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Los Mayas – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Los Mayas in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Los Mayas in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Diego de Landa Calderón, the former Bishop of Yucatán, is a dichotomous figure in the history of the new world.  On one hand, he is recognized as an invaluable source of information on pre-Columbian Mayan civilizations, but on the other, he was directly responsible for destroying much of that civilization’s history, literature and traditions.

Given the responsibility of converting the indigenous Maya to Roman Catholicism, he instituted an Inquisition that ultimately ended with the notorious auto de fé, a ritual of public penance for condemned heretics.  Mayas who continued to practice “idol worship” after having been “converted” to Catholicism were the recipients of this torturous rite.  During one ceremony, he also burned more than 5,000 Maya cult images and a significant number of Maya codices which would have filled in many blanks as to Maya history and culture.

Los Mayas on a balmy summer day

Los Mayas on a balmy summer day

In 1566 upon his return to Spain, Landa authored a book in which he catalogued the Maya language, culture, religion and system of writing.  From his writings, we now know just how much the ancient Maya diet contributed to our own modern foodstuffs.  While some of the foods of the Maya (and frankly of their modern-day descendants) are unfamiliar to many Americans, other foods are commonplace at the supermarket.  These include tomatoes, sweet potatoes, avocados and guavas as well as such familiar and treasured New Mexican foods and seasonings as chili peppers, chocolate and vanilla beans.

Fish and fowl were also a significant portion of the Maya diet.  Landa’s writings tell us the Maya was a considerate hunter, killing only what he needed from among the plentiful deer herds, wild turkeys, wild boar, rabbits and even iguana and armadillo.  Beekeeping and the production of honey were important staples of Mesoamerican life.

Salsa and chips

Salsa and chips

Among the Maya staples, both as a food and in cultural and ritual ceremony, was maize which was used to construct tortillas and tamales.  Just imagine, the Maya had all the ingredients needed to craft some of New Mexico’s favorite dishes.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the foods of the Maya and their descendants can still be obtained at a restaurant named for this great civilization.  Los Mayas restaurant on Water Street honors the culture and traditions of the Maya people in a modern venue renown for its lively and spirited ambiance and excellent Mexican and New Mexican food.  Los Mayas is located within the walls of an adobe home built in 1929 by Don Timoteo and Dona Sofia Cordova.  Within easy walking distance of the historic Santa Fe Plaza, it is a popular dining destination where customers can relax to the melodic stylings of musicians descended from the great Maya.

From the gated Taos blue entrance a red brick path will take you either to the restaurant’s spacious front dining room or the covered patio, a popular summertime favorite.  The mauve-hued walls of the front dining room are festooned with eclectic and colorful art depicting life in Mexico while the tiled floors give it a majestic feel.  This dining room is a cozy, comfortable setting designed to enhance your dining experience.  There are two additional indoor dining rooms in which fires crackle in winter from stylish fireplaces.

You’ll gain entrance to the patio through an arched passage at the end of the brick path.  On a busy night, the length and breadth of the pathway might just be wall-to-wall people as hungry throngs queue up to dine.  Coyote walls backdrop much of the patio which provides roofing, shelter and shade to diners.  In the summer, a place at the patio beats the artifice of air-conditioned indoor climate.  The restaurant’s sound system pipes the music emanating from the stage enhances the intimate ambiance.

Service is first-rate.  Peripatetic owner Fernando Antillas is an outgoing sort, back-slapping gentlemen diners and hugging the women.  He is as friendly and engaging as any restauteur and is equally at home speaking English as he is his native Spanish.

Chiles Rellenos en Nogada

Chiles Rellenos en Nogada

Not only is the spirit of Old Mexico present in the restaurant, so are many of its diverse cuisine offerings.  The menu is actually a compendium of New Mexican and Mexican recipes, particularly from the central state of Puebla.  There are also significant Oaxacan influences in evidence on that varied and interesting menu.  It’s unlike the menu you’ll find at most Mexican restauants in the Land of Enchantment.

