The grill next door
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A slightly outdated but pleasant minimalist warehouse chic characterizes the space, which comprises a bar area, private booths, and a raised dining area with a community table.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.