What does one of Albuquerque's top chefs, a man who has owned and operated some of the city's most notable restaurants, do for an encore?
He opens a neighborhood bar and grill.
Certainly, when Sam Etheridge closed Ambrozia last year, he could have done what his years of experience at Bien Shur, Kanome, Prairie Star, Portobello, et al, had trained him to do: open another fine dining restaurant.
But he and partner Matt Ludeman had something else in mind. After extensive research into which niche in the Albuquerque dining market had not yet been adequately filled, they opened the Nob Hill Bar & Grill.
"Our vision was to come up with a restaurant that is upscale but also has that neighborhood "joint' feel," says Matt. "We didn't want it to be stuffy or pretentious, but a place where you could drop in for a burger or sandwich at lunch, a nice piece of meat or fish at dinner, watch the game in the bar on the weekends."
Matt, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, has acquired over ten years experience managing and opening restaurants. A long-time fan of Ambrozia, he got to know Sam over the course of a couple of years and one day suggested the two open a restaurant together.
At the time, Sam was looking to move Ambrozia from its spot in Old Town, but he eventually realized that maybe what he needed was an entirely new venture.
"Sometimes, restaurants outlive themselves," he explains. "I thought Ambrozia had its time, did it well, and it was time to move on."
To that end, Sam and Matt, along with Matt's brother, Michael (who serves as a third partner in the restaurant), conducted a series of in-person research expeditions, scoping out the current state of the industry in some of the country's most savvy cities.
One of their objectives was to broaden their customer base. "Sam wanted to touch more people, reach a wider audience," Matt explains. "Ambrozia was more of a special occasion place. Based on price point and its Old Town location, it didn't draw that every-day, walking-in-off-the-street traffic."
Although occupying the airy, high-traffic corner spot on Central and Bryn Mawr that once housed Kanome and graze, the feel of the restaurant is entirely different than its predecessors. Its dark wood, metal, and glass décor is hip and urbane but the atmosphere is also immediately congenial, with a definite masculine vibe-like how your best buddy would outfit his apartment if he suddenly found himself flush with cash from a successful Internet start-up.
The restaurant itself is open and spacious, with a large, covered outdoor patio augmenting the bustling, bistro-like feel. But the focus of the space is definitely the bar-darker, more intimate, and dominated by high-backed booths whose cushioned confines work equally well for an intimate date or a boisterous group gathering. And while fine artwork hangs on the walls, so, too, do a half dozen television sets.
It's an atmosphere that makes Sam feel right at home. "Ambrozia was more sit down, more quiet. This is much louder, more festive. I'm a guy who wears hats and tee shirts every day, so this really fits my personality."
Make no mistake, though; he intends to continue to push the culinary envelope in his trademark fashion.
"The idea here was to focus on my upbringing," says Sam. "That means playing with American-style foods, comfort food, bar food - all the things I grew up with, but with my own special twist. I've pretty much always done fine dining, so this is different for me."
But no less inventive. Order the fish and chips and you get ginger-lime crusted wok-fried ahi tuna. Potato skins are augmented with crispy pancetta, smoked mozzarella, and truffle oil. Instead of ketchup, the ground buffalo meatloaf is topped with a zingy chipotle gravy. And the mac and cheese is made even more formidable with the addition of a house-made bratwurst.
And while there are few dishes for which I'll risk a cross-town trek in harried high noon traffic, the duck enchiladas braised in mole and served with squash and a cheesy rice cake is one of them. So is the roasted tomato soup with grilled brie sandwich. And the red chile pineapple upside down cake? Well, let just say upscale comfort food doesn't get much better than this.
"The idea is to present people with food they know, but to keep things fun, fresh, interesting," says Sam. "We now see people who eat here three, four times a week. We don't want them to get bored."
To that end, the menu will change five to six times a year, with a core of six or seven items (the enchiladas and calamari, to name a few), and then a rotating range of dishes based on readily available, fresh, local ingredients. Buying local, says Matt, is a major goal for them, and perfectly doable throughout much of the year.
Other surprises in store for customers include a top-notch wine list of the kind you'll rarely find in a bar and grill, as well as a monumental Sunday brunch, a tribute, says Sam, to big, hotel-style spreads. "Only better."
Open only since February, Matt and Sam are thrilled to see they're attracting a broad range of customers, from young, sophisticated urbanites who not only dress to impress, but who care about food and have the disposable income to spend on a quality dining experience, to neighborhood residents happy to discover yet another place to make their own.
Nob Hill Bar & Grill is intended to be both upscale and casual because that's what defines the neighborhood as a whole. "You can come here in shorts and flip-flops or you can dress up; you can come into the bar and watch sports all night or you can go over to the restaurant side and enjoy an anniversary dinner. Either way, you'll be comfortable. Because that's what kind of neighborhood this is. It's people who live comfortably, who have a nice income and who like to do both."
Nob Hill is also one of Albuquerque's most cohesive and distinct neighborhoods, not only in style, but also in substance, with an overall awareness, on the part of residents and business owners alike, of the importance of community support.
"That's another reason we chose Nob Hill," says Sam. "Because it's a neighborhood, we're not in competition with all the other restaurants. We compliment each other. You can go to Zinc for one thing, then Monte Vista for another, then come over here for something else-you've got multiple options throughout the night."
Listening to Matt and Sam speak, watching them play off each other, you gain a renewed appreciation for the courage and energy it takes to start a business like this. Sam has worked in twenty-three restaurants since he started at the age of sixteen. Matt, too, has devoted almost every minute of his career to the culinary industry. While Matt reigns supreme at the front of the house and Sam at the kitchen and bar, their efforts are also part of a partnership-each continually bounces ideas off the other to hone their common vision.
It's a difficult thing to do in any venture, much less the harried, sometimes ego-driven atmosphere of a restaurant. Are they still as passionate as when they first started in the business?
"People who are in this industry know what hard work it is," says Matt, speaking for them both. "You do it because you love it. For me, it's all I know, all I've done, all I want to do. Sam and I, this is our dream and we're just seeing where it will take us."
Nob Hill Bar & Grill is located at 3128 Central Avenue SE in Albuquerque and is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and on Sundays for brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Bar open late. For reservations call 505.266.4455.