Within minutes after you’re seated, a bowl of rich, red salsa and a basket of crisp, fresh chips are delivered to your table.  The salsa has the flavor of fire-roasted tomatoes, garlic, Mexican oregano and fiery chili peppers for that essential incendiary touch.  It rates about medium on the piquancy scale though many tourists would argue that it’s got the potency of a flame-thrower.

Ribeye with a chile relleno

Ribeye with a chile relleno

One of the dishes for which the state of Puebla is best known is a restaurant specialty.  That would be Chiles Rellenos en Nogada, traditionally a Christmas dish which Santa Feans can enjoy year-round.  It’s an interesting dish whose component ingredients vary depending on who prepares it.

Los Mayas rendition starts off with a poblano pepper engorged with ground beef, chopped fruit and walnuts covered in a rich, sweet sauce made from molasses, cream and just a whisper of brandy.  For contrast, it is sprinkled with pomegranate seeds.  The restaurant offers this decadent treat as an appetizer, its most expensive.  It’s an appetizer we first shared at Los Mayas with new friends Sue and Skip Munoz during our inaugural visit and it’s an appetizer we’ll always order.  It’s one of the very best renditions of this Pueblan dishes we’ve ever had.

Pork Carnitas

The menu categorizes entrees into three categories: Northern New Mexican, Old Mexico and Seafood/Vegetarian.  It’s an ambitious menu with something for every discerning diner.  The New Mexican cuisine is purported to be “Santa Fe style,” an audacious claim we last saw at a New Mexican restaurant in Springerville, Arizona.  This menu includes such traditional northern New Mexican favorites as calabasitas, blue corn enchiladas and stuffed sopaipillas.

Old Mexico offerings come from recipes which have been in the Antillas family for three generations, but some of whose genesis is contemporaneous with the Maya for whom the restaurant is named.  Most entrees are accompanied with mashed pinto beans topped with melted cheese and rice sculpted into a round mound of flavor.

Flan

One of the Old Mexico menu favorites is the Filete de Res (pictured above), a ten-ounce charcoal-grilled ribeye served with one chile relleno.  The steak is about half an inch thick, but every bit of that is flavor-rich, imbued with just a hint of charcoal smokiness.  It is as tender as my heart with nary any excess fat or sinew.  The chile relleno proves an interesting contrast to the dessert-sweet Chile Relleno en Nogada.  With piquancy just above that of a bell pepper, it relies on the cheese with which it is engorged and the tomato chile sauce which tops it for flavor.  They do their jobs well, buoying the pepper flavor of the poblano perfectly.

Another entree from the Old Mexico section of the menu is among the very best of its genre we’ve had at any restaurant in New Mexico.  That would be the pork carnitas, shredded pork marinated overnight.  Tender is a vast understatement for the well-seasoned pork served in a cast iron skillet with green onions and roasted red peppers.  This very flavorful entree is served with flour tortillas which you can use as “Mexican spoons” or to craft delicious pork tacos.  The sizzling cast iron pan includes enough pork for left-overs, and if possible, the subtly delicious flavors are even deeper and more wonderful the following day.

For dessert, you’ve got to have Los Mayas specialty, flan topped with a housemade whipped cream on a pool of caramel sauce.  The caramel sauce has none of the cloying qualities of the caramel you might heap on ice cream.  It’s an adult, semi-sweet caramel that complements the flan like a marriage made in heaven.   The flan itself is dense and decadent yet remarkably light like custard and as delicious as any flan you’ll find anywhere in the state.

Los Mayas is a long-time Santa Fe favorite for good reason, but thanks in large part to its proximity to the Plaza, it’s frequented by wandering tourists who may not understand the queuing protocol or what to order.  What they do understand is that the aromas emanating from its kitchen are irresistable and like a siren’s song, they’ve got to respond to their call.

