A Year of Buzzin’ Around

JV-gcIMG_7231 In the oft-recorded Sondheim anthem, “I’m Still Here,” survival in the tough world of show business is toasted and honored. Perhaps the same theme is relevant in the hospitality field; “Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all and my dear, I’m still here!” The restaurant biz is amazingly resilient, thanks to the plethora of culinary talent our foodie fueled town boasts. They survive the up times and the down times and still manage to keep us all lusciously entertained. Here’s our annual round-up of the movers and shakers, fryers, sautéers and bakers who have made a delicious difference in Santa Fe’s gastronomic year.

A Town for Tacos

Who knew the humble taco had enough clout to warrant the explosion of eateries that offer the authentic soft-shelled (not the hard shells of my youth) grab-n-go goody that has leapt out of the food truck and drive-up window and onto the tables of sit-down restaurants? Taco Fundación led the charge with Brian Knox’s (he of Shake Foundation) takeover of Bert’s Burger Bowl in the Guadalupe district. He started with a simple three, but slowly added some unique versions like sweet potato, kale and pine nuts, and my favorite, the fried oyster. The spanking new Paloma, too, has two yummy ones that vary from the usual varieties. Try the chipotle-fired chicken tinga or roasted cauliflower, marcona almond, olive and golden raisin—delish!  

Star Power

Twenty years ago, if you dined at a health spa, you might be greeted with brown rice meatloaf with tofu sauce, and sunflower-sprout salad. Boy, have times changed. Now, you’re liable to be tempted by the menu from a celebrity chef (and TV darlings) the likes of Rocky Durham and Fernando Ruiz who each—Rocky at Sunrise Springs Spa Resort, and Fernando at Ojo Caliente—have kicked it up a notch and given us even more reason to visit and dine pre or post soak and massage. I’ve both brunched and dined with Rocky (I’m crazy about the Sunrise Benedict with blue-corn crepes), and anything he does with crab. And I expect great things from Fernando at Ojo Caliente, as I’ve dined at Santacafé a dozen times this year while he was at the stoves. Oh, how I wish the fried calamari was considered spa cuisine…alas, the potato-crusted green chile “fries” ought to be able to ruin my swimsuit-modeling career.

The swankier Four Season’s Resort Rancho Encantado welcomed the tender-aged Kai Autenrieth to the stoves. Four Seasons has always been one of my favorite get-out-of-town eateries and Chef Kai is getting rave reviews.

Las Posada has a new chef in Jon Jerman who arrived in Santa Fe from restaurants on the East coast (although he did do a stint in Vail, Colorado) and has inherited one of the prettiest dining rooms in town at Julia. I look forward to tasting his cooking; maybe he’ll combine our Norteño flavors with southern low-country. Watch this space!

Another Opening…Another Show

Was it the rain that caused a bumper crop of new restaurants to spring up in this town, which is already bursting at the seams? Dolina, Paloma, Café Sonder and Bodega Prime each has already made their mark on the scene, and El Farol is to re-open under new ownership any minute (or already). The baked eggs with chermula I enjoyed at Dolina has become my favorite brunch dish this year. It’s finished with an unbelievably light and rich walnut brioche bread. Speaking of brioche, Bodega Prime’s got a killer buttermilk-brined fried chicken on a brioche bun with bok choy slaw and sweet pickles…the thought still makes my mouth water.

I have high hopes for Paloma. They got hit with large crowds right from the get-go, which created a too-much-too-soon scenario that challenged the kitchen and the service. Yet, I imagine that, by now, the charming Marja Martin, who owns the joint and is herself a talented chef, has got a handle on the ropes. I’m already impressed with the food, and vote the jicama cucumber salad with lime-chile green goddess the prettiest and tastiest salad in town. And don’t miss the sea-bass Veracruz.

Café Sonder is a casual eatery that sits in for the crowd who loved Zia Diner. It’s gently priced, with an interesting menu, and while there have been a few chef changes this year, it seems to be in good hands. The place is owned and operated by the The Plaza Café’s Razatos family, after all. I’m very excited to see what The Teahouse Owner Rich Freedman has done to the ol’ El Farol saloon. The huge menu looks fabulous.

There are certainly a lot of foodies that live in Eldorado, both customers and chefs, so it made perfect sense that the lovely folks that own and operate Loyal Hound in town have opened a second eatery in that area. Arable, which means “of land used or suitable for farming”, is less pub and more farm-to-table themed, as created by husband and wife dynamic duo Renee Fox and Dave Readyhough; what a perfect name. I’m already a huge fan of the Hound’s Fish-N-Chips and can’t wait to try the Citrus Butter Baked Salmon with Crispy Green Chile Corn Cake at the new joint––YUM!

