By way of a serendipitous chain of events, three veterans of the Santa Fe restaurant scene, Camille Bremer, Dru Ruebush and Quinn Stephenson, have come together to create their own restaurant: Radish & Rye. I meet with them the morning after opening night at their location in Santa Fe, the charming Craftsman bungalow formerly occupied by Ristra, and ask how it went. Camille’s face lights up. “The energy,” she says, “was fantastic.” They had a full house.
In the late 1990s, Quinn, who heads up the beverage program at Radish & Rye, was tending bar at Geronimo and was Camille’s boss. “She made it clear throughout our friendship,” he says, “that she always wanted to own her own restaurant and I always knew she could. A lot of people talk about it, and she started looking for it.” Years later Dru was interviewing with Camille for a job (I presume she hired him), and shortly thereafter they became a couple. “We started talking about having a restaurant … not very long after we got together,” says Dru. His dad had “that entrepreneurial mindset,” and thus Dru grew up with running his own business in mind. “When we saw how much we were giving to other people’s businesses we decided we needed to do this for ourselves. And so when we really made the decision to do that, we approached it in a very methodical way. I started working kitchens and basically said we need to learn every aspect of this business.” Dru, who recently went back to school to get his MBA, handles the business side of things. “So this has really been a five, six year process for us. A lot of thought has gone into it.” Camille is the operating owner. “Day to day, running things, on the floor, I’m here all the time,” she says. “I have a lot of love for this place and I’m happy to be here.”
These restaurateurs believe in their craft, and their enthusiasm is infectious. I ask about the name, at once playful and catchy. Camille looks at Dru, smiles and says, “Dru grew up in southern New Mexico. His grandparents had a farm in Deming, and he always tells the story of when he was a little kid and he would go out with a salt shaker into the radish field and sit and eat radishes.” I can identify with this. Radishes and salt were and still are one of my summertime favorites.
Quinn adds, “That’s an important part of the story overall, growing up on a farm, eating radishes in a radish patch.” There were many long discussions about the place they wanted to create, including the name. Quinn continues with great intensity, “The radish was always in the running, it was going to be radishes and … something!” We all laugh. “But one day it just rolled off the tongue. Radish & Rye.”
I ask what it is that makes their place stand out from the crowd? Dru’s been listening quietly for the past few moments. “I definitely have an answer for that,” he says emphatically. “We’re 2 restaurant people. And we wanted to create a restaurant that we wanted to eat at. Not only service wise but food wise. I wanted to be able to sit down and say, ‘I know what I want to eat.’”
Clearly my question has touched upon what drives these three. Quinn exclaims, “This restaurant is so concept driven, like our focus, it’s so focused! It’s not like, ‘Let’s open a restaurant and serve food and booze.’ We’re really trying to stay true to the mission statement. It’s posted in the kitchen and service station and the office, on our web site. I mean, our mission statement is farm inspired cuisine.” Thank goodness they know when it comes to mission statements, three pages single-spaced doesn’t do it. Simple is good.
“The farm to table concept does have its challenges,” says Dru. “This time of year it’s not that challenging, and it’s going to get even easier as the summer goes. But we have to start thinking now about what we’re going to do in January, February. Chef has already started pickling, started jarring—we’re going to do all that in house. The menu will be dramatically different, you’ll see it in January.” Camille adds, “But that’s the fun of it, and that’s how we shop for home too. ‘What are we having for dinner?’ Well, let’s go see what looks good. You know, and get what’s fresh, what’s in season. And that mirrors our restaurant, which is cool.”
We come around again to the fact this endeavor is the result of years of planning, brain-storming and devotion to an idea. “Everything’s thoughtful, from the glassware to the table tops and the food,” says Dru. Quinn adds, “And we have this young, talented chef [David Gaspar de Alba], which really completed the circle.”