Los Mayas
409 West Water Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 30 August 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 21
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Chile Relleno en Nogada, Salsa and Chips, Carnitas

Los Dos Molinos – Springerville, Arizona

Los Dos Molinos in Springerville, Arizona

Los Dos Molinos in Springerville, Arizona

Just how hot is the chile at Los Dos Molinos? The New York Times suggests you “travel with a fire extinguisher” and that “everything, with the exception of the margaritas, is incendiary.” New York magazine raves that “Not since Drew flashed Dave has Manhattan witnessed a hotter display than the one at Los Dos Molinos.” The Arizona Central dining guide asks “can you take the heat,” calling Los Dos Molinos “the lodestone for leather tongues.”

Now these are all unimpeachable sources with impeccable credibility (at least when it comes to restaurants), but the source that got my attention quickest was a Garfield comic strip in which the irascible cat is challenged to a hot pepper eating contest by Jon, Garfield’s long-suffering human companion. In the first panel, Jon pops a jalapeno pepper into his mouth without breaking a sweat. Garfield follows with a cayenne pepper which Jon then one-ups with a Habanero which draws more than a bead of sweat. Not to be outdone, Garfield tosses a “Los Dos Molinos Death Pepper” into his mouth. The pepper is so incendiary that in dragon fashion, he shoots a massive fireball out of his mouth, scorching Jon in the process. Holding an empty cup of water, Garfield concedes, “you win.” Jon, charred and still smoldering responds, “then why am I not happy.”

The hellish pepper which proved the undoing of Garfield was actually a Peruvian Death Pepper, a mythical pepper said to be close to 15 million Scoville units in terms of heat. So, the Garfield comic strip which hangs throughout the Los Dos Molinos restaurant may have been altered, but to many diners, the sentiment aptly describes their dining experience at this legendary New Mexican restaurant.

The two chile grinders for which the restaurant is named

The two chile grinders for which the restaurant is named

Ironically, there are no Los Dos Molinos restaurants within the Land of Enchantment, the closest of the five restaurant branches being in Springerville, Arizona, about a dozen miles inside the state line. There are also three Molinos restaurants in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, including one in the former mansion of Tom Mix, the cowboy star of the 1920s and 30s. A fifth restaurant is located in Metropolis itself where Los Dos Molinos has taken New York City by storm.

Our inaugural visit was to the Springerville restaurant where it all started nearly a quarter century ago when Victoria Chavez launched the family’s flagship restaurant. When considering what to name the restaurant, Victoria and her husband Eddie decided to name it for two old chile grinders given to them by their respective grandmothers. Those “molinos” (grinders) are still on display on a shelf near the entrance to the restaurant. Perhaps a glass encased shrine would have been more appropriate.

The visual bombardment at Los Dos Molinos is nearly overwhelming. There is something to see everywhere you turn including pinatas on the ceiling, flashing neon signage, old farm implements, diamondback rattlesnakes mounted on flatboard and even faux swordfish (the type you see at many mariscos restaurants). Framed and unframed newspaper clippings are strewn throughout the walls with the aforementioned Garfield comic strip even taped to some banco style seats.

The colorful walls at Los Dos Molinos

The colorful walls at Los Dos Molinos

Los Dos Molinos, at least the Springerville branch, does not accept credit cards or out-of-state checks (not even from New Mexico). Fortunately, two ATMs are within easy walking distance of the restaurant. The little ambulation to the ATM built up our appetite for what promised to be an exciting dining experience on what we’d read is “Santa Fe style” New Mexican cooking.

It’s been my woeful experience that–with very few exceptions–restaurants outside the Land of Enchantment which purport to serve “New Mexican food” generally present an shameful facsimile. One exception if Richardson’s Cuisine of New Mexico in Phoenix. Could lightning possibly strike twice? Could there actually be two excellent, or at the very least “passable,” New Mexican restaurants in Arizona? There were two indications that we might be in for a let-down.

