Jay Fox's Dining Guide
ON THE ROAD AGAIN – TO SANTA FE
“Playwrights are like men who have been dining for a month in an Indian restaurant. After eating curry night after night, they deny the existence of asparagus.” — Peter Ustinov
IT HAD BEEN SOME YEARS since G and I had been to Santa Fe, the finest and funnest city in New Mexico. It had also had been some years, tho not as many, since we had taken our two eldest granddaughters on a road trip. Emma, age 10 and Harper, age 9, have always enjoyed the finest in dining.
A few months ago, when G was busy at some meeting, I took the girls to the Capital Grille (1450 Larimer St, 303-539-2500; www.capitalgrille.com), certainly the best restaurant in the metro area. I had never taken their parents there, but then the girls are more enthusiastic and adventurous than their parents. We dined on calamari, French onion soup, lobster crab cakes, Caesar salad, lamb chops, rib-eye steak, mashies, spinach and every dessert in the house. The staff loved the girls and the girls loved every moment. I have since been forced to take their parents. And their aunts and uncles. I think I have a 20 percent interest in the place.
So when G suggested we take some time and head 400 miles south for a road trip for relaxation and fine dining, naturally we invited the girls. It was tuff getting their dad to OK five days away from home, but he does accept bribes now and then. You would think they would bribe us to take the girls, but my daughter and her hubby know how much we enjoy the girls so it was easy for her to get me to cough up some sort of bribe.
Santa Fe is a maaavelous town to run away to for a long weekend or in our case, five days. Since the girls were young ladies now, we needed more than the usual accommodations; the four of us in one room was not going to work. Summer in Santa Fe is always busy, and the end of the week we was Spanish Market. Darn near every hotel room in town was either booked or rates were exorbitant. We lucked out and got a phenomenal suite at La Fonda, one of the finest hotels in New Mexico. But I need to get straight to the dining or Pub will give me a rash.
I made reservs for dinner for each of four nights, and let lunch be guided by our activities. We had four dinners, three lunches and four breakfasts. Here’s all of it, in order of dining. And you get the good with the bad. We ate so many dishes, I probably left out a few just cuz I forgot or I couldn’t read the receipt.
The Cantina at La Casa Sena (125 E. Palace Ave, 505-988-9232; www.lacasasena.com). This has one of the most beautiful courtyards anywhere, where lunch and dinner are served daily. We came for dinner at the Cantina, where the wait-staff perform Broadway show tunes. The menu in the Cantina is limited. G and I have dined both in the restaurant and the Cantina several times. We were terribly disappointed.
I made reservations so we could get the best seats. We were the first to arrive. Our waiter, Greg, had been performing there for many years; we enjoyed his powerful voice on several prior occasions. But things change. Not only were there only two singers performing, but the food was tasteless and the kitchen was very slow. Three of the four dinners had no seasoning whatsoever. G’s pork chop was so overdone she couldn’t eat it. The W took it off our bill. Harper and I had boring salmon and boring sides. Emma ordered the New York strip and it was ok but came with fantastic green chili mashies. Emma was in hog heaven. The rest of the food was so bad we didn’t bother wasting money on dessert. Even the performances were a bit boring since we were used to having a half dozen server/performers.
La Plazuela at La Fonda (100 E. San Francisco, 505-982-5511; www.lafondasantafe.com). The hotel’s main dining room is beautiful, with excellent service and superb food. G and I have dined here for breakfast many times before, and today was no less wonderful. With a mostly traditional southwestern breakfast menu, we enjoyed every dish. Our favorite bellman, Dominic, recommended the ham shanks, a maaavelous piece of ham that I’ve never seen on a menu. G had her favorite Spanish dish, ‘posole’. It was outstanding but she is still feeling the pain. Emma had huevos rancheros, and Harper devoured pancakes with homemade strawberry jam. I settled for traditional scrambled eggs with 2 portions of ham shank and a side of sausage.
French Pastry Shop at La Fonda – see above. What a wondrous find: French pastries, yummy crepes, and delightful sangies. This deliteful eatery is always packed. The girls had crepes, G and I had giant sangies. But the stupendous chocolate mousse and other desserts were 2-die-4.
Ristra (548 Agua Fria, 505-982-8608; www.ristrarestaurant.com). The first of three fine dining meals I had planned, perhaps the finest. Many reviews say this is the best Santa Fe has to offer, and it was terrific. Harper tracked every meal we had the entire trip and kept coming back to the stupendous rack of lamb she had here. She sed it may even have been better than her first real experience with great lamb at the Capital Grille in Denver. Dinner at the Capital Grille sent her into orbit. Now you have to understand Harper. She is her own person and doesn’t share and doesn’t want to taste any of your dishes. But she sure can put the chow away. When she’s full, she stops eating, shifts her stomach, and makes room in her “pouch” for dessert. Harper always has room for dessert. She also cannot pass up calamari. She eats it everywhere they serve it. And rarely shares. The calamari here (I had to taste it cuz I’m the writer and the bill payer) was maybe the best she ever had. You also need to know that my granddaughters, like my wife, G, are always finding the best they’ve ever had. It may be the best they’ve ever had this week, but so be it. It was terrific. I never got to taste her lamb cuz it disappeared quickly.
Emma, our eldest grandchild, has been fine dining with G and me since she was eighteen months. She eats and loves everything. From Caesar salad (with extra anchovies, please) and mussels and escargot to the finest rib-eye steak (medium rare, please). She also has to taste every dish at every meal. Ceptin’ Harper’s of course. If there are six of us for dinner, Emma has tasted and eaten most of what she liked of the best of five dinners. She is quick to share, but quick to demand (politely of course) whatever anyone else is eating.
