A review I read recently in the New Yorker about a new Slavic restaurant in Brooklyn ended with a simple statement: “wear sweatpants.” It made me chuckle as I had to admit to myself that the phrase was an apt metaphor for my writing in Local Flavor this year on the Santa Fe food scene. With so many fantastic restaurants and so much culinary talent to cover, no wonder I found myself loosening my belt a notch or two.
Santa Fe is truly a foodie town; it comes as no surprise that we’re rated in the top ten of Conde Nast’s Reader’s Choice Award for 2014. I think anyone would agree that all of our dedicated chefs and hospitality professionals deserve the praise.
But I was asked to choose my ten favorite dishes. So, what makes a Top Ten dish in my mind? Certainly flavor, first and foremost, with creativity and dish execution also being important factors. The atmosphere of the restaurant and the caliber of the servers bear merit as well, although I believe gobbling up a messy burger on a picnic table by the roadside with sauce running down your chin can win just as much kudos as a fine dining experiencethe likes of Geronimo or Georgia—well, almost.
From pickles to poutine, it was a delicious year. I remember last year, after my Top Ten List of 2013 came out, a few readers told me that they were going to try each of my celebrated dishes to see if they agreed with my votes. With the New Year upon us, I think that’s a great idea…just don’t forget the sweatpants!
Anyone (like me) who was worried that the Santa Fe scene had become a big yawn for the young and trendy need only pop over to Chef Joel Coleman’s Fire & Hops to see that the millennials have really embraced the gastropub concept. I was impressed to see hipsters of all ages—21 to 81—noshing on the shareable small and medium plates of eclectic dishes, including the yummy Green Chile Poutine, which I now realize I’ve ordered every time I’ve visited the restaurant—over a halfdozen times. It is originally a French Canadian bar snack, and what could be more delicious (and more perfect for beer and wine) than fries tossed with cheese curd, bacon bits and fiery green chile gravy? You’ll be surprised how nicely the gooey curd pairs with the crunch of the salty bacon! Like Fire & Hops, it’s got it all going on.
I had a big crush on Chef Joseph Wrede’s Crispy Duck Salt Cured Confit Style entrée, a meal I also ordered multiple times this past summer. In the 11th hour, just prior to me writing this piece, Joe called to say he was changing the dish out for a new incarnation that, this time, would be an appetizer. He invited me in to see if it too was a winner and, oh yeah, The Little Duck Dinner scores. In this version, the delicious confit is pulled off the bone and pressed into a slab that is cubed into a duck “pop,” glazed and sauced with sweet corn and saffron puree and then scattered with dehydrated strawberries and candied walnuts. So delish. If you think it’s impossible to overdose on the tasty bird, try the tender Sous Vide Breast main course, Duck Fat Fries side and Duck Fat Ice Cream served alongside an inside-out German Chocolate Cake. Joe’s cooking is always something to quack about!
I was crestfallen to hear of Chef Mark Connell’s exit from Arroyo Vino. This fall he served me one of my most memorable meals—perfect from start to finish—that included an Ebelskiver Stuffed with Mushroom Duxelles alongside a Pan Seared Wagyu Flat Iron Steak with Foie Gras Hollandaise and Red Wine Shallot Purée. The ebelskiver is a beloved Danish sphere-shaped pancake that is traditionally filled with apples or jam. To turn sweet into savory was an absolute inspiration on the part of Connell; it was the most provocative dish I tasted all year. It’s staying on the menu with Connell’s sous chef Colin Shane manning the stoves now. Shane has worked with some talented mentors including Martin Rios and he has a great team beside him. Arroyo Vino is such a terrific addition to the Las Campanas dining scene, I wish them a smooth transition.
The “Who has the Best Burger” war really heated up this year, but Bang Bite is my go-to place—partially due to its proximity to my house (a mere 800 yards from my front door), but also because I love Chef Enrique Guerrero’s over-the-top approach to whatever he does. Witness the Trailer Deluxe Burger: an eight-ounce patty topped with bacon, Virginia ham, fried onions strings, cheddar, barbecue sauce and chipotle aioli. You will need two hands to hold it and low cholesterol to enjoy it guilt-free. For a surcharge you can add a chile maple bacon jam (you’re killing me) and just tell your critics—“Hey, I don’t eat it every day.”