The first was the unmistakable olfactory attacking aroma of cumin in the air. You’re probably thinking, “there he goes again on his I hate cumin soapbox.” As documented several times on this blog, cumin has no place in New Mexican cuisine, especially on chile which needs absolutely no amelioration, especially from such an offensive, odoriferous spice.

The second sign we might be disappointed was in the spelling “chili” throughout the restaurant’s menu. To many purists like me, that spelling is a cardinal sin, an insult, an indication of inauthenticity. Los Dos Molinos Web site advises, “When you read our menu and see the word “chili” keep in mind we use New Mexico Chilis and this means “Hot” with the best flavor this side of the Rio Grande.” The truth is, when traditionalists like me see chili, one thing comes to mind automatically–the aberration served in Texas (generally with ground beef, chili powder, often with tomatoes and kidney beans and usually with cumin).

Salsa and chips

Salsa and chips

The salsa, both a red chile version and one made with green chile, is redolent with cumin, so much so that what would otherwise have been very good salsa lost all of its appeal to us. Our waitress warned us that the red salsa was hotter than the green salsa, but the green chile was hotter than the red chile on the restaurant’s entrees. The degree of piquancy was probably on the level of the salsa at Sadie’s Dining Room in Albuquerque, a salsa many people find plenty hot. The big difference is that Sadie’s doesn’t allow cumin anywhere near its salsa (or chile for that matter). At least the chips were good–low in salt, crispy and fresh.

Fortunately there was no cumin whatsoever in an appetizer called a Cheese Crisp which might be an Arizona invention because it’s not something I’ve ever seen in any restaurant in New Mexico. My familiarity with it comes exclusively from devouring all of Seth Chadwick’s reviews on his phenomenal Feasting in Phoenix blog. Seth is very much of an authority on cheese crisps and is able to discern even subtle differences between cheese crisps at the restaurants in which he orders this appetizer.

A cheese crisp bears some similarity to a quesadilla, save for the fact that it’s not layered and the tortilla is crispy. It’s simply a crispy tortilla topped with melted cheese, a sort of tortilla pizza you might call it. Seth proclaims Los Dos Molinos version of a cheese crisp as “excellent” and as is often the case, I’m inclined to agree with my sage colleague.

Cheese Crisp

Cheese Crisp

The cheese crisp was served in a round baking tin. Both yellow and white cheeses were used and they were melted all the way through–thankfully not to the point at which they were too oily. We would have loved to partake of salsa with this appetizer, but why ruin a good thing.

Despite our experience with the cumin-laden salsa, I still ordered Los Dos Molinos beef enchiladas “Christmas style” crowned with a fried egg over medium. Fingers crossed, I hoped the salsa was an anomoly and that the chile truly was, as advertised “Santa Fe” style. Alas, my optimism was short-lived.

The enchilada plate was beautiful to look at, a colorful plate nearly completely covered with some of my favorite things, including beans and Spanish rice. Wafting toward my nostrils like the malodorous stench of unwashed feet was that dreaded demon-spawn spice, cumin. It even permeated the rice, a poor innocent victim like us.

The shredded beef nestled comfortably within the confines of corn tortillas was wonderful, so tender it pulled apart easily with just a fork. The fried egg was done to perfection, slightly crispy but puncture that yolk and yellow goodness runs out. The beans were studded with whole pintos and were delicious.

Enchiladas

Enchiladas

The red and green chile reeked of cumin, but I tried gamely to put a dent on the generous portion, all the while knowing that I’d pay for it later with an aftertaste that just doesn’t leave easily. I would normally rather swim the piranha infested waters of the Amazon than to ingest chile bespoiled with cumin, but the only way to write an honest appraisal is to suffer for my art. Let’s just say I won’t suffer a second time at Los Dos Molinos.

