I had a great time writing this latest story for Local Flavor Magazine’s February issue. My dream is to be a full-time food and wine writer and articles like this remind me that nothing could be better than getting to eat, drink wine, interview awesome folks and write about it! If you have a chance, pick up a copy of the magazine–Kitty Leaken took some beautiful photos for the story.
Erin Wade, owner of Vinaigrette and master of all things green, opens a second salad bistro in Albuquerque
Can I tell you a secret? I’ve never liked peas—although they seemed to be one of my mom’s favorite dinner selections when I was a kid. I was so desperate to avoid consumption of those scary, bright green orbs (to me, green meant “do not ingest”) that I would sneak handfuls of them to the family dog who waited patiently by my feet underneath the kitchen table. So when I looked over the menu at Erin Wade’s new Vinaigrette Restaurant in Albuquerque, which opened in November, I was surprised to find myself unwittingly attracted to a menu item called “Eat Your Peas”—an entrée salad made of fresh baby lettuces, bits of bacon, savory sautéed white mushrooms, Asiago cheese, tangy vinaigrette dressing and yes, green peas!
Maybe it was the bright, vivid décor that made me want to eat those green peas: the lime-green banquette stretching across the center of the large white room, with signature Vinaigrette green bar tile and red chairs. Could it have been the potted plants on every table, grasses and colorful flowers and miniature cacti? Or maybe it was the glass of crisp, citrus-floral Macedonian wine. But I laid my childhood fears to rest and ordered the salad. What a fantastic reintroduction to a delightful little vegetable. The creamy peas and savory mushrooms were perfect with the crispy, crunchy lettuces and the tart bite of vinaigrette. With each mouthful I understood more and more why Erin’s salad fever has caught on, first in Santa Fe and now in Albuquerque, and what makes her concept so successful.
Vinaigrette is about all things green, “on and off the plate.” The restaurants source as much local and organic produce as possible. The design of the new Albuquerque building includes eco-friendly fabrics, zero-VOC paint and floors made from pine reclaimed in Dixon. Erin, a Harvard graduate, is a true jack-of-all-trades. I can’t think of many restaurant owners who come up with a unique concept, design their own space, create the menu and then actually grow some of the produce required for the restaurant. During the summer, Erin’s 10-acre Los Portales farm provides lettuces, herbs, tomatoes and even eggs from the farm’s chickens.
I spoke with Erin about her philosophy of food, the seeds of which were planted when she lived in Milan after college, studying fashion design. “In Italy, it’s not a paradox to eat healthfully and deliciously at the same time. They don’t have a problem expecting their food to be both healthy and pleasurable. There’s this unequivocal embrace of food.” This attitude toward food stood out for Erin, who had experienced the love-hate relationship Americans have toward what they eat. “I went to one of the best schools in the country and pretty much all of my roommates had some weird issue around food. In America it’s this idea of either-or—‘I have to eat healthy and it’s a chore,’ and people are on deprivational diets, or they’re eating burgers. There’s this real diametric system here.”
Vinaigrette embodies the harmony between pleasure and health. “In some restaurants, the healthier options feel like an afterthought, whereas our whole purpose is centered around maximizing pleasure and nutrition.” She says more people in America are starting to change the way they think about food, and believes the move toward healthy eating, especially the focus on local and organic food, isn’t just a passing trend. “I think it’s more of a shift, a pendulum swinging in the other direction and we’ve realized the true cost industrial farming. We are becoming more aware of the cost of fossil fuels and that industrial farming is basically entirely reliant on fossil fuels. People are more aware of the importance of what they put in their mouths and their bodies and how that affects their lives, their energy level, their conscience.”
Erin knew her concept was a good one, and she wanted to expand while keeping the same basic menu and wine list. “The concept worked really well in Santa Fe. Our intention is to make healthy eating joyful and fun. I love what we’re doing and people respond to it—it’s good for you, good for the earth. There’s not enough of this type of thing out there.” Although she considered opening a Vinaigrette in California, she felt that a closer location would allow her to build on momentum from the original Vinaigrette without having to start from scratch in a new market. One day, when Erin and a friend (who happened to be a commercial real estate broker) were driving through Albuquerque, he pulled over at a vacant building just past the hustle and bustle of downtown, on the fringes of Old Town. Erin instinctively knew when she saw it that this was the spot for the next Vinaigrette. “I immediately had butterflies in my belly when I saw this space. It just felt right.”
Erin was excited to find a location where she could really put her design skills to work. “The building was far from habitable. It was vacant for a long time but I love that, it’s my favorite thing to work with—just a shell. There are overlapping design elements with the original Vinaigrette, like the red chairs and butcher block tables, but the space has a different feeling, it’s bigger and more dramatic.” The original restaurant is in an old adobe home and has a cozy feel, while the space in Albuquerque is more modern and open, one large room with high ceilings and lots of windows. “There were these great old metal trusses that were kind of covered up that we exposed, so it gives this cool industrial element. I love the creative process of designing restaurants.”
Business in Albuquerque is already booming. On the night of my tryst with the Eat Your Peas salad, Vinaigrette was packed with a varied dinner crowd and a line of folks at the front door: people in business attire just getting off work, couples young and old, groups of women meeting for ladies’ night. The restaurant seats 96, but when the weather warms up two outdoor patios will bring that number up to about 150. This is also when Los Portales will start generating some serious produce (the farm is dormant during the harsh winter months) and Erin plans on contracting with farmers who will grow especially for the restaurant. “The amount of produce we need is huge, so it’s impossible to get it all from the Farmer’s Market. It’s also logistically difficult with a lot of produce coming in constantly, but the benefit is the flavor and taste of this food.”
And there’s so much flavor to choose from. Erin’s inspired salads range from salty (the All Kale Caesar! with lemon-anchovy vinaigrette, Parmesan and Marcona almonds) to sweet (the Arugula Duck salad with balsamic roasted pears and hibiscus vinaigrette) and everything in between. You can add proteins like chicken or fish to any salad if your appetite is fierce and if you want to indulge, try the Cuban Torta sandwich (mustard roasted pork shoulder and green chile ham with red onions, Swiss, avocado, mayo, chipotle and sweet relish).
Wine is an important part of the pleasure of cuisine, and Erin’s lists focuses on wines that are ideal for salad-centric fare—simple, clean, refreshing whites and light reds. “All our wines are very salad friendly, especially the zippy whites with low oak and bracing acidity that stand up to a vinaigrette dressing. Our wines are like our food, unadulterated and more of an expression of terroir and varietal. Not a lot of manipulation, just pure and simple, fresh and light.”
Erin points out that salads are emblematic of what we want from food, which is both flavor and nutrients. She says, “Food has this real potential to bring happiness to people’s daily lives. Eating better is easier if it comes from a place of positivity and joy.” Erin’s philosophy is inherent in the flavor of the food and the way it makes you feel. This isn’t rabbit food—I was stuffed after my salad—but it isn’t the kind of heavy meal that makes you feel weighed down and guilty afterward. At Vinaigrette, there’s no need to smuggle in your family dog to wait under the table for those handfuls of peas—you’ll want to eat every last one.
Vinaigrette is located at 1828 Central SW in Albuquerque. It’s open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. 505.842.5507 www.vinaigretteonline.com