There’s a lot to like about the Galisteo Bistro. It shares the charm of storefronts along Galisteo Street between Alameda and Water in downtown Santa Fe. Large, cheery windows bordered in small lights have classic bistro curb appeal. Opening the door into the high-ceilinged room knocks some scents into you––of freshly baked sourdough bread, heady spices, garlic, herbs, butter and roasts. You’ll be welcomed with a smile and thanked for coming. Every table is a “chef’s table” with a view of an immaculate, white-tiled open kitchen, partitioned with brass and glass, running the length of the restaurant. With a separate prep kitchen in back, there’s more room for cooking than for eating, which is a very happy thing for those with reservations or the lucky unexpected guest. Most importantly, and emphatically, original owners Marge and Robert Chickering are back from a hiatus of travel and serious contemplation in New Orleans.
To spell out the life and diverse vocations of Robert Chickering would leave no space for the Galisteo Bistro. Yet, it’s essential to revealing what transpires in their kitchen. As a fillip, we get a look back to Santa Fe’s artistic scene toward the end of the 20th century. Robert, 68, was born in upstate New York’s Mohawk Valley, south of the Adirondacks, raised in an old mill town populated by European immigrants. “It was an extraordinary place to grow up,” Robert says of Little Falls, where his family ran a restaurant. “Each ethnic group had their own taverns, churches, social clubs and language.” He attended Northwestern University to study music––in particular, the double bass. While still a student, he played with the renown Lyric Opera of Chicago. “At the time,” says Robert, whose six-foot frame retains a musician’s posture, “the Lyric was, essentially, an Italian opera company. Opera singers are gregarious sorts, very theatrical, and express themselves through their culture. I learned basic sauces, the flavor profiles of various regions, passing time in their kitchens with wine, opera stories and great camaraderie. And, it was food,” he emphasizes, “not just dining, for entertainment.”
Other positions in symphony orchestras came his way, as well as multiple seasons in the formative years of the Santa Fe Opera. Robert settled here––the first time––taking ownership of Three Cities of Spain, a café in what is now Geronimo. “It was known for its Greenwich Village vibe, with live musical and theater performances,” recalls Robert. “I continued the tradition, adding classical chamber music to the mix and performing myself.” A year later, he accepted a position with the Chicago Symphony. Soon, along with “a desire to live somewhere other than a major city,” Robert had the revelation that he could “walk away contented in my career path.” He returned to Santa Fe (the second time) as proprietor of what was then called, El Gancho Inn, developing it into the El Gancho Tennis Club. “The feature during that period,” says Robert, “was the summer residencies of Maria Benetiz and her world-class flamenco troupe.” In 1980, he left Santa Fe to pursue other business interests, landing in Maine, where he met his wife, Marge.
Long-boned, august yet genuine, Marge’s open, appraising expression makes you feel assured. She, too, had a small-town upbringing, and you hear the down-east Mainer accent when she gets going. She and Robert married in 1994 and followed their gumption into several creative endeavors, purchasing a small-town paper in Colorado, and then returning to Maine to run a historic inn on Deer Isle. “I came home one day,” remembers Marge, “and Robert asked, ‘Want to move to New Mexico?’ He’d accepted a position as executive chef in the Taos Ski Valley. I was hired as assistant general manager and helped in the restaurant.” In 2009, the couple moved to Santa Fe (third time for Robert) to open Galisteo Bistro––the first time. Quietly, they went about growing their business the old-fashioned way, by word of mouth (you won’t find their bistro on Facebook) into a top-rated restaurant.
Every January, the Chickerings would close the restaurant for two weeks, give their staff a paid vacation, and drive to Louisiana, drawn by the jazz, blues and culinary scenes, the character of New Orleans. In 2014, the Chickerings sold Galisteo Bistro, beginning an odyssey of past and future, traveling to Maine before heading south. “The quest,” explains Robert, “was to establish a bistro, a dive bar in NOLA, featuring the very best in jazz, great tapas. A place to be creative. Try as we might, we couldn’t find a location.” During a visit to Santa Fe in the summer of 2015, serendipity knocked. Galisteo Bistro was back on the market and, like blues artist Lead Belly sings about the boll weevil, the Chickerings were looking for a home. Within a few days––for the second time––they owned the place.
