The new house of Rios

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review -

Celebrity chef­dom has its perks, but de­pend­ing on the chef’s in­tended ca­reer path, it can also present a glow­ing dis­ad­van­tage. Just ask Martín Rios, whose rep­u­ta­tion in lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional culi­nary cir­cles pre­cedes him. Rios must now ap­pease his high-dol­lar Old House cus­tomers by warm­ing them up to his new, the­o­ret­i­cally less-for­mal din­ing con­cept.

Rios’ stint at El­do­rado Ho­tel’s Old House restau­rant made Za­gat sur­vey­ors and Bon Ap­pétit swoon. Be­fore mov­ing his tal­ents (and a lot of his staff) to the Anasazi Restau­rant for a lim­ited run, Rios earned the Old House a AAA Four-Di­a­mond rat­ing and a Mo­bil Four-Star Award. But no less im­por­tant, up un­til now, Rios’ most ra­bid fol­low­ers have re­mained stead­fast in their loy­alty, no mat­ter where he’s ended up.

With his cred­i­bil­ity as a hard­work­ing chef still in­tact af­ter a short spell helm­ing the kitchen at a then-tu­mul­tuously op­er­ated Geron­imo, Rios has fi­nally opened his long-an­tic­i­pated solo ven­ture, Restau­rant Martín: no more room ser­vice, no more ban­quet staff, and no more med­dling food-and-bev­er­age man­agers and du­bi­ous busi­ness part­ner­ships swirling around to cloud his vi­sion.

Lo­cated in a nose-to-tail-re­mod­eled struc­ture that once housed the quirky hip­pie han­gout Café Oa­sis, Restau­rant Martín finds its chef/owner at an awk­ward culi­nary cross­roads. Promis­ing the style and qual­ity of cui­sine he has be­come so fa­mous for, but pre­sent­ing it at a slightly more-ap­proach­able price point, he must con­vince lo­cals and tourists un­fa­mil­iar with his ré­sumé that his con­cept is in­deed a good value when com­pared with es­tab­lished, sim­i­larly priced and styled com­peti­tors around town.

Dé­cor at Restau­rant Martín is, for the most part, slick and mod­ern. Ac­cented by an­gu­lar wooden sur­faces off­set by warm lighting, a few com­fort­ably curvy cush­ioned booths, thought­fully pol­ished stemware, and spot­less sil­ver­ware, and with servers dressed in starched shirts and ties, the space presents a con­fus­ing mix of co­zi­ness and stodgi­ness. The in­tended mes­sage of “all are wel­come” seems to be a work in progress in terms of vis­ual cues. The art on the walls feels like an ex­ten­sion of Rios’ plat­ing style: works by lo­cal pho­tog­ra­pher/print­maker Jay Rit­ter mir­ror the chef’s tra­di­tion of com­po­si­tional sim­plic­ity and an ever-in­creas­ing em­brace of play­ful ab­strac­tion.

A din­ner for two on a frosty night in late Oc­to­ber and a brunch en­gage­ment a few weeks later re­vealed a young restau­rant still search­ing— al­beit valiantly— for its iden­tity and op­er­a­tional rhythms. Rios’ care­fully con­structed din­ner menu is an adroit dis­til­la­tion of his new vi­sion: qual­ity in­gre­di­ents pre­sented with slightWestern Euro­pean, Mediter­ranean, Latin, and Asian spins on Amer­i­can cui­sine— without stoop­ing to tired eth­nic car­i­ca­tures (no yel­low “curry,” no con­trived “pestos”).

A smoked egg­plant-and-tomato soup with lemon sabayon and prawn cro­quettes is pure, unadul­ter­ated Rios. Tex­tu­rally play­ful, sim­ply yet exquisitely pre­sented, and en­com­pass­ing a wide range of clas­si­cal cook­ing tech­niques, ev­ery com­po­nent stands solidly on its own— and each com­po­nent im­proves with the ad­di­tion of one or more of its ac­com­pa­ni­ments. A cool bot­tle of Do­maine Pi­chot Vou­vray, with its acute min­er­al­ity and hints of lemon, honey, and prune, hand­ily made friends with this stel­lar soup. Over­all, the wine list is ex­tremely food-friendly, and wine ser­vice is ex­cel­lent. For the sake of the food, white selections could use some pad­ding on the mid-range-by-the-glass/dry side, but lovers of reds in all price ranges and of nu­mer­ous varietals should have noth­ing to com­plain about.

A veg­e­tar­ian tast­ing plate— on my visit it in­cluded a warm and de­li­cious but­ter­nut squash ravi­oli napped with browned but­ter; a tepid grilled­veg­etable tart; and a cold hillock of sticky-yet-un­der­cooked short-grain rice pur­port­edly amended with the grassy juice of young bam­boo shoots — proved less suc­cess­ful. The toothy rice was mostly to blame.

