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EPAZOTE ON THE HILLSIDE – Santa Fe, New Mexico

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Epazote, one of the most unique and special dining experiences in New Mexico

Epazote.  That’s a word that can make an intrepid chef’s toque blanche resemble the white flag of surrender.  If you’re a culinary savant and haven’t heard of epazote, it’s probably because the chefs at restaurants you frequent might just be afraid to use it.  Would you want to use an ingredient also known as “skunkweed” and “wormseed”…a word derived from a Nahuatl term for an animal with a rank odor…an ingredient perhaps best known for reducing the after-effects of eating beans?

When Chef Fernando Olea chose to name his fabulous new world restaurant Epazote, it signaled a bold  departure from the stereotype too many diners have of Mexican restaurants.  In the Chef’s inimitably gentle manner, he was declaring his passion for the cuisine of the pre-Columbian peoples of Mexico, signaling his embrace of historically authentic ingredients and preparation styles.  At Epazote, he marries Mexico’s indigenous culinary traditions with those of New Mexico, especially its agricultural bounty.  Oh, and he’s daring and talented enough to incorporate epazote into several recipes.

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The very unique interior housing Epazote

Originally from Mexico City, Chef Olea has been enthralling savvy diners in Santa Fe since 1991 with his sophisticated interpretations of contemporary Mexican cuisine.  In nearly a quarter-century, the Chef has become a veritable institution in the city, perhaps a larger institution than Bert’s Burger Bowl, the popular 50-year plus old drive-up eatery he purchased in the early 90s.  Perpetually sporting his familiar cowboy hat, Chef Olea modestly deflects well-deserved compliments, especially the word “genius.”  He will, however, and only if you insist, acquiesce to being called an artist.

Just as every artist must work in a venue which actualizes creativity, a Chef should work in a milieu which galvanizes his or her vision.  For Chef Olea, the perfect backdrop for executing the concepts of inspired new world cuisine is Hillside, a uniquely whimsical and organic environment which showcases eclectic treasures created by Santa Fe artisans.  Epazote occupies Hillside’s greenhouse which is bathed by natural light and surrounded by locally created art.  The ambiance is like no other in Santa Fe, creating an experience you will long remember. 

Chef Fernando Olea (right) and his very talented Sous Chef Leroy Alvarado (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll).

Because there’s so very much to see at every turn, making your way to the restaurant can be a slow go.   Make sure to allocate plenty of time on the way out to peruse every nook and cranny of this most unique art space.  There’s no surcease to artisinal inspiration when you step into the awe-inspiring greenhouse turned restaurant.   To your immediate left as you step in is an exposed kitchen, the cynosure of which is a flaming horno for baking bread.  The ambiance, which includes bi-level seating, is zen-like, transporting you instantly to a better, more tranquil self.  From an experiential standpoint, the restaurant seems more Asian than Mexican. Oh, and one of the most attractive sights at Hillside is owner Tisha Sjosfrand whose warm smile and buoyant personality greet you as you enter the restaurant.

Epazote is a wonder of zen and flair with a menu worthy of the dining room’s whimsical elegance. Fittingly, the restaurant opened its doors on Valentine’s Day 2014.  Billie Frank, the wonderful freelance travel and food writer whose work graces the Santa Fe Travelers blog, was there on opening week.  She calls Epazote “a love letter to food.”  That is about as accurate a description for Chef Olea’s masterful menu as you’ll find anywhere.

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Jars of Dried Chiles

A love letter to food composed by Chef Olea would certainly express his deeply personal feelings toward mole, perhaps the one dish which has most cemented Chef Olea’s legacy over the years.  The Chef considers mole the most evocative of fine Mexican cuisine in terms of mystery, history and tradition.  An array of delightfully aromatic, richly complex and absolutely mouthwatering moles graces the menu at Epazote where they’re paired with everything from rack of lamb to duck breast to halibut.  Chef Olea emphasizes that contrary to misconceptions, the paramount ingredient on mole is not the chocolate, but chiles.  His approach to using chile is emphasize its other qualities, not just its piquancy.

In 2009 Chef Olea committed to creating a special mole to commemorate Santa Fe’s 400-year anniversary.  The resulting New Mexico mole is the result of skill and serendipity.  The skill part is obvious.  Chef Olea is one of the most accomplished mole chefs in the world.  The serendipity–luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things–flowed as the deadline was closing in.  While traveling throughout the state about a week before the deadline, the discovery of pecans grown in Socorro started a deluge of inspiration for the inventive chef.  At an Indian Pueblo, he espied apricots and decided they would be the next ingredient for the mole.

