The new house of Rios
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.