Having learned from the salsa, my Kim wisely chose a combination platter, asking for the chile on the side. The “safest” item on the patter was a shredded beef taco in which tender tendrils of delicate beef were undefiled by cumin. The taco, replete with beef, lettuce and tomatoes was delicious, a star. There was just too much cumin on the tamale to enjoy it.

Combination Platter

Combination Platter

As is always the case when cumin crosses our lips, we scoured the menu for something to obfuscate the offending aftertaste. Dessert offerings included something called a “burro” which appeared to be an apple filled pastry shell topped with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with powdered sugar and chocolate. We devoured the burro, relishing every morsel of food that didn’t include cumin. In truth, this was the highlight of our meal at Los Dos Molinos, but might not have been such a big hit with us had we the restaurant fulfilled even a modicum of our expectations.

Dessert burrito

Dessert burrito

There are some who will consider this review heretical, a sacrilege against a beloved institution. Connoisseurs of cumin may question my palate and that’s perfectly fine. This review is, after all, my opinion and yours may differ, even greatly. I would invite the nay-sayers to visit Mary & Tito’s in Albuquerque for a taste of chile the way it’s supposed to be done–pure and unadulterated bliss.

Los Dos Molinos
East Main Street
Springerville, Arizona
(928) 333-4846
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 23 August 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 14
COST: $$
BEST BET: Dessert

The Hamilton Chop House – Durango, Colorado (CLOSED)

The Hamilton Chop House

The Hamilton Chop House

The Land of Enchantment with its 121,356 square miles of deserts, mesas, rivers, mountains, forests, cities and villages is the fifth largest state in the country.  In 2007, Albuquerque’s KOAT television station began a recurring series in which the station treated its viewers to an aerial perspective of many of the communities in its viewing area.  That unique bird’s eye view perspective was captured from Sky 7, the station’s news helicopter.

In 2008, the station expanded its coverage, sending news anchor and New Mexico native Royale Dá skyward once again to show viewers the challenges faced by the communities featured on the series and how they are dealing with those challenges.  Royale was joined by city leaders from throughout the viewing area who boarded Sky 7 to share what makes their communities so special.

One of the few cities visited in 2008 outside of New Mexico’s borders was Durango, Colorado, long a part of KOAT’s viewing area.  During the aerial tour of the city, Durango’s Director of Planning and Community Development Greg Hoch indicated that Durango actually has more restaurants per capita than the city of San Francisco.

With a population of nearly 750,000 people, the city of San Francisco numbers just about 2,700 restaurants within its boundaries, giving it a per capita density of 279 people per restaurant.  The City by the Bay is a formidable restaurant city indeed.  Sheer numbers, however, do not make a city a good dining destination.  San Francisco has earned its reputation as an epicenter for epicurean excellence not because of its overwhelming number of restaurants, but because many of those restaurants are of exceedingly high quality.

Durango counts some 15,000 residents within its boundaries and is not as well known as a great restaurant city as it is a town in which beer is literally woven into its cultural and social fabric.  The city’s four breweries produce more than 15,000 barrels of beer annually, just over one barrel or 31 gallons per man, woman and child resident.  The city of Durango truly appreciates great craft beer.

In past visits to Durango I left with the impression that the city has a number of “good” to “very good restaurants” and certainly appreciated the fact that there are so many of them from which to choose.  Good to very good restaurants do not, however, make it a great restaurant town.  Neither does the sheer number of restaurants.

The interior of Hamilton's Chop House

The interior of Hamilton's Chop House

During a visit in August, 2008, we confirmed that Durango is indeed a good to very good restaurant town, but it has one outstanding restaurant gem in its midst.  It was a discovery as exciting to this humble gastronome as discovering gold and silver ore in the nearby mountains was to intrepid prospectors more than a century ago.

