Red or Green?
I Am Curious (Chocolate)
At Silver City's Curious Kumquat, where creativity is served up
at every meal, it's prime time for chocolate.
If you are adventurous in eating, and welcome the opportunity to experience new combinations of ingredients in your food, the Curious Kumquat in downtown Silver City is worth a visit, for both lunch and dinner. And it's a must for chocolate lovers, particularly as Silver City's Chocolate Fantasia (see box), Valentine's Day and Easter approach. Curious Kumquat's co-owner/chef, Rob Connoley is rolling out major quantities of creative chocolate bonbons with intriguing fillings.
Filling the molds with chocolate is a messy business. The Belgian chocolate has to be melted and held at between 93 and 97 degrees so it is fluid enough to be poured. After allowing the chocolate to cool for a few minutes in the molds, Rob will pour out the chocolate that remains warm and fluid in the center of the mold, leaving a thin but solid layer of chocolate to complete the upper shell of the frogs and a central space into which the filling will be gently stuffed. After that, a quick drizzle of chocolate seals the bottom of the candy. As soon as that chocolate layer cools thoroughly, each chocolate frog is ready to be removed from the mold.
Where else can you find shiny little hand-crafted chocolate gems with fillings like Spiced Rum, Pear William, Cinnamon Love, Honey Saffron or any of the other half-dozen options? If you're lucky, you might even find some of those beauties with rosemary salted caramel filling that were judged to be the best bonbons at the national 2012 Chocolate Fantasy Chocolatier Competition. Rob is planning to participate in the annual competition again this year, to be held March 2 at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort in Bernalillo. He's thinking of entering the Honey Saffron Bonbons he is already making and selling at the Curious Kumquat.
Rob's chocolate sculpture last year won rave notices from spectators, but the judges favored more traditional styles. This year, Rob is working on a design for a five-foot-high chocolate sculpture that features a chocolate hot air balloon balanced in mid-air on slender tendrils of chocolate wafting from a chocolate cloud. He plans to create the sculpture in pieces at the restaurant and assemble them on-site at the time of the competition. We can all help Rob by praying for cool weather at competition time.
While we're praying, we can console ourselves with the bonbons available for purchase right now at the Curious Kumquat. Or, if we're really ambitious, we can actually learn how to make delectable bonbons ourselves. The different processes for producing molded or dipped chocolate candies are not all that difficult, and Rob is willing to give chocolate classes in private homes for groups of up to 10 people.
If he says he'll do it, he will — but it is hard to imagine how he can possibly squeeze chocolate classes into his busy schedule. The restaurant is open for both lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday, and Rob is on the job from early in the morning until closing time — which is whenever the last customer leaves. Then Rob washes dishes. It makes for a long, physically demanding day, but he has no complaint.
"I guess the secret is that I love what I do," he says. "I passionately love what I do."
The lunch menu features soups ($2.95 cup/$4.95 bowl), salads ($4 small/$7.50 large), creative sandwiches on ciabatta ($7.50), black bean burritos ($5.50), gyros ($7.50), and Build-Your-Own Pizza ($7.95) — all made with local ingredients as much as possible.
"Fresh and affordable," Rob says. "From Day One, that's what we wanted, and that's how we've kept it."
This sounds simple enough, but simple is not really part of Rob's culinary vocabulary. The soups, salads and sandwiches on the lunch menu are all made in-house, and Rob and his staff cure the meats themselves — the ham, the bacon, the pastrami. They roast the turkeys themselves. They produce their own baked goods. They're even starting to make their own cheeses and sausages.
Follow "along the Milky Way" to Chocolate Fantasia, Feb. 9.
Chocolate will be in the spotlight all over downtown Silver City this month, as the Mimbres Region Arts Council sponsors its annual Chocolate Fantasia on Saturday, Feb. 9. This year's theme is "Along the Milky Way."
Gourmet chocolate tasting is the center of this event and tasting tickets are $20 for 20 individual pieces of chocolate from your choice of 30 "Chocolate Stops" in and around the town's historic district. Downtown merchants and galleries will decorate in keeping with the Milky Way theme, with many free events for the entire family including site-specific events, games, a Cosmic Parade and more. Chocolate Fantasia tickets traditionally sell out, so be sure to purchase yours early.
This year, chocolate events start at 12 p.m. and will last until 4 p.m. Chocolate Stop maps and empty Valentine boxes ($2 each) for collecting your chocolates will be available at Chocolate Fantasia Headquarters at the Silco Theater on Bullard Street.