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A painting of the ingredients used to create Chef Fernando Olea’s New Mexican Mole

Determined to create a mole crafted showcasing uniquely New Mexican ingredients, it made sense to Chef Olea to include New Mexican roasted piñons and, of course, the one ingredient which most says New Mexico: red chile from Chimayo.  He contemplated using green chile, but quickly dismissed the notion because green chile doesn’t pair as well with other foods (the green chile cheeseburgers at Bert’s Burger Bowl are an exception, he reminded us).  Other ingredients include white chocolate, Mexican cinnamon, sesame seeds, cumin seeds and more.  The ingredients used to construct the New Mexico mole are highlighted on a large bright painting hanging on the north wall.

The most aptly descriptive part of Epazote’s “inspired new world cuisine” approach is definitely inspiration, but visionary, innovative and spectacular would also fit.  At first browse the menu appears small, but when you consider the diversity of flavor profiles and potential combinations, there are options a plenty.  To the greatest extent possible, Chef Olea utilizes fresh and local ingredients and lets those ingredients speak for themselves.  When you’ve got great ingredients, he explains, a little bit of salt and pepper is all you need.

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Ensalada De Queso Azul

The menu is divided into five distinctive sections: Botanas (Appetizers), Especialidades (Specialties), Ensalada (Salads), Sopas (Soups) and Platos Fuerte (Main Courses).  Unlike the bygone ordering convention at Chinese restaurants where you picked “one from column A and one from column B,” you’re free to order any item on the menu in any order you desire.  You can also order as you go; the wait staff won’t rush you.  Service is attentive and professional.  Shortly after you’re seated, your server will bring you small samples of the aguas frescas del dia (the horchata is terrific).  Make sure to ask for samples of the wonderful moles of the day.

16 March 2014: The Ensalada section of the menu lists three salads, all of which you’ll welcome on your table.  These aren’t  slapped-together composed salads, the type of which will lull your taste buds to sleep.  These are exciting salads constructed from the freshest, most creative and high quality ingredients available.  The Ensalada De Queso Azul translates literally to blue cheese salad, but it’s so much more.  The blue cheese has characteristic blue veins running throughout each crumbly morsel, indicative of its pungency and sharpness.  There’s just enough blue cheese to serve as a foil for the other ingredients: craisins (dried cranberries), caramelized spicy pecans and mixed greens surrounded by a thin moat of chocolate vinaigrette.  When is the last time you had a chocolate vinaigrette?  It’s fantastic!

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Horno Baked Bread and Corn Tortillas

16 March 2014: New Mexicans, both the scions of Cortez and indigenous peoples, have been baking on hornos for centuries.  A beehive-shaped oven typically made of mud, an horno seems to infuse bread with preternatural deliciousness.  If you’ve ever had horno-baked bread at a Pueblo, you know of which I speak.  The inside of an horno has a stone base to retain heat, as high as 600-degrees.  It’s the perfect vessel for baking bread, a dense yet yeasty individual-sized roll great on its own or slathered with butter.  The wood-fired horno-baked bread at Epazote is as good as has been made for generations in New Mexico.

Although botanas translate from Spanish to snack or appetizer, the menu describes them as “heart’s delight,” essentially synonymous with Chinese dim sum or “touch the heart.”    The Botanas section of the menu lists some six proteins: carne (angus beef tenderloin), cordero (rack of lamb), lechon (marinated pork loin), pato (Muscovy duck breast, camaron (Meridian shrimp) and wild Pacific salmon.  The proteins you select arrive raw. In a participatory experience reminiscent of some Japanese restaurants, you are your own chef, preparing the botanas on a polished river rock which has been heated on the horno.

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Cordero (rack of lamb) and Lechon (Marinated Pork Loin)

16 March 2014: The proteins are served with small corn tortillas and four housemade infused aiolis with flavor profiles ranging from attention-grabbing piquancy (a guacamole aioli) to a more mellow chimichurri.  A bit less than two minutes per side on the rock and your proteins are done.  Cooking them is a unique and fun experience not to be missed.  The quality of the two proteins we enjoyed immensely–cordero (rack of lamb) and lechon (marinated pork loin)–is better than prime.  The lamb is nicely marbled and tender, as good a rack of lamb as can be had in Santa Fe.

Our server recommended one-and-a-half to two botanas per person.  That, along with one (or four) bread rolls and splitting a salad, should leave enough room for a plato fuerte (main course).  You definitely want to save room for one of the four available options: Mole, the chef’s signature dish; Popocatepetl, a black pepper-encrusted Angus beef tenderloin; Atun, seared yellow fin tuna; or Calabasitas, sauteed zucchini.

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Lamb chops and New Mexico Mole with Mashed Sweet Potatoes

16 March 2014: Being an unabashedly proud New Mexican (and especially after having sampled the three moles of the day), it was a no-brainer as to what my plato fuerte would be.  Chef Olea’s New Mexico Mole is quite simply one of the very best moles to ever cross my lips…and while the recipe can actually be found on the Chicago Tribune Web site, it would be foolhardy of me to believe I could hope to duplicate the Chef’s artistry and magic touch. As with all classically prepared moles, the New Mexico Mole is more than the sum of all its ingredients.  It incorporates the heart and soul of the chef who created it.  