That restaurant is the extraordinary Hamilton Chop House, a tenant of the Glacier Club at Tamarron Resort’s Sundowner Lodge about twenty miles north of Durango.  The distance separating this fabulous restaurant from dining establishments within the Durango city limits seems symbolic of the distance in quality between the Hamilton Chop House and every other restaurant in the area.  At the risk of hyperbole, it is probably the best steak house in which we’ve dined over the past fifteen years–and we’ve frequented the Chicago Chop House, regarded in many circles as the best independent steak restaurant in America.

The drive to the restaurant is spectacular as is the restaurant’s setting.  Nestled among towering oak, ponderosa and pine trees, the Hamilton Chop House is blessed with panoramic views of the nearby mountains.  It is also adjacent to a 27-hole golf course.  The ebony night skies are blanketed with a canopy of stars while the daytime’s cobalt skies seem to graduate in depth of color as your eyes climb skyward.

Descend a flight of stairs to the restaurant’s large living room and you might just be met at the bottom by the restaurant’s entrepreneurial owner Tom Hamilton, a whirling dervish of perpetual motion who pulls simultaneous duty as greeter, busser, waiter and genial host as well as occasional chef.  Tom is involved in all aspects of his restaurant’s operation, having crafted all the innovative recipes that enrapt diners who frequent his fabulous restaurant.

The Hamilton Chop House is the veteran restauteur’s latest restaurant venture, an evolution over time from his Cafe Cascade, a restaurant named one of Colorado’s three best restaurants in 1990 by a Denver Post restaurant critic.  Two years after closing Cafe Cascade Tom opened The Hamilton Chop House which he moved to its current site in 2005 after the Tamarron Resort made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Five Spice Quail

Five Spice Quail

Chop House is a bit of a misnomer in that the restaurant is so much more than an upscale steak house.  Everything–from the imaginitive sauces to the flavorful stocks and decadent desserts–is made on the premises.  Tom prides himself on purchasing beef and seafood of the very highest quality.  The restaurant’s price point is surprisingly reasonable considering the quality.  We’re talking about hand-selected prime and certified Black Angus steaks and chops properly aged to provide superior quality.  Seafood is flown in twice weekly from a supplier who also provisions the very best restaurants in Vail and Aspen, the resort Meccas of the super-wealthy.

About sixty percent of any given night’s orders come from the nightly specials sheet which features fresh seafood and some of the creative appetizers and entrees from which the restaurant established its reputation.  Tom Hamilton takes food seriously!  His executive chef of six years is New Orleans native Chris Martin who shares Tom’s passion for providing a memorable dining experience with outstanding cuisine.

While not effusively oppulent, the Hamilton Chop House has a decidedly comfortable western and slightly masculine feel to it.  A chandelier crafted from antlers lights up the front dining room which also houses the restaurant’s bar (the restaurant has a reputation for one of the best and most sophisticated wine lists in Colorado.)  Large framed Ansel Adams photographs festoon a stucco wall prefacing the pristinely polished stucco half-wall dividing the front dining room from the main dining room.  An imposing rock fireplace stands ready for those cold Colorado winter nights.

Framed watercolor paintings by the late Lenore Hamilton, Tom’s mother, adorn the main dining room.  The paintings are a mix of beautiful, florid landscapes and vegetables such as mushrooms and red and green vegetables, some of which have unintentionally erotic qualities similar to Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings of flowers.  Of course, men would find erotic qualities in Rorschach’s ink blots.  My Kim didn’t see anything erotic in the restaurant (save for the steak on her plate).

Shrimp wrapped in bacon

Shrimp wrapped in bacon

In addition to prime beef and fresh seafood, the menu boasts an intriguing array of wild game including elk loin, kangaroo medallions, ostrich fillet and a mixed game grill.  Seafood entrees include lobster with drawn butter, fresh scallops and a pound of Alaskan King Crab, all at ridiculously inexpensive rates that will have you doing a double-take.  The restaurant aims to please and will craft a surf-and-turf combination to your liking.

