Friday, August 31, 2012

Zagat's a Plus One and James Beard a None in Surreal Santa Fe

If New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment than Santa Fe is the summit of surreal where nothing turns out as expected, especially when it comes to food. I know now why Zagat does not review the culinary cuisine there where the Cute Gardener and I ventured recently for an end of the summer wedding of a friend and were looking forward to experiencing a land of indigenous Southwestern cuisine. Instead we found a bizarre landscape of restaurants stuck strangely somewhere between the 1980s nouveau fusion scene and a quasi-limbo of the perpetual "close but no cigar" James Beard nominee.

We were hopeful on night one when we walked into La Boca to check out the local tapas scene by a three time Beard nominee after being seduced by a picture of tuna carpaccio on the website. Of course, this buzz was heightened when we sat down and saw exactly that dish being touted as the evening’s special. I quickly perused the menu which looked pretty creative and listed a stream of about seven things that I was anxious to try. We even stayed upbeat when the bocquerones arrived on a plate; tiny white anchovies smothered in olive oil and way too much citrus zest, hoping that the flavor saturation was indeed meant for that dish.

But everything went downhill when the tuna arrived as dense and bland slabs of okay grade fish but ruined by the thick and room temperature (supposed) blood orange (but that tasted more like strawberry mayonnaise – I know gross ha?) aioli. I couldn’t eat more than one bite and sat back and watched as the CG wiped all the fish clean and doused it in olive oil because he was really hungry. Our waiter didn’t seem to flinch when we asked for our check about thirty minutes after sitting down but that was probably because the place was absolutely packed with other tourists who must be the same ones who keep the restaurant open searching for nothing more.

I won’t even go into the eggplant mess that came next but it had me on the phone, in the restaurant, calling other restaurants to find out who was still open to sate our ever-craving appetites. Finally, Restaurant Martin said they would wait for us until nine so we hit the streets, literally, and started to run/walk through the strange early-to-sleep town to the cadence of my iPhone’s blinking GPS towards what we hoped would still be dinner.

At Restaurant Martin we were greeted by a very nice waitress into a pretty empty dining room that reminded me of Michael’s in Santa Monica, and like Michael’s boasted contemporary art straight out of the 1980’s when abstract digital photography in lurid colors were appearing on giclee canvases from the DIY portfolios of every major interior designer in small and chic desert towns. The food also seemed to stem from a twenty year-old-menu but we were so hungry at this point that everything was bound to taste good like the East Meets West; a strange concoction pile of crab and lobster and fried onion things. Of course by now we were downing wine like it was going out of style anxious to get our calories from somewhere while simultaneously numbing our taste buds. And that only continued post-dinner as we made our way downstairs at the Matador bar only to be served a stand-in whiskey instead of what we ordered.

(Strike up Twilight Zone music here)

We only had one more opportunity for a meal before the onslaught of wedding activities that ensued so we decided to be brave and give one more restaurant a try. The Compound, through our research, actually had a James Beard winning chef and it was a supposedly an expensive and dress up kind of joint and we were hankering for something savory by this point.

We were the most dressed up people in the place and the CG mentioned that by this point, anything was going to taste great because we were so desperate to like something. And that phenomenon actually did take hold as the corn soup was delivered in neither puree nor chunky style but somewhere in between. But it tasted like fresh corn and at that was good so we went on to enjoy our lunch relieved that at least we didn’t have to stand up and leave.

Being newly banned in eating foie gras in California we jumped on the dish here with sweetbreads and mushrooms but it all swam together into an unremarkable brown stew.

I liked the shrimp risotto even though it was more like a pilaf and went heavy handed on the dill. Again, at this point I was just happy to eat something I recognized as tasting decent.

A redeeming moment was delivered with dessert in the form of a stone fruit cobbler that was simply fruit warmed under a crumble crust and left to sweeten in its own natural juices.

Strangely enough, after all the disappointment we ended up enjoying the food at the wedding rehearsal dinner (a Mexican chafing dish buffet) and wedding (regional elk and trout) ten times better than any of the so-called better gourmet restaurants. Go figure.

The entire time we were in Santa Fe we kept thinking that it would be a waste to not try out all the aforementioned places in lieu of just cheating and eating Mexican food because we can get such great Mexican food back home in Los Angeles for dirt cheap. This is why we chose to stay away from the oddly French named but Mexican breakfast serving CafĂ© Pasqual’s. Apparently, according to just about everyone I know whose ever lived in or visited Santa Fe in the past decade, that was a huge mistake to overlook a meal there. 

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