Cherished Moments at the Table – A Look Back at 2016


dreamstime_l_10866520As the year draws to a close, we reflect back on it and hopefully remember some of the wonderful moments that helped us weather crazy 2016. For foodies, powerful memories often include a fantastic meal, a discovered culinary talent or exotic ingredient, or maybe just a perfect roast chicken served to you by a loved one. I usually write a roundup of some of my favorite meals at this time of year, but my editor was looking for a change, and asked me to reach out to some of my gastronomic contemporaries instead for their thoughts and delicious reminiscences.

I queried a variety of folks who work and travel in the food world—chefs, photographers, writers and restaurateurs—and I was thrilled that many took time out of their busy schedules to share a few words about their yummy year. In the spirit of the song “Auld Lang Syne,” this holiday season, let’s take a cup of kindness yet and not forget our old and delicious acquaintances. Cheers!

The tasty tales came from a wide diversity of locations, some as close as the restaurant around the corner and some as far away as the Emerald Isle. Writer and cookbook author Deborah Madison had just returned from there and offered this: “I just got back last week from another visit to Ireland—this time in the Southeast part of the country—and again ate very well. The best, most memorable meal, however, was at a famous vegetarian restaurant called Café Paradiso in Cork. 

“It’s not that I was looking for vegetarian food, but this restaurant clearly had the highest marks of any in the city. We started with a cocktail of quince and sloe gin, which was soft, pink and very drinkable, then went on to an Italian red. The menu was a bit old school––Irish dairy was in evidence and dishes were such that the eye had something good and beautiful to fall on. It was classy, expensive and above all, delicious.

“Café Paradiso makes no claims for being all-Irish: couscous, pomegranate molasses, truffle, ginger, haloumi, pistachios and other such familiar foods were on the plates, but in an entirely fresh way: no clichés, no tricks, no silliness, just really good, imaginative food that happened to be just right for a cold, rainy night. I actually bought one of Denis Cotter’s, the chef’s, books––which should say a lot when you just have a carry-on. He forages for samphire, mushrooms, berries and greens of all kinds, and has been doing that long before it was a cheffy thing to do. Although he is passionate on the subject, foraged foods were not much in evidence that night… I’m wondering about returning in the spring.” (In my return email, I offered to accompany her!)

New-to-town Chef Jon Helquist, who hails from California and spent seven years at the stoves of Alice Waters’ famous Chez Panisse restaurant, shared a feast he enjoyed shortly after he arrived in town to help kick-off Café Sonder. Jon recently joined the kitchen team at Radish & Rye under direction from Chef/Owner Dru Ruebush. “As a new resident of Santa Fe, I’ve been impressed by many things; the striking beauty of the countryside, the kindness of the locals and the vast array of dining choices. One of my most memorable meals so far has been one of the simplest. At an unassuming place that really lets locally sourced ingredients shine: Dr. Field Goods Kitchen. I grabbed a seat at the bar for dinner and was warmly greeted; they make you feel at home! Killer beer selection with many local craft selections available, the bartender was quite adept at pairing the draft selections with the food. I almost always order too much, yet had no trouble polishing off this farm-fresh meal.

“To start, a Mexican-style street corn on the cob. Well-charred late-season sweet corn dressed with a squeeze of lime, queso fresco, chiles and fresh herbs. Next, a pile of onion rings with a batter that is as light as air. I followed that with a simple salad of local greens and vegetables with vinaigrette with just the right amount of vinegar (harder to achieve than it sounds!) I finished with a pizza Margherita from the wood-burning oven—perfect crust, light on the toppings, delicious. My new ‘go-to’ place on my day off!”

My buddy, fellow writer and wine guy James Selby toasted a server in a local eatery. “This year, after being together 20-something years, Leslie and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary. (I think she finally accepted my sense of humor.)  When I mentioned this turn of events to Rich Freedman, who owns The Teahouse on Santa Fe’s Canyon Road, he spontaneously invited us to have dinner as his guests at his restaurant. It houses a lot of teas, but you can’t judge a menu by its cover. Rich has spent time in Italy studying food, and that translates beautifully onto plates.

“On a cold and quiet winter’s eve, we were shown a table in one of the cozy inner rooms of the old adobe building. Our server was Jennifer Wowak. Tall and comely, Jen has a style that mixes downtown and vintage in a fresh, unaffected way. Her manner has the same mix, added with the kind of confident intelligence that tell you she’d be a physician or jazz singer had she been so inclined. Our food and wine ordered, the evening progressed deliciously and convivially as if we were being hosted at Jen’s home.  

“She listened to our story, shared some of her own, yet honored our privacy. In a world of increasing weariness, preoccupation and the occasional cold shoulder, her service was a genuine and gracious exchange.”

Renowned author and restaurant critic Anne Hillerman offered an intriguing memory certain to encourage all of us to head to Sazón and try the dish. “The menu at Sazón describes the Dulce Sinfonia dessert as ‘a masterpiece of flavors and textures.’ When asked for specifics, the server politely explained that this was Chef Fernando Olea’s mystery specialty. Try it, she urged, and see if I could figure out the ingredients. True to its name, the dessert was a delicious, colorful symphony of unlikely players brought together by a master conductor. In keeping with the playful spirit of its creation, I won’t say more; except that some of the ingredients are things I never considered eating for dessert. My palate did a happy dance!”