A veg­e­tar­ian pasta spe­cial was pretty to look at, but it didn’t con­tain a hint of Rios’ per­son­al­ity. A com­bi­na­tion of in­gre­di­ents in­clud­ing yel­low and red “toy box” (grape-sized) toma­toes and ba­tons of sum­mer squash were well pre­pared, and the fresh pasta was fine. But as a spe­cial, there was noth­ing spe­cial about it. A starter called Ocean Trio “Kon­banwa” (mean­ing “good evening”) of­fered a play­ful as­sem­blage of seafood bites. It in­cluded sal­mon tartare, warm tem­pura oys­ters, and warm, rare, tan­doori-spiced ahi tuna served along­side edamame and a cit­rus salad. The dish’s com­po­nents show­cased Rios’ Asian in­flu­ences and plat­ing style nicely. Were it not for one muddy-tast­ing oys­ter over­wrought with near-raw bat­ter, this ap­pe­tizer would have been my fa­vorite dish of the evening. My roasted Lib­erty Farms duck breast with duck hash; creamy, smoked-ba­con-kissed po­lenta; and cumin-glazed car­rots was a tri­umph. The breast, while slightly cooked past the re­quested medium-rare tem­per­a­ture, was still very ten­der, and the dark-meat duck hash added a won­drous di­men­sion of fla­vor and tex­ture. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing pick­led plums of­fered a sweet/tangy foot­note that, along with the wine, cut through the duck’s fat and the cumin’s earthy, smoky tones nicely.

Satur­day brunch of­fers a smaller lunch menu with a few break­fast-y op­tions. A bub­bly mi­mosa made with Gruet sparkling wine and a glass of Sonoma coast Pomelo Sau­vi­gnon Blanc ad­e­quately woke up our early-af­ter­noon taste buds. A fluffy, lump-crab­meat omelet with sautéed mush­rooms, spinach, and Ver­mont ched­dar was per­fec­tion, in­side and out. An ac­com­pa­ny­ing mini-salad of spinach, ro­maine let­tuce, and tomato with creamy dress­ing was crisp and fresh-tast­ing. But the side of fin­ger­ling pota­toes (Peru­vian blues, golds, and reds) was dis­ap­point­ing: some were crispy, oth­ers were un­der­cooked, and all were ex­tremely dry and un­sea­soned.

My chicken pail­lard— pounded thin— with toy-box toma­toes and cilantro chimichurri sauce (finely chopped herbs, minced gar­lic, oil, and vine­gar) re­minded me that Rios can take an in­gre­di­ent as com­mon as a skin­less chicken breast and turn it into some­thing un­com­monly de­li­cious. Un­for­tu­nately, I was also privy to those in­fe­rior pota­toes.

Rios’ sig­na­ture chopped salad, com­pris­ing May­tag bleu cheese, mixed greens, a boiled or­ganic egg, hari­cots verts, a trio of dress­ings (lemon, cilantro chimichurri, and red-wine vine­gar with oil), and a crispy, bat­ter­coated sliver of por­to­bello mush­room, was mar­velous save for the boiled egg, the yolk of which con­tained the tell­tale blue-sil­ver ring of an over­cooked huevo. To skip French toast fash­ioned from house-made ba­nana brioche, Ver­mont maple syrup, and “sea­sonal” fruit com­pote (al­though straw­ber­ries and rasp­ber­ries are not in sea­son in late Novem­ber) is to miss the most sat­is­fy­ing break­fast of­fer­ing on the brunch menu. A slow-roasted ap­ple tart with smoked-cin­na­mon par­fait and caramel re­veals that Rios hasn’t for­got­ten the lessons he learned work­ing with French-bornWorld Pas­try Cup cham­pion Jean Marc Guil­loth.

The din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence at Restau­rant Martín feels more ef­fi­cient and less stuffy dur­ing the day. Rios’ kitchen and floor staff are sea­soned fine-din­ing folks gath­ered from around town. It may take some of them a while to shed the pomp and cir­cum­stance re­quired of them in their for­mer po­si­tions. But given the dual-mes­sage aes­thet­ics and the mid-to high­range price point, there may also be some con­fu­sion among em­ploy­ees (and din­ers) as to how much for­mal­ity is ac­tu­ally re­quired to com­ple­ment Rios’ culi­nary vi­sion. The en­tire team is off to a laud­able if some­times stum­bling start, which is hardly un­usual for a new ven­ture backed by some­one with Rios’ built-in rep­u­ta­tion for great­ness. The foun­da­tion and walls at Restau­rant Martín are as sturdy as they come. With a lit­tle more at­ten­tion to what hap­pens within those walls, specif­i­cally the ones sur­round­ing the kitchen, the house that Rios built will un­doubt­edly feel more like the home he wants it to be.

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