Expansive views bathed in salubrious, sun-kissed air punctuated by languid breezes. Cerulean skies graduating in depth and brilliance the higher they climb above the horizon. Surreal topography of unnaturally contorted, dappled sandstone formations and juniper laden foothills. Lush, well-tended gardens blessed with an abundance of vegetables, herbs, flowers and shrubs. Such was the idyll Georgia O’Keefe called home.
On Sunday, July 19th, 2015, another transcendent artist–one whose medium is food and whose canvas is the palate—spent the day at the home of the legendary doyenne of American painting. He went there to pick apricots from the Abiquiu property on which she had lovingly doted. It wasn’t John Rivera Sedlar’s first visit. Much of the chef’s upbringing and many of his happiest memories were at his family’s ranch in Abiquiu, not too far from where O’Keefe had lived and where she had painted the stunning macro perspectives of floral sensuality which captivated the world.
Chef Sedlar’s aunt, Jerry Newsom, was Georgia O’Keefe’s personal chef for more than a decade, but it was under the nurturing influence of his grandmother Eloisa Martinez Rivera that his interest in cooking was kindled. Not only did she teach him how to prepare traditional New Mexican staples such as posole, sopaipillas and enchiladas, she instilled in him, a spirit of generosity through her alacritous example of feeding the familial multitudes who often gathered at the family ranch for celebrations.
Had Chef Sedlar’s formative development been limited to familial learnings, he might have pursued the culinary culture of New Mexico exclusively, however, he culled a wider expanse of culinary appreciation from living in Spain and France where the Air Force had stationed his father. When his father retired, Eloisa got the precocious then-fourteen-year-old a job in the hotel kitchen of La Fonda in Santa Fe’s famous Plaza. Not long thereafter, he took a job at the Bull Ring. Even back then, Santa Fe’s restaurants weren’t formulaic and predictable. Because the restaurants in which he worked while still in high school featured haute cuisine on one side of the menu and “Spanish” (traditional New Mexican) food on the other, he quickly added French cuisine to his repertoire.
From Santa Fe, he moved to Los Angeles where, at age 23, he apprenticed under the legendary Jean Bertranou at L’Ermitage. At L’Ermitage he mastered classic techniques while continuing to evolve his own approach to cooking. By 1980, Chef Sedlar was ready to strike out as a restaurant owner, partnering with Santa Fe native Estevan Garcia to launch Saint Estéphe in Manhattan Beach. Initially offering nouvelle French cuisine, the restaurant evolved to become one of the Los Angeles area’s first fine-dining Southwestern restaurants.
Modern Southwest cuisine as it was executed at Saint Estéphe was such a breath-of-fresh-air concept that Bon Apetit magazine named the pioneering establishment “among the very best in California, or even the west.” In the kitchen Chef Sedlar employed fusion techniques, especially of French and New Mexican ingredients, long before the term “fusion” came into vogue. At the heart of his culinary pairings were the ingredients on which he had been weaned in New Mexico, ingredients he wisely embraced and lovingly shared with his guests.
Had he remained in New Mexico, it’s conceivable that the driven chef would have achieved significant acclaim, but it would likely have been the “big fish in a small pond” type of recognition. Instead, he plied his craft in the megalopolis of Los Angeles where diners (and the peripatetic media) tend to be more persnickety and less forgiving. To survive that scrutiny, you’ve got to be good. To stand out and excel in that limelight for forty years, you’ve got to be great. Chef Sedlar’s “big fish in a big pond” greatness placed him in rarefied company, a pantheon of culinary luminescence.
From a culinary perspective, Chef Sedlar’s accomplishments are almost Jeffersonian in their breadth and impact. No less than Gourmet Magazine named him “the father of modern Southwest cuisine.” He was the youngest chef ever to receive the Silver Spoon Award from Food Arts Magazine. In 2011, Esquire Magazine named him “Chef of the Year” and listed Rivera, his restaurant at the time, among the nation’s “Best New Restaurants” for 2011. He was recognized in the Cook’s Magazine feature “Top 50 Who’s Who of Cooking in America” and has been nominated for the prestigious James Beard Award as Best Chef of the Pacific. Chef Sedlar is the author of several cookbooks and “The Tamale Poster” which still adorns the walls of many restaurants. You may even have seen him on season three of the Top Chef Masters series.
