Consistency over time, excellence every time–that’s what sets apart the one or two restaurants all the cognoscenti herald as the very best. These few truly extraordinary restaurants don’t so much raise the bar or reinvent themselves continuously as they do maintain the rarefied levels which earned them the distinction of being singled out in the first place. Almost without exception, the Santa Fe restaurant most consider the best restaurant in a city of great restaurants is Geronimo. It’s been that way for years.
If you’ve ever dined at Geronimo, your next visit isn’t likely to provide any revelatory surprises unless it’s being surprised at how the restaurant has managed to maintain its exceptional standards over the years. It’s as flawless today as it was when we last visited in 2005 and as wonderful as it was when we first visited in 2003. Approaching two decades as the finest in fine dining establishments, Geronimo has, over the years, survived the onslaught of very stiff competition from a number of pretty new faces, including several trumpeted as potentially Santa Fe’s best.
Not for the fierce Apache warrior is Santa Fe’s premier dining destination named, but for Geronimo Lopez, a more humble and certainly less infamous man. More than a quarter of a century ago, Lopez built the territorial style hacienda on which the restaurant stands which now bears his name. Geronimo ranks with the very best restaurants in America and it’s not just my opinion:
- The Zagat survey rated it the most popular restaurant in New Mexico from 2004 through 2009.
- It is only one of two restaurants in New Mexico to have earned the prestigious “four stars” designation from the Mobil Travel Guide and it did so from 2003 through 2009.
- It earned the AAA’s Four Diamond award from 2001 through 2009.
- During the same eight-year period, it also earned the Distinguished Restaurants of North America (DiRona) Achievement of Distinction in dining, an accolade accorded to fewer than 800 gourmet restaurants on the continent.
Adjectives, adulation and accolades don’t aptly describe this extraordinary restaurant. It must be experienced! Then, and only then, after you are left breathless and fully satiated, can you say you’ve had the very best in Santa Fe, maybe in the Land of Enchantment.
Because at Geronimo food is considered edible art, it’s only fitting that the restaurant is located on Canyon Road, the narrow, twisting home to dozens of trendy art galleries. About a mile away from the famed Santa Fe Plaza, Geronimo is so popular that reservations are a must. The lap of luxury treatment begins even before you enter the restaurant. Eager attendants provide valet parking, a very welcome boon on cold and damp evenings. Arrive early and if your table isn’t quite ready, you’ll be escorted to an intimate little bar where you can have a cocktail as you wait. Your genial host will seat you as soon as possible. Tandem service is very professional and attentive without being overly doting. The staff is ambassadorial in their service and encyclopedic in their knowledge. You can’t go wrong by heeding the recommendations of the wait staff.
As you walk in, you’ll immediately take in the tasteful but understated ambiance and you know you’re surrounded by class, not overdone panache. This almost minimalist atmosphere serves as a backdrop for the global fusion creations which will make your taste buds very happy. The cynosure of the front dining room is a fireplace crowned by moose antlers, an impressive rack that has long been the restaurant’s symbol. Massive overhead beams, not in the conventional peeled viga style, speak to the restaurant’s solidity while the creamy stucco walls lend to a tranquil neutrality. Save for the cuisine, there is nothing in the restaurant which shouts loudly. You might not even notice the music piped into the dining rooms and even when the restaurant is crowded, conversational tone is kept to a respectful level.
Whether attired in ostentatious garb or Santa Fe casual, diners at Geronimo look as though they belong there. Most don’t flinch when they peruse the wine menu and espy fruit of the vin more costly than any entree, more pricy than a meal at other fine dining restaurants. For others (like this humble blogger) who can afford to splurge at Geronimo only on special occasions, the opportunity to dress up in other than sneakers and jeans for an extravagant night out makes the visit special. Frankly I’m not sure Geronimo would be as enjoyable if it was everyday affordable…though based on the satisfied looks upon the faces of well-heeled patrons, it undoubtedly would be.
As with the best among the best restaurants anywhere, Geronimo’s attention to detail is reflected even on matters other restaurants might overlook, things that perhaps only a true foodie might even notice. That includes bread, the staff of life which is often an after-thought for even some fine dining establishments. Geronimo bakes its own bread. It’s better than bakery quality bread, as good as you’ll find anywhere. The waitstaff plates it with steel tongs, offering sourdough bread rolls, green chile bread rolls and a crispy lavosh, an Armenian flat bread. All are served warm and are excellent.
The restaurant’s first course menu is never formulaic or predictable. It’s a diverse menu limited only in the number of starters offered. The diversity is in the use of different main ingredients on each first course. Though there may be four seafood items on the starter menu, each item will showcase a different seafood offering. Whether it be escargot, shrimp, crab or tuna, expect it to be unfailingly fresh, delicious and perfectly prepared. Salads are similarly unique, each constructed from different greens.
