Chez Mamou – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Chez Mamou on Palace Avenue in Santa Fe

When she asked me to repeat the name of the French restaurant where we were dining one slightly breezy Sunday morning, I knew my clever bride had something in mind.  Relaying that we were dining at Chez (pronounced “shay”) Mamou, she retorted “are you sure it’s not called “Shame on you.”  That was her reaction to a server having deposited a stale, probably older than day-old baguette on our table.  She followed up with “no self-respecting French restaurant, especially one claiming to be a bakery would serve bread baked by Napoleon’s baker.”  Whether or not the fossilized (her term) bread was indicative of Chez Mamou’s daily performance, it was enough to rile my usually saintly patient wife.

By this point, she had already dissed the coffee, an Allegro Coffee blend, which she found entirely too strong and “more bitter than supporters of England wanting to remain in the European Union.”   (In the interest of full-disclosure, she finds coffee too strong if it can’t be “cured” by five or six packets of Splenda.”)  She would later repeat her “what’s the name of this restaurant” comment while eating some of the restaurant’s highly-touted pastries and croissants, reputedly baked by a master baker (and I won’t repeat how she twisted that term). That, my friends, is why she leaves the reviewing to me…and lest you think she’s nit-picky, the only time she’s ever compromised on her exceedingly high standards is when she said “yes” to me.

Dining Room at Chez Mamou

You should certainly set your expectations high when visiting a restaurant as highly touted as Chez Mamou.  Never mind that it earned rave reviews from both the Albuquerque Journal and Santa Fe Reporter, where it really earned its creds with me is from a Facebook post by Daniela Bouneou, erstwhile owner of the fabulous  Torinos @ Home.  When Daniela posts about a restaurant, you’re well advised to heed her recommendation.  Chez Mamou also earned a 3.5 rating (out of 4) from Yelp, 4.5 (out of 5) from Trip Advisor  and 3.9 (out of 5) from Zomato. Interspersed among mostly glowing comments in these three crowd-sourced review forums are a few opinions which would make excellent roast material.  At least our experience wasn’t an outlier.

Chez Mamou is one of several French restaurants serving the City Different, not really a surprise considering the long and storied history of French people in New Mexico.  Launched in 2012, its East Palace Avenue location is scant blocks away from the Santa Fe Plaza, but in ways it seems almost an ocean away…as far away as a Paris sidewalk cafe.  That’s especially true on a Santa Fe summer morning if you’re trying to escape the sweltering heat of Albuquerque as was the case during our inaugural visit.  A light, cool breeze and the courtyard’s sun-shielding shade transported us to a better time and place.  Had we known Chez Mamou was so pet-friendly, we might have brought our four-legged children Tim and The Dude.

Al Fresco Dining at its Finest

Weather-permitted, the courtyard is definitely preferred seating.  If the courtyard is full, there are a few tables preceding the front entrance that’ll give you a great view of the street activity.  The space which houses Chez Mamou is bisected into two halves, one occupied by Noëlla Jewelry Couture.  Decor is tasteful and homey.  Step up into the cafe and your eyes will immediately gravitate toward the pastry case with its colorful display of pastries, breads, croissant and other French baked delicacies.  Few display cases in New Mexico are as lovely.  You’ll want to order the chocolate croissants the minute you walk in or you risk the cafe running out entirely.

From among the baked goods we shared, the chocolate croissants stand out.  While no croissant will ever have enough chocolate to sate this chocoholic, the chocolate chunks on these beauties are strategically placed so that you’ll experience sweet and savory tastes in virtually every bite.  The croissants are buttery, light and flaky, but they’re served with a hard butter which is a challenge to spread.  Fortunately a housemade strawberry jam accompanied our croissants.  The jam, nearly pureed in texture, was very reminiscent of fresh strawberries plucked at their optimum ripeness, neither too sweet nor too tart.

Mussels Mamou

Where Chez Mamou really stands out is in the large variety of its menu, particularly its brunch offerings.  While many restaurants feature an abbreviated brunch menu usually short on lunch-type offerings, Chez Mamou’s brunch menu is staggering in its variety.  Like me, the cafe doesn’t believe 7:30 in the morning is too early for Frog Legs, Escargots, Fettuccini Carbonara or any number of sandwiches on a canvas of freshly baked bread.  If you’re more of a traditionalist, the menu also includes a number of omelets (made with eggs produced by local, happy, free-range, Nambe hens) as well as sweet and savory crepes and even a Croque Madame…all because sometimes you feel like breakfast and sometimes you feel like lunch.