One of the Land of Enchantment’s most alluring qualities is how it draws its sons and daughters back home. It’s a pull we can’t resist. After more than forty years in the fast-paced fishbowl that is Los Angeles, Chef Sedlar, too, felt the compelling need to return home. Still too vibrant and energetic to retire, he sold Rivera, his wildly successful Los Angeles restaurant in the shadow of the star-studded Staples Center and signed on to helm the restaurant operation at the Drury Plaza Hotel in Santa Fe. Fittingly, he chose to name his restaurant Eloisa after the grandmother who set him on the path of his passion.
Perhaps no word in the vernacular of Spanish Northern New Mexico evokes such veneration, reverence (and, for those of us who have lost these heaven-sent treasures, a melancholy ache not even time can erase) as “abuelita” or grandmother. Though Eloisa is named specifically for Chef Sedlar’s own grandmother, his restaurant celebrates all Southwestern women—the madres, tias and hermanas—whom he contends “have always formed the foundation of New Mexico’s culinary heritage.”
Few grandmothers have had the luxury of such a regally appointed kitchen as the immaculately gleaming kitchen which graces Eloisa. It’s twice the size of the kitchen at Rivera, Chef Sedlar’s last restaurant in Los Angeles. You’ll want to be seated in close proximity so you can lustily ogle the transformation of down-to-earth New Mexican ingredients into exotic creations which both honor and elevate the Land of Enchantment’s culinary traditions. Watching the kitchen staff assiduously go about their prep work with the efficiency and synchronicity of drone bees is almost mesmerizing.
Eloisa’s commodious dining room seats 120 guests inside and weather-permitting, another 65 guests on the patio. The west-facing restaurant is airy and bright, features which inspire Chef Sedlar. The adjoining bar is a sommelier’s dream with an enviable wine list. Walls are festooned with 25 framed photographs on loan from Tamal, the first museum dedicated solely to the celebration of Latin culture as viewed through the lens of food. Tamal is yet another of Chef Sedlar’s dreams reaching fruition, and like a new father, he proudly pointed out photos depicting among other foods and cooking implements: huitlacoche in macro, a molcajete (pestle) and tejolote (mortar) used for grinding ingredients and tortillas adorned with floral designs.
While impressive under picture frame glass, Tortillas Florales (floral tortillas) will take your breath away when you peel back the hot kitchen towel and release steam redolent with corn. The impact is akin to finding a fossilized fern on the hills backdropping Abiquiu. Pressed into tender comal-cooked disks are fresh and dried edible flowers and herbs. As striking as they are visually, these tortillas are meant to be a holistically sensual experience. Shut your eyes and let your nostrils and taste buds imbibe aromas and flavors which will impress themselves on your senses. Feel the delicate texture of the flowers on the tortilla. Available for both lunch and dinner, the Tortillas Florales are served with a side of “Indian Butter” which is essentially an unctuous, addictive guacamole.
From an esthetic point of view, it may not be possible to top the Tortillas Florales, but edible art is plated with every order. We likened the Piquillos Rellenos to a beautiful sanguine heart. Piquillo, a Spanish term for “little beak” is meant to describe the shape of the pepper, not any generalized level of piquancy. Piquillo peppers are richly flavored with sweet-spicy notes that are enhanced through the roasting process. At Eloisa, the piquillos are roasted then stuffed with Gruyere, chorizo and golden raisins, ingredients which play off one another in a concordant symphony of flavors.
Chef Sedlar was happy I had ordered the Duck Enfrijolada, explaining that just as “enchilada” denotes corn tortillas covered with chile, “enfrijolada” means the corn tortillas are covered in beans. As with all New Mexican frijole fanatics, he understands the subtleties and nuances of beans grown in Estancia, Espanola, Moriarty and other bean-producing communities throughout the Land of Enchantment. After one bite of my entrée, I could have sworn these beans came from Heaven. Blue corn tortillas are the canvas for a masterpiece showcasing duck confit, radicchio, crema and a New Mexico cabernet chile sauce all covered in beans. These ingredients coalesce into a sum even more delicious than its parts.
