Dining out, I feel, is an act of compulsion. Some thought, memory or taste recollection interrupts our day, lodges itself in our little brain forcing our body to respond by heading off to a restaurant to re-live that lovely, edible reminiscence. If we haven’t visited the establishment before, perhaps a friend raved about the food there, or we saw an ad that featured a gorgeous food shot, or we read about it here in Local Flavor and thought, “Gee that sounds interesting and yummy.” Off we go to check out the menu. And it all starts with a thought.
Often when I am writing, as I reflect on a dish, I suddenly realize my mouth is watering. Literally, my taste buds kick into action as that delicious dish scampers across my mind. (Talk about Pavlov’s theory….) As the year draws to a close, I thought I would call on those scrumptious reveries and share them with you. Here are my top ten favorite dishes of 2010. They are by no means in order of importance or preference. The list could have been a thousand strong, because I am sure you all agree–we truly live in the City Deliciously Different.
I firmly believe that the true test of a great chef is in his potato dishes and his chicken. In the lovely Terra Restaurant at the luxurious Encantado Resort, I just can’t get past ordering these two fabulous sides, sometimes even as an appetizer. I have made my love of them so vocal that now the staff brings them out as soon as I am seated–a clever carb twist on the bartender having your favorite cocktail immediately poured upon bellying up to the bar. I am a big fan of Chef Charles Dale’s contemporary creative cooking, and these tasty tubers are no exception. Dale confesses that he uses “extremely expensive black truffle oil” on the pommes frites to drizzle over the thin-cut fries and adds a dash of chopped parsley and “lots of salt,” clearly a wining combination. The inspiration for the Cheese Tots comes from Dale’s kids Lili and Lucien. “A few years ago my kids started pulling the cheese out of their grilled cheese sandwiches and stuffing it into their tater tots; they were always trying to get me to try it. I promised them that the next time I had a restaurant I would create a version and serve it. When we opened Terra, they both reminded me of my promise. I start with a gnocchi base, stuff it with Cheddar and then Panko breadcrumb the tots.” It must be the kid in me that loves them, while the gourmand in me craves the truffle oil on the frites. 198 State Road 592. 505.946.5700. www.encantadoresort.com.
One of my favorite new restaurants this year has been Koi. Already a fan of Chef Joel Coleman’s from his Mauka days, I like the casual approach to the small plates menu at his new venture; it encourages sharing and sampling of the entire clever menu. The pork spring rolls boast the moistest shredded pulled pork this side of Kentucky. Coleman’s secret? “Salting the pork butt, rubbing it with a natural liquid smoke, wrapping it in banana leaves and slow roasting it until it is falling apart. We then shred the meat and steep it in the juices left in the bottom of the pan.” Enrobed in a spring roll wrapper and then crisp-fried, this tasty treat is accompanied by a swirl of smooth and zippy curry sauce that includes bananas–perfect for dipping. 135 West Palace Avenue. 505.955.0400. www.koisantafe.com.
If you think the Santa Fe restaurant scene is slowing down, head over to La Boca on any night, and it’s likely the joint will be jumping. Chef/Owner James Campbell Caruso deserves all his success. His ever-changing and ever-delicious tapas menu always has me intrigued, and this tasty twist on eggs on toast is my favorite. Caruso starts with crimini mushrooms that are sautéed with garlic and sage, and then a crouton is added to the pan and coated in the flavorful juices. The dish is enriched with a dash of cream and a sprinkle of an Argentinean Parmesan called Reggianito. The sauce is poured over the bread, topped with a runny-yolk sunny-side-up egg and a drizzle of Spanish truffle oil. Is your mouth watering yet? Mine is! 72 West Marcy Street. 505.982.3433. www.labocasf.com.
Although I love lunch and dinner at this famous Santa Fe institution, if I only had one meal to enjoy there it would be breakfast. Café Pasqual’s ingredients are 99% organic, and the pedigree really shows in this ever-so-lean brisket that is hand-cut, tossed with potatoes and sautéed until the meat is crunchy and slightly charred, the potatoes appropriately crispy. A scatter of scallions finishes the hash and leaves the fabulous flavor of the brisket to shine through. Runny poached eggs lend their yolk to the mix and create the only sauce you need. What a great way to start the day. 121 Don Gaspar Avenue. 505.983.9340. www.pasquals.com.