In England, as in much of Northern Europe, mussels are so readily available and relatively inexpensive that they’re often dismissed as a poor man’s shellfish.  During our years in England, we enjoyed mussels by the bushel, but we never contemplated the possibility of incorporating New Mexico flavors (not that we had red or green chile readily available) into either the wine- or cream-based broths we regularly prepared.  Thankfully restaurants in New Mexico, regardless of genre, know their patrons practically expect a little red or green in virtually every menu, even on dessert items…and as we all know, chile improves the overall flavor of everything it touches.

Steak Frites

In an inspired example of France meets New Mexico, Chez Mamou offers an eponymous appetizer called Mussels Mamou which showcases the lively flavor of red chile paired with the incomparable flavor of applewood smoked bacon in a light wine sauce punctuated by shallots and parsley.  Although comprised of only a paltry six mussels, everyone knows that more than half of the enjoyment of mussels is in sopping up the broth with a good bread.  Because the bread we were provided lacked the dredging qualities of great broth sopping bread (hence my Kim’s dissatisfaction described above), we had to spoon up the broth instead.  While still good, the sensory–tactile, olfactory and taste–experiences were diminished somewhat.

Because she missed the French fries often served with mussels (who doesn’t love moules frites?), my Kim’s choice of entree was the Steak Frites, a flank steak served with a pile of French fries and assorted vegetables.  After recent encounters with sinewy, tough ribeye steaks, we were delighted to find the flank steak tender and absolutely delicious (in Kim’s estimation, better than a much more expensive steak at Ruth’s Chris).  Prepared and seasoned to her exacting specifications, it didn’t even need the delectable mushrooms in gravy (not quite duxelles style) though they, too, were mouth-watering.  So were the vegetables (carrots, broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower) which were so good even avowed vegetable-haters of all ages would enjoy them.  Alas, the frites were strictly out-of-a-bag quality, a far cry from the twice-fried frites we enjoyed in Europe and now in La Quiche Parisienne in Albuquerque.

Duck Confit

One of the more challenging decisions we faced during our inaugural visit was how to enjoy the duck which is prepared three different ways: duck confit, duck confit pasta and duck confit salad.  The duck confit (red wine demi glace over slowly cooked duck) served with fresh roasted tomato, seasonal vegetables and potatoes au gratin had me at au gratin, a potato dish served often at French restaurants bur almost nowhere else.  A layer of Gruyere blanketed the perfectly prepared potatoes, imparting a creamy texture, richness and saltiness.  As with the aforementioned mussels, the superb red wine demi glace beckoned for bread so as not to leave a single drop on the plate.  It was one of the best demi glace preparations we’ve had at any French restaurant in New Mexico.  The duck, too, was well prepared and nicely seasoned with dark meat qualities showcased in every bite.

As beautiful as the pastries under glass appeared to be, we must have ordered the wrong ones because their appearance was certainly deceiving.  Kim opted for the cherry tart, the most redeeming quality of which was that real, whole cherries were used, not some gloppy gelatinous mix.  Alas, the thickness and plenitude of the breading was off-putting.  Such was the case as well with the almond tart of my choosing.  Topped with almond slivers and walnut pieces, it would have been far more enjoyable had there not been so much breading.

Pastry Tray

As with virtually all restaurants we visit, our experience was a mix of good and not-so-good.  That’s not surprising.  What is surprising is the delta between the good and not-so-good.  Our entrees were outstanding, as good as prepared at any French restaurant in the Land of Enchantment, but the baked goods (save for croissants) were lacking.  It’s quite possible this was an anomaly, but it’ll take additional visits to know for sure.  That’s something this gastronome and his oft-fussy better-half are happy to do.

