Everything feels familiar in the dark, rich textures of the newly reopened Cellar Bar in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill neighborhood. Just to the right and down the stairs from the entrance to Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro, the Cellar Bar has returned upgraded, after a COVID-prompted shutdown that lasted far longer than expected. The reopening of this fixture restores a bit of familiarity to the Nob Hill neighborhood that has seen changes brought on not just by COVID but by the ART bus project and the closure of corporate stores like Staples, Urban Outfitters, and Starbucks. Those who have been around long enough to have found themselves in the Cellar Bar when it opened back in 2003 will find the place substantively similar but with welcome additions. Those who have been around even longer and may have found themselves in the space when it was the basement of Fred’s Bread & Bagel should find themselves a seat at the bar and consider how different Nob Hill is today.
“I wanted it to feel entirely different, yet the same,” says Keith Roessler, who created the Cellar Bar with his twin brother, Kevin, two decades ago. Changes were made both to the environment itself and to the food and beverage programs. All of which is to say that COVID-related downtime was put to good use in the Cellar Bar. The result is a cozy but elegant enough environment where high heels would not be out of place—just watch it on those stairs.
To start, the acoustics and the lighting are different. The upstairs dining room, when humming, was a lot to drown out, but the conspicuous acoustic tiles that previously hung over the bar are now gone in favor of less obtrusive measures. Still looking up, the ceiling has gone black and the walls have turned a royal blue in places, cork and large-scale flower wallpaper in others. Dimmable table lights add pools of warmth to the room. The lighting is not brighter, but simply more refined and useful for reading a menu while keeping the overall dark ambience.
The food program at the Cellar Bar, which continues to be distinct from Zinc’s, has also seen a sizable upgrade. Roessler says that after a downstairs kitchen expansion, they settled on adding twenty-one new food items to the menu. There are new favorites to be sure, but the Crispy Duck Confit Eggrolls and other staples remain. “You can’t take away what people loved and craved,” Roessler says.
New to the menu is a standout and rare option for bar chow: salads. “My wife, Lynn, she’s the one that drove most of the salads,” Roessler explains. Adding a selection of salads will likely draw patrons on the fence about dining in a barroom setting. It takes a bit more thought to pull off fresh salads in such an environment, but the Cellar’s kitchen expansion seems to have done the trick.
One highlight is the Thai Bowl. A vegan salad, the dish offers plenty of veggies and only a smattering of coconut rice, making it a lower-carb option for those who care about such things. There is restraint in the mango, which could have easily overpowered the dish, and the edamame is a nice touch. All the salads can be topped with portobello mushrooms, chicken, tuna, or steak, but the Thai Bowl, at least from my keto-leaning perspective, seems primed for fish. The seared tuna currently on the menu is a natural choice, but the flavors could pair well with several other fish if given the option.
Roessler gave bar manager Michael Gallegos wide latitude to put together the new cocktail program with a similarly sophisticated sensibility in mind. Fresh juices. House-made syrups. More complex flavors. It is an approach not unknown in Albuquerque but still rare in what remains largely a Tecate and tequila town.
For those who still want to consider the Cellar a wine bar, fear not. All changes are positive on this front. The wine list is intact and a new Cruvinet system adds to the options.
That said, cocktails are the focus. The drink names come from songs, except Kickin’ It in Cusco, a reference to Gallegos’s time in Peru. Kickin’ It in Cusco is a bright cocktail with honeydew cucumber puree, pisco, and a touch of absinthe. Of note is the restrained use of undyed absinthe. Absinthe drinks can become obnoxious quickly when playing into the Green Fairy mythology. Here, thoughts are more Andean than demonic. All told, a cocktail as balanced and refreshing as it is uncommon.
Another cocktail, the Return of the “G,” is not as sweet as it might look, a testament to Gallegos’s craftsmanship. It could have easily tipped over into a syrupy mess, but instead it blends gin and mezcal with cinnamon and pineapple to create a tropical cocktail that doesn’t rely on sugar for its appeal. It retains the look of a pretty tropical drink you might expect with a pineapple garnish and plenty of ice, but a sophisticated complexity is found at the bottom of the straw.
Still trying to remember who did “Return of the ‘G’”? Consider The Coolest. This cocktail is made so in part by the big ice cube I’m told is not a permanent fixture of the drink; regular rocks will suffice. Bitters, rum, and mezcal blend with the lime and clove notes of their house-made Falernum-style syrup to render a smooth cocktail with a bit of a smoky, warm feel that comes as a counterpoint to the name.
What’s next for the Cellar Bar is likely more in line with consistency than change. From my conversations with Roessler and Gallegos, I expect this round of retooling to be it for a while, and they will now continue to deliver the kind of reliable, quality experience that sustained them pre-pandemic. With the upgrade complete, the Cellar Bar resumes its role as a below-grade place of stylish drinks in Albuquerque’s ever-evolving Nob Hill.
Clarke Condé is a veteran food photographer and writer based in Roswell with a strong preference for red chile, keto-friendly beverages, and natural lighting. Find him on Instagram @clarkehere.