Expansive views of the Jemez Mountains and of Georgia O’Keeffe country–whether bathed in pink, coral and gold sunset hues or under New Mexico’s incomparable cerulean skies–combine with the surreal topography of unnaturally contorted rock formations and juniper laden foothills to form the unique vistas which await guests at Rancho de San Juan, New Mexico’s premier country inn and restaurant. At night those views are obfuscated by a canopy of stars spilling from an ebony sky so clear and unencumbered that you might swear you can see forever.
Secluded in an idyllic setting just off US Highway 285 between Española and Ojo Caliente, Rancho de San Juan pays loving tribute to its tranquil high desert surroundings, blending in as if positioned by nature itself amid the statuary sandstone cliffs. The 225-acre complex is located at the confluence of three rivers: the Ojo Caliente, Rio Chama and Rio Grande. It’s a veritable Eden for bon viveurs, a carefully planned escape to a transcendent world of luxurious pampering, exquisite dining and voluptuary accommodations.
You’ll breathe long and deeply of the clean, crisp, salubrious air as you stroll leisurely from the parking lot to the inn. It’s a short walk you’ll take slowly so as to take in the stunning panorama that is the convergence of unlimited sky bowing down to touch the earth. The cynosure of the 225-acre complex is the verdant oasis surrounding the country inn and restaurant, a capacious adobe hacienda. The garden courtyard around the inn seems perpetually in bloom with impeccably manicured deciduous foliage flanking the terraced walkway leading to the inn.
As you approach the inn, the aroma of the evening’s bill of fare starts to compete with the fragrant bouquet of the incomparably fresh New Mexico outdoors. Rather than a sensory bombardment, it’s a gentle teasing by divergent yet complementary fragrances as gourmet meets nature in your nostrils. Step into the inn and you’re embraced by the warmth and grace of seasoned hospitality providers David Heath and John Johnson, the hands-on owners who recognize no strangers, only friends they haven’t yet made.
David and John both left successful careers to pursue their dream of owning and operating an elegant inn and creative restaurant in a setting offering unrivaled views and four distinct seasons. They launched Rancho de San Juan in 1995, employing their design (David) and architectural (John) backgrounds to build a complex encompassing private casitas, spacious accommodations, a luxury residential subdivision and the country inn and restaurant. Guest rooms are carefully appointed with an eclectic mix of carefully selected antiques, splendorous southwest furnishings and original art, the envy of many a collector.
Fourteen months after opening, Rancho de San Juan was selected for inclusion in the very exclusive Relais & Châteaux, a collection of some of the world’s most beautiful individually owned and operated luxury hotels and restaurants around the world. This elite group has fewer than 500 members in 58 countries on five continents. Rancho de San Juan was the first restaurant in the Southwest accorded this prestigious honor, one of a spate of accolades it has earned since launching fewer than two decades ago.
Those accolades include being named a Mobil four-star designee for several years, an honor bestowed to “exceptional restaurants featuring food that’s creative and complex, and emphasizes seasonality and culinary technique” with “a highly-trained dining room staff providing refined personal service and attention.” In 2009, the restaurant was recognized by Conde Naste as the best restaurant in New Mexico and was, since its inception, one of the two or three highest rated restaurants in Zagat’s survey of New Mexico restaurants.
In 2009, the restaurant was recognized by the James Beard foundation after which Chef Johnson and his staff had the opportunity to prepare a meal for the elite body. It has been a perennial recipient of the Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence” and has been honored by several publications: Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Travel & Leisure, Country Inns, Harper’s Hideaway and Spa Review. Perhaps no restaurant in New Mexico has been recognized as widely, leaving no dispute that it is in rarefied air as one of, if not THE best restaurant in the Land of Enchantment.
In 2009, after fifteen years of operation, the restaurant heretofore known simply as “The Dining Room” was christened “Three Forks,” a designation which singled out the restaurant. The name was an easy choice that recognizes Rancho de San Juan’s location at the fork of three rivers: the Ojo Caliente, Rio Chama and Rio Grande. Not coincidentally, plating does include three forks–a fish fork, a salad fork and a dinner fork, the protocol dictated by etiquette experts who know more about place settings than I’ll ever know.
Plating at the Three Forks restaurant is an eye-pleasing art form, each plate setting forming a syzygy that may give you pause to reflect on the beauty surrounding you before your taste buds confirm what your eyes foretell. The adobe hued front dining room is longer than it is wide with high ceilings bolstered by thick, blond vigas. Artwork festoons the walls while a kiva style fireplace lends warmth and ambiance whether lit or not. In the late spring or early fall, weather permitting, the large French doors leading to the west porch might be left open, allowing the fresh, piñon-fragranced air to enter the room.
