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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chef’s Tasting Menu
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.
20 March 2014: 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.
20 March 2014: 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.
20 March 2014: 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.
20 March 2014: 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!
20 March 2014: 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.
20 March 2014: 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.
20 March 2014: 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.
20 March 2014: 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 it to our table, he described in alchemic 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.
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
LATEST VISIT: 20 March 2014
1st VISIT: 16 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
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,