The New Mexico Mole is richly complex, a crowning achievement of sheer genius (even though Chef Olea doesn’t like the term used on him) with remarkable depth of unique flavors coalescing into saucy perfection.  It’s a sumptuously simmered sauce perfumed with spices, nuts, chocolates and Chimayo chile.  It’s the stuff of legend and it has besotted me.  As if the mole isn’t enough, Chef Olea serves it with three lollipop lamb chops (or another protein should you desire) prepared at medium-rare and seasoned solely with salt and pepper.  The lamb chops are exquisite, some of the very best we’ve had.

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Popocatepetl (Black Pepper Crusted Angus Beef Tenderloin) with a cabbage and snow pea slaw

16 March 2014: My passion for the New Mexico mole was matched by my Kim’s infectious ardor for the Popocatepetl, a twelve-ounce black pepper-crusted Angus beef tenderloin served with a cabbage and snow pea slaw.  Popocatepetl, by the way, is the name of an active volcano south of Mexico City.  It’s a fitting name for one of the most delicious steaks we’ve had.  The black pepper is finely crushed, much moreso than the loosely cracked pepper corns used on steak au poivre, a French dish.  It is no less flavorful.  More surprising than its flavor was the nearly fork tenderness of the tenderloin cut.  Prepared at a perfect medium, it’s a premium steak with prime flavor.  The Popocatepetl is served with a cabbage and snow pea slaw which sounds simple, but possesses surprising complexity and flavor.

16 March 2014: Alan Koehler, author of the Madison Avenue Cook Book, posited “dessert should close the meal gently and not in a pyrotechnic blaze of glory.”  Chef Olea’s desserts, such as the trio of flan, are a perfect example.  The flans aren’t an assemblage of flamboyant ingredients presented spectacularly to evoke a loud, celebratory utterance.  Instead, they’re crafted from a few basic ingredients presented beautifully to elicit an almost reverent murmur.  The trio of flan–vanilla topped with shaved almonds, chocolate topped with a single raspberry and golden tomato topped with piñon–is memorable, a symphony of quiet concordance like a symphony for your taste buds.  When Chef Olea conceived of the golden tomato flan his adoring wife and chief taster was skeptical until she tasted it.  Now she loves it as you will.

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Flan Trio

Chef’s Tasting Menu: 20 March 2014

A restaurant as great as Epazote presided over by a chef as talented as Chef Olea is an invitation to degustation, a culinary term meaning “a careful, appreciative tasting of various foods.”  Degustation focuses on four aspects of dining: the gustatory system, the sensual experience, the artistry of the chef and of course, great company.  Epazote offers a chef’s tasting menu which introduces diners to sample small portions of the great chef’s signature creations in one sitting.

The great company component of my inaugural chef’s tasting menu was in the delightful form of three culinarily adventurous friends: Franzi, the beauteous barrister who won’t let me photograph her; the exotic and vivacious Nikko; and Beckett, a fellow bon-vivant.  The well-traveled Beckett isn’t prone to hyperbole, so when he uttered the superlative “fabulous” after nearly every course, it signaled a very successful chef’s tasting menu.  Chef Olea personally delivered every course to our table, engaging us with his witty repartee and charm.  By meal’s end at least three people at our table wanted to propose marriage to him.

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Top Left: Huitlacoche Taco; Top Right: Chapulines Taco; Bottom: Bone Marrow

Before our first course, our palates were teased by a fabulous amuse-bouche, a tiny tidbit  not part of the multi-course menu and which is presented by the chef himself.  Amuse-bouche are intended to keep you happy while you await your first course.   Mission accomplished!  Our amuse-bouche was a salmon pate on a single chip.  Punctuated by barely discernible tinges of lemon and dill, this pate focused on the freshness of the salmon in a surprisingly ethereal form similar to a mousse.

When proposing a dining adventure at Epazote, there were two items I wanted to introduce my friends to: chapulines and huitlacoche.  Franzi is an absolutely fearless epicurean, once joining me in what was literally the snout to tail consumption of a whole hog: eyes, tail, cheeks and more.  Chapulines and huitlacoche are something else.  Both have been known to scare away all but the most intrepid of diners while simultaneously being considered delicacies among other cultures.

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Abalone

Chapulines–the leaf-eating grasshoppers responsible for ravaging vast farmlands–are not only the bane of farmers everywhere, they have a high “yuck” factor as food or otherwise.  They’re also a delicacy and dietary staple for the people of Oaxaca in Mexico.  High in protein and low in fat, they can be delicious if prepared by a master chef.  At Epazote, the smallish chapulines are sauteed then tucked into soft corn tortillas topped with guacamole and Mole Negro de Oaxaca.  The chapulines themselves  have a nutty, crunch flavor which pairs well with the pleasant piquancy of the Mole and the richness of the guacamole.  Only one person at our table declined to partake (which meant one more for me).