At first, the notion of a Frito pie at an upscale Southwestern restaurant seemed almost incongruous, like stick figures at the Louvre. We quickly surmised that under Chef Sedlar’s deft hands, this would be no ordinary Frito pie—and it wasn’t. The only Fritos to actually grace this entrée were on the labels of the bag in which it was served. Instead, the bag was engorged with housemade corn chips with a textural semblance to wontons and a pronounced corn flavor. These chips share space on the bag with chile verde chicken, red onion, cilantro and shaved Cotija cheese. My Kim called it the best Frito pie she’s ever had and as proof, offered me only one swoon-worthy bite.
Among the many favorite dishes Chef Sedlar learned to prepare from his beloved Grandma Eloisa are bizcochitos, the first cookie in the fruited plain to be recognized as an official state cookie (House Bill 406, 1989). For a cookie to earn such a distinction, you know it’s got to be good. Eloisa’s traditional anise-laced cookies exemplify everything that’s beloved and wonderful about bizcochitos, then they’re taken to rarefied air with the pairing of popcorn ice cream. Yes, popcorn ice cream, a feat of molecular gastronomy wizardry that pairs salty-savory and sweet-creamy flavor profiles to titillate your taste buds.
Popcorn ice cream also elevates a caramel brioche that by itself is merely outstanding. The top layer of the brioche is caramelized in a crème Brulee fashion. Puncture that sugary brown sheet and you’re rewarded with a custardy, eggy bread akin to a moist, rich bread pudding. Spoon on a bit of the popcorn ice cream and taste bud delirium might ensue. Then for even more sheer contrast, pair the brioche with the musky, tangy Abiquiu apricot half. This dish is as much an adventure in flavor discernment—so many complementary contrasts–as it is a spoil yourself indulgence.
In purposely timing our inaugural visit for lunch on a Saturday, we entertained faint hopes of getting to meet the great chef, if only to express our gratitude for his return to New Mexico. When we did espy him, my first words were “you’ve broken a lot of hearts in Los Angeles,” recounting my dear friend Sandy Driscoll’s love for all of Chef Sedlar’s restaurants. It’s easy to see why he was so beloved in Los Angeles. He’s as kind, gracious, and accommodating a host as his reputation foretold, even introducing us to his proud mother Rose. I now hope to introduce all of my friends to his phenomenal restaurant.
228 East Palace Avenue
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 July 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Caramel Brioche with Popcorn Ice Cream, Bizcochitos, Frito Pie, Duck Enfrijolada, Tortillas Florales, Piquillos Rellenos
9 thoughts on “Eloisa – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)”
St. Estephe my all-time favorite restaurant in Los Angeles. Looking forward to trying Eloisa August, ’16. In the meantime, great review!
It’s always been my experience that when a nay-sayer casts aspersions or calls into question another person’s character, it reflects more on the nay-sayer than on the person they seek to disparage. In the words of the esteemed Doctor Sheldon Cooper, “I’m polymerized tree sap and you’re an inorganic adhesive, so whatever verbal projectile you launch in my direction is reflected off of me, returns to its original trajectory and adheres to you.”
That said, I reread my review several times and disagree that it was “all about the overall hotel.” The hotel was mentioned only twice (including once on a photo caption). If anything, I would admit to being unabashedly effusive about Chef Sedlar, a fellow New Mexican whom we should all be proud of.
Insofar as it being “obvious” that I was”enticed to write (the review),” if that’s an implication that I was paid or accepted some sort of gratuity in exchange for “too much gushing and bowing down,” it’s always been my policy NOT to accept any freebies for reviews. To do so would be wholly dishonest. It would not paint the “every diner” perspective I aim for if I was given free food or food that isn’t served to everyone else.
Jim Morris, I do appreciate your comment. Considering your own perceptions of Eloisa, I can see how you could conclude what you did. Let’s just agree to disagree on Eloisa, a restaurant I believe could be one of Santa Fe’s finest though with only one visit, it’s premature to say so now.
Ryan, Nate and Jim, thank you for coming to my defense. I very much appreciate your concern when my credibility is called to question. Your loyalty means a lot to me!
Nate, Ryan, Thank you for making me stop and think. I was going to write a nasty response to Jim Morris’ seemingly ignorant and vile accusatory comment but your responses were so much kinder than I initially thought such a person deserved that I have dropped my intended character assassination and leave it with a simple “Amen.” When Mr Morris is occupied with burning in hell for his hateful view of humanity he will have much time on his hands to reflect upon your words and how he should have lived his wasted life.