Fresh flowers (perhaps birds of paradise, carnations or tulips) adorn each table as do pristine, hand-starched table linens. Sterling silver place settings, custom-designed French porcelain, Riedel crystal and attractive white and gold plates festooned with a Mimbres-style quail complete each place setting. The dulcet tones of soothing soft jazz and classical music playing soft and low may, in the words of crooner Johnny Rivers, make the rest of the world seem so far away and small.
During our inaugural visit to Rancho de San Juan in 2004, the restaurant offered a four-course prix-fix menu of “world eclectic” cuisine. Our dinner seating was at 6PM, but we were assured the table was ours for the evening, affording a leisurely dining pace throughout the evening. At the time, the prix-fixe menu changed daily and featured a meat entree for $55 and a fish entree for $50.
Before our first course was served, our waitress presented an “amuse bouche” or palate pleasing chef’s gift, a bite-sized complementary appetizer. That amuse bouche turned out to be a tomato sorbet with a Balsamic reduction which my Kim and I both proclaimed the best sorbet we’ve ever had. To this day, I’ve never had a better sorbet. A half-pint would be heavenly during a balmy New Mexico evening; a gallon would be even better.
Our first course, an escarole soup with Peruano beans, Chanterelle mushrooms and crisped Jamon Serrano was a perfect prelude to exceptional entrees. I opted for a sautéed Hawaiian Mon Chong (sea bass) with blood orange butter sauce, red pepper essence, ginger-Basmati rice pilaf and basil oil. Delicious would be an understatement. Usually one to disdain the gamy taste of lamb, my Kim none-the-less selected the braised organic New Mexico lamb shank with smoky pan jus, herb-bacon mashed potatoes and sun-dried tomato tapenade. It made a convert out of her as she called it the very best lamb she’s ever had.
Our entrees were followed by a “cleanse the palate” house smoked Napa cabbage slaw (Napa cabbage is vastly under-utilized) with local hot house tomatoes and pancetta lardons (diced bacon that’s fried). It was easily one of the top two or three salads I’ve ever had in my life. For dessert, Kim had a fresh spring berry tart with whipped cream and white and dark chocolate. It was refreshing and delectable. My dessert featured a hunk of Roquefort with fresh strawberries, Port Cloud house chips and fresh mint. The Roquefort was exquisite, as sharp and delicious a cheese as I’ve ever had. Fetid fromage this good should be part of every meal.
The Three Forks restaurant no longer offers a prix-fixe menu. Instead, the menu is ala carte featuring appetizers, entrees and desserts with options that change weekly and showcase local Southwest ingredients in season. The restaurant is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday evenings (closing on Sunday and Monday evenings). Advance reservations are required and dress for evening dining is “smart casual” which means jackets are not required. An ala carte breakfast menu is available daily for guests staying at the inn.
Though the prix-fixe menu is gone, two standards remain. One is the amuse bouche, a complementary hors d’oeuvre not much bigger than a single bite-size. The term “amuse-bouche” translates to “mouth amuser,” but is often regarded as a n introduction to the chef’s style; a way the chef can get guests’ palates excited with a glimpse as to what is coming. We didn’t think anything could top the tomato sorbet, but the shredded pork sandwich on puff pastry came close. To call it merely a “shredded pork sandwich” is to do this delicious morsel an injustice. The pork was obviously carefully tended to and seasoned to perfection. It was so good, a tray of these little gems would not have been enough.
The other remaining standard is the rustic ciabatta bread from the world-famous LaBrea Bakery in VanNuys, California. This classic Italian bread is characterized by its thin, golden crust and moist, light interior with beautiful airy holes. It’s a cut–make that a slice–above other artisan bread. Plain butter is all the accompaniment this bread needs to be memorable, but you might want to save a slice or two to sop up some of the delicious sauces to come later.
The Rancho Summer Salad has no excess dressing for that bread to dredge up. In fact, the dressing is solely an oil, lightly drizzled to give the salad a sheen. This salad is all about the ingredients–heirloom tomatoes halved into bite-sized little “love apples;” fresh, aromatic basil; pungent, fetid Feta cheese; meaty, briny Kalamata olives and grilled Mexican white prawns. There’s nothing complicated about this salad, a melding of highest-quality ingredients which go well together. The grilled prawns, imbued with a faint smokiness, were simply outstanding!