Sometimes it’s the simple things that show off a chef’s skill: a perfect roast chicken or flawless fries or, in the case of Izanami’s new chef David Padberg, Assorted House-Made Pickles. They made my palate stand up and say, “Wow.” Padberg transforms all kinds of ingredients—cucumbers, beets, butternut squash, cabbage, radish and more—into a medley of sweet, hot, salty and sour flavors, all crunchy and all delicious pickles. It’s one of the prettiest presentations in town in one of the prettiest settings. I can’t wait to return and sample Padberg’s new menu this winter.
It can be a challenge to know where to meet friends for a “civilized” drink and a bite pre or post-theater downtown, so I’ve made the Agave Lounge at the Eldorado Hotel my go-to. Chef Anthony Smith’s Sliders come in three renditions—Lobster, Kobe Beef and Crab and Zingy Remoulade. They’re a steal at $4 to $5 dollars apiece. They’re small enough to be a snack, but the quality of the ingredients and the deliciousnessfactor make them worthy of entréestatus. The lobster and crab versions boast plump chunks of the tasty crustaceans, while the burger is impressively moist given its diminutive size. Yum! Actually the whole bar menu is extraordinary and now there’s a sushi and raw bar added to the mix. I like that the seats are spacious and roomy for us big boys and that The Old House is next door should dinner seem like a good idea. And there’s a hotel upstairs should “get a room” come to mind.
Maybe it’s the accompanying Green Chile-Jack Cheese Mashed Potatoes that had me at the first bite, but at L’Olivier Chef Xavier Grenet’s Grass-Fed Rosemary Braised Beef Short Ribs is the epitome of French comfort food and a dish I’ll be savoring again this winter. Start with the Roast Butternut Squash Soup with Foie Gras and finish with the classic Tarte Tatin for the perfect meal Française. With gracious wife and manager Nathalie running the floor and expert bistro service, I love L’Olivier for its unpretentious charms. C’est bon.
Whenever my friend Billy visits Santa Fe from the East Coast his first meal MUST be at La Choza. In the summer we sit on the comfy patio and during the winter we nestle down in the front dining room and pace ourselves with the bracing limey margaritas, gobble up a bowl of Queso with Chips and then each choose our own combo plate. Invariably mine is the Combo Plate that features Chile Relleno, Pork Carne Adovado and a Vegetarian Tamale (served Christmas, please)—a true celebration of the New Mexico flavors I love dearest. I let the tourists tackle The Shed (owned by the same wonderful family), but for me La Choza is my Norteño favorite. Book ahead; I’m not alone.
When I sent Chef Brett Sparman from Georgia a message that I wanted to add his Swine and Czar-Baked Potato with Sour Cream, Crispy Pancetta, Green Onion and Tobiko to my Top Ten list he messaged me back, “Dude! The baked potato? You’re killing me man, I know it’s good … but it’s a baked potato.” I assured him I would wax lyrical about the whole meal I had (Tender Grilled Quail, Delicate Pan Roasted Trout, hearty and tasty Cassoulet and fabulous Thyme-infused Stone Fruit Tart), but still congratulate him for his creative spin on the humble potato. The fat baker spud is gussied up with sour cream, crispy pancetta and a dollop of Tobiko caviar. Sparman is a very skilled chef and I like that he also knows how to treat a potato with aplomb. The handsome dining room is elegant enough to get dressed up for but comfortable enough to dress casual—truly the trend of Santa Fe dining in 2014.
This list is not in order of preference but I suppose, if it were, Geronimo would have to be at the top. Perhaps the last moniker for great dining is that of consistency and, with that, Geronimo is certainly at the peak. In all the years I’ve dined here, I have never (and I mean never!) had a meal that is anything less than brilliant. That’s quite a claim considering the caliber of Santa Fe dining, and I think the credit goes to Chef Eric DiStefano, Chris Harvey, Quinn Stephenson and the entire staff. The whole menu scores (who can pass up the Elk Tenderloin?), but DiStefano’s Wild Mushroom and Sherry Bisque, offered on the vegetarian prix-fix menu, exemplifies the wildly talented chef’s skill; he succeeded marvelously in elevating a bowl of soup to something truly special. As with all the service here, how the dish is presented adds to the theater of Geronimo dining. Poured tableside into a warm bowl stacked with asparagus tips, shitake and oyster mushrooms and napped with a kick of sherry, the silky soup is nothing short of luxurious. I am always seduced.
story by Chef Johnny Vee