Monsoon season has a way of keeping you on your toes––especially when it comes to outdoor events like the longstanding Music on the Patio series at Prairie Star Restaurant & Wine Bar in Santa Ana Pueblo, now in its seventh year.
Every Friday evening from late April to mid-October, some of New Mexico’s biggest name musicians, from Hillary Smith to Cathryn McGill to The Real Matt Jones, perform on the wine bar’s scenic patio, which looks out past the manicured greenery of the Santa Ana Golf Club’s 27 holes to the looming Sandias, somehow even more monumental from this vantage point.
“The views that we have are probably the best in the state,” says Executive Chef Chris Olsen, who took the helm at Prairie Star five years ago after stints at Standard Diner, Seasons Rotisserie & Grill, Marcello’s Chophouse and other area restaurants. “You tie in good food, good wine and good music, and the overall experience is amazing. That’s why our patio is normally packed, and Fridays are crazy busy.”
On a recent Friday in August, however, an apocalyptic storm is serving up flash floods to the south, and the Albuquerque band Entourage Jazz is debating whether to set up indoors. The patio is still wet from an earlier downpour, and the Sandias are enveloped in dark clouds. Yet the band’s plucky leader, Emerson Susan Corley, and Prairie Star’s event coordinator Rebecca Chaney, who books the music, are holding out hope.
And what do you know––moments later, the clouds begin lifting, the resident hummingbirds return to the feeders that dot the patio, and Emerson, guitarist Dimi DiSanti and bassist Maren Hatch start moving their equipment outside, where servers are drying off tables. In other venues, Entourage can swell to a 12-piece big band, but tonight, they’re stripped down to a trio so as not to overwhelm the audience.
“Prairie Star is a very romantic spot––a place to talk and relax,” says Emerson, who has guided the band’s 10-year evolution into a jazz act with its own take on The Great American Songbook. “I see our role as enhancing what the restaurant is already doing. We gently add to that.”
Six instruments is typically the max for Prairie Star’s patio ambiance. “We want people to come out and enjoy some music, but not feel like you’re at a concert,” Rebecca says. “It’s elegant casual dining.” That distinction is one reason Rebecca’s inbox is overflowing. “I get 10 hits a day from people begging to play here,” she says. “Because our clientele is higher end, their tip percentage is much higher. And we only go till 8:30 p.m.” The lucky winners in her selection process are generally bands with the largest followings.
“This a very choice gig,” Emerson says, putting it on par with Entourage’s two other prized engagements at St. Clair Winery & Bistro and Hotel Andaluz. She estimates that Entourage shows at Prairie Star, where they will perform a total of three times this season, are made up of 60 percent diehard Entourage fans and 40 percent new faces.
On this stormy and unusually cool Friday, the hardest of the diehards are trickling in as Entourage launches into standards such as “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Get Your Kicks on Route 66.” The weather is flirting with turning back to gray, but Emerson, dressed in a blue suit, dark-framed glasses and skinny red tie, maintains her aplomb as the wind picks up. She tells the story of a gig where “wine bottles took flight” due to gusty conditions. “This is nothing,” she says with a laugh. Over on a nearby cottonwood-shaded putting green, roughly 50 male golfers in an array of solid-color polos are also undeterred as they continue a members-only putting tournament.
Similarly optimistic, patio patrons begin ordering from the wine-bar menu, which features eight heartier appetizers plus the signature Prairie Star Wagyu Burger. “Our biggest item that hasn’t changed in five years is our Seafood Relleno,” Chef Chris says. An enormous comfort food dish, it’s stuffed with lobster, shrimp and Tucumcari white cheddar, and deep fried to golden perfection. You can wash it down with red or white sangria made in-house every Friday.
A close second in popularity is another pescatarian item––the Blue Crab Stuffed Calamari. “You can’t go anywhere else in town and find it,” Chef Chris says. “It’s my take on putting a crab cake inside of a calamari tube.” On the full dining menu, Chef Chris cites the show-stopping Pan Seared Bison Tenderloin as a unique bestseller. Thick as a dictionary and expertly seared, the tenderloin is a dish “worth coming out here for,” he says.