Camille comments on the tone they want. “Casual elegance is something that’s important to us,” she says. “We want to be comfortable but we don’t want to give up that service aspect of the fine dining restaurant. So we want to give service that you’d find in places like Coyote and Geronimo, but in a more laid back atmosphere.”
Quinn adds, “The bourbon program … there’s nowhere else in town you’re going to find over 50 bourbons and knowledgeable staff.” His pride spills over to the food. “Our menu is small plates—there are larger plates as well—and it’s tapas style but it’s not Spanish tapas. It’s Pacific Northwest, it’s California, West Coast. It’s just good clean food.”
Quinn’s passions are as mixologist and Certified Sommelier. Here he’s taken a rather edgy approach in creating a bourbon bar. “I know what’s hot, and bourbon’s hot right now,” he says. “We chose to display this beautiful selection of just bourbons.” He points to behind the bar. Rows of bottles, beautifully arranged and lit—distilled art. “Then we said, ‘Ok, let’s get even more focused’ and I said, ‘I’ve never done it before but I’m going to write a cocktail list with just bourbon cocktails.’” Just bourbon. No gin, no vodka, no tequila. Quinn and Dru get into a side conversation about bourbon being the only true American spirit. Quinn turns to me and makes it clear, “It’s your patriotic duty to drink bourbon!” He continues, “The wine list is something I’ve always wanted to do. I think half bottles are really cool. I said ‘Let’s really go for it and make it 3 part of what we’re known for.’” There are over a hundred half bottles, perfect accompaniments to tapas, on the list.
I’m looking forward to making a reservation and sampling the goods.
It’s a soft summer evening, Radish & Rye has been open all of four nights and I’m delighted to see not a table unoccupied. My sweetheart Karen and I are seated and peruse the menu. Fellow diners are happy, engaged in spirited conversation, while wait staff unobtrusively come and go. Across the room two sunflowers, each in a blown glass bottle, sit on shallow bancos and glow under dimmed gooseneck lamps. I mention to Karen that in my albeit limited experience with fine dining, only once have I been swept off my feet. For a moment I reconsider—maybe it’s happened a couple of times, but then no, really only once.
We decide on sharing small plates. I could wax poetic about them all, but will limit myself to my faves. First, we have the fried green tomato with pimento cheese. Quintessentially Southern, the rich cheese rests on the palate in perfect balance with tart tomato in delicate skins of crispy batter, and the garnish—slices thin as thread of dried red chili—lends hints of earthiness and heat. We’re off to a good start. Since getting a sneak preview of the menu, Karen’s been pining for the steak tartare. It’s minced raw beef with Calabria chili and lime oil, the yolk of a quail egg nested on top, finished with a fine grind of black pepper. I spread the yolk with the tip of my knife, put a dollop on a thin crostini. The balance of flavors, the subtle richness of the yolk and a surprise: an occasional little crunch of minced shallot. Every note is in key, no ingredient shouting for attention. Karen insists I have the last bite. That’s love.
And the roasted beet salad. Oh my. I could live on these ruby red roots. Roasted beets, endive and walnuts in a light balsamic dressing with slices of blue cheese, garnished with lovage. The sweet earth of beet contrasts beautifully with the tang of blue cheese and then the base of walnut. And the lovage. How can a plant do that? One leaf, like celery but sweeter … with the flavor of ten. Remarkable.
We finish with the farm greens. A simple plate, perfectly dressed in sherry vinaigrette with a sharp grind of black pepper and thin sliced, naturally, radish.
Nicole tempts us with dessert. Alas, we are full. On our walk home we recount the experience. Karen notes that when she’s been out for tapas in the past there’s always been a plate she could take or leave. But not here, and I agree. Each was an adventure and delight, a balance of flavors and textures, rich and lean, and lovely presentation; it’s all in the details.
Kudos to Chef David Gaspar de Alba and crew. Well done. As for the matter of being swept off my feet? Now it’s twice.
Story by Gordon Bunker, Photos by Gabriella Marks