Of course we had to go in.
It’s a classy kind of joint, this Antiquity, tablecloths and waiters with bow ties and the whole shebang. But it’s unmistakably Albuquerque, too. For one thing it’s in an ancient Old Town hacienda, the kind with an uneven floor, two foot thick walls at every doorway, and rooms that ramble back farther than you would ever guess from the outside. For another, the blue-jeaned may mix freely with the formally attired in that wonderful New Mexican way that so annoys the Easterners among us. And finally, even on a night with an impending full house, the host was willing to squeeze us in without reservations (even if he did have to pore over the table chart for a full minute, brow furrowed).
The booth was warm and built up off the floor by a good six inches or so. The wine list is extensive and as reasonable or outrageous as you could desire: a bottle of house red for just over $20? Or perhaps an Opus One from the Napa Valley for $190? We are middlebrow folk, or at least middle pocket book folk, so we opted for a half-bottle of a cabernet called Dynamite (for some reason) for $24. I’m no wine aficionado, but it was reasonably complex with oak accents and just a hint of fruitiness and complemented our meals nicely.
Oysters Rockefeller ($16.95) were on special for the night, and I was suddenly nostalgic for the Gulf Coast. They arrived, five on the half-shell, a small mound of buttery spinach puree on each. I’m only rarely in the mood for oysters, and hardly ever when I can’t smell the sea, so I silently hoped that these would not betray my longing.
Entrees come with a choice of soup du jour or salad. I selected the tenderloin au poivre ($26.95) and a cup of the soup, a cream of roasted red pepper which was too intriguing to pass up. My mother chose pork Normande ($22.95) and a house salad with bleu cheese.
Now, the entrees. What do you expect when you eat at an establishment like Antiquity? For me, I hope to be transported by the food, for the rest of the world to fade away with each forkful, for cares and preoccupations (for instance, regarding the impending price tag) to simply disappear beneath the sensory experience of the food itself. I can’t afford to eat like this every day (for both financial and health reasons), so when I do I need to have the rest of my life arrested, frozen in time while I eat.
Yes. Antiquity can deliver this. The tenderloin au poivre, cooked to precisely the medium rare that I asked for, coated in its creamy, peppery, brandy-tinged sauce overwhelms the senses as seemingly every taste-tasked neuron fires at once. Good food—and this is good food—is an ecstatic experience, like a small religious awakening or a drug. Conversation halts, replaced by guttural syllables of gastro-appreciation.
The pork Normande—again a cream sauce, but this time with apples and port wine that bring an exuberant fruitiness to the loamy mushroom base. The pork medallions are tender and offset beautifully by the tartness of the sauce.
The sensory overload extends to one of the restaurant’s signature dishes: the Henry IV ($30.95), named after the gourmand king of 16th century France. It is a savory delight, a filet mignon wrapped in bacon, served atop a bed of artichoke leaves and crowned by an artichoke heart and a liberal pour of béarnaise sauce. This beef deserves its regal title.
Not every entree is up to preserving the fantasy, I’m afraid. Venture away from the French cuisine and you may run into trouble. The chicken cashew ($23.95), for instance, is a disappointment. Despite the menu’s promise that the dish is flambéed with champagne and red chile, those flavors are lost beneath the overpowering ginger and soy sauce. But then, what illusion stands up to every test?
To finish off the meal, there are a handful of desserts to choose from, and like most of the other menu peripherals, the list changes by the day. I decided that a true classic was in order: a crème brûlée ($6.95). The ancient dish is simple, but technique sensitive, and it is rare to find one made as it should be. I’m happy to say that Antiquity does it right. A glassy, caramelized sugar crust that cracks (not bends) when struck with a spoon and a silky custard beneath with just a hint of vanilla. With stewards like Antiquity, no wonder this dish has remained a favorite since at least the 17th century.
The last spoonful of custard is a harbinger that the illusion must soon come to an end, and the first shock back to reality arrives with the check—followed soon after by the cold, exhaust-tainted wind of an Old Town side street. It may be possible for two people to leave Antiquity less than $100 in the hole, but what would be the point? At a restaurant like this, you pay for an escape, a fantasy of refinement and incredible food. And at Antiquity, you get what you pay for.