Where do you send your out-of-town guests to sample the best of Santa Fe? The Eric Distefano-revived Coyote Café is always at the top of my list. Somehow this 20+ year old restaurant manages to be au courant and contemporary while still tipping its considerable culinary hat to the ingredients of the Southwest. I love it here because I always learn something new about cooking and food when I leave my palate in the brilliant palm of Chef Distefano. His Sloooow Braised Short Ribs are absolutely fork tender thanks to a 24-hour braising, and the accompanying creamy red pepper risotto a perfect foil for sopping up the luscious gravy these babies give up in the pot. The brandy- shallot sauce is almost a lily gilding, but yes, yes give me more. The service and the décor are theatrical and exciting, as Santa Fe’s top restaurant should be. 132 West Water Street. 505.983.1615. www.coyotecafe.com.
Sometimes you just gotta have a great steak. I think of 315 as my local commissary. Steps away from my house, it has a staff so friendly and accommodating that they feel like family and a menu that easily allows for a quick bite at the bar, a romantic dinner in the cozy dining rooms, or a gourmet meal celebrating the latest food trend or classic dish as explored by executive chef Ryan Mann. When a restaurant fills so many niches so completely–voila!–the quintessential bistro. As a food writer and reviewer, some nights I just want a yummy meal that I know is gonna satisfy me and that I won’t have to think too much about. The Steak Frites always does the trick. Impossibly crunchy shoestring potatoes, a tender and marbled steak (I get it sauced “Au Poivre”) and the decadence of a side of sauce Béarnaise. Mann’s team always grills it perfectly rare, and the wait staff always recommends a superb red wine to accompany it. This is what makes 315 a truly great restaurant.
315 Old Santa Fe Trail. 505.986.9190. www.315santafe.com.
Though the dining room is small in size, the menu is mighty in taste and talent, all due to Mark Connell, the new chef and co-owner at Max’s who is shaking up Santa Fe’s food scene. Last year I proclaimed it the year of the pig, but the foodie love affair with all things porcine continues. Connell is casting pearls with his swine on the Suckling Pig Roast that features a three-part study of the tasty other-white-meat. He confits the first part like it was a duck leg, sous vides the second and then presses it as if it were pork rillettes. The third part, the loin, he simply sears, then sauces the plate with a white wine whole-grain mustard reduction. Connell jokes, “It’s like a pork candy bar.” This young chef is clearly inspired by his mentor, Thomas Keller, but is putting his own stamp on Santa Fe’s most exciting new restaurant. 403 South Guadalupe Street. 505.984.9104. www.maxssantafe.com.
As New Mexicans, we eat an awful lot of enchiladas in a year, so when one jumps up and bites me in the palate with its uniquenes–it gets me a-craving. The duck enchilada mole at the Anasazi Restaurant, situated in the swanky downtown hotel stands apart from the more commonplace versions by virtue of its perfectly balanced seasoning and complete lack of greasiness, as some of the other versions in town sometime tend to be. Brit chef Oliver Ridgeway has certainly embraced the flavors and ingredients of the Southwest and adds touches to his menu here and there that show off his love of what used to be called Santa Fe Cuisine. Ridgeway’s mole boasts 30 ingredients and the pairing of confit of duck with the rich sauce, green chile and Asadero cheese had me licking the plate. This ain’t your Mama’s enchiladas. 113 Washington Avenue. 505.988.3030. www.innoftheanasazi.com.
These plump little mounds of stuffed masa are reminiscent of the gorditas found in Mexican cooking. Both versions on the fabulous Tune-Up menu are held together with soft and gooey queso fresco; the veggie version adds refried beans and strips of zucchini, while my favorite boasts tender flank steak and fiery chile pasado. The accompanying roasted tomato salsa is paired with a Salvadoran pickled relish called curtido. Each is perfect for dipping and spreading on the corny cakes and a tasty testimony to Chef Jesus Rivera’s heritage. Save room for wife Charlotte’s peanut butter cookie sandwich stuck together with Nutella. I love this little gem of a place! 1115 Hickox Street. 505.983.7060. www.tuneupcafe.com.
Jambo Café has been on everybody’s tongue this year and with good reason–the spices that Chef/Owner Ahmed Obo uses linger there too! The best of the Caribbean themed menu is captured in the hot and zippy Jamaican spiced chicken wings that are tender enough to promote some serious bone-sucking and finger-licking–two important traits for successful wing enjoyment. Obo dry-rubs the wings with a spice mix made of a multitude of seasonings. The sticky and spicy dipping sauce takes the flavors over the top. I think Chef Obo’s mischievous and generous smile comes from his knowing his food is some of the most intriguing and scrumptious in town. 2010 Cerrillos Road. 505.473.1269. www.jambocafe.net.
Written by Johnny V
Photographs by Gabriella Marks