Reading through the menu at Galisteo Bistro is like following a bouncing ball over the lyrics of the pair’s lives. And, sure, while theirs is “food, not entertainment,” as Robert says of his salad days, there’s plenty to beguile a diner. From the page-long “Tapas” section, it’s hard to resist sharing the Heritage Cheese Crock Spread, Robert’s homage to the illustrious Win Schuler restaurant in Marshall, Mich., or the artichoke latke with feta, preserved lemon and red pepper aioli. The oyster shooters come raw in a shot glass, suspended in a spicy, sweet, zesty tomato sauce for bottoms-up eating. Tail-on shrimp are fixed in a medley of ways, including NOLA-style “barbeque,” which has nothing to do with a grill or spicy tomato sauce. These are sautéed in butter and zapped with Creole spices, Worcestershire sauce and lemon. There’s a hard-to-resist white remoulade mayonnaise concoction both tangy and sweet, or gambas al ajillo (garlic sauce), a coconut shrimp with a sweet-pepper jelly and chipotle slaw, and, yes, the classic cocktail sauce of tomato and horseradish.
You’ll need to remain strong to get past the tapas page, because of intriguing options like lamb shanks, slow-braised in maple barbeque sauce or pan-roasted chicken breast braciole stuffed with caponata. The Creole Jambalaya with shrimp and Louisiana-sourced crawfish and andouille sausage pairs pretty naturally with the Abita beers from the same locale. “Sparkling wine, like a Prosecco,” says Robert, “is great with Creole, Cajun cuisine.” There’s both sausage and vegetarian versions of Sicilian smacafam, which translates to “beat the hunger,” a hearty dish with mushrooms, marinara and herbs, spooned over oven-roasted polenta. Six variations on a theme are proffered with local, juicy hanger steak: simply seared, or dressed with Peruvian green-chile sauce, traditional scampi––a version rubbed with espresso and herbs, an Argentine chimichurri (can you say Malbec?), and a blue cheese with shallots.
The wine list, chosen from among well-regarded producers in any given region, mirrors the breadth of the menu. When was the last time you paired your smacafam with a Teroldego from Trentino, Italy (an indigenous grape that makes a rich, soft red wine), or a Slovakian Riesling by the glass to wash down crispy eggplant with Spanish tomato jam? “I love the idea that one may be drinking the product of someone no longer with us, walking the vineyard, thinking about the grapes, yet touching lives in unknown ways,” Robert says. One winemaker that’s still very much with us, walking his vineyards, is Richard Longoria of Santa Barbara County, where he’s made small-batch artisanal wines since 1982. Richard and Robert met at a tasting last year and immediately connected on several levels. “Authenticity and philosophy,” explains Robert, “in presenting the alternative in an age of instant gratification, takes a great deal of optimism, as does planting asparagus, fruit trees, a vineyard, or to cook with roux and old-world techniques. Longoria hasn’t compromised.” Jazz and blues made for further simpatico. Robert lists Longoria’s “Lovely Rita” Pinot Noir, for the Beatles song, and a red blend with bass notes of Cabernet Franc, aptly named Cuvée Blues. Richard chooses artists to do labels honoring different musicians. One of the first things you’ll see entering Galisteo Bistro is a poster-size label of John Coltrane. The bond will be given expression on Sunday, April, 17, when Richard is in Santa Fe to host a five-course wine dinner at the restaurant, themed “Old World Informs New California,” a reference to Longoria being featured in a new book by Jon Bonné entitled The New California Wine: A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste.
As a coda to any meal at the Bistro, let it be known, Marge Chickering is among the best pastry chefs. Country rearing informs her perfect pie crusts, cakes and ice creams, like Marge’s Maine Farm Fresh Apple and New Orleans Pecan pies, or Pear and Amaretto Cream Tart. Her selections appear in repertory because many regulars have particular favorites, but, mercifully, Decadence, the flourless bittersweet chocolate-almond-crusted cake, and The Mud Puddle, a recipe coaxed from a lady down the road in Maine (a semi-sweet chocolate confection layered with coffee ice cream, chocolate crumbs and mocha mousse), are always available and ridiculously addictive.
There is serious work happening at Galisteo Bistro in the care and details of preparation, sourcing, selections, old-fashioned hard work and imagination that don’t require tweezers, foams or spherification kits. “We’re chroniclers of ethnic recipes,” says Robert. “For us, the idea of New Orleans is much better than the reality. Our creative heart is still there, but it’s deeply fulfilling to be back together again with the Santa Fe clientele.”
Galisteo Bistro is located at 227 Galisteo Street in Santa Fe. 505.982.3700. galisteobistro.com.
Story by James Selby