a knowledgeable sommelier took a few moments to teach a rookie how to dine. With one perfect pairing of Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes and seared foie gras, as cheesy as it sounds, my life was forever changed. For the rest of my days, I would continue to search for that perfect pairing of food and drink, on some levels, with every meal. I mean, who doesn’t love a glass of cold milk accompanied by warm, melty chocolate chip cookies?
I have been blessed throughout my life with a multitude of these moments of culinary perfection. At times, it may have been the company or the environment adding a little push to make the particular experience one for the books. Most often it was the harmonious marriage of food and wine that made it a cherished memory. I owe quite a few of these moments to one chef in particular, James Campbell Caruso. His passion for Spanish tapas and his remarkable talent for pairing them with one of the world’s most food friendly and underappreciated wines has created some of the most significant and extraordinary stops along my path down the “rabbit hole.” The wine I am referring to is sherry, a fortified wine made from white grapes grown in Andalusia, Spain.
First, let me clear any confusion right off the bat; the mass-produced cooking sherry often found in the cupboard above the stove is a far cry from the Finos, Manzanillas, Palo Cortados and other styles of sherries that are worshiped by connoisseurs across the globe. They range from dry, crisp pourings reminiscent of sitting on a beach smelling the sea-salted breeze to rich, syrupy wine that is packed with aromas of figs, raisins, coffee and chocolate. Chef James is a true aficionado. His knowledge of sherries is unsurpassed in New Mexico and he is known throughout the country not only for his talents in the kitchen, but for his precise ability to play matchmaker to the marriage of these wines with Spanish cuisine. Chef James has been chosen twice by the Sherry Council of America to compete in the Copa Jerez International Food and Sherry Pairing Competition. Only four chefs across the nation are chosen for the honor, and only every two years.
Santa Feans have been blessed with Chef James as a respected part of their community for years and recently he has expanded his territory south with the opening of Más – Tapas y Vino in downtown Albuquerque. The Duke City has been waiting with baited breath for a place like this and Chef James couldn’t have timed it better. The Albuquerque food scene has been on a rise and New Mexico’s top chefs are among many now fully recognizing the potential the city has to offer with its metropolitan population, growing film industry and expanding cultural community. “I have always loved Albuquerque,” explained Chef James. “I lived here when I first moved to New Mexico and I have wanted to open a restaurant here ever since.”
Más occupies the former Lucia in the Hotel Andaluz, located on the corner of Second Street and Copper. The hotel (which turns 75 this year) and Chef James are a perfect pairing. The hotel name itself, Andaluz, is a short form of Andalusia, a region in Spain from which the hotel design was inspiredhe same region which produces the white grapes famous for the production of sherry and where Chef James spent time studying and learning the cuisine for which he is famous. The lobby of the hotel features a mezzanine-style centerpiece to the hotelwith a large fountain, local art and six casbahs (intimate cabana-style arched rooms separated from the lobby by curtains that can be reserved by guests for a social gathering of friends to feast on the delectable tapas Chef James has designed for Más). If the comfortable couches of the casbahs aren’t what you seek, just off the lobby is a recently expanded bar and the main dining room of Más where the real magic happens. The brightly colored carrot garbanzo hummus and beet walnut spread on the mezze plate is a work of art on its own. Chef James rotates the menu seasonally and the tender sautéed calamari with a broth of fresh vegetables is a light and welcome alternative to the fried calamari I typically find at other restaurants. I was ecstatic to learn that Chef’s new menu would lighten up on the entrée section and focus more on tapas. I was curious if Albuquerque would embrace the smaller portion concept of tapas and was pleased to hear from him that the tapas were the most popular menu items and that Burqueños are embracing the versatility and social advantages of a small plates menu. Whether dining on the rooftop patio bar, Ibiza, the dining room of Más, the casbahs or the in-room dining services of the Hotel Andaluz, Chef James’ modern twist on the classic Spanish dishes easily adapt to whatever guests’ desires may be. I’ve looked to Chef James for everything from a light snack paired with a dry Manzanilla sherry, to a full multi-course voyage wrapping up with Pedro Ximenez sherry, made with grapes dried in the sun to intensify the flavor and sweetness of the wine, then fortified and aged. I am never disappointed.
New Mexicans are not the only ones who acknowledge and appreciate the talents of Chef James Campbell Caruso. Over the last decade, he has been nominated for eight, yes eight, James Beard Awards. This is like the Academy Awards of the restaurant industry and one of the highest honors a chef can achieve. He is nominated again this year (among a total of ten nominations for the state) and I know I am not the only one hopeful to see him win the honor of 2014 Best Chef in the Southwest. Chef James has been welcomed into Albuquerque’s community with open arms and when talking to him you can see the eager anticipation he has for the region and what he can contribute. “The CNM culinary program is expanding next door” he informs me with a smile“I have access to the new culinary talents New Mexico has growing within its community. I am looking to forage relationships with more local farmers and feature as many local ingredients as I can. I am hosting tapas and sherry pairing dinners here at Más. I have a lot more I want to do here in Albuquerque.” And boy, are we lucky for that.
Más is situated in the Hotel Andaluz at 125 2nd Street NW in Albuquerque. 505.242.9090. hotelandaluz.com.
Story by Kate Gerwin; photos by Joy Godfrey