The grill next door

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review - Lau­rel Glad­den For The New Mex­i­can

When a new restau­rant opens in Santa Fe, I feel like a mag­pie that has spied a shiny trin­ket in a snow­drift. I’m al­ways ea­ger to check out some­one’s new culi­nary (and dec­o­rat­ing) ex­per­i­ments, so if you build it, I will come.

Since I also spend a good bit of time go­ing to the movies, my mag­pie’s eye is al­ways sharp on the south side of town, looking out for new places to slip into be­fore or af­ter a film (this is es­pe­cially true since The New York Times re­cently re­minded me that a tub of pop­corn has roughly 1,200 calo­ries and 60 grams of sat­u­rated fat). Jeff Branch andWal­ter Espinosa’s Santa Fe Capi­tol Grill is among the lat­est shiny at­trac­tions in the San Isidro Vil­lage, off Cer­ril­los Road at Za­farano Drive.

A slightly outdated but pleas­ant min­i­mal­ist ware­house chic char­ac­ter­izes the space, which com­prises a bar area, pri­vate booths, and a raised din­ing area with a com­mu­nity ta­ble. Lest the restau­rant be com­pletely de­void of Santa Fe charm, South­west­ern ac­cents have been scat­tered here and there: a wall-mounted lariat, wood chan­de­liers that re­sem­ble some kind of pet­ri­fied sea anemones, and the oc­ca­sional antler perched on a shelf.

The menu in­cludes a healthy list of sand­wiches. The ham and brie was sat­is­fy­ing enough, the gooey-funkymetal­lic cheese off­set­ting the some­what in­nocu­ous meat. While it’s nice that the one veg­e­tar­ian sand­wich also hap­pens to be ve­gan, the grilled squash, pep­pers, and onions slid off without any cheese to hold them in place. The gi­ant onion ring stacked on the steak sand­wich seemed like a novel idea that hadn’t been thought through; I felt like an ana­conda stretch­ing its jaws to take a bite. Too bad the meat was un­der­cooked and gristly.

While the green chile stew we sam­pled had a hearty, deep her­bi­ness and spice to it, we could barely de­tect the green chile on the ser­vice­able ba­con-chile-ched­dar burger. I was happy to see the sweetie-meaty Monte Cristo: meat and cheese stacked be­tween thick slabs of bread and then bat­tered, deep-fried, and dusted with pow­dered su­gar. No one at our ta­ble was go­ing to mis­take this for health food, but I was still dis­ap­pointed when the run­ner who brought our food opined that it looked like “a heart at­tack on a plate.”

The Capi­tol Grill has a ded­i­cated kid’s menu, a few munchkin-friendly items of­fered for six bucks each. The “chicken tenders”— cloaked in a sub­stan­tial, if some­what in­dus­trial-looking crust and ac­ces­sorized with a heap of shoe­string fries— was a pretty im­pres­sive plate for that price. On the other hand, I can’t imag­ine pay­ing so much for a peanut but­ter and jelly sand­wich.

Branch and Espinosa have culi­nary as­pi­ra­tions, some of which they ful­fill. The rich, earthy meat of the bar­ba­coa-style beef short rib was fork-ten­der, and it slipped right off the bone. The golden po­lenta was a nice ac­com­pa­ni­ment; its mel­low essence of starchy, sweet germ al­most dis­tracted me from the skin that had formed across the top of the dish’s sauce.

A nice bowl of mus­sels cooked with gar­lic, white wine, but­ter, and herbs suf­fered from more well-mean­ing but ill-con­ceived clev­er­ness: the oblig­a­tory haystack of frites was piled in the bowl, on top of the shell­fish. While dip­ping the crispy blond strips in broth is a de­li­cious, time-hon­ored tra­di­tion, this setup forces you to soak them all. By the time I’d eaten the last fleshy, briny bi­valve, most of my frites were sod­den.

Some el­e­ments lack fla­vor al­to­gether. The slices of fruit on the Capi­tol Grill salad were firm and crisp, but they were so bland that I had to check the menu to con­firm that they were ap­ples, not pears. I wouldn’t have no­ticed the blue­berry sauce on the flour­less chocolate tart if the plate hadn’t been strewn with berries.

The small plates I sam­pled ranged from lovely (hum­mus flat­bread) to good (au gratin pota­toes, cala­mari) to lack­lus­ter (Cae­sar salad). There’s a re­spectable beer and wine list and a hand­ful of sig­na­ture cock­tails (try the sur­pris­ingly un­sug­ary blue­berry mo­jito). Branch and Espinosa re­cently launched a happy-hour pro­gram to high­light fea­tured wines: Mon­day throughWed­nes­day, the Calina Chardon­nay, Ha­cienda Arau­cano Pinot Noir, and Calina Carmenere are avail­able for $4 a glass or $15 a bot­tle (about half the ad­ver­tised reg­u­lar re­tail price) with any ap­pe­tizer or en­trée.

The Capi­tol Grill is a per­fectly fine spot to stop and snack dur­ing a hol­i­day shop­ping spree or if you’re on the way to or from the movies. Maybe, like that mag­pie, you’ll un­cover a gem. But if not, al­most any­thing on the menu is bet­ter than a tub of pop­corn.

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