If chapulines have a high “yuck” factor, huitlacoche has the disadvantage of being a fungus and it’s called “smut.”  More specifically, it’s accurately called corn smut.  Worse, its name translates from Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs, to raven shi…er, excrement.  Despite all it has going against it, huitlacoche has a flavor profile unlike any other, a unique musty earthiness somehow reminiscent, but wholly different than the flavors of truffles or mushrooms.  One of the ways in which Chef Olea uses huitlacoche is on some of the most sublime tacos you’ll ever have.  The third in a triumvirate of high “yuck” factor foods was roasted, rich, buttery and delicious bone marrow with a depth of flavor few items achieve. It inherits a beef-broth flavor from its host animal and has a  gelatinous texture some may find a bit off-putting.  That just means there’s more for those of us who love it.  Everyone at our table loved it!  

Poblano Soup (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

A once-endangered, greatly over-fished mollusk now carefully farmed and harvested, abalone has been described as having a flavor “like an oyster crossed with a scallop with a twist of snail.”  Texturally, it’s been likened to an eraser.  Requiring quite a bit of tenderizing to make it palatable, abalone is a challenge for many chefs.  At the hands of Chef Olea, abalone becomes one of those transformative dishes you might remember for a long time.  Sliced diagonally to about an eighth of an inch, it’s served with a light chipotle  sauce tinged with juices from the abalone itself.  Somewhat reminiscent of sashimi (at least in appearance), it’s light, mild and delicate in flavor.  It’s what ambrosia might taste like.

It’s rare to find a dish that moves you to near tears of joy.  The poblano soup at Epazote had that effect on all of us.  It is quite simply one of the very best soups I’ve ever had anywhere, a rarefied elixir so perfect it’s impossible to conceive of anything better.  Submerged beneath an amaretto foam dusted with cocoa and cinnamon are tiny pieces of shrimp–not shrimp cut in half or even quarters, but torn into unevenly sized (perfectly sized) tiny pieces.  The piquancy of the poblano was a surprise, providing a back-of-the-throat warmth courtesy of a capsaicin-rich pepper.  There is so much going on with this soup that we stopped contemplating it and focused on eyes closed, moan uttering enjoyment.  Thankfully the soup is served with a small spoon for slow sipping or we might have dug in face-first.

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Mole Poblano with Muscovy Duck

The most complex mole Chef Olea prepares is the Mole Poblano, constructed from some thirty-four ingredients.  Mole Poblano is Mexico’s national dish, a mole steeped in legend and beloved by the masses.  It’s a very rich, very thick, very sweet chocolate-tinged sauce with just a hint of heat. It pairs with almost everything.  At Epazote, the Mole Poblano is served with sliced Muscovy duck breast and a sweet potato mash.  The tender duck is served medium-rare and laced with a crisp fat (synonymous with flavor) layer. The duck is seasoned solely with salt and pepper, but you’ll probably be using it to dredge up the mole.  The sweet potato mash is sweeter even than the mole.  The plate on which this dish is served is circumnavigated by a thin line of sweet, tangy guava.

Perhaps the biggest compliment one chef can pay another is to pick up a plate, excuse himself (or herself) and lick the plate clean.  This unconventional feat was accomplished by none other than restaurant impresario Paul Fleming (the PF from PF Chang’s) when he finished one of the most amazing desserts on the planet.  When Chef Olea brought Sweet Symphony to our table, he described in alchemical terms, very clearly and accurately, just where the elements of the dessert would hit us–from the tongue to the back of the throat and even to the spine.  He also challenged us to identify (visually before we tasted the dessert) all the ingredients in this glorious dessert.  While we fared well in that exercise, we could not have described its effects on us nearly as accurately as Chef Olea did.  This dessert of magical properties starts with an avocado ice cream on a lagoon of ginger paired with a beet foam and piñon.  These were the visible elements.  The jalapeño which paired with the ginger to create back-of-the-throat pleasures is hidden somewhere.  Quite simply, it’s one of the most amazing desserts I’ve ever had.  It’s a marvel of ingenious deliciousness.

Sweet Symphony: Avocado ice cream tinged with jalapeño, beet foam, ginger, piñon (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Chef’s Tasting Menu: 15 November 2014

In Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin’s manifesto on the joys of sharing food and entertaining, she wrote “One of the delights of life is eating with friends, second to that is talking about eating.  And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.”  My conversation about food with my friend Sandy Driscoll began in October, 2007 when she discovered my blog shortly before visiting New Mexico.  We’ve been talking about food (and virtually everything else) ever since and have broken bread (and sopaipillas) together in New Mexico and California. 