Chez Mamou
217 East Palace Avenue
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 216-1845
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 26 June 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Duck Confit, Steak Frites, Mussels Mamou

Chez Mamou French Cafe & Bakery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

El Comal Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

El Comal Cafe, Serving Great New Mexican Food in Santa Fe for Thirty Years

From a social connectedness perspective, 1995 was the dark ages. The internet as we know and love it today was in its relative infancy.  There was no Urbanspoon, no Yelp, no Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog…no trusted online resource to enlighten and entice diners.  My only knowledge of Santa Fe’s restaurant scene came from fading memories and a 1994 article on Fortune magazine naming the City Different as one of the fruited plain’s ten best dining destinations.  The article listed such stalwarts as the Coyote Cafe, Santacafe and the Tecolote Cafe as among the city’s best.

After nearly two decades of wanderlust and travel courtesy of the United States Air Force, I had finally returned home to New Mexico and looked forward to introducing my bride of ten years to one of Fortune magazine’s anointed restaurants.  It was our first excursion together to Santa Fe and my first opportunity to impress my Kim with sophisticated Santa Fe cuisine.  My mom who’s infinitely more intelligent than I am had other ideas, steering us away from Fortune magazine’s popular tourist destinations and introducing us to one of Santa Fe’s quintessential off-the-beaten-path, mom-and-pop restaurants, a gem named El Comal.

Chips and Salsa

By 1995, El Comal had already been serving New Mexican cuisine for over a decade.  Tucked away in a small, nondescript strip mall that already had an anachronistic, timeworn look and feel to it, El Comal was the antithesis of Fortune magazine’s anointed restaurants, devoid of the trappings and superficiality that so often defines what unenlightened diners often consider signs of good restaurants.  El Comal is named for the heavy cast iron griddle used to cook tortillas.  It appeared to be a magnet for blue collar workers and Hispanic families, preparing New Mexican food as they would prepare it at home.

Just as El Comal itself is receded from the well-trafficked Cerrillos Road, over the years memories of the restaurant receded to the back of my mind.  Frankly, it wasn’t until the well-traveled Lobo Lair owner Mark Chavez mentioned it on a tweet that I fondly remembered a very good meal there so many years ago.  Chavez captioned a photo of his lunch “real recognize real.” Real is an apt description for El Comal, one of the least pretentious and most authentic New Mexican restaurants in the Land of Enchantment.  Not much had changed in the nineteen years since my last visit, but it did secure a commitment not to let so much time pass before my next visit.

Breakfast Enchiladas Christmas Style

If you have a number of restaurants on your “rotation” of frequent favorites, one visit to El Comal will probably  convince you to add it to that rotation. It’s that good!  It’s that real!  A comprehensive breakfast and lunch-dinner menu is replete with all your favorite New Mexican dishes while a chalkboard lists a handful of daily specials which the wait staff dutifully pushes.  During a visit in 2014, neither the red or green chile were made with cumin.  Two years later, cumin is used on the red chile and salsa, but the wait staff will swear it’s in moderation (though for someone who can discern one part cumin per million, it’s intensely present).  The green chile tends to be more piquant than the red so the heat obfuscates the influence of the cumin.

Chips and salsa have become so de rigueur that we often take for granted that they’ll be good and that they’ll be the most piquant items on the menu.  More than often the chips and salsa live up to those expectations.  At El Comal, they exceed all expectations…even though the presence of cumin is certainly discernible.  During my 2014 visit, I thought the chips and salsa were among the best served at any New Mexican restaurant in Santa Fe, but the addition of cumin has changed my opinion.  The salsa, made with red chile, is incendiary, offering a piquancy that is heightened by the restaurant’s scalding hot coffee.  The chips are crisp, lightly salted and perfect for dredging large scoops of the superb salsa.

Carne Adovada Taco

25 July 2014: When your server pushes a dish such as the breakfast enchiladas with alacrity, not ordering them is not an option.  Thank goodness I’m such an easy mark.  These are among the very best breakfast enchiladas I’ve had: two rolled corn tortillas engorged with scrambled eggs and chorizo topped with shredded cheese and red and green chile (Christmas-style).  Chorizo is the Rodney Dangerfield of the breakfast meats, usually mentioned after bacon, sausage and ham, but when it’s made well, there is no meat quite as rousing in the morning. El Comal’s chorizo is rich and flavorful with a pleasant spiciness and just a bit of char.  The corn tortillas are redolent with the enticing aromas of corn just off the comal. 