Clearly, Chef and his team are aware that the restaurant’s Bernalillo-area location––roughly 45 minutes south of Santa Fe, and 20-30 minutes north of Albuquerque––requires it to deliver the total package. “We’re that hidden gem,” Chris says. “Out here, they seek us. They drive out of their way for the whole experience.” Fortunately, Prairie Star is blessed with the historic charm of its century-old adobe mansion, complete with 18-inch walls, kiva fireplaces, viga-and-latilla ceilings and a tranquil courtyard. Plus, the restaurant has another ace up its sleeve: its custom-built Cruvinet wine-dispensing system, the largest in the state.
With a 32-bottle capacity, the massive Cruvinet allows Prairie Star to offer an astonishing variety of wines by the glass. On the Friday in question, one could try a glass or half glass of 36 different reds, whites, rosés and sparkling wines. “As opposed to having a bottle for five to six days before it starts to turn, I can actually keep it for six weeks,” says Sommelier Lance Calabaza, who spent 16 years at Santa Fe’s Eldorado Hotel & Spa learning the food and beverage trade. Plus, there’s Prairie Star’s extensive wine cellar. “You can buy a $20 bottle, or you can spend a grand,” Chris says. “We have it all. The wine bar is the heart and soul of the place.”
This enviable situation allows Prairie Star to expose diners to wines they might not have seen before. “What I really like about doing this job is that––in the same sense of the Native tradition, where everything has a story––every winery, label or name of a wine has a story, too,” Lance, whose northern Pueblo heritage is “half San Juan, half Santa Domingo,” says. In late fall, he plans to introduce wine flights as another way of getting people to try new wines. If they fall for one, they can grab a bottle in the small retail wine shop to take home. Lance also applies storytelling to the cocktails he designs, such as the vodka-based Black Mesa, a nod to the place where Santa Ana Pueblo’s villagers took refuge during the Pueblo Revolt. Like the wines-by-the-glass list, he changes the cocktail menu seasonally. On top of that, he rotates the New Mexico beers on tap––soon he’ll be adding a draft beer from Albuquerque’s Native-owned Bow & Arrow Brewing Co.
“We really have to keep things as fresh as possible,” Lance says. One reason is the number of regulars not just on Fridays, but also for the year-round Wednesday Wine and Dine, where $60 gets you a three-course meal and bottle of wine for two people. “In our system, it will tell you if it’s a first-time diner,” Chef Chris says. “And we probably have a 95-percent comeback rate.”
Speaking of comebacks, rain is suddenly dousing the patio again. Emerson gives the “wrap it up” gesture, and fans jump in to help move equipment inside. After decompressing from the abrupt transition, the band gamely sets up again in the cozy brick-floor wine bar, with its handful of tables, cushioned banco and six bar stools. “It’s so intimate with the rain…and the sprinklers,” Emerson jokes, before ironically singing the Cole Porter tune “Too Darn Hot.” The persevering audience is loose and giddy now. Emerson recruits a fan to play cowbell on the song “Sway,” and everyone cheers him on.
Even on this soggy night, it’s clear that Prairie Star––which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2016––is doing something right with Music on the Patio. “It’s grown more and more every year,” Chris says. “This season was the first where I saw people bringing blankets and sitting in the grass, where we’ve had to pull tables from the restaurant next door, and where we’ve actually had a stage for the bands. It keeps getting bigger, and in the future, we plan on expanding the patio as a result of that.”
Music on the Patio takes place Friday evenings from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., with the last show of the season scheduled for Oct. 13. You can catch Entourage Jazz when they play on the patio again Sept. 22.
Prairie Star Restaurant & Wine Bar, 228 Prairie Star Road, Santa Ana Pueblo, mynewmexicogolf.com.
Story by Amy Morton