During a recent conversation about food, we discussed our mutual admiration for Spanish chef Jose Andres, a restaurant impresario and celebrity chef.  In a fit of bravado and New Mexico pride, I posited that Chef Olea is “right up there with Andres” as a chef (frankly I think Chef Olea is a superior chef, but he’s a very modest man and wouldn’t want me bragging on his behalf).  Because the proof is in the huitlacoche, we introduced Sandy to Chef Olea’s fabulous chef’s tasting menu where can be found at least two items on my theoretical “last meal” wish list.

Porcini Mushrooms and Bean Thread Noodles with an Asian Sauce and Sprigs of Mint (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

During our perfectly paced three-hour meal, Sandy, who’s not nearly as prone to hyperbole as yours truly, used the term “fabulous” to describe virtually every item (in between other utterances of delight).  Afterwards she described her meal as “one of my best ever culinary experiences!!” and “the best meal I’ve ever had in Santa Fe.”   Considering she’s dined at several Michelin starred restaurants throughout the country, that’s high praise indeed.  

Epazote has been in a lot of conversations lately.  In October, 2014, USA Today’s 10 Best named Epazote the very best option for lunch in Santa Fe.  Billie Frank, who’s pretty fabulous in her own right, was effusive in her praise for Chef Olea’s loving culinary preparations.  Lest you think “it’s just lunch,” Hillside owner Tisha Sjosfrand assured me that Epazote will enter the dinner restaurant fray on receipt of its beer and wine license.  The question then will be whether or not Epazote is the best dinner destination in Santa Fe, too.

Chef Fernando Olea and our very capable server bring Poblano Soup to our table (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Chef Olea’s coat is emblazoned with the term “Inspired New World Cuisine.”  It’s an apt description for his masterful execution of cuisine which defies pigeonholing.  He laments that when Santa Fe concierge recommend Epazote for its Mexican cuisine, some diners are disheartened and leave when they don’t find tacos and enchiladas on the menu.  What a shame!  Perhaps if they had stuck around, they would have experienced an Asian inspired work of art with which our tasting menu experience began.  This starter showcased porcini mushrooms and bean thread noodles with the chef’s own Tabuca sauce and sprigs of mint.  The woodsy  earthiness of the mushrooms, the Thai chili pepper heat of the Tabuca sauce and the evergreen freshness of the mint coalesced into a balanced flavor profile in which all elements are deliciously discernible on your palate. 

Our second course was the sublime Poblano soup about which I wax poetic in my review of my previous tasting menu experience.  Served in a martini glass, this soul-warming elixir was not, however, a repeat of the Poblano soup I had previously experienced (though that would have been joyously welcomed).  Chef Olea changed things up subtly yet with great effect.  Instead of the magnificent shrimp from my first visit, a sole “crouton” created from seared wild Pacific salmon luxuriated in the broth.  The brininess of the salmon and the alchemical interplay of other ingredients reenforced why this is my highest rated soup in New Mexico.  It’s on the very top of my proverbial “last meal” list.

Rolled Chapulines (Baby Grasshoppers) Tacos, Sun Gold Tomatoes with a jalapeño sauce (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Our third course–one neither my Kim nor the worldly Sandy had imagined they would ever experience–was two rolled tacos engorged with chapulines (baby grasshoppers) encircled by a jalapeño sauce and served with three Sun Gold tomatoes.  It’s only the thought of eating the “icky” insect that’s repulsive.  Get past that revulsion and you might, like everyone to whom I’ve introduced this tasty treat, enjoy (or at the very least, be able to brag about) the experience.  If you can’t get past the chapulines alone, the jalapeño sauce adds flavor and heat elements that may make them less off-putting to you.  Then there are the Sun Gold tomatoes, the reddish-orange beauties with an explosively sweet, fruity flavor.  They’re addictive (and so are the chapulines). 

Should you treat yourself to the Chef’s Tasting Menu at Epazote, make it a point to request bread before any course is brought to your table.  You’ll don’t want to lose a single drop of any of the fabulous sauces which ameliorate each course.  Not only is the bread utilitarian for sopping up those precious sauces, Chef Olea’s baking skills are on display with such creative and delicious breads as a dense grain bread punctuated with apricot and walnuts.  It’s a fabulous bread, the type of which you’ll want an entire loaf. 

Bread infused with walnuts and apricots (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Not every chef is intrepid enough to pair bold, assertive flavors with delicate flavors and not every chef knows that seemingly disparate flavors can actually be complementary.  Chef Olea’s flavor and ingredient pairings are legendary.  Perfectly tender, rich and rosy rare Muscovy duck with a light, succulent ring of fat is one of those light, delicate flavors not often paired with assertive and bold flavors.  Chef Olea dared pair the magnificent Muscovy duck with an incendiary (courtesy of jalapeños) Oaxacan mole verde which isn’t quite as sweet as some moles tend to be .  A smear of the equally piquant Tebuca sauce decorated the plate.  Other delicate elements on the dish were crispy spinach and crispy bean threads. The ethereally light and flaky spinach is a real treat.  The seemingly disparate pairing actually worked very well with flavors playing off each other in harmony.  I’m convinced Chef Olea can pair an Army chukka boot with a Bruno Magli loafer and make a fashion statement haute fashionistas would drool over. 