One of Geronimo’s signature salads is the Fujisaki Asian Pear Salad, a timbale shaped masterpiece of arugula, watercress, cashews and Fuji pears drizzled with a cider honey vinaigrette and served with four no-crust grilled cheese sandwiches made with Bleu d’Auvergne cheese, a pungent and creamy French bleu cheese with herbaceous qualities. It’s an adult grilled cheese that makes even the contemplation of any other grilled cheese sandwich almost depressing. The Fujisaki pears are sweet and juicy in an organic, unprocessed manner. The cider honey vinaigrette is a perfect counterbalance to the chicory-like arugula.
The mesquite grilled cold-water lobster tail salad with watercress, romaine and capers sprinkled with a spicy chili vinaigrette might also rank among the best salads in America. The grilled lobster tail is as fresh and succulent as if caught off the cold Maine coastal waters where true “cold lobster” emanates. Best of all, there’s enough of it for lobster in every bite. The spicy chili (sic) vinaigrette serves as a nice foil to the sweet, succulent lobster.
Crab cakes are seemingly a first-course standard at Geronimo, but how those crab cakes are prepared is seasonal menu dependent. One constant is the use of Maryland blue crab cakes, the very best in the world. Whether prepared with red pepper and leeks, spicy pea shoot salad and tobiko butter sauce or with a caviar dill sauce, braised leeks and baby watercress salad, these crab cakes are absolutely mouth-watering.
Geronimo’s long-time signature entree is the peppery elk tenderloin with applewood smoked bacon, garlic fork-mashed potatoes and creamy brandied mushroom sauce. Farm raised in New Zealand, the elk is perfectly seasoned, remarkably tender and absolutely melts in your mouth. It ranks with the best portions of meat I’ve ever had anywhere–better than any steak we’ve had in some of the very best of Chicago’s chophouses. It’s a slab of tenderloin so succulent it will make grown men swoon as they shut their eyes and try to permanently imprint the memories of this deliciousness in our minds. This is meat so good you’ll savor every bite of lean, juicy and fork-tender perfection.
Flecked with applewood smoked bacon, the peppery elk tenderloin is prepared to your exacting specifications. Contrary to its name, it’s not nearly as peppery as your standard steak au poivre. The prevalent flavor profile is elk, but not in the gamey manner you might envision. The creamy brandied-mushroom sauce is the best of its genre we’ve had anywhere, a wholly unnecessary ameliorant that proves you can improve on perfection. The fork-mashed Yukon Gold mashed potatoes are fluffy and buttery, so good you’ll want seconds.
Steak Frites has become so commonplace in restaurants as to become almost mundane. Usually a chewy hangar steak with fries, that mundanity applies to the way it’s prepared. At Geronimo, you can replace mundane with sublime, ordinary with extraordinary, average with superb to describe the filet mignon “frites.” The six-ounce Sterling Silver Farms tenderloin of beef is fork tender and as juicy and flavorful as imaginable. It’s a fabulous filet, better than any other steak of any kind we’ve had in New Mexico save for the peppery elk tenderloin. Chophouses don’t do filet nearly this well.
As for the frites portion of this entree, the hand-cut Russet potato fries are quite good, but there is more worthy accompaniment than fries for a steak as extraordinary as Geronimo’s filet. Fortunately the fries aren’t served with some pedestrian ketchup. Instead, four rectangular bowls of sauces are provided with a different sauce in each: hot and spicy Hollandaise, au jus, horseradish and caramelized onions. Cut somewhere between thin and shoestring, the garlicky fries resound with flavor only when dipped into the sauces (which, by the way, can be used on the filet, but you might not want to detract from its purity of flavor). The filet is served atop sauteed chard with perfectly fried bacon.
Not surprisingly, within this restaurant’s venerable adobe walls are served some of the very best desserts in New Mexico. The warm Granny Smith Apple & Pecan Crostade with vanilla bean ice cream and caramel sauce speaks to the simplicity of the best desserts. A buttery, flaky crust envelops seasonally fresh Granny Smith apples and finely chopped pecans, the lot of which are topped with a dense and creamy housemade vanilla ice cream then generously drizzled with a caramel sauce. There’s no playing with disparate ingredients here, just using very good ingredients in simple ways that maximize their flavor potential. Ice cream, by the way, is available as a dessert option, too.
Expectations for a restaurant heralded as the best in Santa Fe might be high, but Geronimo rises to the occasion every time. It won’t so much wow you with the complexity of disparate ingredient combinations as it will serenade your taste buds with flavors which work very well together.
724 Canyon Road
Santa Fe, NM
LATEST VISIT: 07 October 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Grilled Cold Water Lobster Tail Salad, Peppery Elk Tenderloin, Granny Smith Apple Pecan Crostade, Steak Frites, Maryland Crab Cakes, Fujisaki Asian Pear Salad