Her sunrise could bring light into a blind man.
Her sunset could put tears there in his eyes.
Her colors are laying there in brush strokes.
Underneath those peote skies.
–The Bellamy Brothers
Santa Fe’s preternatural beauty is so captivating that even the plethora of writers, artists and musicians who pilgrimage to this jewel of the Southwest are at a loss for adjectives to adequately describe it. Perhaps because of their scarcity of synonyms, some of them refer to it as “Fanta Se” as in fantasy, a city so singularly soul-stirring that its mystical qualities seems to transcend reality.
Santa Fe’s cuisine is also lavished with laudation. Critics and patrons alike lionize Fanta Se’s restaurants and the world class chefs which preside over traditional earthen ovens, ultra-modern steely stoves and Spanish style tapas grills to prepare the mouth-watering marriage of traditional and contemporary cuisine that has made Santa Fe one of the country’s foremost dining destinations.
Every once in a while Santa Fe’s ethereal beauty and a magical dining experience converge to form the type of perfect syzygy planetary alignments would envy. Such was the case during our inaugural visit to Luminaria, the resplendent shining star restaurant at the Inn and Spa at Loretto. This was not one of those Chamber of Commerce nights in which Santa Fe’s inky-black skies, illuminated only by a canopy of stars, is prefaced by a picture-perfect brush-stroked sunset.
Instead, it was a dark, starless night, the promise of earth-nourishing precipitation foreshadowed by the rumble of distant thunder in the horizon. The petrichor of approaching rain coupled with the clean, sweet fragrance of sage and piñon to arouse our olfactory-senses. A celestial display of lightning punctuated the night sky. The cool air portended an early fall. So did the romantic crackling of nature-incensed woods in the fireplace.
There may be no more fitting milieu in Santa Fe to spend an al fresco late summer evening than Luminaria whose expansive patio and covered ramada provide cover from spitting rains and shade from the sweltering sun. The patio is situated neath the shadows of the Loretto Chapel. It’s surrounded by towering locust trees whose melodic rustling at the mere hint of winds placate the soul while trumpet vines, beautiful flowers and sprawling shrubs compete for your rapt attention with the ramada’s elegant drapes, decorous chandeliers and a soothing entrance fountain.
The restaurant’s interior is contemporary and stylish, a swanky refuge from the harshness of Santa Fe’s winters. From the moment you step into this oasis and are welcomed warmly at the hostess station, you’ll feel right at home. The wait staff is extraordinary in its attentiveness and ambassadorial in its knowledge of menu offerings and wine pairings. Our charming and witty waitress Erin demonstrated the rare ability to make all guests feel as if they’re her sole focus while simultaneously attending to several tables.
Presiding over this posh palace is charismatic executive chef Matt Ostrander, an 18-year veteran of Santa Fe’s culinary scene. Before assuming the helm at Luminaria, Chef Ostrander worked at some of Santa Fe’s most highly esteemed restaurants: Geronimo, The Compound, Bistro 315, Il Piatto and others. His influences are wide and varied, but his style is all his own, a product of his unique experiences, training and education. The result is a holistic dining experience unlike any in Santa Fe. He calls it “conscious cuisine,” but you’ll call it fabulous.
Conscious cuisine incorporates the use of sustainable, locally-sourced (fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers and prime grades of meat from regional ranchers) and organic products with ayurvedic principles to create balanced, healthful foods that stimulate the senses through flavor, aroma, texture and presentation. The seasonally rotating menu does not shy away from low-calorie and heart-healthy dining options. Chef Ostrander is also increasingly introducing seriously playful elements of molecular gastronomy to a menu which can’t be pigeonholed into any one category. You may recognize nuances of French, Southwestern and contemporary American approaches, all well executed to an edible art form.
Your introduction to Luminaria’s edible art will be in the form of an amuse-bouche, essentially a single, bite-sized hors d’oeuvre, not something you order, but something presented by the chef to dining patrons. Not all fine-dining restaurants subscribe to this practice. The best ones do it very well. On the night of our inaugural meal at Luminaria, the amuse-bouche was a single tablespoon brimming with scallop ceviche, as fresh and delicious as if the scallops had just been plucked from out of the sea.
A triumvirate of terrific breads served warm in a wire basket arrives next. Blue corn muffins and red chile biscotti specked with toasted pumpkin seeds are baked in-house while French baguettes are brought in from the Sage Bakehouse, a Santa Fe treasure. Whether you crown these breads with a flavorful Parmesan-garlic butter, or you enjoy them denuded, you’ll enjoy them immensely. Each bread has a personality all its own in terms of flavor profile and texture, rendering each both interesting and delicious.