Over the years, lamb has obtained (perhaps earned) a reputation for being gamey (resembling the flavor and odor of wild hunted game) and having a strong flavor not all carnivores enjoy.  The strength of “gaminess” actually ranges among different breeds of sheep.  Northern New Mexican sheep, the type of which Epazote procures, has a rich and robust flavor without being off-putting and overly gamey.  Chef Olea paired two thick, lollipop lamb chops with a sweet potato puree and Poblano mole, both of which have sweet notes that complement the lamb very well.  With their built-in “handles,” the lamb chops are made to be picked up (etiquette be damned) and used to scoop up some of the puree and mole.  Three purplish dots on the plate are courtesy of a red cabbage reduction which just might reduce you to tears of ecstasy.

Muscovy Duck, Oaxacan Mole Verde, Bean Threads, Crispy Spinach and a Tabuca Sauce (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

Our dessert was the fabulous Sweet Symphony, the second Epazote offering on my proverbial last meal.  Words can’t adequately describe just how wonderful this sublime sweet course really is, but you can read my feeble efforts at such above Sandy’s photo of the dessert.  Having previously had Sweet Symphony, it made me tremendously happy to see my wife and dear friend first try to discern the ingredients of this masterful concoction, then watching them swoon with each treasured bite.  Two days after having partaken of this greatness, Sandy is still raving about it.

Although our initial seating was by the tranquil waterfall on the restaurant’s bottom level, we asked to be moved on account of the sunlight.  Our accommodating server gave us the other best seat in the house–right under the portrait of the New Mexico mole ingredients on the second level.  The culmination of our meal was a conversation with the great gentleman chef whom Sandy looks forward to seeing again when he serves as guest chef at the Los Angeles restaurant where his daughter works. There’s no doubt this won’t be Sandy’s sole visit to Epazote.

Northern New Mexico Raised Lamb Chops, Mole Poblano, Sweet Potato Puree, Red Cabbage Reduction (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

EPILOGUE

From both an experiential perspective as well as for outstanding cuisine, Epazote is far and away one of the best restaurants I have ever experienced. Chef Olea is not only a chef of nonpareil talent, he is the consummate host, a true gentleman with the emphasis on the word “gentle.” Epazote on the Hillside must be experienced to comprehend true greatness–a greatness that isn’t shouted loudly, but in a manner as gentle as a burbling stream or soft breeze.

EPAZOTE ON THE HILLSIDE
86 Old Las Vegas Highway
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 982-9944
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 November 2014
1st VISIT: 16 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 27
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Flan Trio, New Mexican Mole, Lamb Chops, Popocatepetl, Rack of Lamb, Lechon, Ensalada de Queso Azul, Horno Baked Bread, Huitloacoche Taco, Chapulines Taco, Bone Marrow, Abalone, Mole Poblano with Muscovy Duck, Poblano Soup, Symphony

Epazote on Urbanspoon

Anasazi Restaurant – Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Anasazi Restaurant & Bar at the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi

As you gaze in awe and wonder at the luxurious trappings surrounding you everywhere you turn at the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, you can’t help but contemplate the irony.  Inn of the Anasazi?  Throughout their existence the Anasazi never knew luxury or leisure, focusing solely and at all times on survival.  Shelter, food and water were of paramount concern in the Four Corners area of the Southwest, a desolate environment which was often brutal and unforgiving.  Amidst the ravages of climatic extremes, the Anasazi scratched out an existence and an lasting legacy.

While the subsistence living of the Anasazi civilization and the opulence of the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi are at polar extremes, even stodgy historians might appreciate that this intimate world-class retreat “celebrates the enduring creative spirit and traditions of the regions early Native American.”  This boutique gem also embraces Santa Fe’s rich cultural heritage and ongoing legacy as an artist colony.  An extensive art collection is a vivid blend of Native, Hispanic and Anglo influences.

The stylish Anasazi Dining Room

In the Anasazi Restaurant and Bar luxury travelers have a restaurant worthy of the stunning three-story Inn.  Richly appointed with the tricultural art of New Mexico, the restaurant is decidedly rich, tasteful and masculine in its furnishings.  Meals are as artistic as the ambiance with a healthful salute to the rich bounty of New Mexico’s farms from where fresh produce is sourced at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market.  Through a Santa Fe purveyor, the Anasazi procures elk from the Rocky Mountains and lamb from northern New Mexico.  The quality is very much in evidence.

