In the dark ages of 1979 when the world wasn’t nearly as connected as it is today, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) ruled the airwaves throughout the United Kingdom just as it had since its founding in 1922. Young listeners complained that the monopoly of control had forged a monotony in programming. For Yanks like me, however, the so-called “monotony” provided the most interesting diversion. In perhaps trying to appeal to listeners of all demographics with a one-size-fits-all approach, the BBC’s programming didn’t seem to make any sense…at least by American standards.
My own musical tastes tend to be very eclectic, but the BBC sometimes stretched eclectic beyond logical sense. One of my favorite examples of the “diversity” of the BBC’s music programming was a succession of songs that included True Love by Bing Crosby, Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon and If I Said You Had A Beautiful Body by the Bellamy Brothers. This example of the BBC’s programming was antithetical to that of American radio stations which then and now subscribe to fairly predictable programming formats. Country music stations will play country music, Oldies music stations will play oldies and so forth. Never the twain (not Shania) shall meet.
The BBC’s varietal selections immediately came to mind when one of the performers of La Cantina’s singing wait staff announced the evening’s program, a repertoire that would include jazz and musical revues of the best of Broadway as well as selections from Walt Disney movies. Among the Broadway tunes to be showcased were selections by Cole Porter, coincidentally the composer who wrote the aforementioned True Love. Wouldn’t it have been appropriate if Werewolves of London was also on the night’s parade of tunes?
La Cantina is Santa Fe’s best year-round attraction for audiophiles, especially those who enjoy great food presented artistically in a warm and intimate environment. La Cantina is part of the sprawling Casa Sena complex on Palace Avenue just east of the famous Santa Fe Plaza. The singing wait staff, accompanied by some of Santa Fe’s most accomplished pianists, performs daily starting at 6:00pm. This terrific troupe of troubadours has been featured collectively and individually in media across the country. Reservations are highly recommended and there is no cover charge.
Doubling as your servers and as the night’s entertainment, the performers are superbly talented in both roles. As servers, they’re highly personable and surprisingly attentive, especially considering each one performs several numbers. As performers, they shine, each with professional caliber voices that resonate strongly across the entire room. Engage them in conversation during a lull in the program and you’ll find they’re genuinely happy to be performing and serving guests. Two and even three hours will pass quickly as you thoroughly relish the evening’s entertainment.
It’s a rare restaurant in which the menu takes second or equal billing to the wait staff, but perhaps only the chef wouldn’t agree that at La Cantina, the night’s entertainment is on par with the excellent food. La Cantina’s menu showcases locally farmed and sustainable foods. The Casa Sena family of restaurants participates in Santa Fe’s Farm to Table program and supports local farmers outside the program. Chef Patrick Chef Gharrity believes in “building community through the vehicle of food,” demonstrating this approach through his commitment to supporting local farms, dairies and ranches.
The culinary offerings are described as “New American West Cuisine.” The flavors and configurations of New Mexico products are proudly showcased on the menu, but so is a surprising diversity considering there are fewer than a dozen entrees on the menu. Entrees range from New Mexico’s ubiquitous green chile cheeseburger and traditional enchiladas to pan-seared scallops and grilled venison Italian sausage. The appetizer menu is similarly diverse. There is truly something for all tastes.
For the seafood lover in you, the Seafood Sampler (lobster sausage, tortilla-crusted shrimp, Pasilla-crusted tuna sashimi, edamame-wasabi puree and a mango-sesame dressing) brings the bounty of the sea to your table. The only thing not to like about this sampler is how very little of each item there is, especially if you’re sharing among any more than two. The lobster sausage is especially notable with the texture of a sliced sausage and the unmistakable sweetness of lobster punctuated by flecks of red pepper. We didn’t discern horseradish on the wasabi which has the earthiness of the real thing. The sashimi is fresh and lightly seared.
At the risk of stereotyping, you might expect a restaurant named La Cantina to serve good guacamole and chips. La Cantina certainly does. The blue and yellow corn tortilla chips are housemade and the guacamole is made-to-order which means it arrives at your table at the height of freshness. It’s made with perfectly ripened avocados tinged with a citrus influence more common in Mexican guacamole than it is on New Mexican guacamole.
There are a couple schools of thought about scallops. Most chefs believe in saucing simply so as not to detract from the sublime sweet richness of pan-seared scallops. The risk-takers among chefs will introduce elements that change or ameliorate that flavor profile. The latter approach is what La Cantina does, generously applying a deeply red New Mexico harissa sauce. Harissa is a piquant North African sauce often used as a condiment, so it’s not necessarily a great departure to envision a New Mexican version. The New Mexico harissa sauce is made with red chile, olive oil and cilantro, emphasis on the red chile. The scallops are served with oregano-sauteed zucchini cut into julienne-type strips and with purple potato chips.
For more casual fare such as you might have on a fancy picnic, you can’t go wrong with BBQ Pork Sliders, shredded pork slathered in a guava BBQ sauce sandwiched between buttermilk biscuits and served with a sesame Napa cabbage slaw and sweet potato fries. The guava BBQ sauce imparts a sweet Tropical flavor on the delicate pork. It’s a biscuit sandwich as good as you’ll have anywhere. The sweet potato fries are served with a smoky barbecue-flavored ketchup, but it’s the house sesame slaw that will really grab you.
If you think you’ve seen and had salmon every conceivable way it can be made, Chef Gharrity will surprise you with a rendition called the Aztec Dusted Salmon. The Aztec dusting is a spiced mocha crust, but this dish owes its amazing flavor to perhaps the very best yellow mole I’ve ever had. It’s a mole so good you’ll want to sop it all up from the plate with the restaurant’s bread. Yellow mole, a specialty of Oaxaca, is usually made for chicken. Salmon, it turns out, is an excellent vehicle for the mole, too. The salmon is made with a quinoa-radicchio salad and a terrific mango-sesame “dressing” which involves finely chopped mangoes tempered with green onions and red peppers.
Desserts remain a strong suit of the Casa Sena family although the sublime chocolate red chile soup is no longer on the menu. The sour cream-blueberry sundae is a worthy successor. It’s made from a frozen sour cream mousse punctuated with a blueberry compote and a sweet blue corn crumble. The frozen sour cream is a textural success and is surprisingly flavorful. The blueberries ensure it’s not too sweet, lending a tangy flavor. Another terrific dessert is the warm chocolate pudding nestled neath a pistachio whipped cream and a handful of blackberries.
Had the BBC allowed the singing wait staff at La Cantina to perform every song in its nonsensical playlist, this is one listener who would have enjoyed the programming much more. But not nearly as much as I enjoy it today within the comfy confines of a wonderful restaurant serving excellent and adventurous food.
La Cantina at Casa Sena
125 East Palace Avenue
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 May 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Sour Cream – Blueberry Sundae, Warm Chocolate Pudding Cake, BBQ Pork Sliders, Aztec Dusted Salmon, Pan-Seared Scallops