Among the appetizers are several unique offerings which could be conceived only by the brilliant mind of a very creative chef. When discussing these preprandial surprises with Marilyn Litton, the restaurant’s charming supervisor, we both shook our heads in amusement and awe at the inventiveness of ingredient combinations neither of us could have dreamed up in several lifetimes. That’s why I’m writing about these starters and Chef Ostrander is turning his culinary dreams into delicious realities.
Where other restaurants may have been satisfied to offer a Caprese salad and most diners would have happily relished every morsel, Luminaria frequenters have come to expect much more from Chef Ostrander–for good reason. The chef’s take on the fashionable Caprese salad showcases the basic elements of the salad reconstructed in heretofore undreamt of ways. Think savory mozzarella ice cream, Roma tomato sorbet, and basil ice cream scooped into a sundae dish then topped with roasted garlic foam and drizzled with a rich 18-year old Balsamic vinegar reduction. Fried capers and Hawaiian sea salt add flavor and texture contrasts. I may not be clever enough to dream this up, but I sure will dream about it. The Caprese Sundae is an outstanding starter!
The local award-winning tortilla soup is almost as fun to see being served as it is delicious to eat. First a concave bowl is presented at your table–its contents: unctuous, buttery avocado chunks and crispy red and yellow corn tortilla chips. Then a pitcher of steaming soup is poured over the top–chopped cilantro, fresh corn niblets and diced organic chicken in tow. The soup is the color of comforting tomato soup, but it contains no tomato. Its crimson hue is derived from chile powder, but it’s not piquancy you’ll notice. It’s the soul-satisfying earthiness only chile can impart. In a city which prides itself on outstanding tortilla soups, this may be the very best.
I’ve often considered appetizers the “foreplay” of dining–meant to whet the appetite and prepare your palate for a main course which should surpass its predecessor. It would take some doing for any entrees anywhere to surpass Luminaria’s stellar appetizers. Chef Ostrander and his crew are up to the task and then some.
More than proving its mettle is the seared all-natural mallard duck breast served with a mascarpone-chipotle polenta. The duck–several medium-sized slices of breast and a full leg–is perfectly seared to a rich pink hued medium-rare on the inside and a crispy char on the outside, a textural combination that makes duck my favorite poultry (or game, as it were). The duck, rich and delicious, is further enlivened by a cherry demi which highlights the natural flavors of the duck. It does not render the duck fruity and sweet as demi glace oft does.
In deciding what entree to order, I solicited the advice of the gracious Erin, asking which of two options–the duck or a pork roulade–she would prefer for her own dinner. She demured that those two were her favorites and that the deciding factor as which of the two she would order is the mascarpone-chipotle polenta. All too often polenta is poorly prepared and more closely resembles its poor cousin grits than it does the refined cornmeal dish gourmet restaurants love to serve. Luminaria’s rendition is the best polenta I’ve ever had. The mascarpone renders the dish smooth, creamy and rich while the chipotle imbues it with a faint smokiness and discernible heat. It’s a most worthy accompaniment to the duck.
If you subscribe to the notion that great steaks can only be found in credentialed chop houses and that only in thick slabs of succulent beef can your carnivorous cravings be sated, Luminaria’s grilled New York strip loin will make a convert out of you. What the strip’s twelve ounces lack in sheer intimidating beefiness, it more than makes up in pure deliciousness, its only ameliorants being a Balsamic vinaigrette, salt and pepper. Perfectly prepared at medium, this steak is tender and juicy, oozing with flavor. It is served with baby vegetables, the stand-outs being fingerling potatoes (including pulchritudinous Peruvian purple potatoes).
If appetizers are foreplay for the taste buds, great desserts are the romantic cuddling afterwards. Pastry chef Andrea Clover swaths her desserts not in silk satin sheets, but in sweet medleys that titillate the senses. In 2010, Chef Clover earned first place in the “Best Taste-Most Artistic” category at the 18th annual Chocolate Fantasy Chocolatier Competition, a fundraiser for the New Mexico Museum of Natural History Foundation. Quite conspicuous in the lobby is a large silver color recognizing Chef Clover as winner of the dessert competition in the Santa Fe Community Foundation’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? celebration.