During the day the chocolates will be sampled and judged in a number of categories, and awards will be given out at the renovated, historic Murray Hotel. All are welcome to attend the awards event. For more information and tickets, contact MRAC at (575) 538-2505, or visit www.mimbresarts.org.
"These are not economy measures," Rob says. "It's all part of our effort to produce good fresh food that is tasty and satisfying and… well, memorable. We buy locally as much as we possibly can. We buy pigs, goats and lambs directly from local 4H kids, and we cut up the whole animal ourselves after it's been slaughtered at a USDA facility in Arizona."
Dinner at the Curious Kumquat also features good fresh food, with ingredients acquired locally wherever possible. But what Rob does with the food served at dinnertime catapults it into a different class of cuisine altogether. Dinner is where Rob pulls out all the stops and sends out five to seven courses of innovative dishes that are little masterpieces of taste and visual artistry. Dinner at the Curious Kumquat is definitely an adventure.
Essentially self-taught in the realm of innovative cuisine, Rob nonetheless knows all the correct terms and techniques for every process he uses, and he knows the formal name for every element he creates and then blends into the finished dish. As a customer, you definitely don't need to know any of those terms or understand any of those processes in order to enjoy the results. But the fact that food enthusiasts who ARE knowledgeable about these things regularly make special trips from as far away as Albuquerque and Phoenix to enjoy Rob's dinner creations does speak well for the degree of expertise he has attained. And those folks are astounded at how low his prices are, at $34 to $38 for a five- to seven-course meal that would qualify as haute cuisine anywhere, despite the casual atmosphere in which it's served.
"I'm not into formality or snobbishness. What I want is to do world-class food that's accessible," Rob says. "Some kid raised this animal, I did some careful preparation, let my imagination go, added some ingredients that might be a little unusual or exotic, and created a dish that is, I hope, appealing in taste and in appearance and does justice to the animal."
For those on a limited budget, the dinner menu offers an "Entrée Only" option. Currently, the meal choices are: 4H Lamb Chops, grilled and served with potato purée over organic greens, $17 entrée only/$38 full course; Catalan Venison Shank, cooked all day in a hearty Spanish Garnacha wine, $15/$38; Thai Duck, slow-cooked and served with Thai red curry over cilantro rice, $15/$38; Tao Bao, steamed Chinese bun with walnut and tangy bean sauce, $10/$34; Pecan Haresh, savory pecan patties served with Moroccan pepper and maple sauce, $12/$34; and "Eat What the Chef Eats" Orange Berry Pork Stew, served over rice, $12/$34.
Though the Curious Kumquat started out as a specialty food shop, it is now devoted almost exclusively to serving meals. "We do occasionally get in special orders — cheeses at the holiday season, Indian ingredients around this time of year, exotic herbs and spices periodically, things like that," Rob says. And, of course, they sell his hand-crafted chocolates.
A final note on chocolate: Rob will be offering one of his amazing "experimental" dinners from 6 to 10 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 16. Being so close to Valentine's Day, the theme of the meal is chocolate — but chocolate as most of us have never known it.
"This will be a 10-course meal, with chocolate an ingredient in each course — but nothing sweet and no molés," Rob explains. "These experimental dinners are where I experiment with brand-new, cutting-edge techniques that I want to try out. My guests are my guinea pigs, so to speak." And they pay $75 for the privilege, with an extra $25 charge if they would like to have paired wines included for each course.
Last year, Rob's Valentine's Day experimental dinner had the same theme, but don't worry — there won't be a thing on the menu this year that appeared on the table last year.
Reservations are required, and are rolling in, so the available seats are going fast. "People are coming in from Albuquerque and Phoenix," Rob reports. "And in the past, a guy came all the way from Chicago to attend one of my experimental dinners."
With Rob and the Curious Kumquat appearing in Saveur magazine's Top 100 list this year, other customers may wind up traveling similar distances to attend the event. Immediately after the article appeared, Rob says, a car full of six "foodies" from Los Angeles showed up for dinner one night to sample his innovative cuisine.
The Curious Kumquat is located at the intersection of Bullard and College Avenue in downtown Silver City, and is open Tuesday through Saturday. Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Dinner service starts at 5:30 p.m., with the last seating at 8:30. The actual closing time is determined each night by the departure of the last customer.
For more information, call the Curious Kumquat at (575) 534-0337.
Send Mimbres freelance writer Peggy Platonos tips for restaurant reviews
at email@example.com or call (575) 536-2997.