You Move Me

Clafoutis moved to a larger space on Cordova, and from what I hear, the already popular breakfast/lunch/bakery is busier than ever. I was happy to hear diners are still greeted with a lilting “Bonjour” from behind the counter.

El Nido reopened with a bang and was quickly hosting huge numbers of diners in quiet Tesuque. I love the huge wood-fired rotisserie and pizza oven, and the large eclectic menu. I was thrilled that Oysters Rockefeller were on the menu, and managed to knock off a few dozen in the hectic early weeks. Chef Cristian Pontiggia, who enjoyed a long tenure at Osteria d’Assisi, is now manning the galley, and our expectations are even higher. I’m looking forward to checking out Cristian’s Burrata in Tokyo that pairs burrata with sushi-grade tuna, and his house-made bresaola, which you rarely see on menus these days. I also love the patio setting for brunch.

Big Gossip

First it was rumored, then a few folks you talked to knew about it, and now the world knows about the new NM Fine Dining Group that formed this year with Chef Charles Dale of Bouche. Three entirely new restaurants will be created out of the collusion between Charles and investors Jennifer and Jimmy Day. Read the whole story in the August issue of Local Flavor. Not quite ready to throw in the kitchen towel to retirement, Chef Charles felt he had a few more good years left in him and took on the endeavor with the Days. I have always been a big fan of Bouche, and still ruminate over a heavenly calves’ liver dijonaise I had there this spring. Charles has always been extremely talented and organized, so I couldn’t think of a better guy to assist in this major hospitality game-changer. Georgia will become Maize (a regional Southwestern menu), Galisteo Bistro becomes A Mano (handmade pastas and Italian), and the old Bobcat Bite will be renovated and enlarged to become a family orientated chophouse. Bouche will continue on as is with, hopefully, that liver (and mine) in tact!

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way…

After a delicious dinner at Omira that featured Brazilian BBQ in the style of the churrascaria, I called owner Ziggy Rzig to tell him how much I enjoyed my experience. He thanked me and said, “Hey, I’m thinking of changing the concept; do you have any ideas of what I could do that would reach a bigger audience?” I had some thoughts on the topic, although I was sad to see Omira go. I worked with Ziggy and the very talented Chef Miguel Quintana on a New Mexican-ish menu with some great grilled items and a touch of Italian. And so, The Detour Kitchen was born. It’s a lovely space with plenty of parking (next to Susan’s Fine Wines and Spirits) and terrific prices. Check it out—disclaimer: I am not a partner in the business and am finished with my consulting!

Quest for Queso

My friend Billy (William Smith), who moved here from the East Coast this year to become CEO of The Santa Fe Community Foundation, spends a lot of his spare time seeking out the best queso in town. Luckily, I’m often his sidekick. A self-proclaimed foodie, Billy really is happiest when seated in front of a basket of chips and bowls of guac, salsa and gooey cheese & chile. His (and my) favorites can be found at The Detour Kitchen (chunky), Santa Fe Bar & Grill (smoky), La Choza (traditional) and The Ranch House (over waffle fries—add brisket…divine). Who’s got your favorite?

Winners in my book-Great Eight

My favorite dishes of the year, the thoughts of which have me planning my next chance to devour them, include Joseph’s of Santa Fe’s Sweet & Spicy Glazed ½ Duck Confit (I had it 10 times this year! Coyote Café’s oysters on the half shell with lime pearls and chile are divine. And The Ranch House’s queso waffle fries with Tillamook smoked green chile sauce are a gut bomb, but in a good way.

At the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi Restaurant, I had a most amazing dinner last month. Literally, every dish was more delicious than the previous one. Best of the night was an appetizer of hand-rolled gnocchi with a scrumptious venison Bolognese. It was light, delicate, a bit spicy and so rich, we wanted a second order!

Café Pasqual’s: During a photo shoot with Chef Katharine Kagel, I got to sample a whole slew of yummy dishes from the breakfast menu. My favorite was toasted French bread, topped with guac, applewood-smoked bacon, poached eggs and a scatter of Dukkah, a seasoning mix that combines nuts, seeds and spices. So different and so delicious!

At 315 Restaurant & Wine Bar, the oysters are half-price during Happy Hour. My favorites there are the house-made potato tots with Green Goddess Sauce and the dozens and dozens of oysters I enjoyed there all summer. And then there’s L’Olivier’s escargot bathed in garlic butter and gussied up with shards of Black Forest ham, cherry tomatoes, spinach and crunchy almonds. I finally get why we eat these slugs!

Finally, I had a delightful dinner with the mayor and company at Geronimo. We loved everything, and especially the silken wild mushroom and sherry bisque.

by Chef Johnny Vee

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