In Matthew 4:4, Jesus declared “It is written, man shall not live by bread alone.” For the most part, this man wouldn’t want to, but some breads are so good, it might be tempting to try. The bread at the Anasazi is among the best offered at any restaurant in Santa Fe.  Fresh, yeasty baguettes and a red chile impregnated lavosh offer textural and flavor contrasts.  Both are so good you’ll be tempted to order a second bread basket though you’d risk filling up on bread alone.

Bread Basket

Contrary to what some restaurants might have you believe, bottled Caesar salad dressing does not a true Caesar salad make.  There’s a richness of embarrassment propagated against the dining public when this “faux” Caesar is offered.  The Anasazi prepares, albeit not table-side, a true Caesar salad then it takes a few liberties with the ingredients and calls it a “South of the Border Caesar Salad.”  There’s just a bit of irony there because the salad’s “inventor” Caesar Cardini actually created the very first Caesar salad in Tijuana, Mexico on July 4th 1924. 

The South of the Border Caesar Salad is everything there is to like about the Caesar salad and more.  It’s constructed with Romaine lettuce, tapioca green chile croutons, crispy Serrano ham and a lemon-anchovy dressing with a white anchovy thrown in for good measure.  Every ingredient on this salad is first rate.  The crispy Serrano ham is as thin as carpaccio and as crispy as a potato chip with the unmistakably wonderful flavor of cured, salted pork.  The tapioca green chile crouton has an almost doughy texture and appearance, but inside it you’ll discern the irresistible flavor of roasted chile. The lemon-anchovy dressing is as good as we’ve ever had.

South of the Border Caesar Salad

Even though the quality of seafood–some shipped daily to New Mexico’s restaurants–has improved greatly over the years, all too often we’re reminded that one of the few enchantments with which we’re not blessed is proximity to the ocean.  That’s often the case even at high-end fine-dining establishments such as the Anasazi.  A lobster quesadilla would not have cut it in Maine; it shouldn’t cut it in New Mexico either. 

Even though our quesadillas were brimming with prized knuckle and claw meat (as well as Asadero cheese, chipotle mayonnaise and mango dressing), the lobster was chewy (typically a sign it’s been overcooked).  Served with the quesadilla were the usual quesadilla suspects: sour cream, pico de gallo and guacamole, none of which would probably be served with lobster in Maine.  While we liked the notion of a lobster quesadilla, we found the execution of the concept lacking.  To paraphrase Marlon Brando from On The Waterfront, “it could have been a contender.”

Anasazi Lobster Quesadilla

Argentina is widely regarded as the beef capital of the world, the domicile of succulent cuts of mouth-watering, premium steaks.  One of the favorite preparation styles is Bife Asado, literally grilled beef.  At the Anasazi Restaurant, Bife Asado is a flat iron steak grilled to your exacting specifications (medium-rare is just about perfect), sliced into half-inch slices and served with fingerling potatoes, calabacitas and usually a Serrano chile Chimichurri sauce which my Kim rebuked  because one of its ingredients is cumin in favor of a mango salsa. 

Flat iron steaks are a value-priced cut that is tender, juicy and which some experts say has the “beefiest” flavor of any cut of beef on any steak. The Anasazi Restaurant exploits these qualities to their utmost, grilling a fork-tender steak that is juicy, delicious and absolutely beefy.  The fingerling potatoes, which include purple Peruvian potatoes, are worthy accompaniment while the mango salsa, though no Chimichurri, is so good you might eat it right out of the ramekin and not use it on the beef.

Bife Asado

The Anasazi Restaurant menu claims to “celebrate American cuisine, in particular New Mexico cuisine.”  What passes today for “New Mexican cuisine” at the Anasazi would probably be unrecognizable to abuelitas of yesteryear.  It would be interesting to study Anasazi’s avant-garde approach to  interpreting New Mexican cuisine with my own grandmother, but frankly there are very few dishes on the dinner menu which would pass for anything approaching traditional New Mexican cuisine as she knew it.  The duck enchilada mole is hardly traditional. 

Fortunately, the menu does offer New Mexico lamb chops, long a staple in Northern New Mexico.  My abuelita never prepared lamb chops as tender, meaty and delicious as those found at the Anasazi.  My own memories of Northern New Mexican lamb is of a tough, sinewy and gamey meat, albeit one with a delicious grass-fed flavor.  We certainly didn’t adorn our lamb chops with anything as rich and deeply-flavorful as the mint demi-glace which flows copiously on the plate.  Nor did we ever enjoy broccolini and smashed fingerling potatoes with our lamb.  Though my grandmother would probably have found the Anasazi’s preparation heretically inauthentic, she would probably have enjoyed them.  We sure did.