Chris Milligan, blogger and mixologist extraordinaire from Secreto Lounge in the St. Francis Hotel, promises to share his favorite fond memories of luscious libations with his fans here. “This past summer, I took my first trip to New Orleans as an adult (yeah I know…a bartender that has never been to NOLA). I was there with three other cocktail/bar pros for the world’s largest cocktail festival called Tales of the Cocktail. The entire experience over four days was one of the most memorable times of my life. We sat in famous old bars drinking signature cocktails that those bars had created up to 150 years ago: Vieux Carres, French 75’s, Frozen Irish Coffees (had to do that one everyday), and one of my all-time favorites, the Ramos Gin Fizz. We were immersed and surrounded by thousands of bartenders from around the world in a town with an amazing cocktail and drinking culture. The hospitality was incredible, and on the plane ride back (nursing a mass hangover), all I could think is: ‘How do I bring that experience back to Santa Fe and create that for each guest that comes to Secreto?’”

My old (as in longtime) pal Andy Lynch weighed in from Taos. Lynch, who recently opened Common Fire, the very-well-received new restaurant on the road to Taos Ski Valley, waxed lyrical about a local ingredient he loves to serve. “Robert Kyzer raises heritage pigs in the South Valley of Albuquerque and sells the pork to area shops and restaurants, including ours. Not only does he preserve agriculture in the midst of a flourishing city, he produces one helluva pork chop. My happy-food memory for 2016 is the great frequency and regularity with which our guests declaim some version of, ‘That was the best f***ing pork I’ve ever had,’ every time they have a Robert Kyzer chop!” I can’t wait to visit Andy this winter and check it out.

The Santa Fe Reporter’s Gwyneth Doland, who among many other things writes The Fork column and is a self-described passionate journalist, teacher, bacon lover and bon vivant, had happy pig memories, too! “I have spent thousands of other people’s dollars eating out this year, but one of the most surprising and delightful things I ate was a hot dog. It cost $7 and I thought that was kind of expensive…until I ate it. Hot dogs aren’t on the wallboard menu hanging from the white wood-clad trailer called Taqueria La Hacienda, over on Airport Road. But it was scrawled on a piece of paper taped to the inside of the window and when I saw a guy walk away with one, I knew it would be special.

“I gushed this year about the presentation at Arroyo Vino, where individual petals of edible flowers garnished the plates. But dude, a foot-long hot dog becomes a work of art when the plain, pale canvas of dog and bun are covered with an impasto smear of pale green avocado sauce, stippled with beans and then graffiti-tagged with yellow mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise. Did I mention the dog was wrapped in bacon? GAH! It could have been in a museum. But I ate the whole thing.”

Photographer Gabriella Marks, whose gorgeous photographs—much of which is food—regularly grace the pages of Local Flavor, sent along an almost hallucinogenic photo of her favorite edible moment with her reminiscence. A picture is worth 1,000 words! “My most memorable dining moment from the year was without question at a Dig & Serve dinner––eating sashimi in the aquarium at Meow Wolf––it was one of the most immersive eating experiences I’ve ever had. We were seated at a table that ran in an arc the length of the space, and the ambiance and ultraviolet lighting gave the dish of beautifully presented sashimi an otherworldly feel, while tasting delicate and delicious.”

Cookbook author, writer and radio personality Cheryl Alters Jamison sent me the most intimate and heartfelt memory that truly expresses the magic and transformational power of food and cooking. “It’s a surprising moment in my own kitchen…maybe a touch different from what you were thinking. One of the cruel surprises following the death of my husband, co-author, and business partner, Bill, was the lack of joy that cooking brought me. Long before he and I were together, I had loved the process of making food, of sharing it, and that feeling was utterly gone. In July, I was asked to host a brunch for a group of young Cuban entrepreneurs and a few local friends. I agreed, but what had once come naturally was nerve-racking. I made a couple of stratas (breakfast casseroles) using my chickens’ eggs, had platters of bacon, sausage, melon and prosciutto, other fruits, breads, juices. Nothing was truly unusual. It wasn’t even my most skilled execution of these basics. When the group came though, I saw IT, that look in people’s eyes when you cook for them. That was what I couldn’t see in myself, for myself. From that morning, forward, I was able to work my way back. What a gift.”

And finally The Compound and Zacatecas’ Chef Mark Kiffin offered a simple and lovely memory that is a perfect holiday blessing for us all. “With my new daughter London James arriving (now one year ago) I have spent less time out and abroad, but this summer we went down to Baja Mexico for a little sun and R&R. After days, the staff all knew they had a chef on their hands who loves Mexican food. So every day they would provide a little extra ‘treat’ for us knowing how much we appreciated it. So on the usual hot afternoon, they came out with the simplest one of all, a Popsicle for London. OMG, a guava popsicle for my angel, who had never had anything like it. The look on her face I will never forget: sheer joy, sheer amazement, just melting down her little hand; and dad just laughed and laughed as she devoured it. Happy holidays everyone, and don’t forget to see the world through a child’s eyes, it makes us all better people.” I heartily agree.

 Story by John Vollertsen

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