So if I don’t specifically mention Emma and what she had and whether she enjoyed it, note that she enjoys everything that G and I eat. Ceptin’ tomatoes. The girl just doesn’t like tomatoes. But put a dish of fresh melon and prosciutto (from Parma, of course) anywhere near her and its history. Back to dinner.
For our main course, I had achiote grilled duck breast, G had a super delish sea bass, Emma had rack of lamb (Harper isn’t the only one in the family crazy about lamb), some of my duck and some of G’s sea bass. Every dish and accompaniment was terrific. Another dish Harper cannot pass on is crème brulee, and of course she was the only one tasting it. Emma had a yummy soufflé and I had a superb chocolate fondant.
Café Pasqual’s (121 Don Gaspar Ave, 505-983-87501; www.pasquals.com). A small place that is always packed. They have a communal table which can often save the day. We’ve had breakfast here most every visit to Santa Fe. All the food here is fantastic; service can be a bit slow and testy. A must on anyone’s trip to Santa Fe.
Geronimo (724 Canyon Rd, 505-982-1500; www.geronimorestaurant.com). Some of us thought this might be the best restaurant in Santa Fe, but the other some of us thinks it is Ristra. Even tho I write the reviews. I shall declare a tie. Two great eateries in a row. That’s something to love.
This is a beautiful multi-room eatery in an old house with a magnificent garden with tons of flora and even a pear tree. Didn’t see a partridge, just lotsa pears. The service was impeccable. But the food is where it’s at.
Old House Restaurant (309 W San Francisco, 505-995-4555; www.eldoradohotel.com)
The Shed (113 ½ Palace Ave, 505-982-9030; www.sfshed.com). Having savored the fine traditional Northern New Mexico fare at The Shed several times over the years, we finally got there Friday for lunch. G tried something different: a green bean salad. The girls and I opted for traditional fare. Enchiladas, tacos and carne adovada flowed from plates to our tummies faster than you can say Jack Rabbit. Harper tried the zabaglione, an Italian dessert so I don’t know what it’s doing on this menu. I had their famous mocha cake and didn’t even offer to share. G bought a case of red chili and 6 dozen blue corn tortillas to take home.
You should know that even within Northern New Mexico the heat of the chili will vary depending on the restaurant. While in Colorado green chili is typically the hottest, in New Mexico more often than not red is the hottest, but you have to ask every time.
El Farol (808 Canyon Rd, 505-983-9912; www.elfarolsf.com). Another nite of great dining but this time accompanied by great entertainment: Flamenco dancers! This is Santa Fe’s oldest restaurant & cantina. G and I had eaten here several times, but all I could remember (other than the huge array of rooms with warped floors) was that they served fantastic tapas (Spanish for small plates) and the best curried chicken salad I’ve ever had. This time was no exception. The food was terrific, other than one main course.
You can select any eight tapas plates for $64.00 from dozens of hot or cold selections. We should have stopped there, cuz these “small plates” were perty darn large. We had grilled shrimp, artichoke hearts, pork tenderloin w/figs port & idiazabal, curried chicken salad, chorizo, Moroccan olives w/roasted garlic & oranges, grilled salmon w/mustard aioli, and Serrano ham.
We also ordered a paella dinner and a rib-eye steak dinner. The paella was terrific but the steak, ordered medium rare, came almost well-done. By that time the show was about to start and the place was packed so we ate it anyway, noting for future reference to stick to the wondrous tapas. We ordered several very yummy desserts: tres leches cake and chocolate mousse. Maaavelous, just maaavelous.
What was so amazing about the food is that head chef Vevo Rivera started at El Farol in 1988 as a dishwasher, and has worked his way to the top. Bravo!
Equally amazing is how perfectly every dish was prepared in spite of the huge and extremely diverse menu, and the large number of diners in the restaurant. Besides the show room, where we saw the most amazing flamenco dancers, there was a half dozen or so other rooms with a jazz band in one room, and other rooms just for dining.
Tia Sophia (210 W San Francisco, 505-983-9880). Tucked away along this well-traveled shopping street, you can tell you’re at the restaurant by the folks waiting out front for a table. Again my comments are brief cuz we came for breakfast and enjoyed every bite. Traditional southwestern fare with American grub thrown in. Superb food and service.
Graham’s Grille (106 Paseo Del Pueblo Norte, Taos, 575-751-1350; www.grahamstaos.com). We departed Santa Fe Saturday morning to return to Denver via Taos and Alamosa. We stopped at the Plaza in Taos for a late lunch, having been referred to Graham’s Grille by the concierge at La Fonda. It was a maaavelous restaurant, beautifully decorated, with great service and even greater food. Having not had a bugger in over a week, I was pleased to see a half-pound Angus bugger on the menu. It was superb. Harper saw calamari and “commanded its arrival.” G had a wondrous mac and cheese dish and Emma ordered the rest of the menu. As I recall, there was something with artichokes and fennel and a bacon burger and all kinds of house made desserts. The coconut crème tart went straight to Harper’s pouch. Even an autographed copy of Chef Co-Owner Lesley Fay’s new book came home with us. G and I will certainly return to Graham’s.
Wow, this review has our tummies growling! Glad Jay got down to Santa Fe to survey their always wonderful culinary scene. His next assignment is to do the same closer to home, so stay tuned. And if you want to let ‘No More Mr. Nice Guy’ know about your favorite place to eat, try him at email@example.com.