First cultivated in Mexico around 5000 BC, corn has since been a ubiquitous staple among American Indians throughout the fruited plain. A resilient, versatile and nourishing crop also known as maize, corn allowed Indians to develop the complex social structure and village life which unfolded from the parched valleys of the southwest to the lush eastern woodlands. Along with squash and beans, corn constituted the three main agricultural crops among Indians and was considered the most sacred of all foods.
Throughout the millennia, corn has been the focus of countless rituals and legends among Native Americans, all of whom associate corn with the fertility of women through a corn maiden. According to a Keresan creation story, a corn maiden named Iyatiku led human beings on a journey from underground to the surface of the Earth. To provide food for them, she planted bits of her heart in fields in each of the four directions: north, west, south and east. The pieces of her heart grew into fields of life-sustaining corn. To the people of Santa Ana, a Keresan speaking Pueblo, the corn maiden remains a revered symbol.
The corn maiden symbol flanks the large wooden door to The Corn Maiden, the elegant fine-dining restaurant at the posh Tamaya Hyatt resort. If the corn maiden deity is a symbol of sustenance, survival and life, the Corn Maiden restaurant is a celebration of opulence and excess. Quite simply, it is one the most expensive restaurants in the Land of Enchantment. It is a magnificent milieu for special occasions and as diners will quickly discover, any meal at the Corn Maiden is a special occasion.
Fittingly, the Corn Maiden has spectacular million-dollar views from its east-facing windows and its expansive patio. You’ll want to visit at sunset, preferably in early autumn as the verdant hues of towering cottonwoods prefacing the Rio Grande transition to golden brown and the Sandia Mountains metamorphose from the reddish hues of evening into an ebony garb illuminated solely by the rising moon. The views will inspire hushed tones and extended stays.
The interior of the restaurant is spectacular, too, albeit in a man-made way. The Southwestern decor is comfortably understated with muted earth tones. Corner fireplaces and subdued lighting imbue each dining room with a sense of intimacy and romance. The cynosure of the restaurant is a large exhibition kitchen from which amazing aromas emanate. Were it not for the spectacular outdoor views, all eyes would certainly be trained on the bustling kitchen (or preferably, on the smiling countenance of your dining companion).
The Corn Maiden specializes in cuisines with regional flavors influenced by nouvelle touches. Signature items include skewered, spit-fired meat, fowl and fish accompanied by fresh seasonal vegetables. The menu is a veritable meatfest, a carnivore’s delight though the menu does showcase two vegetarian entrees as well as a number of salads. The Corn Maiden procures its high-quality premium-beef from Four Daughter’s Land & Cattle Company in Los Lunas, New Mexico.
Appetizers include tapas-style hot and cold plate starters. The menu will typically also offer a hot soup and a cold soup as well as a number of salads. If the cost of the starters widens your eyes, the entrees might just cause sticker shock. Non-vegetarian entrees range in price from $42 to $72. With a pronounced emphasis on meat items, don’t discount the daily seafood selections. The Corn Maiden prides itself on serving fresh, hand-picked seafood. Think I’m kidding?
In August, 2013, Eric Stumpf, chef de cuisine at the Corn Maiden earned second place honors in the “Great American Seafood Cook-Off.” Chef Stumpf incorporated elements from the Land of Enchantment in his dish, a sweet corn-crusted New Mexico brown trout and market vegetables with Hatch chile. Fifteen seafood chefs from such states as Louisiana, Alabama, Massachusetts and Alaska competed in the event.
As you peruse the menu, a bread trilogy is brought to your table. All three–parmesan breadsticks, jalapeño corn muffins and blue corn–are fresh and delicious. They’re served with honey butter and an heirloom tomato red wine reduced chutney. The jam-like chutney is decidedly sweeter than it is savory, but it’s an addictive complement and perfect foil for the jalapeño corn muffins. Your servers will graciously replenish the bread, but if you’re not careful, you’ll quickly fill up on bread alone.
Because the hot- and cold-plate starters are all so tempting, you’re well advised to seek the wise counsel of your servers. If the entire wait staff is as knowledgeable as James and Rita, you can’t go wrong. With an ambassadorial flair and an encyclopedic familiarity with the menu, James will point out which starters, in his learned mind, are the most amazing. Similarly, he’ll help you tailor your main course entrees based on any taste preferences you express.