Steaks are prepared to your exacting specifications, using well-practiced techniques of char-broiling or seasoning and pan-searing, your choice.  Steaks, chops and seafood dinners include the Chop House’s homemade, freshly baked bread and your choice of garlic mashed potatoes, French fries, baked potato, rice pilaf or vegetable of the day.

An impressive array of sauces is also available for your dining pleasure, not that the steaks and chops need any amelioration whatsoever.  The four sauces offered are a Bordelaise, Creamy Au Poivre, Mushroom Bordelaise and Four-Peppercorn.  Each ostensibly offers unique flavor combinations that imbue beef with adventures in flavor.

Oysters Rockefeller served on a bed of sea salt

Oysters Rockefeller served on a bed of sea salt

Although the standard menu offers a strikingly inviting assortment of appetizers, be sure to closely study the appetizers on the specials sheet.  This is where Tom Hamilton’s creativity is best on display.  He has a gift for inventiveness, transforming appetizers the type of which we thought we had previously experienced into uniquely flavorful preprandial delights.  These appetizers will whet your appetite and appease all ten-thousand of your taste buds with deep and lively flavors.

If the appetizers from the specials (appropriately) sheet had been the extent of our inaugural meal at the Hamilton Chop House, it would still have been a fabulous meal.  Fortunately, those appetizers were just the start of an adventure in delightful tastes.

Make your first appetizer (you’ll want several) the Five Spice Quail,  six unbelievable tender and meaty quail marinated in sherry with garlic, salt, pepper and five spice.  The Chinese believe five spice embodies each of the five tastes in Chinese cooking–sweet, bitter, sour, salty and savory–but only when used correctly and in proper proportion, a balancing of yin and yang in food.  Tom Hamilton knows his five spice, applying it in just the right proportions to bring out the tastes I would not have imagined from quail.  Most quail tends to be on the desiccated and tough with a gamey blandness that’s hard to explain.

There is nothing foul about the Chop House’s fowl.  Lightly battered and deep fried to a golden consistency, each meaty morsel (and there were s a lot of them for such a relatively small bird) was tender and absolutely delicious in its own right…so good you wouldn’t want to add anything to it.  That is until you taste the absolutely phenomenal sauce provided with this appetizer.  The basis for the sauce is a variety of flavor-rich ingredients such as fresh ginger, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar and chile.  Somehow the sauce seems to appeal to all five senses, too.  The only fair way to determine whether the quail are better by themselves or with the sauce is to request two orders, one sans sauce.

Spinach the way you've never had it

Spinach the way you've never had it

The second in our triumvirate of taste bud tantalizing appetizers was the Chipotle Shrimp, four oxymoronic jumbo shrimp engorged with cream cheese, green onion and chipotle chiles in a sauce of garlic-lime Beurre Blanc, an ultra-rich, buttery sauce.  There is a lot going on in this appetizer and all of it good.  It’s a coalescence of flavors that brings out the best of each component.  The shrimp seem sweeter, the cheese sharper, the chipotles smokier.  Wow!  This is one for the ages.

A trioka of fantastic appetizers wouldn’t be complete without the Chop House’s Oysters Rockefeller, a dish renown for its richness.  Most Oysters Rockefeller I’ve had are reminiscent of Stovetop stuffing on a half-shell in comparison, even those I consumed by the boatload in New Orleans.  Perhaps that’s because the Chop House lets the oysters shine instead of blending them in a mishmash of ingredients (especially Hollandaise sauce) that obfuscates their flavor.  Oysters Rockefeller that taste like oysters, imagine that.  Imagine six oysters on the half shell nestled on a bed of sea salt with two lemon wedges destined for your table.  What you can’t imagine is just how good they are.