Our other appetizer, fried green tomatoes with a mint-yogurt sauce, was better than any fried green tomato appetizer or entree we ever had during eight years of living in the Deep South. These fried green tomatoes were better than Fannie Flagg’s award-winning novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe. The tomatoes were perfectly green and thoroughly fresh, moist and delicious. Best of all, they were allowed to shine courtesy of a very light, golden crust and a mint-yogurt sauce that ameliorated the flavor of those tomatoes.
There was one other appetizer on the menu–a chilled avocado soup with pickled Mexican white prawns–and we were sorely tempted to order it, too. There are three menu items on both the “beginnings” and “main course selections” section of the menu so more than a bit of indecision and contemplation is in order. It’s almost assured that you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu (I say almost because there’s always a chance you might be allergic to one of the ingredients in the entree you don’t order).
The main course selection calling most loudly during our visit in August, 2010 was a sauteed filet of salmon with tomato risotto and olive tapenade, creamed corn and Reisling grapes. Salmon is one of the most common fish entrees served across America, an almost seemingly de rigueur entree at fine dining establishments. Almost invariably, “inventive” chefs try doing things with that salmon which don’t necessarily complement it. It would be interesting to see what Chef Johnson had in mind for the farm-raised salmon.
As always, he didn’t disappoint. Nor did he embellish the salmon with some fruity atrocity. Instead the large, luscious filet of salmon was allowed to shine on its own. The salmon was perfectly prepared with no fishy aftertaste in its firm, yet delicate pinkish flesh which gave way gradually to a slightly redder core of pure deliciousness. The olive tapenade, a finely chopped dish made of distinctively strong, sharp and biting olives usually intended to be spread complemented the salmon very well, a sharpness that accentuated the briny mildness of the salmon.
The tomato risotto was almost ethereal in its lightness and wholly unlike some of the “clumpy” risotto most restaurants seem to serve. The creamed corn was phenomenal, each nibblet bathed in a golden sheen, but not super-saturated and overly buttered like inferior creamed corn. In appearance, it was very much like fresh corn right off the cob with a garden-picked freshness. A bundle of Reisling grapes just picked from vines on the property provided a slightly tart, slightly sweet foil to the other tastes on this main course. Ingredients that work well together to surprise and titillate–that’s what Chef Johnson did with this salmon.
The other “must have” entree on the menu was the grilled double-cut pork chop with roasted fingerling potatoes, pesto and local summer squash. This was a pork chop of Flintstonian proportions, the type of pork chop you’ll find in Chicago’s fabled chop houses. The grilling process for a chop this thick and large must be extremely precise or you risk serving a desiccated and chewy chop. This was a perfectly grilled pork chop–a gorgeously bronzed chop oozing meat juices. At medium, it had just a hint of pink. The pesto’s fresh, aromatic influence made this chop even more sublime, like adding a gold frame to a masterpiece.
Though we generally split desserts, the “finish” offerings are so appealing that we each had to have one. My choice was the fresh sauteed summer peach compote with household vanilla ice cream, warm bourbon sauce, whipped cream and toasted almonds. What a world of difference fresh peaches make over canned peaches and these tasted as if they had been picked right off a peach tree at the absolute peak of perfection. They were juicy, sweet, succulent and good enough to stand out on their own. The housemade vanilla ice cream, warm bourbon sauce, whipped cream and toasted almonds were the proverbial frosting on the cake, incremental improvements to something we didn’t think could be improved.
The Rancho’s Chocolate Truffle Tart with whipped cream and toasted Macadamia nuts was a delightfully hedonistic, paragon of pleasure on a plate–a velvety masterpiece punctuated by a decadent dollop of whipped cream with toasted Macadamia nuts. Only one thing could have made this dessert better–a larger piece and not having to share it (don’t tell my wife).
The Three Forks Restaurant and Rancho de San Juan are destinations in which memories are made. Though most will visit during special celebratory occasions, a visit is special occasion enough to celebrate.
Three Forks Restaurant at Rancho De San Juan
Highway 285 Mile Marker 340
Ojo Caliente, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 29 August 2010
1st VISIT: 20 March 2004
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Braised Organic Lamb Shank, House Smoked Napa Cabbage Slaw, Rustic Bread, Sauteed Filet of Salmon, Fried Green Tomatoes with Mint Yogurt, Rancho Summer Salad,