The highlight of the breakfast enchilada entree is most assuredly the red and green chile, both of which are quite good.  The red chile has a depth of flavor very few red chiles achieve. The green chile also has a real personality, one that reminds you chile is technically a fruit.  The breakfast enchiladas are served with pinto beans and hash browns.  The hash browns are of the “take it or leave it” variety, but dip them in the chile and they’re addictive.  In fact, the chile is so good you’ll finish off the oft-annoying garnish with it.  The beans are top shelf, as good as they can be made. 

Chicken Enchilada with Guacamole

25 July 2014: El Comal offers a la carte tacos filled with ground beef, shredded beef, chicken and get this, carne adovada. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a carne adovada taco. It’s a life altering experience, one that might entice you to order the carne adovada plate on your next visit.  The carne adovada is porcine perfection, tender tendrils of pork marinated in a wondrous red chile (albeit tinged with cumin).  It pairs wonderfully with the corn tortilla in which it’s nestled.  My Kim now wishes all tacos were carne adovada tacos.

5 June 2016: When consternation crossed our faces upon hearing that both the red and green chile were made with cumin, our server insisted we wouldn’t even notice.  That wasn’t the case (not even close), but the green chile has such a pleasant piquancy that it offset the McCormack’s seasoning flavor of cumin.  There was plenty of green chile blanketing flat enchiladas engorged with chicken with a dollop of  guacamole on the side.  Yes, in an example of truth in labeling, the menu described the dish as enchiladas with guacamole and that’s what we got.  Mary & Tito’s seems the only restaurant capable of actually using guacamole as a filler as well as a topper.  In any case, the green chile and the pronounced corn flavor of the tortillas made these enchiladas a winner.

Migas

5 June 2016:  Santa Fe is home to the best migas we’ve enjoyed in New Mexico with the very best being found at Cafe Fina (The Chocolate Maven’s version is also excellent).  Despite the addition of jalapeños, El Comal’s rendition lacked any real bite…and that’s not this asbestos-tongued fire-eater talking, but my infinitely more delicate wife.  A molten blanket of cheese covered scrambled eggs, tomatoes and torn ribbons of tortilla chips.  Should we order migas at El Comal a second time, we’ll ask for the green chile instead of the tepid jalapeños.

El Comal may not be on any national publications touting the best in Santa Fe restaurants, but locals have a high regard for this small mom-and-pop. It’s a great restaurant warranting a greater frequency of visits.

El Comal Cafe
3571 Cerrillos
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 471-3224
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 5 June 2016
1st VISIT: 25 July 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: Coffee, Breakfast Enchiladas Christmas Style, Chips and Salsa, Carne Adovada Taco, Migas, Guacamole and Chicken Enchiladas, Sopaipillas, Tortillas

El Comal Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Museum Hill Cafe – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Museum Hill Cafe in Santa Fe

Widely reputed to have the most spectacular views in Santa Fe and boasting of four world-renowned museums, Museum Hill may be the only location where visitors are more in awe of the site’s breathtaking backdrop than they are of the contents of the magnificent repositories that house the area’s cultural and historical heritage.   Set in an idyllic haven surrounded by panoramic views of hills dotted with dessert flora, colorful weather-worn mesas and verdured mountains, Museum Hill inspires awe and wonder.  Whether bathed in clear, unobstructed cerulean skies or punctuated by ethereally wispy clouds painted red, yellow and orange by  fiery sunsets, incomparable vistas surround you.

Perched on a hillside a scant two miles off the historic Santa Fe Trail, Museum Hill area is home to the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Museum of Indian Art and Culture, the Museum of International Folk Art and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.  A new addition, Santa Fe’s Botanical Garden sits across the street.  Atop Museum Hill’s “upper deck” is the expansive Milner Plaza which houses two of the quadrumvirate of museums.   The concrete plaza is surrounded by a beautifully manicured array of native grasses, sages and trees interspersed with stunning Native American sculptures.