Grilled shrimp and mussels with Brussel Sprouts

Grilled shrimp and mussels with Brussel Sprouts

A lighter appetizer, one invented by Tom and which has caught on like wildfire in Durango, is spinach the way you’ve probably never envisioned it.  It’s deep-fried spinach with a light, crinkly texture on top of which is sprinkled Regianno parmesan. The deep-frying eliminates none of the spinach’s acerbic taste, but it somehow seems more palatable, even quite good.

Another aspect of our dining experience we appreciated was the wait staff which is personable and professional, especially adept at pacing your meal for optimum enjoyment.  The serving pace they set allows you to fully enjoy an appetizer before the next course (or second appetizer) is brought to your table.  There’s no competition among flavor contrasts here.  Ask for Sean, as knowledgeable and attentive a waiter as you could ask for.

In my inadequate for the task verbiage, I’ve hopefully conveyed that the Hamilton Chop House is nonpariel when it comes to appetizers.  It also measures up quite well when it comes to spectacular entrees.

Even if your appetizer melange includes shrimp, you might still want to try the grilled shrimp and scallops entree that features three of each oversized shrimp and scallops grilled to perfection.  Both are imbued with a faint smokiness and lay on a rich sauce of Saffron Beurre Blanc.  In taste and texture, both the shrimp and scallops are absolutely flawless.

While it seems that shrimp have become strictly a vehicle for cocktail sauce, these are shrimp you’ll want to linger, make that luxuriate in tasting.  It’s shrimp the way it’s supposed to taste, shrimp that snap when you bite into them the way they’re supposed to when fresh.  The scallops are similarly wonderful with a slight firmness instead of the usual pillowy texture that seems to turn off some people.  In terms of taste, think ethereal–very light and slightly sweet, but with enough flavor to let you know they come from the sea.

New York strip with a Bordelaise Gorgonzola sauce

New York strip with a Bordelaise Gorgonzola sauce

Carnivorous cravings will easily be sated with any one of the steak offerings, but for maximizing flavor discernment, go for the New York strip with a Bordelaise sauce (made with red wine, shallots and veal stock) with gorgonzola gently folded into it.  This is an entree I’ve seen several restaurants attempt to execute correctly, but when all is said and done, it is the chef who should be executed–usually for not being able to meld seemingly disparate tastes into edibility.  Although Bordelaise and especially gorgonzola can overpower a cut of beef, Tom Hamilton has perfected yet another culinary challenge.

Not only are the flavors complementary, but they don’t detract from the “sweetness” of the beef in the least.  It might help that the cut of beef is absolutely flawless–nary a sign of sinew or fat anywhere.  This New York strip is so tender you could cut it with a butter knife.  It is also grilled to perfection, again simply by char-broiling at the right temperature for the right amount of time.  You’d think that little secret would have gotten around by now.

It will probably come as no surprise to you that the Hamilton Chop House has also mastered desserts and in true fashion, they are superb.  They are artistically crafted by Sherrie Martin and are a feast for your eyes as well as for your mouth.  If you somehow manage to save room for it, the desserts are homemade daily and are just beckoning for you to try them.  One such example is the bread pudding which is light, moist and decadent, the three essential elements of outstanding bread pudding. This is one of the best!

Fabulous bread pudding at the Hamilton Chop House

The Hamilton Chop House and its affable and accomplished owner Tom Hamilton managed to make a huge fan out of me after only one visit, but it’s a visit we hope to repeat soon and often.  As a result of that one visit, I “downgraded” other steak restaurants I had thought to be very good–which brings me back to a point I made earlier about restaurant towns, a point that applies to restaurants as well.  That is, there are good to very good steak restaurants, but only a very select few outstanding ones.  The Hamilton Chop House is one of these.

THE HAMILTON CHOP HOUSE
40290 Highway 550
Durango, Colorado
LATEST VISIT: 21 August 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 27
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Chipotle Shrimp, Oysters Rockefeller, Five Spice Quail, Grilled Shrimp and Scallops, New York Strip with Bordelaise and Gorgonzola, Bread Pudding