“Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words.”
When the Spaniards first gazed upon the setting sun as it hit the towering snow-capped mountains and appeared to bathe the slopes in a burst of red, they were so moved that the pious Conquistadors exclaimed “Sangre de Cristo,” blood of Christ. Whether bathed in the spectacular red alpenglow of sunset or in the “like yellow hair of a tigress brindled with pines” gold of autumn aspens as described by D.H. Lawrence, the Sangre de Cristos still move people deeply, stirring their very souls.
The Sangre de Cristos are also spectacular when wispy amorphous clouds dance around the blanket of sky in all its magnificent gradations of blue. That’s the palette from which skies were painted on the day my friends and culinary kindred spirits Franzi Ortega and Nikko Harada joined me for an incredible dining experience at Izanami, the celebrated izakaya-style restaurant at the Ten Thousand Waves resort scant minutes from downtown Santa Fe.
You don’t have to spend time at Ten Thousand Waves to fully appreciate Izanami, but if you don’t, you might feel you missed out on a very special place. The 20-acre Japanese-inspired spa and boutique inn just a few miles from the terminus of the Sangre de Cristo range is transcendent, a tranquil idyll at which you might feel you’re on a mountain retreat in the Land of the Rising Sun instead of one in the Land of Enchantment. The Japanese onsen (thermal baths), spa suites, lodging and restaurant are situated among piñons and junipers where the stillness is punctuated only by birdsong and wind rustling through the trees.
Opening its doors in November, 2013, Izanami is a meticulously planned, no detail spared, culmination of years of dreams come true for owner Duke Klauck. Though there are a few parking spots in close proximity to the restaurant, parking in the lower lot near Hyde Park Road provides a back-to-nature option you’ll ultimately appreciate more. With a 91 step climb over a dirt trail, you’ll not only gain 60-feet of elevation, but you’ll feel renewed and refreshed among nature. At night the trail is illuminated by Japanese lanterns.
As you approach the summit and Izanami comes into view, any notions that you’re still in New Mexico may temporarily dissipate. Instead of the adobe-hued architecture that so defines Santa Fe style, the elegant edifice housing Izanami is architecturally, thematically and spiritually Japanese. The hunter green roof is constructed from some 11,000 tiles procured from the Aichi prefecture in Japan It’s only when you look across the vast expanse across the valley and see the adobe stucco tinged homes dotting the distant hillsides that you’ll remember you’re still in New Mexico.
Prefacing the restaurant’s entrance is an elegant waterfall from which rivulets of water cascade in a calming cadence. Seating options offer a variety of dining experiences. Weather permitting, there may be no better option than the outdoor patio which offers spectacular views of the Sangre De Cristos. A tatami (woven straw mat) room provides experiential authenticity with its floor seating (although people of height may not find this option very comfortable). Sit at the counter and views of a spectacular exhibition kitchen complete with robata charcoal grill at your beck and call. Other options range from a communal table to a custom-made private booth.
As you peruse the menu, you’ll immediately discover Izanami is not your standard run-of-the-mill Japanese restaurant as Americans have come to stereotype them. Izanami is an Izakaya which translates literally to “stay sake shop.” It’s essentially a Japanese tavern or drinking house with a menu of small dishes. Call it a gastropub, if you will. Contrary to many American restaurants, Izakaya establishments don’t try to “turn tables” by rushing customers out so others can take their place. Izakayas are intended to be milieus in which diners can linger with good friends, good food and good drinks.
The good food is in the form of kozara (small plates) which arrive from the kitchen as they’re ready. It’s become popular to equate kozara with Spanish tapas, but the kozara tradition actually has its genesis in Japanese fishermen using paddles to share food with one another. Seasonal menus are crafted from locally-sourced meat and produce. The kitchen is helmed by the phenomenally talented Kim Muller, one of the most credentialed and popular chefs in New Mexico.
Perhaps only Andy Rooney, the curmudgeonly commentator on television’s 60 Minutes would dislike Izanami. Rooney didn’t like food that’s “too carefully arranged; it makes me think that the chef is spending too much time arranging and not enough time cooking. If I wanted a picture I’d buy a painting.” Everyone else should enjoy the eye-pleasing artful plating. Everything is where it should be for optimum harmony, balance and appearance, a sort of plate syzygy. The balance of color, texture and appearance makes diners give pause to reflect on how great everything looks before their taste buds confirm what their eyes already know.
Having Nikko across the table during our inaugural visit gave us insights as to culinary traditions, preparation styles and ingredients. She guided our adventure, three separate orders of three items per order, all shared by the three of us. In nearly three hours of relaxed paced dining, we never felt rushed nor did we ever feel overfull. It was all so un-American.
Our inaugural triumvirate of deliciousness included a wakame salad, a mound of deeply green wakame (an edible seaweed) surrounded by thinly sliced radishes and drizzled with a ginger wafu dressing. Scallions and a small tangle of rice noodles completed the artisan salad. The Wakame, a mild sea vegetable vaguely similar to spinach, comes to life with the mild, yet refreshingly cool dressing. As if tasting great isn’t enough, the wakame salad is high in vitamins and minerals and is low in fat and cholesterol. The dime-thin radishes, including daikon, are lightly pickled and are absolutely delicious.
The daily assortment of pickles is not to be missed. An essential part of the Japanese diet, pickles are served with virtually every traditional meal (along with rice and miso soup). The versatility of pickles allows them to be used as a condiment, relish, garnish, digestive or palate cleanser. Moreover, they’re absolutely delicious, in large part to judicious use of pickling spices, brine and salts. None of the pickles we shared were of the lip-pursing variety. The pickled cucumbers, for example, have a crunchy texture and a sweet-sour flavor with neither sweet nor sour being overly so.