One of the starters about which James was most excited was a housemade rabbit pansotti in a sauce coupling pasilla pepper coulis and Abuelita chocolate. Pansotti, an Italian term meaning “pot-bellied” aptly describes the plumb triangular pasta which is stuffed with moist, delicious rabbit. While the rabbit is rather delicate in terms of flavor profile, the sauce is anything but delicate. If anything, it’s one of those rare complementary contrasts in flavors which go well together. Pasilla peppers are an aromatic, brownish red chile with a mild, rich and almost sweet taste. Paired with Abuelita chocolate (which makes a wonderful hot chocolate), the pasilla coulis, used sparingly, lets the rabbit shine.
In describing the heirloom tomato salad, James had us at burrata, one of our very favorite cheeses. This salad is constructed from several of our favorite ingredients. The thick-cut heirloom tomatoes, both red and green, are fresh and tasty. A crisp pesto crostini redolent with herbaceous notes provides a palate-pleasing textural contrast. It’s the burrata which stars on this salad. Burrata, an almost unnaturally soft and moist fresh Italian cheese made from cream and mozzarella, is ethereal in its texture and as rich a cheese as you’ll find. In fact, in Italian Burrata actually translates to “buttered.” When penetrated by a knife or fork, burrata made correctly has an interior that spills out, revealing unctuous, stringy curd and fresh cream.
Perhaps the most popular entrees on the menu as well as the most spectacularly “plated” are the menu’s three signature rotisseries. Featured meat or seafood are served churrascaria (roughly the Portuguese equivalent of “barbecue”) style which means they’re served on skewers. Each skewer showcases three proteins, but for a relative pittance you can add another. The rotisserie entrees include a chopped salad made tableside, green chile potatoes au gratin, market vegetables and three sauces: a mole demi, cactus chutney and grilled peach salsa. Interestingly all three sauces have piquant notes.
My Kim’s rotisserie of choice, The Range, features a herb-rubbed buffalo rib eye, a chipotle-orange marinated duck breast and a cinnamon-peppercorn rubbed Kurobuta pork loin. Each protein is roughly three to four ounces, but they’re three ounces of absolutely delicious meat prepared perfectly. At medium-rare, the buffalo rib eye and duck breast have a nice crust, but juices flow copiously when you cut into the tender meats. To deploy in great quantity any of the piquant sauce accompaniments would be to detract from the delicate flavors. Perhaps the best of the three meats is the Kurobata pork loin.
Because of its marbling and flavor, Kurobata Pork is coveted throughout the world, but particularly in Japan where this prized porcine is bred. To call it the “Kobe beef” of pork wouldn’t be that significant a stretch. It’s simply an outstanding pork! More than an inch-thick, the loin is perfectly prepared. It is rich and flavorful with a smooth texture devoid of sinew and throw-away fat. The buffalo rib eye is similarly lean and flavorful with faint, but discernible herbaceous notes. The duck breast is no Miss Congeniality in the parade of proteins with a profile melding delicate duck and a tangy chipotle-orange marinade.
The entrée which most excited James was the Colorado Lamb Chops, four succulent chops the chef recommends be served at medium rare for optimum flavor and juiciness. The chops have a perfectly browned crust that belies a tender pinkish interior. The lamb chops at the Corn Maiden are cut thick and served “lollipop” style (what lamb chops are often called when they’re “Frenched” meaning the meat is cut away from the end of the chop so that part of the bone is exposed. Essentially, this leaves the lamb chops with a built-in “handle” which makes them easy to pick up and eat (yes, even at a fine-dining establishment). The lamb chops are accompanied by baby yams, white asparagus and a cherry compote which went well with the lamb.
The dessert menu is elegant and sophisticated without being overly stuffy. It’s a dessert menu equally comfortable in offering a crème brulee trio as it is a slice of chocolate cake. Being a sucker for donuts, the coffee and donuts offering seemed a no-brainer. Instead of actual donuts, this dessert consists of three donut holes each with toppings I’ve forgotten because the donuts themselves can best be described as forgettable. Had they been freshly prepared and warm instead of stale, they might have been good. The “coffee” is an airy, mousse-like dessert with a coffee flavor too strong for my Kim, but just right for me.
The best way to complete your dining experience at the Corn Maiden is by spending the night at the adjacent Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa, a four-star resort with 350 air-conditioned rooms. While a dining experience at the Corn Maiden isn’t life-altering, it is memorable—especially if you visit on an early fall evening when the air is crisp and a full moon is rising over the Sandias.
The Corn Maiden
1300 Tuyuna Trail
Santa Ana Pueblo,New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 6 September 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$$$ – $$$$$
BEST BET: Colorado Lamb Chop, The Range Rotisserie, Housemade Rabbit Pansotti, Heirloom Tomato Salad