New Mexico Lamb Chops

Desserts share space on the menu with postprandial digestifs (alcoholic beverage served after a meal, in theory to aid digestion) such as cognac, brandy, grappa and sherry.  The Anasazi Restaurant, by the way, boasts a Wine Spectator award-winning wine list and in 2013, was named by Wine Enthusiast as one of America’s 100 best wine restaurants in recognition of its 300 bottles of Old and New World wines.  Those wines form the backdrop for private candlelight dinners at the restaurant’s intimate wine cellar which accommodates up to twelve guests.

A housemade daily selection of sorbets or ice creams may seem somewhat pedestrian compared with the other sophisticated desserts offerings on the menu, but when made well you can’t beat a good ice cream. At Anasazi, you’ll get three scoops per order, a tantalizing triumvirate of cold deliciousness served atop fruit (watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe) pieces.  By happenstance, the flavors of the day during one unseasonably warm October day were vanilla, dulce de leche and chocolate.  The dulce de leche, which translates literally from the Spanish as “sweet of milk,” has a wonderful caramel-like flavor while the chocolate is intensely chocolate, boasting the adult chocolate flavor aficionados love.

Ice Cream Trio: Chocolate, Dulce De Leche, Vanilla

In a city replete with posh, elegant and refined lodging and dining opportunities, the spectacular Anasazi Restaurant at the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi is among the most highly regarded.

Anasazi Restaurant
113 Washington Avenue
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 988-3236
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 18 October 2014
# OF VISITS: 4
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: New Mexico Lamb Chops, Lobster Quesadilla, Bife Asado, Bread

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Five & Dime General Store – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe’s famous Five & Dime General Store

The late Fray Angelico Chavez, New Mexico’s preeminent historian once wrote about Santa Fe’s growth, “The only threat to her own distinctive glory, and something to guard against these days, is the kind of hurried “progress” which has, not history or humanity, but only money as its sole aim and purpose.”  Perhaps nowhere in Santa Fe has that hurried progress been more in evidence than in the world-famous Santa Fe Plaza which has seen significant changes over the years. One of the bastions against progress had been the Woolworth’s department store, in place for several generations, but which finally gave up the ghost just before the turn of the 21st century.

In its place stands the Five & Dime General Store which retains much of the charm that made Woolworth’s a throwback to better times.  Best of all, the Five & Dime retained the lunch counter in which the Frito Pie was invented by Teresa Hernandez in the 1960s–nearly 60 years ago. Few, if any, do it better. The Frito Pie is served the old fashioned way, in an open bag of Fritos smothered with meaty red chile and shredded cheese.

The snack bar where dozens of Frito Pies are served

While filming “Parts Unknown” for CNN celebrity glitterati Anthony Bourdain rankled the feathers of proud New Mexicans who have loved the Five & Dime’s Frito pies for generations.  Bourdain claimed the dish was made with canned Hormel chili and a “DayGlo orange cheese-like substance.”   Worse, the acerbic one claimed the Frito pie is a Texas creation, adding that “New Mexico, you have many wonderful things.  I think, let Texas have this one.” Within days after the program’s airing, Bourdain issued a retraction. 

UPDATE:  In 2011, Kaleta Doolin wrote Fritos Pie, Stories, Recipes and More where she dismissed any claims about Santa Fe’s Woolworth’s having been the inventor of the Frito Pie. What gives Doolin credibility is the fact that she was the daughter of the founder of Frito Lays so she had access to company records. Her research found that the “Fritos chili pie” was first served in 1949, more than a decade before Teresa Hernandez “invented it” in the 1960s at the Santa Fe Woolworth’s.

The world-famous Frito Pie

In 1962, the recipe for “Frito pie” appeared on millions of bags of chips: “Heat can of chili, pour into bag of Fritos, and sprinkle with grated cheese, and chopped onions.” That could well have been from where Teresa Hernandez found the recipe…but she most assuredly used New Mexican “chile” and not some dreadful Texas “chili” in concocting her version. For that she should be canonized.

So, while Anthony Bourdain was right about Frito pie having been invented in Texas,  he was wrong in calling it a “warm crap in a bag” and “colostomy pie.”   It’s for his scatological description that New Mexicans have not forgiven him.  Despite his criticism, Bourdain claims to have enjoyed the Five And Dime’s Frito pie.

The Food Network’s popular “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” program gave New Mexico much more love. The premise of this show is that restaurateurs and chefs know where to eat. It answers the question “where do food stars and chefs eat in their free time–when they’re paying.”  Chef Rahm Fama returned to his hometown of Santa Fe for a “Best Thing…” episode entitled “Childhood Favorites.”  In the episode, he recalled the joys of noshing on Frito pie from the original Five & Dime General Store.

The menu includes several other items, but you rarely see anyone order anything but the Frito Pie which made Woolworth’s a Santa Fe institution. The lunch counter doesn’t have much counter space and there are very few tables, so you just might have to walk around the plaza with your Frito Pie in hand, but you might never have a better one. 

Five & Dime General Store
58 E. San Francisco
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 992-1800
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 18 October 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Frito Pie

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