Stunning East-Facing Hills of Rolling Hills and Native American Statuary

Sandwiched between the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and the Museum of International Folk Art is the Museum Hill Cafe.  Weather-permitting, a seat on the cafe’s capacious patio will reward you with east-facing views that include not only the rolling hills backdropping the City Different, but famed architect John Gaw Meem’s  Pueblo Revival Laboratory of Anthropology of the Museum of New Mexico and a towering sculpture depicting an Apache Mountain Spirit Dancer.  Should you dine indoors, your west-facing views through large picture windows are of the Jemez Mountains.  Both options present you with opportunities to enjoy some of the best views you’ll experience anywhere in the Land of Enchantment.

The Museum Hill Cafe has quite a challenge.  Anything less than ambrosial cuisine worthy of its dramatic setting and diners will cast it aside as just fodder for a captive crowd.  The Cafe is open for lunch six days a week (from 11AM through 3PM) and offers an extensive brunch menu on Sundays.  With an eclectic menu showcasing a wide diversity of New Mexican, Asian, Mexican and American items, there’s something for everyone–and as author Anne Hillerman pointed out in her Albuquerque Journal review: “With its unmatched location, the Museum Hill Cafe could coast along with a less interesting menu or average food preparation.  After all, thousands of visitors and locals cruise by each month.  But, thankfully, the first-rate food here reflects the same commitment to quality you find in the museums and at the garden.”

Smoked Duck Flautas

The extensive menu is segmented into four sections: soups and starters, Museum Hill specialties, sandwiches and salads.  If you’re thinking that’s pretty standard cafe fare, peruse a bit further into each section and you’ll see such inventive items as corn custard with a poblano sauce to start off your meal.  Several satisfying bites later, the terminus of your dining experience could be any one of several housemade pies, including some (such as the pistachio cream pie) you won’t find just anywhere.  In between bites, you’ll remain entranced by the arresting views surrounding you.

Almost artistic in their presentation are smoked duck flautas, a Museum Hill Cafe specialty.  Three flour tortilla wedges filled with smoked duck confit and served with a mango dipping sauce are reminiscent of a similar offering at Albuquerque’s Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro.  The duck is moist and flavorful with finely shredded tendrils nestled tightly into the folded tortilla.  While the mango dipping sauce may have a texture and appearance similar to Gerber baby food, it provides a nice contrast to the savory flautas.  Even better is a side of mango-pineapple salsa (finely chopped jalapeños, red peppers, red onion and cilantro) which has just enough punch (courtesy of the jalapeño) to titillate your tongue.

Curried Lentil Stew

The curried lentil stew (slow-cooked green lentils, carrots, tomato, celery served with orzo, edamame and a sprinkling of feta cheese) had me at curry.  Served in a swimming pool-sized bowl (easily portioned for two), this stew is a wonderful study in the way ingredients work together to form a flavorful composite that’s better than any of the ingredients by itself.  The shredded feta in particular provides a sharp, tangy contrast to the sweet carrots while the orzo and green lentils meld to provide a dissimilarity in texture and flavor that goes very well together.  My sole complaint and it’s a nit is that some of the qualities of curry, especially piquancy and pungency, aren’t more prominent.

You’ll want to save room for desserts which your server will ferry over to your table on a large tray. For the most part, dessert consists of pies made for the Cafe by an obvious practitioner of perfect pie-making.  It’s an exercise in willpower to pass over such tempting treats as pecan pie and a strawberry-rhubarb pie, but as an adventurous epicure, it was the pistachio cream pie that ensnared my interest.  When is the last time you had pistachio cream pie?  If, like me, you answered “never,” that’s reason enough to try this masterpiece, a thick wedge topped with a fluffy cream topping sprinkled with chopped pecans.  This pie isn’t overly sweet as some pies are apt to be and it definitely tastes more like real pistachios than like some artificial flavoring out of a box.  Not since the avocado pie at Orlando’s in Taos has a sliver of pie intrigued me quite as much.

Pistachio Cream Pie

A visit to the Museum Hill Cafe is an experience not only in visual stimulation, but in making challenging decisions–where to sit, what to order, which museum to visit next and more.  These are the type of decisions visitors will enjoy.

Museum Hill Cafe
710 Camino Lejo
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 984-8900
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 29 May 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Smoked Duck Flautas, Curried Lentil Stew, Pistachio Cream Pie

Museum Hill Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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