One exemplar in confectionery creativity is a red chile creme caramel plated with a sliced orange topped with a refreshing orange sorbet. The red chile creme caramel may be the very best flan to ever cross my lips. It rests easily on a pool of tequila-orange sauce. My initial inclination was that the flan was a tad too sweet (as is almost everything but dark chocolate), then the red chile sneaked up–not with piquancy, but with that wonderful back-of-the-throat warming some chiles impart. Being topped by the sorbet chilled the orange slice and changed its texture. As with so many menu items at Luminaria, what sets this dessert apart is the wonderful contrasts in flavors, textures and even colors.
A special (as in not among the six desserts normally offered) dessert on our special night featured two desserts on a plate. The first was a raspberry-elder flower liqueur mousse, not as light or ethereal as some mousses tend to be, but much more rich and full-flavored. The second showcased carob (a chocolate substitute derived from a flowering evergreen shrub or tree) ice cream on chocolate “earth” (crumbled brownies) and chocolate fenentine (a crunchy chocolate-rice praline). Erin aptly described the fenentine as “like a Nestles Crunch bar but much better.” It was much better, too, than any other dessert I’ve had this year.
While inferior restaurants provide complimentary mints after your dinner, Luminaria gives each dinner a dark chocolate box with a red chile creme caramel, pear nectar coulis inside and pineapple foam sugar on top. It’s the dessert for which Chef Clover earned the silver spoon award prominently displayed by the hostess station.
Luminaria for Brunch
There are many fine dining restaurants–particularly those housed in posh hotel complexes–who are strictly one-trick ponies. They shine most brightly when dinner is served and reservations have been filled. Many such restaurants offer a perfunctory breakfast, brunch or lunch menu primarily for the benefit of guests who prefer not to have to wander out in search of alternative options. Locals don’t often frequent these pantheons of fine dining. Some of my sage Santa Fe sources frequent Luminaria for brunch, a portend of deliciousness warranting a visit.
The brunch menu changes with the seasons, a practice which facilitates the use of the freshest ingredients available when they are at their best. Brunch is served from 11AM through 2PM, offering enough of a variety of both breakfast and lunch items to allow you a delineated difference or to mix-and-match breakfast and lunch items as you wish. Our inaugural brunch visit occurred a week before Christmas with a storm looming over the western horizon. The menu offered the type of warm, comforting dishes you want just before a storm.
An online Mafia Nickname Generator insists my “made” guy sobriquet would be “Joey Bag of Donuts.” Perhaps that’s why Luminaria’s house made doughnuts called more loudly than the market fresh fruit plate my waistline would have appreciated more. Instead of a true bag of doughnuts, a half dozen donuts wrapped in parchment paper arrived at our table. You could argue these were classic doughnut holes and not true doughnuts, but who cares about semantics when there are golden puffs of dough covered in brown sugar and cinnamon goodness and they’re hot to the touch. Wisps of steam escape into the air as you bite into them and you might even burn your mouth a bit, an example of pain being a delicious flavor. These are wonderful donuts!
With a peak season lasting from late summer well into winter, butternut squash is widely regarded as a winter squash even though with today’s cool storage capabilities, you can find butternut squash year-round. That’s a boon to lovers of this silken textured, deep-orange fleshed squash with a sweet, light butterscotch flavor and little of the annoying stringiness of other squashes. Luminaria’s risotto showcases roasted butternut squash by marrying it with pungent, salty Gouda cheese and earthy jumbo asparagus tips. The chef isn’t shy in using the three chief ingredients, each of which is discernible on its own as well as in combination with its partner ingredients. The timbale-shaped risotto is a wonderful canvas with its perfectly prepared long-grained rice.
If your preference is for something perhaps more traditional yet no less comforting, Luminaria’s brunch menu offers a number of breakfast plates–a three egg omelet with several topping options, eggs Benedict (available with smoked salmon or Canadian bacon) and an “American” breakfast. The latter includes two fresh farm eggs any way you want them; your choice of ham, bacon or sausage; breakfast potatoes, toast made from your choice of breads, juice and coffee. All are of very high quality and quite delicious.
As its name implies, Luminaria is a bright shining star in a city resplendent with luminous restaurants. Even if you don’t dine there on a perfect Chamber of Commerce Santa Fe evening, a meal at Luminaria will help you create your own Fanta Se fantasy.
211 Old Santa Fe Trail
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 18 December 2011
1st VISIT: 30 July 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Caprese Soup, Local award-winning Tortilla Soup, Mallard Duck Breast, Grilled New York Strip Loin, Any Dessert made by Chef Clover, American Breakfast, House Made Doughnuts, Butternut Squash Risotto