You disagree with someone’s review, so they must have been bought off to write it? The only thing disappointing was your ridiculous, moronic, and typo-filled comment. What I gathered from it is that you live in Santa Fe (which you seem to imply gives you some superior insight into this restaurant), the food is over-priced, and you have no capacity for any type of legitimate debate. Very insightful. In reviewing tripadvisor and opentable, this restaurant receives an average 4 out of 5 star rating on both…so obviously many people like this restaurant. Some people do not. Perhaps you regularly call into question someone’s character anytime they hold a different opinion from you, but you should be aware that most people find such behavior boorish and intellectually lazy. I’d also find your statements regarding Gil bordering on defamatory. In either case, might be wise to put some actual thought into your comments about someone before you post them online.
Hi, Jim Morris!
Welcome to the blog.
Shut the hell up. You don’t know who or what you are talking about.
I am disappointed with this review. I was all about the overall hotel. This doesn’t appear to be written by the long time moderator of the blog. It as if the P R department of the Drury Inn wrote this. Way too much gushing and bowing down. I have been there. It is over-priced and stuck up. I live in Santa Fe. I recommend my friends who come here, NOT to eat at Eloisa. This is also the longest review. No where does he mention how over priced it is. I is obvious he was enticed to write this.
Love the whimsy of Chef Sedler’s Frito Pie presentation! Hope you Gil have formally invited Bourdain back to once again “try his hand” http://tinyurl.com/p42bvqf at this version (albeit I would favor Ms. Chavez’s, with no offense to Kim.)
Very interesting recounting of Sedler’s completing his ‘circle of life’. It prompted my cognitive gooeyness (isn’t there a term for that?)* oft associated with Old Age, to kick in. In my brief time in The South Bay, Pancho’s, an ‘informal’ beach joynt overlooking the beach of Manhattan, was the only Haute Cuisine of the era. Therein, a Fav drink of my time was reportedly christened The Harvey WallBanger for a primo surfer, who, after he ‘wiped out’ in a competition came into the venue to bang his head against a wall while enjoying what became the then named http://tinyurl.com/o9ynbch…vodka, OJ, and Galliano. Whoa, recently went to a G-daughter’s choice for her birthday, and was aghast to find an “upscale” setting for Italian entrees in UpTown, Bravo, didn’t carry a Classic Italian made liqueur. It’s packaging alone is worthy of decorating a shelf of one’s liquor offerings: http://tinyurl.com/oe2mkvg (Be chic and float ((pour over an inverted spoon)) a splash on your after dinner coffee.) (Lest I be thought of as living in the past: a HW was even ordered as recently as ’10 in this “classic” movie http://tinyurl.com/qhr8zej if ya move the slider to the 1:12:20 mark. Some might call it “Fluf”, estúpido, but I’m sure while some Sybarites may enjoy 2 hours of Cruise, many Others will so enjoy Cameron Diaz…even without the sound! If not, how can anyone enjoy-trust their ‘taste’ in restaurants! Besides the reference to a Harvey WallBanger, I love the coincidence of the mention of a relatively unknown lake, Sunapee, in NH, bringing back a remembrance looking silly in an Alpine hat with a feather my Folks bought me as a pre-teen on a trip there on its gondola ride.
* Some might say asyndettc thinking, but if looked at closely, there is actually a connectivity which brings to mind entgleisen or derailment, but I don’t think that really beats out gooeyness!
Wonderful review, Gil!~ I’m a bit jealous that you have Chef Sedlar so close by, but that just means that I can taste his fabulous cuisine the next time I’m in Santa Fe! I have no doubt that Eliosa will be enormously loved and successful in The City Different!
Well, it was bound to happen. I finally disagree with one of your reviews. I’ve eaten here twice since it opened. I had the same two problems each time. First, the noise level was the most extreme I’ve ever experienced in any restaurant ever. It is impossible to have a normal conversation. The second time we got there at 5PM, no difference even when the place was less than half full. Second, the menu is extremely short, the portions tiny and the price unjustified. I never ate at any of the chef’s earlier places in CA. But he certainly had an excellent reputation there. Maybe he imagined the same formula would work in Santa Fe. Not so. Take a peek at the reviews on Yelp or Trip Advisor to see that I’m not in the minority with my issues with this place.