In recent years Brussels sprouts have become a trendy, almost de rigueur offering at restaurants of all genre. Brussels sprouts not only transcend ethnicity, they’re considered among the healthiest foods in the world. Izanami’s crispy Brussels sprouts have a light, crinkly texture and are seasoned with lemon, chili, mint and puffed rice. Diners who are averse to the aroma or taste of Brussels sprouts should try these. Unlike some restaurants which try to mask the natural flavors of this cruciferous vegetable, Izanami complements those flavors, rendering these Brussels a joy to eat.
Hummus, a traditional and very versatile Middle Eastern dish, is yet another food that has transcended ethnicities. Restaurants of all genres offer their take on a dish that can be used as a dip, spread, condiment or even entree. Izanami’s rendition is made with edamame, the young, tender soybeans beloved by vegans and carnivores alike. Edamame hummus has all the qualities of an outstanding hummus with an element of freshness many of them don’t offer. This hummus is part of a seasonal vegetable plate which pairs the edamame hummus with a shiro miso dip, the lightest and sweetest of all misos. Instead of the more fashionable pita wedges, a bowl of sliced carrots, sliced zucchini, edamame in pods and cabbage are provided for dipping. The shiro miso dip was outstanding, on par with the edamame hummus.
After espying burgers being delivered to the table behind us, we succumbed to carnivorous temptation and split a Nami Burger. Constructed of six ounces of naturally raised, impossibly decadent wagyu beef from New Mexico’s own Lone Mountain Wagyu, this is a burger good enough to belong on such a sublime menu. Wagyu beef, which surpasses USDA marbling standards for prime-grade beef, comes from the same breed stock that yields the famed Kobe beef of Japan. It’s unctuous and delicious, rendering toppings unnecessary. Even green chile would have been superfluous.
Perhaps nothing pairs with burgers as well as fries. Izanami’s Shichimi fries are certainly a wonderful complement to the Nami burger. The fries themselves are cut from Kennebec potatoes, a favorite of fine restaurants everywhere. Shichimi is a coarsely-ground, seven-spice seasoning blend widely used in Japanese cuisine, takes those fries to another dimension of deliciousness. One of the reasons we all enjoyed Shichimi so much is that red chili peppers are the primary ingredient in the spice mixture. A shaker of Shichimi is available on each table along with salt so we used it on almost everything.
Perhaps the closes Izanami comes to serving sushi is in offering Yaki Onigiri, described on the menu as “grilled rice balls” even though they’re triangular in shape. Onigiri is made of sushi rice, is flavored with rice vinegar and is dotted with sesame seeds. Unlike nigiri, no raw fish is involved. A miso glaze smear on the plate is all the condiment you need to enjoy this Japanese street food favorite. The onigiri is accompanied by a small bowl of daily pickle. Trust me, you can’t have enough Japanese pickles. The Dill stork should deliver these treasures.
Nikko, Franzi and I all had our favorites and selflessly allowed one another to eat more than an equal portion of our individual favorites. For me, the white sweet potatoes became an object of cupidity, maybe even lust (I momentarily contemplated hiding the bowl of these terrific tubers from my friends). Glazed with a sweet miso and plenty of butter, these grilled white sweet potatoes aren’t overly sweet or starchy, but have a thoroughly enjoyable flavor and texture.
As a sheltered child growing up in an agrarian village in northern New Mexico, my first exposure to mushrooms came from an episode of Gilligan’s Island when Mary Ann believes she had eaten poisonous mushrooms (roomis igloomus). It wasn’t until years later during a visit to Furr’s Cafeteria that I experienced edible and delicious mushrooms for myself. Izanami’s sake-braised Shimeji mushrooms are far superior to the gravied mushrooms from Furr’s. Shimeji mushrooms have small, rounded, tight caps and when lightly cooked, are replete with the flavor sensation known as “umami” in Japanese cuisine. These are truly exceptional mushrooms.
Not all of Izanami’s desserts are traditional Japanese postprandial offerings, but they’re certainly Japanese inspired. They’re also absolutely fabulous, all worthy of their amazing predecessors. A banana, cut into four sections, coated in panko bread crumbs and deep-fried is somewhat reminiscent of some Thai desserts, but with a personality all its own courtesy of the panko which imbues the bananas with a light, crunchy coating sheathing a sweet, soft fruit. The black sesame panna cotta is delicate and light with an almost alchemic quality in that its flavor profile builds on your tongue and taste buds. The longer you linger between bites, the more you enjoy the amazing flavors of this ethereal dish. Our third dessert was a plum sake sorbet. Perhaps more than any other culinary culture, Japanese have actualized the potential of plums. The plum sake sorbet is imbued with the sweet-tart flavor unique to plums, while taking in the refreshing qualities of a superb sorbet.
In the past two months, I’ve experienced outstanding meals at two transcendent restaurants in the Land of Enchantment–Epazote and Izanami–both in Santa Fe. One of the things that made them transcendent and transformative is their ability to transport diners to a better time, a better place, a better self. Within months after opening Izanami was one of only thirty restaurants nominated for a James Beard Award as the best restaurant to launch in 2014. It has and should continue to garner tremendous accolades for years to come.
Ten Thousand Waves
3451 Hyde Park Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 5 May 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$$ – $$$$$